The rock musical has seemingly vanished from the landscape, not counting fringe events like REPO: THE GENETIC OPERA or DR. HORRIBLE or 'jukebox' fare like ROCK OF AGES and MAMA MIA. I do not count them - the former type since they are freak, fringe event; the latter incorporate only tried and tested tunes written long before their Broadway shows began. And try as you might you can't count stuff like CHICAGO, LES MISERABLES or PHANTOM as rock. In fact, original mainstream rock is almost gone from out the musical landscape, replaced by genres aimed at each micro-demographic: bright, brash Disney pop for the tweens; snotty emo for the teens; 'cock rock' for the blue collar guys on their way to work; 'classic rock' for when they drive home. But there was a time when the rock musical soared on wings of brilliance. I'm talking of course of the late 60s-early 70s -the age when impassioned singing met electric guitars and funky bass, and bi-curious guys in silver make-up and long hair strutted shirtless, and God was not ignored.
Broadway was always a little ahead of the curve, for you must remember that Times Square at this point in history was riddled with grindhouses, adult bookstores, prostitutes and flashy pimps, bums, drugs and--most shocking of all to our Agent Anita-poisoned minds, flagrant homosexuality (ala MIDNIGHT COWBOY). When film versions of JESUS CHRIST, SUPERSTAR (1973), GODSPELL (1973), and HAIR (1979) were presenting midnight cinema audiences with mixed-race cliques of dancing counterculture youth singing about Jesus, Broadway was showing the all-nude musical revue OH! CALCUTTA! HAIR was clothed on film but originally rife with nudity. Surrounded by the sleaze of Times Square, Broadway's mere nudity and simulate coupling managed to stay somehow clean and so showed Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public that those scruffy homeless kids on the street might be disguised angels, so treat them right and tip the girls. Books like Erica Jong's Fear of Flying with its ode to the "zipless f-ck," the tawdry glam gossip of Rona Barett, and later, even the ingenious cute old lady delivery system of healthy sexual advice, ex-Israeli sniper Dr. Ruth (below, right), all created a sense that women were enjoying their new orgasms and the world was just a little less uptight, and we kids were listening in, soaking up the loose prana with our hungry spinal snake-sponges.
But in the midst of all this came the arrival of my least favorite drug of all time -- cocaine. And if the hippy love-in zipless f-ck era was winding down, well, there was always the other extreme: disco. With its dance-friendly music and glittery fashion, disco was crossing boundaries the Christian-pagan neo-decadent arias of Broadway and the best-seller list never could, for children of all ages could revel in disco. Even if there parents wouldn't let them see it because of its R-rating, kids like me were dancing at birthday parties nonstop to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. And whatever 'free love' had represented before was being subsumed in blue collar triumphs (ROCKY in 1977) and nostalgia for the earlier decades, before the counterculture's paisley rise, i.e. the 40s.
But then disco and the disco musical died, a heart attack right on the dance floor which had already been converted into a roller rink... And how did it do that, you ask? XANADU (1980)!
Little newborn disco wasn't without parents and grandparents; it was of course the glitzy empty shell throwback to the 30s-40s dance music scene, the swing and sweet, as it was called. Swing was the 40s version of rock, cooked up by Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman (at least for mainstream white America), and sweet was sappy ballads by radio tenors, meant to lull nervous brides waiting for the men to come home from WW2, and ease the worry of 19th century-born parents that their children's generation was going to hell by daring to raise their hem lines. It was only natural then that the re-emergence of cocaine, the drug of choice for turn-of-the-century soda fountain barflies, would lead to re-emergence of the sweet/swing emptiness of pure 'dance' music, so Donna Summer and the Bee-Gees replaced the Byrds and the Eagles at the top of the rock charts, and we disco balled our way back into this sexless yet tightly-trousered sweet/swing dichotomy.
We kids had long pondered the electric strangeness of the Hair album cover in our parent's record collection, but found the electric light cover too disturbing (though not as nightmarish as Sgt. Pepper's), but we loved John Travolta from Welcome Back, Kotter, so seeing him on the Saturday Night Fever cover made everything all right. He had the working class Italian vibe we were now familiar with via ROCKY, and the Fonz (and Cha-Chi, and Carmine from Laverne & Shirley) but he could also sing, and acted stupid with a winning smile that let you know he was far smarter than he'd ever let on. As long as he was connected to it, disco could cross over to suburbia, where, as I've said before, we loved The Village People because they were dressed like all our favorite icons as kids - cowboys, Native Americans, motorcycle cops - and not one of us ever imagine they were, you know... not straight.
Meanwhile we kids also found the sudden relative sexlessness of, say, variety shows like The Captain and Tenille, Donny and Marie (above left), and Shields and Yarnell very soothing. I recall that towards the end of the 70s sex was starting to get on my nerves. I had a lot of 'pent-up' energy by then. Not that anyone molested me, on the contrary - I molested two babysitters, my dad's secretary, two of my mom's friends, and one very nubile young daughter of one of said friends, all before I was ten years-old. I'd lie in bed and marvel at my erections while indulging in twisted fantasies involving being a naked, collared slave to Susan Salter, the cute blonde girl in my first grade class. And in the malls I would sneak into Spencer's Gifts and marvel at the dirty novelties and thumb though Fear of Flying and get massive 10 year-old boy hormonal surges.
And mind you I had no orgasms during this stretch -- I had been led to think that the orgasm discharge was a gush of blood, and thus I was terrified to even try. Masturbation was considered a deranged, sad act that very few people actually did. Wet dreams were discussed, in terrified tones, at the playground. It was only natural that when the right bad influence friend came along, I would give up girls and turn my attention to war, and with war arose the need for 'clean' home front entertainment, the sort that wouldn't make my 'situation' any more painful than it needed to be. And so.... XANADU did a stately 80s pleasure-free dome decree.
|Sandahl Bergman at far right|
GREASE IS THE WORD:
GREASE (1978) and its late 50s greaser milieu was helped by the enormous popularity of Happy Days. Henry Winkler aka Arthur Fonzarelli was wanted to play the part that later went to Vinne Barbarino aka John Travolta. Some angel was looking out for Travolta, because he made a vast fortune just from appearing on the cover of both the Grease and Saturday Night Fever albums! They were beyond huge and sold consistently for years and years, comparable only to Fleetwood Mac's Rumors and Frampton Comes Alive! But while the film of Saturday Night Fever was dingy and depressing in its lower-strata blue collar Bronx-ishness, Grease was smartly moved to the suburbs, to Burbank CA in fact, making the greaser haircuts and cigarettes and unwanted pregnancies little more than rich kid slumming.
|Travota on Captain and Tenille|
|Xanadu - What were you, blocked in a barn?|
|Top: New York, New York (1977); 1941 (1979)|
So without long hair and sleaze to produce hand-me-down pop culture iconocgraphy the decadence was inhaled up nostalgia's porous straw. By the time it got to us, it was as safe as B-12 can be, leaving us with no choice to find the stuff straight from the source. And so it was that as children our interest in sex was rekindled. Among other things, the 80s brought a chance for us all--parents and kids alike-- to finally see X-rated movies. As with any huge sea change, the censors and critics need time to catch up and for awhile, freedom reigned and every child above 12 saw all there was to see, all at once. Censorship had chastened TV for so long we felt protected from anything it could deliver on our invulnerable home screen. The huge backlash against pedophiles and Satanic child molestation rings presumably all over the suburbs was no doubt inspired by seeing just how base our fellow man was. In the 70s we had forgotten to be ashamed of our bodies and our desires, perhaps because we just never really saw them so nakedly.
So that's why now XANADU seems so hopelessy cheesy and antiquated. Old people--as embodied by Gene Kelly--were supposed to now be cool, and everyone was invited to the roller rink, so we dutifully trudged as massive multple family packs to see it. And then fell asleep trying to make it to the big finale. While the older kids were disappearing into midnight showings of THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME (1976) and PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974), we in the too young for R category had dutifully seen SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (above, 1978) starring the Bee-Gees, but that was at the drive in, so if something sucked you just went off towards the screen and rode on the swings and then fell asleep in the back seat. XANADU we saw in the theater, so there was no escape. When we emerged, half-asleep, dizzy from the round and round roller rink musical scenes, sick from popcorn and Olivia Newton John treacle, we found the world had changed. Disco was dead, crushed in the roller rink stampede. The concrurrent style of rock and roll, i.e. the Tubes and ELO, would survive the disaster, to mutate into hair metal with the rise of cable and MTV, but disco began to implode. Cocaine gives you a terrible hangover... and you can see a little of it in Olivia Newton John's sickly yellow aura and devil eyes below. Surely we could do better... we needed to renounce our sins! We needed to 'phone home...' and ET was summoned.
Meanwhile, Alan Carr--one of the key figures behind the huge hit GREASE (and on Broadway, LA CAGE AU FOLLES), had troubles of his own, namely a huge disco flop centered around the Village People, Bruce Jenner, Nancy "You're soaking in it" Walker, hottie Valerie Perine and struggling songwriter (and tight white pants enthusiast) Steve Gutenberg, known as CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC (1980). Like XANADU it cost $20 million, but bombed so bad XANADU looked like STAR WARS by comparison. And in the case of both of them, very little of that money is visible on the screen. Sure there's dancers and glitz, but the blocking, pacing, and acting is a mess. Now I'm just speculating, understand, based largely on a book I'm reading about Carr. But cocaine is all over the 1978-80 wave of films, where once genius staggering talents deliver barely-in-focus confusion and just remembering your lines is considered snnnorrrt heheheh Oscar-worthy, baby!
In short, 'family entertainment' could only make it as far back as the 50s for nostalgia, which our parents remembered and we loved because of the Fonz. Any further back and no one really cared, except old people who got senior citizen discounts anyway so they didn't impact the box office. The days of romancing a past decade with music and glamor were over, at least until the 90s, when suddenly the 70s looked like the last great, free unprotected moment America was ever going to have.
But on the plus side, we have Turner Classic Movies. So forget about the blues / tonight! And never take condoms from strangers. (to be continued)