Three months before disco’s demise, a Newsweek April 2, 1979 cover confidently proclaimed that disco had won the culture wars.* Rock ‘n’ roll was dead. But a few months later, by the fall of 1979, disco was gone. What happened?
What happened was that the disco culture was a house of cards. The signature statement of that culture, Saturday Night Fever, was a total fraud.
The movie, and the disco fad, were based on an article, “Inside the Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” that appeared in New York Magazine in June 1976.
Over the past few months, much of my time has been spent in watching this new generation. Moving from neighborhood to neighborhood, from disco to disco, an explorer out of my depth, I have tried to learn the patterns, the old/new tribal rites.
The problem was that the story was mostly made up.
Twenty years later came a bombshell. In December 1997 New York magazine published an article in which Cohn confessed that there never was a Vincent. There was no “Lisa”, “Billy”, “John James”, “Lorraine” or “Donna” either. While 2001 Odyssey existed, it wasn’t the way the writer described it in 1976. The whole scene of disco-loving Italians, as mythologised in Saturday Night Fever, was exaggerated. The most bizarre detail was that his disco protagonists were in fact based on mods Cohn had known in London.
One image stayed with the writer, though, that of a figure in flared crimson pants and a black body shirt standing in the doorway of the club and calmly watching the action. There was a style about him, Cohn said, a sense of his own specialness that reminded the writer of a teen gang in his hometown of Derry and a mod named Chris he’d met in London in 1965.
When Cohn went back to Odyssey he didn’t see the young man in the doorway again. “Plus, I made a lousy interviewer,” he wrote. “I knew nothing about this world, and it showed. Quite literally, I didn’t speak the language. So I faked it. I conjured up the story of the figure in the doorway, and named him Vincent. Taking all I knew about the snake-charmer in Derry and, more especially, about Chris the mod in London, I translated them as best I could to Brooklyn. Then I went back to Bay Ridge in daylight and noted the major landmarks. I walked some streets, went into a couple of stores. Studied the clothes, the gestures, the walks. Imagined how it would feel to burn up, all caged energies, with no outlet but the dancefloor and the rituals of Saturday night. Finally, I wrote it all up. And presented it as fact.”
Michael Crichton, call your office.
Joel Engel wrote to me with some additional details and corrections to the American Thinker piece:
That the NY Mag story had been made up was more than certainly known to the studio and producers, who’d have been warned by legal that they had to buy the life rights of the principals involved. Second, Saturday Night Feverdidn’t start the disco craze; it capitalized on it. Disco, in my recollection, started with the Love Unlimited Orchestra in 1973, when I was living in Paris and discos began opening everywhere. By the time I got back to the States, Neil Bogart was already a multimillionaire from his label Casablanca that had dozens of disco acts, from Donna Summer to the Village People. (Casablanca was where I met my wife in 1979. She was head of the editorial dept, and I was a freelancer churning out bios and sales sheets at exorbitant rates, while at night I was a DJ at the Malibu Inn, which had transformed itself into a thriving disco–music I hated.) Thank God It’s Friday, by Casablanca’s film division (which also produced Peter Guber’s The Deep and put Jacqueline Bissett in a wet t-shirt), had been a huge hit in theaters. But what killed disco with a stake through the heart in 1980, I’m happy to say, was another Casablanca movie: Can’t Stop the Music, a work of such unremitting awfulness (directed by Rhoda Morganstern’s onscreen mother, who’d had no directing experience) that it’s worse than anything Ed Wood imagined. (Forgive me for invoking Gell-Mann here.)