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Disco’s Saturday Night Fiction

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Saturday Night Fever was the prism through which the world viewed disco. But its actual inspiration was a British mod called Chris…

Picture it: a novelist pens a publication article and its an instant sensation. Producers come calling, he sells the rights for tens of thousands, the tabloids give him a moniker, acquaintances greet him as a friend, cheques inundate in, he attends the premiere of his movie in Los Angeles with a famous disco singer on his arm. Its glitzy, its glam, its Hollywood, newborn. But as he makes his style through the hysterium outside the theater, through security, paparazzi and hollering teenage daughters, he is filled with moral panic. Why?

Saturday Night Fever was released in 1977, and had now been grossed $285 m worldwide. The soundtrack became one of the bestselling movie album of all time after staying at No 1 for 24 consecutive weeks, reinvigorating the Bee Gees career, and its star, John Travolta, became one of the youngest performers to be nominated for the best actor Oscar. Decades on , not many remember that the phenomenon was down to one man: British rock critic Nik Cohn and his report of seven June, 1976 for New York publication, Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Nights, which was published 40 years ago this month.

Cohn was the author of a number of books including the 1969 rock history Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom . A protege of swinging London, he partied with boulder stars, joined the Who on tour, and is said by some to have been instrumental in the genesis of Bowies Ziggy Stardust. He had his portrait shot by Iain Macmillan the photographer behind the Beatles Abbey Road covering and from the age of 18 was contributing briefings about mods and rockers to the Observer . After intersecting the Atlantic and signing on with New York publication in 1975, the writer, who came to feel disenchanted with the creation music business, persuaded the mags founder and editor Clay Felker to let him document disco a new, largely ethnic, largely lesbian underground tendency that had taken over parts of New York City.

The result was the profile of an ultimate Face. Vincent, a young Italian-American worked in a hardware store during the week and partied at a disco club called 2001 Odyssey on the weekend. Vincent was the very best dancer in Bay Ridge he owned 14 floral shirts, five suits, eight pairs of shoes, three overcoats, and had appeared on American Bandstand . He and his friends knew nothing of flower power, Bob Dylan or Ken Kesey. They were opulent but poor, proud but shy. The new generation takes few risks, Cohn wrote. It goes through high school, obedient; graduates, looks for a chore, saves and plans. Endures. And once a week, on Saturday night, its one great moment of release, it explosion. The intro proclaimed: Everything described in this article is factual and was either witnessed by me or told to me immediately by the people involved. Only the names of the main characters have been changed.

Watch a trailer for Saturday Night Fever
The rest is cinema history: film rights were sold to producer Robert Stigwood, who had just signed a three-picture deal with a young Tv actor called John Travolta. Screenwriter Norman Wexler transformed Vincent into Tony Manero. So unprecedented was the fanfare that when Stigwoods 23 -year-old assistant Kevin McCormick traipsed through Los Angeles looking for a director, one agent, according to Vanity Fair , told him, Kid, my directors do movies. They dont do publication articles. Director John Badham had no such qualms, and in December 1977 his movie took $11 m in its first 11 days and Travolta became an overnight sensation.

Twenty years later arrived a bombshell. In December 1997 New York publication 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 wasnt the style 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. The writer was painfully aware that everything Fever had brought him the renown, the luck was research results of a lie.

The real tale ran like this: in 1976 Cohn met a disco dancer named Tu Sweet, who introduced him to the clubs of New York, including one in Bay Ridge called 2001 Odyssey. One night the two trawled through the underbelly of New York a land of auto stores, transmitting experts and alignment centres to find the place. A drunken brawl was in progress and as Cohn opened the cab doorway one of the guys reeled over the gutter and threw up over his trouser leg. So he only upped and returned to the safe comforts of Manhattan.

One image bided 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 told, a sense of his own specialness that reminded the writer of a teen gang in his hometown of Derry and a mod named Chris hed is in conformity with London in 1965.

When Cohn went back to Odyssey he didnt assure the young man in the doorway again. Plus, I made a lousy interviewer, he wrote. I knew nothing about this world, and it presented. Quite literally, I didnt 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 strolled some streets, went into a couple of stores. Studied the clothes, the gestures, the strolls. 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.

A
A premiere party for Saturday Night Fever with
John Travolta, right, next to a bearded Nik Cohn, Travoltas mother below them, and producer Robert Stigwood( far left ). Photograph: Ron Galella/ WireImage

So how did he get away with one of the most daring acts of journalistic forgery? While Tribal Rites reads like a novelisation, it must be understood in the context of the time it was written: the tail-end of the epoch of New Journalism, where novelists use literary techniques and a subjective perspective to present fact as fiction. It followed similar runs by the likes of Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Truman Capote, Hunter S Thompson and Norman Mailer.

When I first approached Cohn for this article, he said he no longer wanted to discuss the topic. But after several back-and-forth emails, he did say that he doubted any magazine would publish the Tribal Rites piece today. It reads to me as obvious fiction, albeit based on observation and some knowledge of disco culture. No route could it sneak past customs now. In the 60 s and 70 s, the line between fact and fiction was blurry. Many publication writers utilized fictional techniques to tell supposedly factual narratives. No objective of autonomies were taken. Few editors asked tough questions. For the most portion it was a occurrence of dont ask, dont tell.

Magazine writing then was basically a boys club. There was a lot of wretched excess. Along with some great writing went reams of self-indulgent bollocks. Tribal Rites being fiction was never a great secret. I recollect once, at the end of a long night, blurting out to a publisher that the narrative was made up. You dont say, the publisher drawled. And Liberace is gay.

For context, Gay Talese , now a bestselling writer and one of the pioneers of new journalism and author of Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, explains that his intention as a young journalist was to write short tales use real characters. I have always been inspired by great short story novelists, the first being the French novelist Guy de Maupassant, he said. Later I also began reading short tales by famous novelists F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and more contemporary writers such as John OHara, Irwin Shaw, Carson McCullers, John Cheever and others. My newspaper article were all written as if short tales: there was scene-setting, dialogue, much description of people and places. But while the articles were presented as stories, they were never fictionalised. Nothing was fabricated, all the names of the characters were real, and verifiably truthful.

Caroline Miller, who edited New York publication at the time of Cohns confession, said her predecessor, Felker, wouldnt have published Tribal Rites if he thought it fabricated. That told, remember that 70 s Brooklyn was a foreign country to most New York magazine editors, she told me. It wasnt cool, and some of them had likely never been there even to Brooklyn Heights, which was Norman Mailer territory. So they may not have had good radar for credibility. Also, after the zeitgeisty opening about the blue-collar disco tribe,[ Tribal Rites] is all narrative, and that much narrative detail tends to read as real. Dialogue in autoes. What Vincent was thinking as he looked in the mirror

Miller and her squad published Cohns admission because it was newsworthy. Heres a guy basically bragging about fabricating a legendary story and get away with it, she told. And it certainly added to our understanding of pop culture myth-making the idea that a mashup of people and scenes Nik had collected on both side of the Atlantic could go basically unchallenged, and have such staying power.

Tribal
Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night by Nik Cohn as featured on a 1976 New York magazine covering.

Cohn has said that were it not for Jim McMullans accompanying illustrations the piece might never have find daylight. McMullan based these on the photographs he took in 2001 Odyssey but, fundamentally, he never met Cohns protagonist. I went to the club twice and moved around, taking my photos without interacting much with any of the patrons, McMullan recalled. Nik took a different route through the crowds so we didnt exchange notes.

I finished my paintings several weeks before Nik finished his story so I wasnt really reacting to how he saw the scene at the club. It did seem like an amazingly dramatic narrative arc and the kind of working-class story he was already famous for.

It so happened that the design director of New York magazine, Milton Glaser, was perplexed by the reportage style of the paints. Clay also came to see the run that route … I suspect that because the art was all ready to go before Nik finished writing, it set some pressure on him to get it written. Had the paints not already impressed Milton and Clay, I suppose it might have been easier to scuttle the whole project.

Did McMullans art indicate a truth to the piece? While Cohns descriptions of the clubs Faces were based on the working class in England, they werent entirely off the mark.

Just like the Italian-Americans, the mods shopped for that perfect shirt, Colleen Cosmo Murphy, an American radio broadcaster, DJ, producer and founder of Classic Album Sundays, explained to me over coffee in London one morning. It was about looking like they were better off than they truly were, sticking their fund into things like music and clothes. They bought records, certain types of trousers, specific types of coats. It was an attitude.

Its that culture of people who have their regular chore during the course of its week and live got to go on the weekend. A blue-collar employee in Brooklyn isnt going to be defined by their chore. Who they actually are is who they are when they go out. Just like a mod. A mod might be bricklayer, but theyre a mod.

Bill Brewster, former editor of Mixmag USA and founder of Djhistory.com, echoed this: Its a universal story that had been going on for decades even before there were DJs playing records, he told. Working-class children going out on a Friday and Saturday and getting off their heads to American black music. It was happening in the cellars of Paris during the occupation in terms of jazz records. Those archetypes, even though Cohn based them on people in London, were obviously happening in the middle New York as well. I think it was an trained guess on his part, and a correct one.

The
The multi-million-selling soundtrack album featured hittings from the Bee Gees and topped the US chart for 24 consecutive weeks.

Disco as a genre and culture had already been gathering pace in New York so Saturday Night Fever was just the tipping point of something that had been going on for a while. Even before disco was officially called disco, you had David Mancusos loft parties, in the late 60 s, in downtown Manhattan, where he played danceable acid-rock, R& B, mixing it all up, said Murphy, who has collaborated with Mancuso in the past.

They were all about integrating all kinds of people, whether it was class, race, sexual orientation. People like David Morales and Larry Levan were going as kids. At the same day Francis Grasso became the first DJ to start mixing records together with two turntables. In the mid-7 0s these other clubs started rising Studio 54, which was the glitzy manhattan club, where Andy Warhol, Grace Jones and Liza Minelli hung out, and places like 2001 Odyssey, which were for the working-class Brooklynites.

But in the end it was Cohns article and Saturday Night Fever that devoted the decade its cultural identity. As a child I was living in Massachusetts, in a white suburban New England small town, listening to rock and pop, Murphy said. Then such articles happened, the movie “re coming out” and disco blew up across white America overnight. Me and my friends would dance to the soundtrack at slumber parties. I had aunts and uncles who were taking disco-dancing lessons.

Then came the backlash. DJ Steve Dahl headed up a Disco Demolition Night in Chicago in July 1979. People wore disco sucks T-shirts. The Bee Gees became cheesy, Chic became cheesy, and by the 80 s disco was a dirty word. Saturday Night Fever was likely the thing that killed off disco in the end, Murphy said.

Cohn , now 70, lives in Ghent, New York. Their own lives reads like a blockbuster of its own after Tribal Rites he continued writing, true narratives mostly, and in 1983 was arrested for conspiring to importation millions of dollars worth of heroin and cocaine into the US. The more serious charges were dropped and Cohn was given five years probation for possession. His life, the writer then realised, had been unravelling and it was time for a change. Why did I decide to come clean in 1997? It simply felt like day, he told me. What seemed OK to me when I was young and stoned no longer sat right. Accountability, lets say.

Cohn has always maintained that what was genuine was the staying power of Saturday Night Fever itself. That central figure, with all his grace, energy and passion. A nobody who once a week was a someone. Tribal Rites is about identity, he told. Seeing a place in the world which allows you shine. What still resonates, to me at least, is the sense of yearning. If I was writing the narrative today, Vincent might be trans

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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