Drawings by Massimo Carnevale.
The writer Nik Cohn was profiled in the New York Times Magazine last weekend. A gifted critic of Rock n Roll, Cohn is most famous for this piece–“Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night”–the basis of the movie “Saturday Night Fever.”
Thing of it is, he made most of it up:
“There’s nothing I’ve written that I’ve been able to reread in later years without deep, deep dread,” [Cohn] said, waving off a compliment. The prime example remains “Saturday Night.”
It’s hard now to believe anyone took it for literal truth. Its audacious artfulness makes most New Journalism look like court stenography. Vincent and his Bay Ridge posse were composites, based on the mods he knew in London a decade before. Cohn — who appears in the article as a shadowy figure in a tweed suit — never did spend much time at the 2001 Odyssey disco. That “Saturday Night” struck a deep nerve was not particularly comforting to its creator. “I found it very difficult to function,” he says of the aftermath, not overjoyed to be talking about it. “I completely lost my way and had enormous self-contempt. It knocked me off my trolley, and my trolley has never been the solidest base in the universe.”
…“When I was young and on the hustle, there was something that made people not want to talk to me,” Cohn admits, still savoring the turnaround. “So when people actually started talking to me, I thought, Wow, this is far more fascinating than all the stuff I made up. I realized you don’t have to create the myth. You don’t have to embroider. It’s all there.”
I’ve never read Cohn’s stuff on Rock. But I’m curious.
Saturday Night Fever was based on a New York Magazine story by Nik Cohn called Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night (It appeared in July, 1976):
Within the closed circuits of rock & roll fashion, it is assumed that New York means Manhattan. The center is everything, all the rest irrelevant. If the other boroughs exist at all, it is merely as a camp joke—Bronx-Brooklyn-Queens, monstrous urban limbo, filled with everyone who is no one.
In reality, however, almost the reverse is true. While Manhattan remains firmly rooted in the sixties, still caught up in faction and fad and the dreary games of decadence, a whole new generation has been growing up around it, virtually unrecognized. Kids of sixteen to twenty, full of energy, urgency, hunger. All the things, in fact, that the Manhattan circuit, in its smugness, has lost.
They are not so chic, these kids. They don’t haunt press receptions or opening nights; they don’t pose as street punks in the style of Bruce Springsteen, or prate of rock & Rimbaud. Indeed, the cults of recent years seem to have passed them by entirely. They know nothing of flower power or meditation, pansexuality, or mind expansion. No waterbeds or Moroccan cushions, no hand-thrown pottery, for them. No hep jargon either, and no Pepsi revolutions. In many cases, they genuinely can’t remember who Bob Dylan was, let alone Ken Kesey or Timothy Leary. Haight Ashbury, Woodstock, Altamont—all of them draw a blank. Instead, this generation’s real roots lie further back, in the fifties, the golden age of Saturday nights.
The cause of this reversion is not hard to spot. The sixties, unlike previous decades, seemed full of teenage money. No recession, no sense of danger. The young could run free, indulge themselves in whatever treats they wished. But now there is shortage once more, just as there was in the fifties. Attrition, continual pressure. So the new generation takes few risks. It goes through high school, obedient; graduates, looks for a job, saves and plans. Endures. And once a week, on Saturday night, its one great moment of release, it explodes.