The Digital Journalist
Foreword to
New York in the 70s
February 2004

by P.J. O'Rourke

The following is the foreword to Allan Tannenbaum's New York in the 70s, published by Feierabend Verlag, 272 pages, which includes a reminiscence by Yoko Ono.

People taking their clothes off, that was the important part of the 1970s. From 1969 to 1980, everything - art, music, literature, politics and (as we now know from lawsuits against the Catholic Church) religion - involved people takiing their clothes off. Given the clothes of the era, this was the modest alternative. Embarrassment began with people getting dressed. The Diane Von Furstenberg wrap looked like hell on dad. Mom joined a women's group. CBGB was awarded custody of the kids. Returning the ecology of certain areas to wilderness state is a faint, contemporary retro-fashion echo of the entire New York social fabric a generation ago. Those were the good times. And someday the aging cougars and wolves of Yellowstone Park will be saying the same thing. Never mind what happened to the herd of disco moose visible in the background of Allan Tannenbaum's photographs in SoHo Blues.

How did the 1970s become so wild? The squares did it. They got hip. I ought to know why because I came to New York in 1971 from Toledo, Ohio, but I was busy taking my clothes off, and I can't remember the reason we all turned funky and cool. It happened quickly, maybe when Nixon was in China and nobody was minding America's adults. Or maybe normalizing relations with one billion Chinese used up our nations supply of normal. Anyway, suddenly no one was too L-7 to be a hepcat. If you doubt it, turn to the last photos and see Roy Cohn, Senator Joe McCarthy's chief persecutor of degenerate commies, lounging at the Mudd Club between Halston and Steve Rubell.

The essence of hipness - besides sleeping until noon - is a knowing, clued-in superiority to average citizens. However, when the average citizens are hip... You see the problem the 1970s faced. Everybody was more wised-up than everybody else and nobody was awake to make the bagels. Also, hipsters are free spirits. They yearn to escape the bounds of conformity and act upon the innermost longing of the soul. The innermost longing of the soul - as we learned in the 1970s - is to snort cocaine naked. Thus there were ten years in New York with seven million people up all night, their ankles tangled in Fiorucci briefs, telling each other what was up. Every now and then they'd take a break and cover a subway car in graffiti. No wonder fiscal crisis ensued. Although, you'll recall, even President Gerald "Ford to City - Drop Dead" grew sideburns.

It ended badly, as anyone with a whole drug rehabilitation clinic named after his wife could have told you it would - fatal overdoses, AIDS infections, the release of "Kramer vs. Kramer". We were self-indulgent, permissive and lax in the 1970s - so unlike the self-sacraficing, conventional and disciplined Americans of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. And it's instructive to compare the important achievements of those serious decades to the trivialities that the 1970s produced:


  • Ugly George
  • Big, fat necktie knots
  • Disco Duck

1930s, 1940s, 1950s

  • The rise of fascism in Europe
  • The Holocaust and World War II
  • The H-bomb

So let's take our clothes off again and score some more tootski and keep the 1970s alive forever. A little nose candy gets those computer geeks laid at last, and they don't have the energy to cause a dot com bust. There's no Whitewater or Ken Starr with Clinton in Plato's Retreat full time, hundreds of Monicas on every side. George W. Bushy isn't in the White House either. A 1970s George W. Bush isn't born-again. He's wearing the front-hall drapes and a shaved head, selling chrysanthemums in airports. Saddam Hussein finds his true métier manning the door at Xenon. Yassar Arafat is a performance artist if ever there was one. It's a big night at the Mercer Arts Center as Yassar debuts "I Fold the Kaffiyeh". Ariel Sharon is in the audience, fresh from hosting "Saturday Night Live". And the 9/11 hijackers sleep through their flight departures. They were at Le Jardin until 3, admiring each others' mustaches.

© P.J. O'Rourke