If ever a rock and roll record could be considered essential to a certain time and place, then Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run was the album, and America, 1975, was the time and place. The moment does not get the attention that the blackout summer of 1977 enjoys as New York City’s post-1960s nadir (thanks in part to Jonathan Mahler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning,) the summer of ’75 was, in my then-15-year-old’s opinion, the worst time to go through adolescence ever invented. To those of us who came of age during these cursed years, it was a singularly hellish time to be young.
The American Century was melting like cheap plastic left out in the sun. Watergate was over, but only because Gerald Ford had pardoned Nixon moments before the hangman arrived. Americans were no longer dying in Vietnam, but Saigon was finally falling to Hanoi’s advance. As US embassy personnel escaped from the roof, the nation abandoned those who foolishly believed decades of America’s solemn assurances. When the vets who did their duty did come home, no one wanted to hear their stories.
Inside post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, post-idealist America, the economic foundations of prosperity were eroding. Following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, gasoline prices suddenly rose nearly 400 percent. More than 10,000 gasoline stations went out of business that year, taking a whole way of life with them. In 1974 alone, retail prices increased by 11 percent and wholesale prices by 18 percent. The Dow Jones Average plunged 45 percent in less than two years. The recession seemed endless, and hope for a better future, pointless. Economic experts argued as to whether the Arab oil nations or the Japanese would be first to buy up whatever was still worth owning in America. By mid-1975, unemployment had reached its highest point since the Great Depression, as real GNP continued its apparently inexorable decline. At home, the President of the United States was telling the greatest city in the world to “drop dead.” Another newspaper headline seemed to capture the historical moment perfectly: “Things Will Get Worse Before They Get Worse.”
From a pop culture standpoint, pretty much everything that had given 1960s culture its passion, energy and creativity had disappeared and been replaced by exhaustion and exploitation. The “revolution” was over. The drugs had turned ugly. With small pockets of resistance, most rock music had become robotic and repetitive when it was not self-parodic. The decade began with three major rock icons destroying themselves in fits of self-indulgent excess. Bobby, Martin and John may have died as symbols of a nation at war with itself, but Jimi, Janis and the Lizard King died for nobody’s sins but their own.
Mainstream culture appeared to undergo a collective lobotomy. Among the period’s signifiers were pet rocks, mood rings, coke spoons and leisure suits; “No mai job, man,” “Up your nose with a rubber hose,” “Whip inflation now.” In 1998 Rhino Records released a seven-CD set of the best of 1970s pop music titled Have a Nice Decade. 1975 contributed: The Captain and Tenille’s Love Will Keep Us Together, Morris Alberta’s Feelings, C.W. McCalla’s Convoy, The Bay City Rollers’ Saturday Night and, tellingly, the theme from Happy Days.
The flip side of this frivolity proved to be the reification of public sadism. The height of this phenomenon manifested itself in the glorification of the thuggish bouncers outside Studio 54 and Xenon, who mocked the pathetic ambitions of the suburbanite schmucks waiting on the street for the privilege of doing their lines in the bathroom alongside Bianca or Liza. Fat chance. Discos perfected not only the velvet rope but also the VIP area, where the Truly Blessed were walled off from those forced to pay cash.