All the young dudes...
On or about the summer of 1977 something changed. I am not saying that one went out, as one might to a movie, and there saw some film called Star Wars, or that the Talking Heads released an album with simple green lettering on a red cover. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, and, since one must be arbitrary, let us date it on or about the summer of 1977.
In 1977 Apple Computer was incorporated and the first Commodore home computers hit the stores. That year both Led Zeppelin and Elvis Presley performed their last concerts. Vaclav Havel helped form Charter 77 and Voyager I was launched on a trajectory that eventually made it the first object from Earth to leave the galaxy.
It was also the year my parents' divorce was finalized. Shortly after that my mother married a man she had dated for only a week and they went off to California, leaving me to move back in with my angry old man and his German cocktail waitress girlfriend. The cocktail waitress hated me, of course, and I happily returned the sentiment.
As you might imagine I spent a lot of time away from home in 1977. It was my junior year of high school and I was bouncing between a group of college-bound comedy/sci-fi nerds and some going-nowhere stoners. The former played Risk on Friday nights and went out for late night pizza; the latter liked to bring dope and beer down by the river and hold long, pointless parties where we spent all night staring at the flames and peeing in the weeds. We used to burn oak pallets stolen from behind warehouses or grocery stores and sometimes the flames would leap up into the dark sky some 20 or 30 feet. It's amazing no one got killed or incinerated by all the drunken stupidity.
But as I said, something seemed to change that summer. I suppose if you want to be technical, America had actually reached its ebb-point earlier in the decade with the first fuel shortages, stagnating wages and the messy end of Vietnam. By 1977 we were coasting on the fumes of the post-war run. Nobody ever spoke of a decline, but somehow we all had an unvoiced sense that tomorrow was unlikely to be better than yesterday.
Two years later, of course, Jimmy Carter committed the unforgivable sin of articulating this collective feeling in his famous "malaise" speech:
I've always thought this speech is what lost him the election in 1980, not the Iranian hostage crisis, not Reagan's sunny rhetoric. Everyone knew that Reagan was a shill, but Carter... Well as we used to say that dude needed to mellow out. We much preferred to go with Dutch into TV land, where deficit spending, a Buck Rogers missile defense system and secretly subverting the U.S. Constitution could be smoothed over with a winsome anecdote and a half-assed dye job. Reagan was a Gatsby-like figure, a dreamer with a magnificently willed capacity for blinding himself to the unpleasant facts of America life. In this respect, he was about as American as you can get.I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy... I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might. The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation...
I'm not sure why I find myself thinking of the late 1970s these days. Maybe it's just because it was the end of my childhood. Maybe everyone has that elegiac sense about that time in their life. Virginia Woolf--who I shamelessly plagiarized in the opening paragraph--felt that human character changed in 1910. Maybe so, but for me there's a case to be made that something passed in 1977. I'm just old enough to remember when Americans thought that they could do things: rebuild Europe, cure polio, end poverty, assure equality. By '77 we had lost our first war and seen a president resign. The moon landings were five years behind us, and in August of that year a 350-pound Elvis Presley dropped dead on his toilet. He was 42.
Sometimes it seems like we've been on a long, slow descent ever since. We dismantle things now, or figure out how to take them away. We let things rot and fight over the scraps. Sure, politicians still mouth platitudes about how great we are (or will be again), but nobody believes it. They haven't for a long time. I often feel like I don't recognize my country anymore. It's a meaner, stupider and less generous place than it seemed to me 40 years ago. And that's really saying something because we were often mean and stupid back then.
Recently I had reason to look up the lyrics to All the Young Dudes, the 1972 Mott the Hoople song written for the band by the late David Bowie. I was surprised when I read the actual lyrics. All these years I have been mishearing the chorus. I always thought it was strangely prophetic and went something like "Hey, all the young dudes/Carry the news/You're gonna lose...
Turns out it was something completely different. I've been told, too, that Carter never actually used the word "malaise" in his speech. Nevertheless, that's what everybody heard.