Muscle, in all its meanings, is such a deeply American trope that it feels like part of our national narrative. We’ve made strength the flag of our exceptionalism and believe, however vainly, that our might will prevail in any test of wills against our foes. We’ve even found a way to monetize muscle, building an industrial complex of health clubs and home gyms and their hugely lucrative sideline: nutritional supplements. Thirty years ago, men stopped at a bar for a cold one after work; now those bars are Ballys and Crunches, and the person sweating beside you is as likely to be a woman as the guy who used to buy the second round. Most of them aren’t there to build contest-quality mass or prepare for strongman shows; they go in pursuit of fitness, which is strength by another name — muscle fit for stock traders and internet geeks.
But if you were born anytime after the release of Conan the Barbarian in 1982, it may shock you to learn that as late as the 1970s, Americans were repelled by the sight of brawn. “I’d go to the beach, and they’d give me the wolf whistle, guys on a blanket wanting to fight,” says Eddie Giuliani, the 1974 Mr. America (short division) and one of the early legends at Gold’s. “Nobody liked guys with the lumps back then. They thought we were all morons and fairies.” George Butler, codirector of Pumping Iron — the landmark documentary that made a rock star of Schwarzenegger and almost single-handedly changed America’s view of well-built men — says, “I always liked to walk behind Arnold in the street so I could check out people’s reactions as we passed. They’d point at him and sneer: ‘God, look at that fucking freak. What a clown.’”
Gold’s Gym didn’t blow that bias away the day it opened for business in 1965. But in less than a decade, it became the Athens of muscle, the cradle of a full-blown body culture and the place where the gods of iron inspired millions. Everything we have now, from moonshot-hitting shortstops to film stars busting out of their bandoliers, began in that no-frills bunker by the beach. Joe Gold, the ornery seaman who built the place and has since been largely forgotten, had a lot of timely help from other people, not least of them Butler, whose charismatic film spread the Gospel of Huge to a scrawny nation. None of that would have happened, though, without Gold’s vision. He made a space where titans congregated.
Solotaroff also wrote a book about this subculture, “The Body Shop: Parties, Pills, and Pumping Iron–Or, My Life in the Age of Muscle.”
You can read an excerpt over at Deadspin.
Here’s another, from Men’s Journal:
It was the fall of 1975, and I was having such a rough go of it that even my hair was depressed. Styled on David Bowie of Aladdin Sane vintage, it was long in back and purportedly spiked on top, but drooped like Three Dog Night in a two-day downpour. I stood 6-foot-1, weighed 150 pounds, and hadn’t been laid since Nixon’s reelection, making me, like George McGovern, a landslide loser. At the ripe age of 20, I had a mad crush on Ginger from Gilligan’s Island and organized my day around the 4 pm reruns. I had plenty of time to watch, having dropped out of college and been fired from a series of flathead jobs, including two at which I actually volunteered.
And so that January, I did what middle-class kids do when life gets bored of beating them senseless — ran, hat in hand, back to college. Though the State University at Stony Brook billed itself as the “Berkeley of the East,” it was fairer, I think, to call it the “McNeese State of the North,” a school whose students were mostly interested in cars and picking up overtime at Sears. To walk the length of my residence hall was to know both the joys of a fierce contact high and the canon of Gregg and Duane Allman.
With the exception of mine, the one door on the hall kept closed belonged to a tall blond kid with big muscles. Actually, big doesn’t begin to give a sense of the guy. The first time I saw Mark, he was leaving the john, wearing a towel so small it gaped at the hip and thigh. He had cannonball shoulders that looked carved from brass — burnished arcs at the top of his arms that flowed into half-moon biceps. His chest was a slab of T-squared boxes, beneath which knelt columns of raised abdominals that bunched and torqued as he moved. I turned around, slack-jawed, and watched him go; it took all my self-control not to applaud.
[Photograph of Paul Solotaroff by Jim Herrington]