I never knew any Vinnie Barbarino or Tony Manero “borough” types in the mid ’70s, but I’d known a few Italian-American guys during my painful upbringing in Westfield, New Jersey. They proudly called themselves “guineas”, wore pegged pants and pointy black leather lace-ups, radiated pugnacious vibes and seemed to live in their own angry little world.
And I knew that the bridge-and-tunnel chumps who came into Manhattan on weekends in the late ’70s, the ones who were too thick to realize that their chances of getting into Studio 54 were completely nil…those razor-cut slash polyester goons who radiated sartorial cluelessness in so many ways, and thereby indicating a certain myopic mindset…I knew these guys.
And so I believed Nik Cohn‘s “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” the 6.7.76 New York cover story that soon became the basis for Robert Stigwood and John Badham‘s Saturday Night Fever, which became a huge hit and cultural earth-shaker after opening on 12.14.77.
I loved the 2001 Odyssey dance sequences as much as the next guy, but I wasn’t a fan of the film itself, largely because I found John Travolta‘s Tony Manero an impossible asshole — chilly, closed off.
Yes, I know — that was who and what he was, being based on the “Vincent” character Cohn had written about and so on. But where was it written that I had to like Manero’s company?
I bought a ticket to see Badham’s film at Westport’s Post Cinema just before Christmas of ’77. I wanted to have an interesting and perhaps an eye-opening time, but almost immediately I was saying to myself “I have to hang out with this asshole?” On top of which FUCK DISCO…that was one of my foundational beliefs at the time.
What a shock, therefore, to discover 20 years later that Cohn had basically “piped” the New York cover story. He’d done a little research in Bay Ridge and poked around and talked to a few locals, but had more or less made it up.
And yet Cohn’s article felt genuine. I totally recognized (or felt that I recognized) his observations about a certain strata of young, under-educated Italian-American guys in their late teens and early 20s and their dead-end jobs and whatnot…it seemed to convey certain basic impressions of borough guys of that era. I bought it and so did Hollywood, Stigwood, Badham, Travolta and, down the road, tens of millions of fans of the film.
It just went to show that fiction could masquerade as honest reportage and vice versa. I re-read Cohn’s piece last night after watching the Bee Gees doc, and I had a good time with it. Even knowing about Cohn having admitted the truth in ’96, I bought it all the same. Good writing is good writing.