[Back In The Day] Disco Vs. Rock

Photo: Thomas Kelley
Photo: Thomas Kelley

There is no journalistic record of the culture war that occurred in New York City High Schools in the late ’70’s. And period pieces like “That ’70s Show” depict a peaceful transition, or a happy coexistence. But there wasn’t. Not in the neighborhoods of New York. You see, I was there, at the very center of it all, and I’ve got to tell you, for the boys, it was a blood feud.


The boys all started high school as rockers. We shopped at the Army/Navy store and went to school dressed in our uniform of Lil’ Abner work boots, Levi’s or chinos, flannel shirt or band tee, and branded leather belt. Guys in parochial schools finished it off with a big-knotted, wide tie. We kept warm in the spring and fall with a dungaree (denim) jacket with an album cover painted on the back panel, or, in the winter, with a fur-collared brown bomber jacket. We used bandanas as handkerchiefs. Our hair was either long and parted in the middle, or, if curly, a nest of ringlets, either way with sideburns. There was very little variation in all this. We listened to Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull and The Who. The Beatles were worshiped as gods. And we all tried to play guitar.

On Saturdays, we went to high school dances where we listened to Six Horse Hitch play all our favorites and some top 40, then finish their night with side two of Abbey Road. Ahhh. We defiantly sat at these dances, fixed on the stage as if at a concert. We did not dance. Period. But the girls… Well the girls dressed in the fashion of the day, and danced all night. And that was the beginning of the end for the rockers.

By ’76, disco guys started appearing. They were mostly older guys, working or commuting to college. Rockers young and old dismissed them as ‘dicks’: they dressed differently. Huk-a-Poo or Nik-Nik polyester shirts in wild patterns or with whimsical pictures, often unbuttoned to reveal rope chains and medals. Dress slacks—yes, slacks—also polyester, and very tight, with big shoe-engulfing bell-bottoms. Platform shoes in different colors. And they sported short hair, no sideburns at all, usually blown straight back in a DA.

Incredibly, they shopped at the mall, with the girls. In fact, they were always with girls. Wow! I found this intriguing: they didn’t seem like ‘dicks’ to me. Even if they did listen to the Bee-Gee’s, Donna Summer and Cerrone. And, naturally, their Saturday nights were spent at discos such as The Arena, Elaphas, and Gazebo’s.

It was clear the girls loved the disco guys. At some point, I learned that after the girls left the dances, which ended uniformly at 11, they went to the closest disco, with ‘fake proof’. [Driver’s licenses did not have a photo on them back then, and it was easy to match your eye color and height, and then memorize a new name, address and birth date. So there was a quite a lively trade in ‘fake proof’.] There, they met up with the disco guys. The seeds of my discontent were sown.

Then, in June, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” by Nik Cohn appeared in New York Magazine. No one in the neighborhood read it. But I did. It told the story of Vincent and the ‘Faces.’ It later became the iconic movie “Saturday Night Fever”, and Vincent became Tony. Although later debunked as pure bullshit, it rang true to me as a teenager. I wanted to be a ‘Face’ too! Meaning I wanted girls to notice ME! So I worked hard the summer I was 16, and saved enough money for a whole new wardrobe. I went to the mall and picked up some Huk-a-Poo shirts and slacks and platform shoes. One of the shirts, my favorite, had a fire engine that wrapped around the entire shirtwaist. And I bought a Starsky sweater: a wool cardigan with a belt. Google it, it’s pretty cool. I already had Starsky hair (and there was no way I was cutting it…yet), so I suppose I was going for a certain look.

I returned to school that fall a fashion plate, wanting to be seen by the gals on the bus as a ‘Face’. And maybe I was: see below. But I had no interest in being a disco guy, not yet. I blasted Boston in my bedroom (oh, that first album!), played guitar on my front stoop, and drew the Beatles on my notebook cover. My hair got long and I had a beard for a while, going for a Cat Stevens look. I did not listen to disco. I didn’t dance at the dances, even when asked. And I stood with the rockers, outside in the cold that March, when my school had a DJ play the Saturday dance instead of a rock band. No way we rock music lovers were entering the gym to participate in that travesty! But, of course, all the girls did. And if the other guys didn’t notice that, I know I did.

In April, I started driving and got my first car, a black 1968 Chevy Impala. Blacky. I installed an eight track player and Jansen Tri-axial speakers, and I blasted “The Boys Are Back In Town” every afternoon after school to a car full of rockers, even though my school attire was somewhat different from theirs.

But on weekends, well, on weekends I cruised Crossbay Blvd. to “Breezin'” by George Benson. The girls heard it as disco. I dug it as jazz. Nobody called me a dick, like they did the disco guys, and, in the language of the day, everything was mellow.

Then I got invited to a few proms! I went to the mall and bought a dove gray three piece suit: big lapels, big bell-bottoms, and a navy silk vest-back. Matched it with a navy Quiana shirt with a galaxy of stars on it. I thought I was ready. Until I remembered “Oh, shit, I can’t dance!” Now I HAD to! And I didn’t want to look like an asshole. But a few Saturdays in my friend Phylis’ basement fixed that. She taught me the Bus Stop, a fun line dance, and, of course, the Hustle. I was prom ready. And I guess I took one step closer to being a disco guy.

But a lot of high school guys crossed over completely that prom season. A lot of guys. And for whatever reason, the Italian guys led the way. Maybe it was because they had the chest hair and christening medals already. I don’t know. In any event, that summer, the Summer of ’77, a schism occurred at Rockaway Beach. There were more guys on their towels playing disco on the box than ever, ever before. [Gals never brought boxes: too heavy]. Volume contests ensued. And then, right after Memorial Day, the great break came. The rockers, in their cut-off Levi’s and concert tee’s, remained entrenched at Beach 116 Street, where ALL the kids had gone for years. The disco guys, in their Adidas gym shorts and ribbed tank tops, departed for Beach 108 Street. And the girls followed. So did I.

When I got there, I had to listen to the disco guys’ music. Although disco music was now over three years old, I hadn’t actually heard much. Radio-wise, I was a WPLJ and N-E-W man. All rock, all the time. Jim Kerr, Dennis Elsas, Scottso. Ahh. There wasn’t even a disco station in New York at that point. At the beach, the disco guys played mix tapes. Eh, I could deal. But they also played Barry White, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the O’Jays and others, and I ate that shit up! I bought some of it to play in the car, and the girls I drove home from the beach much preferred it to my Beatles, CSN and James Taylor tapes.

A crazy song came out that summer: “San Francisco/You’ve Got Me.” It was a wild, let loose kinda’ song. “City by the bay, ya’ll!” 100% disco. I just loved it. An older guy, like 22, sitting on the steel railing of the boardwalk, a guy who never, ever stepped foot on the sand, blasted it and “In Hollywood/Just a Gigolo” from his box. Man, I liked that too. He played the rest of the album as well, and it was OK, but those two, well they were the 1st true disco songs I ever heard that lit me up. They made me WANT to dance. So I went over to find out who these songs were by. They were by a group of guys in costumes called “The Village People.” Odd guys, but two/four good songs.

Of course I went out and bought their eight track. And I blasted it in the car whenever I could. One time, I blasted it driving down Beach 108 Street, and then had the great, great luck to have someone pull out of a parking spot right next to Fitzgerald’s Bar & Grill, only yards from the boardwalk, just as I approached. I took it, and went off for my day of tanning, tunes and titillation. When I came back, someone had written ‘Disco Sucks’ in white, milky magic marker across the trunk lid of my shiny black Chevy. WTF? What did I do? I’m not even a disco guy! I was furious. I went home and used rubbing compound and rage to remove the writing. Then Blue Coral, to bring back the shine. Blacky was herself again, and I thought I was too.

Summer ended, and I started my senior year identifying as a Rocker. A Rocker in disco clothes with soul music in his car. And I made sure to call it ‘soul’. I put away the Village People to avoid both vandalism and invective. I still had my Starsky hair, but I had grown a mustache, like the disco guys on the beach, so I feared Rocker ridicule. But even some rockers showed up with mustaches that September. Maybe it was a Burt Reynolds thing, or perhaps it was just plain old puberty. Either way, it was cool with everyone. But a lot of guys showed up sporting DA’s, and, for whatever reason, that was not cool, not with the rockers. They called guys with a DA ‘Zipper Heads’, and heckled them mercilessly. Yeah, “disco sucks!” All yelled most loudly when there were girls around. But this did not put the girls off them one bit. Surprised?

So the rockers started to really hate the disco guys. The disco guys just got smug. And, of course, they shot back. They nicknamed the rockers ‘Woodstockers’ and called older hippie guys ‘Leftovers.’ They demeaned their clothing, grooming, hygiene, dating…you name it. Things escalated. rockers took to melting disco guys’ polyester collars with their Bic lighters. Really. From behind, while seated on the bus. The material would literally dissolve! Of course, book bags were kicked and there was shoving. And ultimately, fist fights broke out at bus stops and subway stations. I kept my distance from the conflict. I was done with the bus and subway: I had a car! If you were in my car, we were cool. Also: my car, my tapes. And, for whatever reason, I never caught any shit about my clothes at all. I still, to quote Boston, had my peace of mind.

Then I met a girl! She was at the Pizzeria on my corner looking through Beatles trading cards when I saw her standing there. The cards were from 1964, when she was a toddler from the looks of her, but they were in perfect shape. She was in shape too! And very cute, like Zooey Deschanel cute. I went over to say hello and we really hit it off, bonding over the Beatles. She invited me to a party at her friend’s house in Flushing that Saturday.

It actually was my kind of party. Down in a basement lined with band posters. Guys with guitars. The Dead, The Allmans and “Aime” (whatcha’ gonna’ do) on a great Technics Stereo with big speakers. I did the right thing: I brought a six pack of Bud tall boys. I thought I fit right in. Wrong.

“Hey, disco boy,” one of the guys called out, “you gonna’ dance for us?”

“No, I don’t dance,” I said.

“Oh. What do you do then?”

I wanted to say I boxed, because I did, and because I felt threatened. But instead I said “I play guitar.”

“Bullshit! Show me.”

A sweet Martin Sigma was thrust at me. “Ok… what do I play to placate these guys,” I wondered. Well, when in doubt, ya’ gotta’ go Zeppelin. And no, not Stairway: everybody plays Stairway. So I started to play “Ramble On.” Those opening chords really grab your attention. But I didn’t even get to the chorus when the guitar was yanked away from me.

“YOU don’t play that song,” the guitar grabber said. I said nothing.

The rest of the night, nothing I did was right. I heard I looked like a disco boy, walked like a disco boy, sat like a disco boy, blah, blah, blah. Every guy there said, at least once, ‘I should just kick your ass right here.’ I didn’t drink, in case I had to fight, and I wasn’t having any fun. Eventually, I had enough and we left. My date was sloshed. In the car, she alternatively slept and screamed at me about my clothes. I never responded. Not out loud. I knew where this was going. When I dropped her off, she said she didn’t think we should see each other any more. I was NOT happy: she was just so cute.

I was so pissed off after that, I wanted nothing to do with the rockers. We just weren’t on the same wavelength anymore, rock-n-roll notwithstanding. These guys were burnin’ up clothes, messin’ up rides, and now, they screwed things up for me with a girl. “What’s next?” I thought. So deep was my discontent, I sold my Bomber Jacket to the Postman’s son, and bought a car coat in slate gray.

Then, right before Christmas, ‘what’s next’ was released: SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. Everyone went to see it. Everyone. It’s plot details were irrelevant. Most saw only stylin’ clothes and sexy dancing. It left the girls longing for, lusting for…guy dance partners! It emboldened the disco guys. It converted some rockers. To guys like me, guys in the middle, in a muddle, it heightened an attraction that had existed for some time: An attraction to cool clothes and hot girls.

Back at school, after the Christmas break, the culture war continued. By most measures, disco was now winning. All the girls dressed disco, and most of the guys, even conflicted rockers. Most of the guys had a DA haircut now; rockers simply wore it long and kept their sideburns. School dances now had a DJ more often than not: at the girl’s schools and the co-ed schools, all the time: at the boy’s schools, maybe half. Rock ‘n’ roll still controlled the radio. But my Rocker friend Eddie worked at the record store under the El, and he said, with disgust, that most of the eight tracks and cassettes sold were disco.

My eight track player broke. I only knew two guys who could fix it for me: Mark, A Hot Tuna loving Rocker, and Carmine, a college going disco king. I went to see Carmine on a Saturday morning. He crawled under my dashboard and started poking around. And for some reason he looked under my front seat: that’s where I had stashed my Village People tape.

“What’s this?” He asked.

“Oh Lord,” I thought, “please don’t let me be misunderstood.”

“I knew it,” he declared. “I see how you dress. Where do you go?”

“What do you mean?” I replied

“What club are you going to?”

“Oh, I’ve never been to a disco.”

“You’ve got to be fuckin’ kidding me? You don’t know what you’re missing. What are you doing tonight?”

“Nothing.” With that word, everything changed for me.

“Your boys here are going to be at The Arena tonight,” he said waving my eight track. “We’re all going. You should come too.”

I was silent.

“I know you have the clothes: my sister saw you at the prom. I know you have a St. Jude medal: remember, I helped you find it when it fell off at the beach. You’ve got fake proof. You dig the music.” He waved my tape again. “And you like hot girls, don’t you? Be here at 10. Leave your tie home, we ain’t going to school.”

But in a way, I was.

“Ten? That’s pretty late”, I thought. But now I understood what this so called ‘disco nap’ was all about.

“The place doesn’t really ‘get up’ until about midnight, but we want to get there early,” Carmine advised.

“To get seats?” I asked.

“Dude, the last thing in the world you want is a seat. It’s so we can get some drinks in us before we dance.” Ah, I have a tutor, I thought.

I showed up at 10 nervous and excited. Carmine’s sister Maria was giving a course on the Hustle when I arrived. Everyone was dressed to kill. Me too, in my prom suit. Then Maria administered mascara to the mustaches of the under age guys still in that wispy phase. I didn’t need it.

I drove with Carmine in his buffed out Ford Torino. He blasted a brand new song: “Macho Man.” I must admit, I liked that shit a lot.

The Arena was near the Queen’s/Brooklyn border. It was in a warehouse building, stuccoed to look like something from ancient Rome. You entered through a vestibule guarded by a very big bouncer who probably didn’t really believe I was 20 and named Emile, but didn’t give a shit. That led to a big circular bar. It was surprisingly quiet in the bar: you could actually have a conversation, and it seemed everyone actually did. The guys were all drinking something called ‘A Godfather’. I don’t even remember what it was, but I remember we had two each, and as we said back then, we felt ‘nice’. The girls all drank Tab through a bar straw. “OK, that’s how they do things around here” I thought. Very different from Beggars Opera, a rock club I had been to a few times: No Bud bottles, it didn’t smell like vinegar in there, you could hear, and everyone was dressed to the nines.

A doorway with thick velvet curtains led from the bar to the dance floor.

HOLY SHIT!

The dance area was made to resemble the Roman Colosseum. A huge circular dance floor was surrounded by three bleacher tiers of tables fronted by an observation platform. Couples danced; girls danced; guys watched the girls dance from the platform; people watched and drank and cheered from the tables.

“I get it,” I said to Carmine. “The Arena: a proving ground, a field of honor. Contestants and spectators.” He couldn’t hear me. He saw a girl he liked and he was gone.

Then the DJ spun “Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel” by Tavares. Yes, I remember. I had never heard it sound like that before. The music penetrated me. I felt the rhythmic bass in my chest. The ‘Tssss’ of the snare shifted my feet. The pounding piano chords, the vocal harmony, those bells… they dazed me. I was elevated… floating.

I danced with all Maria’s friends. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel the least bit self-conscious, and thought “Wow, I actually CAN dance!” I had a ball.

Then the Village People came out. Pun intended. They performed a very short set. In their dance routines, they kissed and caressed each other. We were all flabbergasted! None of us had any idea they were gay (a very new word then). But none of us cared. The music was just so exciting. In fact, we foolishly believed we now knew something the rest of the world didn’t know, that we were in on a secret.

We left at about 3 AM. Next stop, the diner, of course.

“Keep your eyes open,” Carmine’s friend Big Pete said.

“For what?” I asked.

“The rockers,” he answered. “They drive by the discos and throw rotten fruit at the disco guys. They pick it out of the garbage in front of the fruit-stands.”

“How crazy is that” I thought. “And what do the disco guys do?” I asked.

“Kick the rockers’ asses in the diner parking lot! The rockers are usually wasted, and they’re easy pickin’s. Not us. Other guys.”

“Glad it’s ‘other guys'” I thought to myself, “cause I’m not interested.” We got to the car fruit-free, ate without attacking anyone and went home.

I guess I was hooked on disco. Over the next few months, I went out with Carmine and his crew every weekend, to every disco around. We loved The Penthouse in Bay Ridge: we thought it was classy. We dug Cherry’s in Glen Cove, and saw The Trammps of “Disco Inferno” fame there. We even dug the Roll-a-Palace roller disco in Sheepshead Bay. Everywhere we went, we met girls.

I was having a great time. I thought my friends in high school were having great times on the weekend too. One Saturday, just as I was completing my ritualistic pre-disco prep., a couple of my school mates showed up at my house out of the blue. Lou and Duke. Lou was a rocker highly regarded in the senior lounge for his ability to play and sing, perfectly, “Two Tickets To Paradise” by Eddie Money. Duke was a soft spoken and cerebral guy who could play the bass like Chris Squire of Yes. They had a bottle of 151 and a record still in it’s plastic: “Heaven Tonight” by Cheap Trick. They were very excited about this brand-new album. They wanted to hang out in the basement, play it on the stereo, and then figure out how to play “Surrender” on guitar.

“Why are you all dressed up?” Lou asked. “What, did you just get back from a wedding?”

“No. I’m going out to The Arena,” I answered.

He was shocked. And here I thought everyone knew what I was up to. Had I forgotten to talk about it? “You’re kiddin’ me?” he asked.

I replied dryly: “Look, Lou, there are no girls in the basement.”

Carmine showed up minutes later, honking the horn. I arranged my hair and escorted my friends out the door. They just stood on my stoop as I went to the car. When I opened the door, “Night Fever” blasted out. I looked back and waved goodbye. Oh, the look on their faces. I felt severe ‘disco dissonance’.

Really, I felt like shit. These were my friends. “Like it or not, the guys have to adjust”, I thought. “I love rock and roll, but I’m a disco guy now”. But apparently, I only thought I was.

“Dude, when are you going to get rid of that nest?” Carmine asked me.

“Are you kidding me,” I answered over the music. “The girls love the curls.”

“No,” he said. “They don’t. I’ve overheard them. They say they’re yesterday. You should go see my guy Vito and get a haircut.”

Days later, his brother, my dear old friend and confidant Dom, took me to Vito’s. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Vito was only about 30, but he had CBS/FM – 50’s music – playing in the shop. Not very disco, I thought. He also had a keyboard and two guitars in his barbershop, so customers could jam while they waited. That seemed even less disco to me. I figured Vito was in the same muddle I was, and that made me feel more comfortable with the whole curl-cutting thing. I began to check out the Ovation he had out.

“You play?” Vito shouted over a blow dryer.

“Yeah” I replied.

“Show me,” he said as he turned down the radio volume.

This time I did not feel threatened at all. And I knew exactly what to play. Yeah, of course Zeppelin. I played “Babe, I’m Gonna’ Leave You.” And Mark joined in: he just happened to be there. Vito said he really liked what we did, and I felt great. After we jammed a little more, I traded in my curls for a wavy DA, off the ears, army length sideburns. NOT a Zipper Head! I told Vito “no Zipper Head!”, and he delivered. Didn’t matter: I hadn’t walked 20 feet from the barber shop when the passenger in a car passing by on Pitkin Avenue yelled out “Fuckin’ Zipper Head!”

I was all in now. I was a disco guy. There was nothing Rocker about me any more (except my entire guitar repertoire and a huge record collection). The prom was a month away. I was going as a disco guy. And it’s a damn good thing I did.

I took this girl Suzanne to the prom with me. I had danced with her at a block party, and we dated a bit. She was cheerful and curvy and cute, and she knew how to dance and dress. She wore a gorgeous rose colored gown. It had an over-the-shoulder ruffle, like Stephanie’s dress (in Saturday Night Fever. Duh!), but it was longer. I wore a tuxedo in a gray that was nearly silver. With a ruffled shirt and a big bow tie. All the kids dressed similarly. Even the rockers.

The prom was at the Americana Hotel in Midtown. I had my boys, my troops, with me at the table. No trouble there: just acceptance. The house band played, and they were all aging hippies. That was trouble. They didn’t play any disco or Top 40, for obvious reasons. And they didn’t play any slow jams, because this was a Catholic school prom: no close dancing. So there wasn’t ANY dancing! The girls were all bored.

We left and took the limo to ‘Catch a Rising Star’ on the Upper East Side. We saw an unbelievable show: The emcee was Richard Belzer. The featured comedians were Larry David and Sandra Bernhardt. The singer was Pat Benatar. All as yet undiscovered, all amazing. And yet, the girls were, again, bored. And if the other guys didn’t notice it, I know I did.

I turned to Lou. “We’re getting out of here. You all follow my lead, and act like you know what’s going on. Tell them.” I moved my head toward the other guys. We left, and I told the limo driver to take us to the Playboy Club. A Carmine place. I walked us straight up to the third floor disco like I owned the place. We took a table, and the minute we sat down, I untied my bow tie. I had planned this moment: I had a real tie. My Dad tied it for me. When I untied it, each side hung loose and cool, like on Frank Sinatra and Tom Jones. Then I opened my shirt, three buttons down. I revealed not only my Saint Jude medal on a long thin gold chain, but the new gold crucifix and rope chain I had gotten for graduation. Then “Let’s All Chant” by Michael Zager came on. Woo! Woo! I knew the chant and so did all the girls, and we started doing it. My boys stared.

“Come on, let’s dance,” I said to everyone.

Lou approached me and said “Oh shit, I can’t dance!” Sounded familiar. But his date was my friend Phyllis.

“Do whatever she does,” I said.

“What if I look like an asshole?” I knew the feeling. And I saw that same look on his face I had seen on my stoop a month earlier.

“You won’t. You can’t. And it doesn’t matter. That’s the whole fuckin’ point,” I tutored. “Do whatever you feel.”

We all danced. Me, Lou, Mark the Model (of course he looked the best), Stevie D., Louie Cock (don’t ask), all our dates. Everyone had a ball. We stayed until 4 AM. The girls left glistening and laughing. The guys left heroes.

We had the limo take us to our local diner. We asked for a table by the window: a booth wasn’t good enough that night. As we waited to be taken to it, two wasted rockers in a booth shouted out, “Nice fuckin’ tux, Zipper Head,” at me, I guessed. Twenty minutes later, I watched through the window as they got their asses kicked in the parking lot. By Big Pete.


So that’s where the story ends. Come on, you’ve seen plenty of teen angst movies: it had to end at the dance, or at the diner. The war was winding down anyway. Disco was winning big. That summer, Disco 92 WKTU came into existence. It was immediately the top rated radio station in New York City. It’s spotlight DJ, Paco, became a superstar. It was played on every street corner, in every store, at every sporting event, in nearly every cab, and in most cars cruisin’ neighborhood strips. No lesser rock luminaries than The Rolling Stones capitulated, released a disco song, “Miss You”, and had their first number one hit in years. Also that summer, the first designer jeans appeared, Sassoon, to appeal to the disco guys and girls. They were just plain sexier than Levi’s. Come September, they dominated the back to school market.

I went back to school too. Or more accurately, off to college. I grew out my hair a bit, and I didn’t sport my disco wear there. I also discovered New Wave. But sometimes, on Saturday nights…

RUN CREDITS

  • Phyllis became a religious articles store proprietor
  • I never saw that cute gal again. I always looked for her in the clubs
  • That guy on the boardwalk is still there, in a wheelchair and blanket
  • My postman’s son became a cop
  • Eddie is an EMT
  • Mark became an electrician, and the lead guitarist in my band
  • Carmine is a muckety muck at Citibank. Lou is one at RBS
  • I don’t even know who Emile is
  • Big Pete became a painter. Of fine rock and roll art
  • Duke is a photographer of great renown, using his real name
  • Maria is a court stenographer
  • Vito cut my hair right up until he retired to perform Doo-Wop full time
  • Dom is a doctor
  • Mark the model came out, and nobody cared. He’s an architect
  • Stevie D. became a surgeon
  • Louie Cock (ask me in person) owns a construction supply company
  • Suzanne became a model who became a Mom in the middle of all that
  • Six Horse Hitch went to Vegas, or so I heard
  • I became a lawyer and a Whaleboner
  • Disco became EDM
  • Rock and Roll never died, and simply never will