A Requiem for the 1970s

If you asked me for a defining moment of growing up in the 1970s, I’d tell you about sitting in a schoolyard under a blazing summer sun, wearing a tube top, cut-off jeans and listening to Boston’s “Foreplay/Long Time” blaring from a portable 8-track player.

It was a time of freedom if you were a kid or a burgeoning teenager; those of us who grew up in the 70s remember the turmoil — from war protests to Son of Sam — but we also remember that sense of allowance, the feeling that we were free to roam and explore without watchful eyes.

Just as long as we made it home for dinner.

The 70s are a different time — oh, there’s crime and there are kidnappings and warnings about Stranger Danger — but in my little corner of suburbia (I grew up in the town next to Levittown — the original suburb), we don’t worry much about such things. Crime is what happens elsewhere, to other people. Kidnappings are read about in the news. That stuff doesn’t happen to us. We’re young, we are invincible. We are free.

We ride our bikes everywhere. I get a prized pink Schwinn with a white banana seat on the day of my first Communion - later traded in for a yellow ten speed — and I ride that pink bike around town — to the candy store, the schoolyard, the sump where we hang out, drinking ill-gotten beer knee deep in weeds and dirt, hidden from adults who are probably too worried about the world at large to be worried about what we are doing with our summer days. We were out all day, surviving off the rush from our sugared cereal breakfast to a lunch that consisted of a can of Pepsi and some Pixie Sticks. Our parents have no way of contacting us, of even knowing where we are. And that’s fine, because we are free.

If it sounds idyllic, it is in a way. Our adventures through town keep us busy, kept us free from thinking about what was going on around us. When we go home for dinner and our parents have the nightly news on the tv in the kitchen, it’s all there, in black and white, coming at us live. Sometimes we talk about it, sometimes they turn off Walter Cronkite and put on Star Trek. But the weight of the world is there, and with it came a voice in the back of my head always telling me “this won’t last forever.” This freedom. This idealism I had.

….

I start out the 70s with a Fisher-Price record player, a plastic contraption my parents won’t let me play their records on. My first record is a cardboard Archie’s single that’s cut from the back of a cereal box. I progress to real records; The Partridge Family, Bobby Sherman, heartthrobs of the day. Eventually I get a real record player and start borrowing my older cousin’s records. Before I hit my teens I’m listening to the Who and Led Zeppelin and soundtracking my coming of age with pure rock and roll. The entirety of the 70s are played out with a constant song in the background, from the Elvis my mother always has blaring in the kitchen to protest music, to the early stages of heavy metal, to the disco that infiltrates our world in the late 70s, to the punk rock that ushers out the decade. The music entertains us, it mesmerizes us, but it also informs us. The older we get, the harder it is to escape despite our best efforts to hide from the world in those grassy expanses or forts we made in our backyards.

Defining moment: I’m with my aunt in her blue Duster. It’s about 9pm and we’re picking my cousin up from work at Modell’s Department Store. But when we get to the parking lot where we usually pick her up, it’s crowded with people. There’s yelling, chanting, the flashing lights of police cars. It’s a war protest and the protesters are throwing things at the cops and the cops are yelling on megaphones. It’s a noisy, chaotic scene and I’m both thrilled and scared. I’m maybe ten years old but I feel a pull toward the protesters. War is Bad. I know this much. Some of them are singing “It’s 1, 2, 3, what are we fighting for?” and this sticks in my mind for years. My aunt high-tails it out of the parking lot without looking for my cousin. “Let her get arrested,” she says.

The Vietnam War is just one of the “troubles” scattered throughout the decade. Some parents talk about these things — Watergate, drugs, women’s lib, the oil crisis, nukes — in hushed tones in front of their kids but my parents are pretty open about them. We discuss the news at dinner, my mother encourages me to read the newspaper, we watch nightly news together. While I often land on the opposite side of my parents in any discussion, the talks are rarely heated, they’re open and informative and as a result I know a lot of what’s going on in the world and often try to engage my peers in conversation about it. Most of the time, our talks meander and we end up always, always talking about music.

The 70s in the Long Island suburbs were all about forts and hideaways and private enclaves, barely hidden places where many firsts happened; first kisses, first heartbreaks, first harsh life lessons, all played out with a soundtrack that consisted mostly of Led Zeppelin.

The forts are clumsily put together hives, a 70s edition of today’s man-caves; we could call them boy-caves and you’d get the idea. Black light posters, candle holders made out of empty Miller quart bottles, Farrah Fawcett pinups and battered skateboards lining the walls. The most important items in each of these boy-caves are the ever-present turntable and stacks of rock and roll records. These forts are an enticement for a girl like me, one who just wants to hear new music and is enthralled by the prospect of fresh albums, and perhaps a little liquor stolen from living rooms when parents aren’t looking.

It’s in Ed’s fort — a former tool shed equipped with a couch, some chairs and the requisite stereo — where I first hear Led Zeppelin IV, an album that changes me, musically. Later, we’d listen to other stalwarts of the years, plus acts that come and go, but it seems like Led Zeppelin IV is always playing as we sit in the fort and talk about music and school and life, but mostly about music. Music keeps us from the other subjects at hand, things kids trying to laze away a summer don’t want to think about. Even when I fade away from Ed and his fort and make other friends, it’s the same thing. We start off talking about Three Mile Island and end up in a discussion on the merits of Van Halen II (it sucks). We talk about the news but we’re really paying attention to the breathlessness of 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love.”

Eventually the news stories of the day creep more and more into our everyday conversations. We’re no longer content to turn the channel or eschew talk about world affairs. We’re getting older, the world will be ours soon. We still hang out in schoolyards and sumps and abandoned houses, but our tone has changed. We extoll the virtues of a Peter Gabriel-less Genesis in the same breath we bemoan the state of the environment. We’re in the car talking about Earth Day while we’re cruising with Foghat’s “Slow Ride.” We have ideals and ideas, but I feel like we just don’t have the empowerment the young adults before us — those who were teen in the early 70s — had.

Defining moment: We’re at a Grateful Dead show at the Nassau Coliseum. It’s Halloween, 1979. The show is over and we’re gathered in the parking lot, smoking pot and singing along with a guy playing “Uncle John’s Band” on guitar. A few cops on horses come by and tell us to leave. One cop says “The 70s are over, kids. This hippie shit ain’t gonna fly in the 80s. Get it together.” He leaves us there, staring after him, wondering if he’s right. We put up a good act and yell back a few choice words at him but we’re each silently contemplating the same thing: Is it over?

I think about it that night when I’m in bed. The 1970s have been good to me, I think. At that point in time, I could already see differences creeping into child rearing, as kids much younger than me had much less freedom than we had growing up. Parents were keeping a tighter reign on their children. Drug awareness was all the rage. Things were gonna be different, I knew that. I think back to the summer of the Son of Sam, how that all changed me, how I felt like I aged ten years in 1977 alone, about the sea change that took place that fall in the suburbs. I felt safe as a little kid, cocooned and safe. By the time the 70s were over, that safety was gone, and that is something that comes with age, when the knowledge of what’s going on in the world is no longer something you can gloss over, but something that impacts you. I’d be graduating high school in 1980. I’d be voting. Childhood’s end.

Every kid will have their own coming of age story, taking place in the decade they call their own. I lay claim to the 70s, to the flower-power idealism that shaped my political views, to the music that carried me through tumult and angst. Whatever decade you claim, your story and all the world turmoil surrounding it will play out pretty much the same as the stories that came before you; it’s the soundtrack that will undoubtedly change.

Spotify playlist for this story

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Michele Catalano’s story.