Remembering the freedom of the '70's
The time: memories, the decade: the 1970s, which ominously began with the trials of Charles Manson and his cohorts as my beloved 1960s faded, but have not been forgotten by historians and hippie makeovers. For those who lived through the 1960s, the 70s were a time of reckoning, a time of growing, and as in all decades, some people made their mark and left the planet.
Reading Patti Smith’s memoir, “Just Kids,” brought me back to that time and my one and only meeting with this poet-singer-songwriter icon at a friend’s apartment on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. There she was in all her splendid androgyny, dressed in faded Levi’s, wearing a starched oversized men’s shirt. Not saying a word, Smith walked straight to the bathroom, left the door open and mightily proceeded to relieve herself. Then with total aplomb, but without flushing, she walked from the bathroom, as if the act were part of a performance.
As the 70’s dawned, Vietnam lingered on and (Richard M.) Nixon pledged to bring the troops home. We, the soon-to-turn-30, did not believe the empty promises, and violence in the homeland accelerated. I was living in Santa Barbara, a quiet, comfortable California resort town on the Pacific, which suddenly became front and center when in neighboring Isla Vista, the Bank of America was bombed by a few who were students one day, and went underground the next. The FBI (or at least we thought they were the FBI) roamed in unmarked cars. I can remember being followed as I went to a local gay bar for my birthday celebration. It was no wonder: living below me was a professor’s apartment where student demonstrators often gathered.
Two years later, I moved up the coast to San Francisco and found a roommate on the notice board of the feminist bookstore, Modern Times. This chance meeting found me living with the actress who played Queenie-the-Clown in the San Francisco Mime Troupe and she brought me into the world of political street theater. Mime troupers were quite a collection of talent and brilliant minds, and I remember the fun of going to performances and lounging on the grass in Delores Park. Action was everywhere, even in my own little apartment in the Castro district where we sat through the entire Watergate hearings, mesmerized, as pin after pin fell to expose the paranoia and crimes of that discredited administration, which, although different, may evoke similar feelings stemming from the partisan rancor of today’s politics.
Unpredictability was the order of the day as we felt the fear of the Zodiac killers, and read about the strange abduction of Patti Hearst. Who did you sympathize with? These were confusing times — on one hand, radiant, on the other, very dark. Strange times breed strange bedfellows, and as friends from Berlin were building careers in film, they thought, what better place test the waters than the state that gave us Hollywood.
Because I was now familiar with the area, I was soon hired as a location scout and it was in this capacity that I met a woman who was to become my roommate and friend for much of that tumultuous time. Christina Kaufmann had worked as an actress in German films since early childhood. She moved to the United States at the age of 17 when she married the actor Tony Curtis. That relationship produced two beautiful daughters and a quick divorce for incompatibility. Christina had a bit of the hippie in her, and when she and her daughters arrived at my apartment, the four of us began to share my small bedroom. Our life was subsumed with early morning exercise, getting dressed up, and going out and about. I have no idea how we survived monetarily, but somehow we managed.
The 1970s were a time when the endless workweek had not yet taken hold. People still took time off, even those with few resources. Christina and her daughters often traveled, and once, she arrived back from Germany with a new, much younger husband in tow. When it was time for a summer vacation, we all headed to Santa Barbara and were joined by Viva, an Andy Warhol superstar, her then-husband, Michel Auder, and their young daughter, Alexandra.
As I had lived in Santa Barbara, it fell to me to find a place for us to stay. As fortune would have it, a friend described a guesthouse on an estate in Montecito. The owner had been an heiress and on her passing, left the property to her many dogs. With the Pekinese having full run and rule of the main house, we (almost a dozen of us) all shared one long railroad-like room. Somehow, I do not remember being uncomfortable, but rather enjoyed being among such strong personalities.
One day Michel and I decided to explore what might lie beyond the massive wall that separated our room from the main house. We carefully scaled the heights, hoping not to arouse the caretaker or incite the barking dogs. What we found was a mausoleum of copper caskets naming each of the dogs that had passed, and with places assigned to those still living. We also found the deceased owner’s journals that described her trips to Europe on elegant ocean liners during the 1920s, and detailed the prices of dog food. Sadly, the estate was in a state of disarray; the dogs seemed depressed from confinement and, outside of the caretaker, a lack of human contact. When this most memorable vacation came to a close, we packed up and I headed back to San Francisco.
My life soon totally transitioned as I returned to New York and found an apartment for under $100 a month in what was then the East Village. Two floors above me at 103 St. Mark’s Place lived a friend from Berlin, Klaus Nomi. He was German, and a countertenor who, on stage was otherworldly, but at home quite the opposite; he was an obsessive house cleaner, totally bourgeoisie and lonely.
While the Bicentennial was celebrated with the big boats triumphantly sailing the Hudson, lurking on the horizon was a dreaded visitor, which would wreak havoc in the coming years. One of Klaus’s most memorable performances was as a backup singer for David Bowie on Saturday Night Live in 1979. Just as the fame he desired became his, Klaus, who was virtually celibate, contracted AIDS and died in 1983. The party went on, and only the faces changed as they do with each passing decade.
The 1970s were a time of reckoning, of standing still, and moving on. For me, the demarcation to the following decade, the 1980s, was seeing H.M. “Harry” Koutoukas, one of the most wonderful eccentric playwrights of the 1960s; triumphantly walk down Greenwich Avenue saying, “We have our own disease.” Harry survived that decade and many more, succumbing to diabetes in March 2010. I light a candle to his memory and brilliance. The older one gets, the more beloveds one loses, and each loss reminds us how important it is to cherish those we love.
Patti Smith, thank you for our second meeting over your book and bringing back my thoughts to an era long gone. The freedoms of the 1970s are difficult to imagine in today’s world. Everything is so expensive, and it is not possible to move from city to city, jobless, with such apparent ease. Perhaps this is why it is fun to remember and why, despite the violence and mayhem, so much nostalgia encases that decade.
Life has become so darn serious that one wonders what has been lost along the way. This is one reason that I smile when I see some of my young students take off for a gap year or other adventures. It gives them a chance to slow down enough to get to know the world and themselves, and gives them life experiences that cannot be found in a classroom.
Dr. Mae Sakharov is a college counselor and school consultant (www.maesakharov.com)