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Peeking at Twins: Chuck Barris overreaches himself on 'The Gong Show.' Art by Rick Geary.

Saturday Night Decade

A new illustrated history takes a stroll through the horrors--and occasional delights--of the much-maligned 1970s

By Richard von Busack

FONZIE! BILLY BEER! Streakers! Yes, the 1970s were a funny decade. Sometimes, way back then, when me and my friends were all gathered in a circle, hunkered down like trolls in some suburban dung-galow, like settlers waiting for the next Apache attack--I say, when we were all trying to cadge a buzz out of the dregs of a $10 lid, even scraping the resin and torching it in a cigarette paper, in the bootless hope that its vile smoke would waft us the hell out of Los Angeles ... our hearts hammering at the thought of how only one flimsy door stood between us and the wrath of the LAPD ... yes, at times like that, we really just had to laugh at what a funny decade it was.

And what seemed the funniest thing about that wacky decade was that someday, some idiot would consider the horrible 1970s as material for nostalgia.

Fortunately, ex-Metro staffer Jonathan Vankin isn't an idiot, and his cartoon-version study of the godawful decade doesn't just slurp up the Froot Loops-colored nostalgia. The Big Book of the '70s (Paradox Press; $14.95), delivered in more than 50 illustrated episodes, is the first study I've seen that talks about the hard-scrabble part of the 1970s: the unemployment, the energy crisis and even the meat crisis.

The oil shortage is memorialized by Vankin with the help of cartoonist Tatyvar Ozkan's angry drawings. The duplicitous oil executives are drawn as ugly and scowling as the atheist professors in one of Jack Chick's religious comics. Vankin reminds us that the oil sheiks weren't responsible for the lines at the gas pumps--only 6 percent of the oil imported in the 1970s came from the Persian Gulf, though the crisis stimulated anti-Arab sentiment that's lasted until today.

The shortage came to pass with the complicity of Richard Nixon, who knew which side of his bread was oiled. Vankin reports that one out of every six dollars Nixon received as a campaign contribution in 1968 came from an oil company--another reminder that no one reading this article will live long enough to see the bottom of Nixon's perfidy.

Vankin remembers the layoffs, the birth of the rust belt and Vietnam malaise--a psychosomatic condition caused by learning a painful historical lesson, now, thankfully, completely forgotten. Strangely, even some of the benefits of the 1970s have also been forgotten. It wasn't until 1974 that legislation was passed to forbid sexual discrimination in issuing credit cards.

Pioneering woman's cartoonist Shary Flenniken illustrates a clear, compact view of the women's liberation movement, from the earliest factions to today. She and Vankin end the story tartly with a picture of a typical amnesiac fraulein shopping her heart out, squeaking, "Feminists are just unhappy with their looks. Women have it great today!" Vankin notes: "Many young women today seem unaware of how life used to be, and how much things have changed. Maybe someone should take away their credit cards."

THE BOOK ISN'T JUST meant to abrade the memory, or to rain on people's fun night out at Polly Esther's. Vankin goes over the birth of the discos, which--and this should never be forgotten--were far more elitist than Polly Esther's. As Steve Rubell, the weaselly founder of Studio 54 put it, "I wouldn't let someone like me inside."

Vankin retells some of the other moments of fun in an otherwise murderous time: the eccentricity of the ABA and of major-league baseball players (where have you gone, Bill "The Spaceman" Lee?). And he outlines the careers of Ali and Cosell, Chuck Barris and the stuntman Evil Knievel, who provided the era with one deathless quote: "Moderation in all things, except Wild Turkey."

It's easier to look back without anger here reading this book because Vankin hasn't neglected the grimmer side of the 1970s. I realize our lives today aren't exactly a plate of peach melba. Sexually transmitted diseases, overpopulation, too expensive pot, too expensive everything, lead one back to daydreaming about a more easygoing, drugged-out, polymorphously perverse decade. It was, as Vankin concludes, a great age for personal style. You know, we get, we give.

The movies, for instance, aren't as good as they were in the 1970s. Nostalgia only makes the current cinema worse. Today, you have to endure a candy-colored 1970s reminiscence like Almost Famous, with its Elton John sing-along scene. Remember that rumor that "Tiny Dancer" was Bernie Taupin's nickname for Elton John's courting tackle? ("Tiny dancer in my hand ... you've had a busy day today." It's obvious now, isn't it?)

In the '90s, the cars, beer and television are all unimaginably better. And the money--so much better, if you can get your hands on it, of course. Even from this position of triumph, though, I still get smoldering contempt every time I see polyester. Enjoy your masquerade, but I'm telling you, and I was there--I wouldn't go back to that hideous decade if you made me John Travolta.

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From the October 5-11, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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