The '60s and the '70s, Reconsidered in the '90s

August 02, 1994|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Having been born almost a decade apart, my wife and I occasionally have (usually) friendly little arguments about which decade was better, the '60s or the '70s.

I defend the '60s. To me, it was a time of hope, freedom and promise. It was a time when the civil-rights movement, the peace movement and every other kind of movement challenged all that was wrong or worn-out about the world.

It was a time of Motown, campus demonstrations, ''We Shall Overcome,'' Jimi Hendrix, the ''Summer of Love,'' the Grateful Dead, Woodstock, ''black power,'' Angela Davis, ''Soul on Ice'' and an endless array of friendships and love affairs made, consummated and ended in a whirlwind of crazy events in a reckless youth.

It was the time, I recall wistfully, when my generation lost its virginity in more ways than one.

Up against that high-energy decade, the '70s strike me as a cultural wasteland, a huge comedown the morning after the big party.

To me, the '70s was Watergate. The oil embargo. Gasoline lines. Stagflation. Platform shoes. ''Whip Inflation Now'' buttons. Polyester pants suits. Mood rings. The ''Me Decade'' self-absorption. Polyester Nik-Nik shirts. Pet Rocks. The Iranian hostage crisis. Real-estate fever. Soaring interest rates. Polyester bell-bottomed hip-huggers. Billy Beer.

What, I ask my wife, did the '70s contribute to modern civilization beyond discos and condos?

Wee-e-e-ell, says Wifey, there's Earth, Wind and Fire, Steely Dan, Roxy Music, the Ohio Players, Gil Scott-Heron. . . .

This, by the way, is a point of argument. Some of us would claim Gil Scott-Heron or George Clinton of Parliament/Funkadelic for the '60s.

But, since the '70s are so devoid of decent culture in my view, I am willing to concede a few borderline cases.

On the other hand, we reached common ground with ''Forrest Gump,'' this summer's most talked-about movie, which touches on the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s and gets them all about right.

But, cheer up, dear. I am beginning to see things your way. I detect the '70s are struggling to do something I never thought possible until now. They are making a comeback.

I knew something was up when I heard the Eagles had rejoined for a reunion tour. Then KC & the Sunshine Band announced a '''70s Appreciation'' tour. Elton John and Billy Joel are teaming up. Could Ike and Tina be next?

Then along came Spike Lee's movie ''Crooklyn,'' which centers on a black Brooklyn family in the '70s, complete with '70s sound track. Then came Matty Rich's ''The Inkwell,'' a movie about a black teen coming of age while on vacation in Martha's Vineyard during (When else?) the '70s.

Then, wonder of wonders, I saw ''gangsta'' rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg appear on the Grammy Awards with . . . Gasp! Is that an Afro on his head?

Yes! No joke! Snoop Dogg had sho-nuff picked his trademark gangster corn rows out into a bona fide Afro blow-out which, atop his lanky frame, made the Snoop look like a tall chocolate-and-licorice Sno-Cone.

Then came a claim by a Harlem barber in the New York Times that one-fourth of his customers are asking for Afros this summer.

First there was the Malcolm X comeback. Now there's this, a '70s nostalgia trip by young African-Americans barely old enough to remember the decade and, therefore, well equipped to romanticize it.

What's the appeal? Well, says the Times, compared to the cynical '90s, the '70s look to them like a time of ''relative innocence and restless promise.''

They have a point. Compared to the more dire elements of the '90s, even John Travolta and the Bee Gees look good. In the '70s, most black babies still were being born to married mothers. ''Soul Train,'' as Ice T notes, had not yet ''lost its soul.'' O.J. was still a ''hero.'' Michael Jackson still had a ''black'' nose.

More to the point, there was no AIDS. No crack cocaine. No drive-by shootings. No Reagan-era white backlash.

Freed, at last, by civil-rights reforms, a new black middle class mushroomed, growing at a faster rate than the white middle class was growing. During Jimmy Carter's presidential term, black college students finally reached parity with white college students.

Unfortunately, a new black poverty class also grew at a faster rate than their white counterparts and did it in greater isolation from America's economic and cultural mainstream. To today's black twentysomethings, other decades don't compare. The '50s? Poverty and Jim Crow segregation. The '60s? Assassinations, riots and overdoses on bad acid. The '80s? Willy Horton, ''welfare queens'' and ''Anyone But Jesse.''

The '90s? Rodney King, Darryl Gates, Sister Souljah and Rush Limbaugh.

Our values, the lenses through which we view the world, are shaped by the era in which we come of age.

We hang onto the values of the period, which linger in the snapshots of memory as vivid and palpable as the texture of a wedding cake, the tartness of prom night punch, the oppressive sweetness of funeral flowers or the tingle of graduation-night champagne.

OK, maybe I am beginning to see what '70s aficionados rave about. But don't ask me to slide into polyester bell-bottomed hip-huggers again. I refuse.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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