1973 Nervous Breakdown by Andreas Killen

Singling out one particular year as an all-important cultural pivot point in a nation’s history is an ambitious and risky proposition for a book-length study. Competing with fellow historian Mark Kurlansky’s recent push for 1968 as the year that left the biggest stain on the carpet of American history, author Andreas Killen counters with this ambitious cross-disciplinary study of the electrifyingly chaotic cultural and political atmosphere of 1973. It was a year in which a number of important socio-cultural movements and trends faded, while other more enduring ones exploded into prominence; that year, according to Killen, a nation’s collective ’60s-driven neuroses were being explicitly played out in film, literature, architecture, politics, music, television, and gender relations.

Killen positing 1973 as the “end of the ’60s” and the beginning of the postmodern era is an original and provocative claim. According to Killen, 1973 is the year when ’60s idealism and activism has officially lapsed into widespread paranoia, conspiracy theory, occultism, and obsessive celebrity culture. And on a rather surprising note, the Ivory-towered PhD Killen calls upon the ghost of Lester Bangs — that boisterous boogeyman haunting millions of stuffy rock scribes– to support the claim that contrary to the McLuhan idea of a “GlobalVillage”, by 1973 we’d become a “Global outpatient clinic.” The springboard for his thesis is Bangs’s 1973 Creem magazine review that pans the Rolling Stones’ Goat’s Head Soup, a review that for Killen “was more than simply a comment on a lesser album by a band that now seemed to be going through the motions; it was an epitaph for an entire decade.” He boldly plays up Bangs as a visionary — the first cultural commentator to see the new Warholian obsession with superstardom as a “virus affecting everything in American culture.” This Bangs-friendly approach should, among other things, spike the blood pressure of more than a few cold-fish culture critics.

Killen’s arguments and analyses are generally cogent and his historical research is adequate in most areas; yet he seems to be more comfortable discussing politics, sociology, and literature than delving wholeheartedly into music and film. He’s right on the mark when discussing Warholism and Interview magazine being a watershed moment for the cult of celebrity coming to the fore. And depending on your knowledge of rock history, his survey of glam-rock’s triumph over average-guy Woodstock protest-rock could either be totally enlightening, or far too generalist. Killen touches on the well-documented identity- and gender-bending exploits of David Bowie, and the New York Dolls, while acknowledging the obvious Warholian significance of Lou Reed’s Transformer album — all buttressing the notion that “the ’60s were about being, while the ’70s were about becoming”. But hey, what about at least mentioning the Kinks’ Everybody’s in Showbiz, an album that poked fun at all this Me-decade personal “reinvention”?

He identifies this early ’70s penchant for personal reinvention as mainly a public reaction to the traumas and collectivist/socialist failures of the ’60s. This need for reinvention also took place in film through the rise of nostalgia; but instead of comparing and contrasting the texts of a broad cross-section of evocative films from that period, Killen decides to close-read a chosen few. His most informative and insightful film studies are on both Terrence Malick’s Badlands, and George Lucas’s American Graffiti: the latter as a reconstructed fantasy-world ’50s and the former as a commentary on the delusional ’50s nostalgia proffered by the Lucas film (and possibly a prelude to the desensitized violence and pop culture references of Tarantino years later). And William Friedkin’s puke-fest The Exorcist is read as a conservative cautionary tale, a metaphor for the late-’60s breakdown of the family unit (look what happens to a pubescent girl with no protective father!).

But what Killen doesn’t mention is that The Exorcist‘s success was also a culmination of American society’s ongoing obsession with The Dark One, first manifested in the success of Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 (Even Time magazine had a 1968 cover story about America’s growing obsession with the Demonic and occult.) Odd also, that he doesn’t deal with the hugely symbolic role of the Dirty Harry/Death Wish school of anti-urban, conservative “backlash films”; not to mention significant “nostalgia” films such as Save the Tiger, which comments brilliantly and brutally on the onset of the increasingly corrupt core of American-style capitalism circa 1973, giving you some idea of why many adults turned to pre-’60s nostalgia as the only panacea for existential grief. He does, however, acknowledge that the early ’70s saw the rise of advertising-driven blockbusters in Hollywood, driving low-budget “outlaw chic” realism to its nadir — a topic probably better left to Peter Biskind.

But Killen does a thorough fleshing out of most of the wildly diverse phenomena of 1973, from Thomas Pynchon’s popular paranoiac writings, to the death of modernist architecture, personality crises, to public obsession with UFOs. He also succeeds in making some unexpected thematic connections among said topics. He notices the irony of the similarities and parallels of Watergate to the pornography scandal at the time — Nixon’s “X-rated” vocabulary on tapes, the porn-referencing “Deep Throat” factor — the over-the-top media coverage of Watergate being seen as a kind of “political porn.” The Warholian cult of celebrity worship even affected terrorist organizations like SLA, and Patty Hearst’s turn as their “brainwashed” high-profile henchwoman (this is a topic that’s arguably given far too much emphasis here). Warhol’s influence also looms large behind the first reality TV series, An American Family, qualifying as a postmodern “pseudo-event” and a prelude to the pseudo-reality of reality TV today. In fact, by the end of this book, you’re convinced that either Watergate or Warhol was behind just about every major cultural phenomenon of 1973 (hence the book’s subtitle, of course.)

As Killen states, the ’70s were a “decade of oedipal crises” that “have reemerged with new intensity in our own time.” This assertion raises, of course, the possibility of yet another book-length project, one that could be even more captivating. How are the residual effects of the year 1973 being felt specifically in our own time, and how did its influence survive over the years exactly? Maybe Killen can address this question in further detail in a much-anticipated follow-up, 2006: The Poor Man’s 1973?