The Disco Dead Trilogy

Friday, October 30, 2015 1 Permalink 0

I.

Andrea True is no morePublic domain image.

If you want to know how I really feel,
Get the cameras rollin’,
And get the action going,
More more more…

Andrea True was a minor pop star of my early youth. She was from Nashville. She got her start in porn. She wrote a huge hit almost by accident which expressed the zeitgeist of an entire American age.

When she died about four years ago, no one much noticed.

But True’s contribution to the culture, while singular, is lingering, as in More more more, how do you like your loooooove, as well as the earworm musical interlude in the middle of that one big hit which has been sampled so many times in other pop music that most of don’t even remember from whence it originally derived (e.g., Len’s Steal My Sunshine, and even a Cheerio’s commercial).

They say that True spent the rest of her life after her brief fame wishing to be famous once again, a lasting star. Well, it does not work like that. We pigeonhole our celebrities, not only by type but also temporally. She will always belong to disco – the late 1970s, that fusion moment of bleak and Utopian, of idealism and hedonism.

And you have to say she did it very well. Not everyone can pen an anthem to fit both Cheerios and porn at the same time.

How did a little girl from Nashville, Tennessee, get mixed up in the surge of Communism in the Caribbean during the mid-70s and end up writing a No.4 hit on the American pop charts? Well, it was quite an era.

Requiescat in pace, Ms. True.

More more more

I have reached an age in which it seems like more people are dead than alive.

I looked it up, and it is true, at least in a literal global sense. There are estimated to have been 16.5 times the number of people in history as there are people alive today.

That may or may not be a mathematical explanation for how in my own life it can seem at times like the majority of my friends and family now are the shades and ghosts, and the rest of us are just waiting around like overstaying guests at a fading cocktail party.

Those are things you don’t think about when you are a young person. It’s only later you start to look around and notice how many others have already shuffled off stage before you. And you start wondering how much longer you have left here yourself.

Another thing you think about, because you have come to see enough long lives and short lives both get shored up in the equalizing finality of death, is how a long life and a short life are really not differentiated by very many years. We might consider as little as two decades to be the determining variable. And that passes quickly, whether you live or not.

Quality starts to matter a lot more than quantity, in all things, during the days you have left. How to be happy.

The 1970s

It’s generally thought, at least by those who were not old enough to remember them firsthand, that the 70s were an entirely bleak and cynical time, despite the bell-bottoms and disco music. It’s also generally accepted that this is why and how it met its rather dramatic end – record burnings, the shuttering of Studio 54, the election of Ronald Reagan, the spread of AIDS and the triumph of the backward-looking pennyloafer.

People just had enough of failed idealism and depleting hedonism at the same time, the story goes. They got tired of crazy in all different directions and just wanted some solid control and orienting values re-established. They wanted to find some bedrock absolutes, forget their social responsibilities and start taking care of Number One. Looking backward to where they had last felt security, before “going astray,” worked fastest, it seems, and the 70s were officially over and the 80s began. So the story goes.

This is at best a selective telling and requires some good amount of denial of the actual bellbottoms and exuberances of disco. The 70s as I experienced them as a child, and the 70s as they have been recounted to me by those in the thick of them at the time, were very much a mixed bag. Not to mention that looking backward to find in the past any supposedly better, more solid and moral age required the imposition of some mighty sturdy blinders.

Yes, experimentation cost security – whether sexually or with drugs, or with religion or new political modes. But if the old way of doing things had been working so well and not riddled with its own drugs and hypocrisies, no one would have ventured away from it.

And both of the overriding seemingly opposing impulses in society that followed, Me-Generation individualism and hippie-dippy communalism, had the net purpose of bringing people together, connecting them, and finding acceptance. Whether in the hedonistic freedom of the anything-goes dancefloor of Studio 54 or in the garden rows of a commune, the point was to get connected, artistically, sexually, spiritually, and politically, as a way to “find yourself.”

That they did. And that was not all bad.

Stuck in Jamaica

How and from where Andrea True’s big hit derived is a complicated collision of elderly American Imperialism’s panic at the spread of Communism in the Caribbean basin, and a certain kind of young person at the time who was at once both idealistic and hedonistic.

True was right at the point of impact between these colossal opposing forces. She ended up at one point stuck in Jamaica when the newly installed Communist government would not let her leave with her money because the USA had embargo’d them first.

So like a good Baby Boomer, she shrugged her shoulders and smoked another reefer. Then she rented a studio and recorded a diddy in praise of gluttony, which she wrote herself on the now-Communist island: More more more.

It’s an ironic contrast to the other major vein of that era, hippie-commune simplicity and social idealism. Back to the earth. Power to the people. Such values had just seized Jamaica, but True wrote an anthem of the Me Generation.

She thereby embodied the positivity of the 1970s, at least from the perspective of a child like me, which countered the bleakness for which the decade is more commonly remembered.

II.

Guyana

aabcI have had an embarrassing habit in my life, as anyone who has lived with me well knows, of obsessively watching videos of the Jonestown Tragedy.

This is not research with any intent to discover new information, but obsessively watching the same reels over and over, deep into the wee hours, replaying those last nights, particularly: The hypnotic chanting to rhythmic music, the common meals, the gardening, the dancing, the rainbow equality of all ages and races and social classes mingled into one big loving family. It seems a calm Eden the eve before disaster.

I don’t like the news coverage or defector interviews or documentaries about the mass suicide. They are so stiffly staged and assume a final understandable pessimism – while it’s definitely the rest I’m after, what you might term the bright side.aab

What interests me are the candid home movies of the cult filming itself almost by accident in its heyday, the footage that of a daily life that was not unhappy at all, but almost utopian: Moomoos. Strings of lights under thatched palm roofs. Funky sunglasses. The rows of tomatoes. Happy marriages. Those striped tee shirts that make grown men look like Charlie Brown. Old black ladies who had to fight all their lives, finally declaring Heaven on this Earth in a gospel tremolo.

They should know, I tell myself. Those old black ladies were calling Imperialist politics out for what it was, and in principle I agree with them. To a man born of a certain region and generation, it looks like perfection – Almost, because of course there was that shady drugged-out dictator running the show.

It reminds me very much of the gay liberation right on the cusp of AIDS.

There’s always a fly in the ointment.

The True hope

I could write 10 pages just on my feelings about the Jonestown home movies, but what they boil down to is this combination: An era which might have gone entirely in a different political direction with only a few small changes (ref: Robert Altman’s Nashville), along with a brand of cultic religious idealism which I myself would have found very seductive (of the sort later castrated and popularized by the likes of Polyphonic Spree, or the Caritas movement).

I am pretty sure that, given the chance, I would have been right out there in the jungle with them, preaching Down With The Man, Rainbow Racial Equality, and Common Stores Shared Equally Among The People.

Whether I, like so many intelligent others, would have been seduced by Jim Jones’ blatantly opportunistic brand of communism (and don’t even go into his sexual habits), will never be known. Lucky me.

Because, I mean, aside from the demagog drugged-out sociopath at the top of the heap, it all seemed like a pretty good idea.

Also, there is that retrospective certainty of doom that creates attraction. The Atlantis/Pompei/Titanic(/Disco) formula. No one makes movies about the other luxury steamliners. It’s the disaster that follows that makes what came before so enticing.

The only US Senator ever killed in the line of duty on foreign soil was right there on the tarmac of Guyana. And no one lifted a finger. No one had to. The problem extincted itself.

If I had been born 20 years earlier I would definitely not have lived as long as I have now, for a whole bunch of reasons. I would not have been moderate enough to even make it to drugs and AIDS. I think I would have probably succumbed first to the Kool-Aid of some psychopath pandering to my idealism.

But would that have made the idealism itself so wrong?

A question of value

The equality touted on the Studio 54’s dancefloor (for those who got in the door, anyway) was the Capitalist mirror image of the exact same impulse on the other side, such as Jonestown. There was a terrific urge in that era to find a place in the larger whole.

If you want to know how I really feel, Get the cameras rollin’, And get the action going, More more more…

More. Or less. It was a schizophrenic decade, with both communalism and individualism running at fever pitch, rolling in tandem toward a shared disaster.

Like with the Titanic, we know what happened in Jonestown, and we know what happened to disco, and for that matter also to Jamaica, and in Grenada and El Salvador, to Jesus-Freak evangelicals, as well as to Jimmy Carter and the entire US Democratic Party which was running North America at that time, and to sexual freedom after AIDS.

But I like to think that right before tragedy struck, some of them were actually happy, feeling integrated into a larger whole, fulfilled and secure, delighted in their bellbottoms.

Yes, deceived they may have been, too, at the same time, about to be ambushed by all kinds of calamity, and like Andrea True, perhaps not in control of their own finances and destinies. But well-fed, guiltless, blissed out and faithful to ideals that made them feel part of something larger and better.

We should all be so lucky.

That is the part that gets forgotten these 40 years later. They had purpose and joy at least for a time. When did that combination come around again? We are still waiting.

It’s enough to make a man wish he had been there, even knowing the diseases and political backlashes and tragic deluges of all sorts which followed. What was it not worth?

Was it worth 20 or 30 more years of a life lived more blandly?

Personally I really can’t know. You must ask a ghost.

III.

Missing it

I had a friend, E., whose flamboyant bell-bottomed mother was a pillar of the Communist Party in England back in the mid-20th century, and by the 1970s, E., who was raised to those sometimes stern political ideals, and perhaps in both reaction and sympathy to them at once, had become the freest Baby Boomer spirit whom I have ever yet met.

E. is now, of course, like her mother and the majority of other people, dead, and I miss her. But she passed something important on to me before she went.

When I was yet an idealistic commune-inhabiting public-service young man, E. used to listen to me blather on about how the 70s failed as a project, or how the era much lauded by my generation was not as great as all that, the mythology not matching the delivery.

I’m sure it was not like we think, I used to say, for the young people and adults old enough to make their own decisions in the free-for-all disco world. I mean, you could not be everywhere at once, and it probably felt just like it does in my own generation – a little of this, a little of that. Somewhere, someone may well be in a night club at the hotspot, or high on the zeitgeist or establishing the next big thing, but it’s not your own personal zenith, not something you can say you yourself are an integral part of, much less every part of an epoch at once.

That would be like saying you attended an entire party – whereas in reality you only experienced a tiny lackluster sliver of what went on there. The individual is not the pastiche, but just one lonely lost soul, like always… It’s only in fantastic remembrance of the past that we make the 70s bigger than they were, as a decade.

E. would draw on her cigarette, fatigued maybe, but staring at me patiently, until I had exhausted my know-it-all say, and then, tapping the butt into the ashtray, exhale and retort, shaking her head, “That’s bullshit, darling. It was FABULOUS. Just… fabulous. I’m sorry you missed it.”

1 Comment
  • Alan Hurley
    October 30, 2015

    The thing about decade zeitgeist is that it only sometimes works out to an actual decade matching the calendar year numbers 0-through-9. The 20s, the 30s, sure. Very precisely. But the 50s and then the 60s threw things off dramatically for a while. Culturally the 50s were huge and long, from the late 40s right through the Kennedy administration which was more like a precursor. The 60s were — again, very precisely — a decade, but from ’64 and the Beatles and Stones in the US., Johnson and escalation in Vietnam, hippie/drug culure, all the rest of it and then ending equally definitively in 1974 with the flameout of the SLA and Nixon’s resignation. I clearly remember watching the SLA siege on TV as a teen and thinking, ‘Well this is the end of the 60s!’. Kent State and its aftermath was absolutely the 60s, no matter what the calendar said. 1970-1 marked no cultural break at all. Nearly everything we think of as quintessentially 70s was either after 1974 or at its height later. For better or worse, it wasn’t even a full decade; around 6 or 7 years, in the same way that the 40s were just WWII and its immediate aftermath. (This is not just me opinionating; a lot of people have come to the same conclusion.)

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