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NewCityNet Seventies Heaven

New books weigh in on the decade that brought us both Fat Albert and Watergate

By Sam Weller

MARCH 6, 2000: 

The Seventies: The Age of Glitter in Pop Culture edited by Shelton Waldrep (Routledge Press), $21.95

How We Got Here: The 1970s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse) by David Frum (Basic Books), $25

Heaven in a beanbag chair -- that's how I remember the 1970s. Saturday mornings were the best -- wrangling the rabbit ears atop the television set as the picture tube warmed and the screen's electric embers glowed to life. My 7-year-old paws around a deep bowl of Sugar Smacks, I would settle into a black vinyl beanbag chair for a good three hours. Never mind the fact that it was a brilliantly sunny day outside, or that my dad and brother were out shooting basketball.

Growing up in southern California, it was everlastingly sunny. There would always be nice weather for playing, and, at least to a kid in the second grade, there were a million tomorrows. Saturday morning TV was much more important. "Land of the Lost." "School House Rock." Scooby-Doo. The Super Friends. During "Fat Albert," CBS would show news updates called "In the News," which were geared toward a younger audience. I remember an image of American soldiers, rifles in hand, marching through the rain-sopped jungles of Vietnam as a stern-voiced newsman (Christopher Glenn, I think) spoke of a battle with the guerillas.

I was dumbfounded. Wide-eyed.

"Planet of the Apes" had come to life. Oh my God.

I bolted outside, chipmunk jowls still bulging with cereal. "Dad!" I tugged at him as he lofted the basketball heavenward to the hoop. "U.S. soldiers are fighting gorillas!"

This is how I first learned about the Vietnam War, the difference between "guerillas" and "gorillas," and loss of life in a war my own father -- a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and the Korean conflict -- couldn't even fully understand.

From cartoons to the Tet offensive, two new books illuminate the wild contradiction of the 1970s. It was a decade sandwiched between the hippie, make-love-not-war radicalism of the sixties, and the BMW-drivin', Ronald-Reagan-rulin', tear-down-the-wall eighties. The seventies gave us so much wonderfully fun Cheez Whiz pop culture: "The Brady Bunch" and ABBA, "Smokey and the Bandit" and KISS, "The Love Boat" and John Denver. "Have a Nice Day" smiley faces and mirrored disco balls. Life cereal and Pop Rocks. But it also offered more substantive pop fare: "Star Wars," David Bowie, The Band, The Concert for Bangladesh and amazing cinema from the likes of Coppola, Altman, Scorsese and Friedkin.

Then, there was, to coin a phrase, the "dark side" of the polyester decade: the war in Vietnam, Watergate, Nixon's resignation, the gas crisis, Jim Jones and electric Kool-Aid, the recession and the Ayatollah Khomeini. "How We Got Here: The 1970s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse)," by David Frum, along with a collection of essays, "The Seventies: The Age of Glitter in Popular Culture," edited by Shelton Waldrep, explore this Jekyll and Hyde period of American history. And while many simply dismiss the seventies as one big bell-bottomed joke, Frum and Waldrep beg to differ. Both books argue that the decade was a major turning point in American history: This was a time when the innocence of June Cleaver baking cookies in the kitchen morphed into Mr. Roper peeping on Chrissy as she sun-bathed on the terrace. Frum and Waldrep assert that sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll may have rooted in the sixties, but they exploded in the seventies, forever changing the fabric of a nation.

As a child, I was blissfully unaware of all these important changes going on all around me. The sexual revolution and the gay movement meant nothing to me. I was too young. Big news in my life was when Bob Barker introduced a new game on "The Price is Right." Plinko was a major event.

Frum and Waldrep recall the decade a bit differently.

In "The Seventies: The Age of Glitter in Popular Culture," the essays are offered largely by academics. Let this be a warning: The old adage "don't judge a book by its cover" holds steadfast here, as the jacket highlights the whimsical and nonsensical -- "ABBA, Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' 'The Brady Bunch.'" But Waldrep's tome is more often than not didactic and pretentious. The essays read like dusted-off masters' theses culled from the bowels of some uninspired professor's filing cabinet. Tossed into the preachy amalgam is an odd Q-and-A with Harry Wayne Casey (a.k.a. KC of KC & the Sunshine Band). Not everything is junk weed, however. Chicagoan Christopher Castiglia (an associate professor of English at Loyola University) hits the mark with his observation on the era's gay culture in "The Way We Were: Remembering the Gay Seventies." Castiglia's story makes good use of the essay genre, projecting his own coming-of-age experience as a gay man in the late 1970s against the larger significance of the gay movement as a whole.

But perhaps the most cumbersome entry in "The Seventies" is its introduction, penned by editor Shelton Waldrep. Waldrep's excellent thesis that the seventies is "the most underexamined period in contemporary criticism" is undermined by overwrought language and professorial thesaurus babble.

"This volume," Waldrep writes, "implicitly questions the assumptions behind the methodologies of the major preexisting paradigm for a book of this type."

Huh? Either I spent too much time with my Saturday morning cartoons, or Waldrep needed to pull up his own beanbag chair, bowl of snap-crackle-pop in hand.

Still, "The Seventies: The Age of Glitter in Popular Culture" is a fine time capsule of the 1970s, illuminating the disparity between the pop-culture fluff of the era and the serious, sociological ramifications that occurred at the very same time.

Mirroring this incongruity, as I rushed home from school each day to catch an episode of "Speed Racer" or gnawed at my fingernails, worrying if Evel Knievel could, in fact, make it across the Snake River Canyon, others were immersed in the darker side of the decade. Today, as I tell my wife about the whimsy and folly of the 1970s, she tells me of the hardship and the fear of the decade.

My wife was born in Vietnam in 1971 -- the very rain-sopped jungles that inhabited my television screen between cartoons -- in the tiny, far south town of Can Tho. Her father was a helicopter pilot, allied with the U.S., who was captured in the waning days of the war and held prisoner for nearly a decade. Landing in the States along with her family, she was sent to a refugee camp, not knowing a word of English. Today, when someone like John McCain utters the word "gook" as if it were OK and justified, I can see the hurt in her eyes. For her, the seventies were a very different time.

In David Frum's "How We Got Here: The 1970s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse)," as with Waldrep's volume, the decade is acknowledged as the era that spawned modern America as we know it. Frum, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard as well as a regular voice on National Public Radio, has penned a thoughtful, if somewhat whimsical interpretation of the era. According to the conservative analyst, the modern turning point for our country spring-boarded from the Vietnam War. The 1970s sparked a plethora of watershed chapters in U.S. history: The information age was born; the women's movement was established; the health craze took hold; the divorce rate skyrocketed. Frum even asserts that the sensitive man of the nineties can be directly traced back to Alan Alda. That's right, guys -- the next time you shed a tear, you can thank Hawkeye Pierce.

Frum also maintains that, while many reflect back upon the 1970s as America teetering on the edge of the cultural abyss, it was much more than that.

"The social transformation of the 1970s was real and permanent," writes Frum. "It left behind a country that was more dynamic, more competitive, more tolerant; less deferential, less self-confident, less united; more socially equal, less economically equal; more expressive, more risk-adverse, more sexual; less literate, less polite, less reticent."

Both "How We Got Here" and "The Seventies: The Age of Glitter in Popular Culture" give credit where credit is due. The 1970s were important. This was not just a throwaway decade lost between the politically charged sixties and the economically focused eighties. And it was not just days of lightweight, pop culture fancy. While I remember well the first trip my family took to Disneyland, it took Frum's mention of the gas crisis to jar my memory about our first aborted trip to the Magic Kingdom.

We had all piled into the family Suburban, me, my two sisters, my brother and my parents. Dad mentioned that we needed to fill up on fuel before we hit the highway. But as we approached a service station, my parents let out a collective groan, and my siblings and I stretched our necks to the windows to witness the cause of their despair.

A line of cars stretched out like a metallic snake, starting at the pump and winding down city block after city block...

"Guess we're not going to Disneyland," my dad said.

And we drove home.

I got car sick on the way back to the house, as I often did when I was younger, lurching out the window as a gale force of ochre flew out and into our car's wake. My siblings looking on in a state of disgust, but not so grossed out that they couldn't laugh. We went home and sulked.

There was no beanbag heaven to be found on that day.

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