In the America of 40 years ago, the holiday season was not a festive one.
In October, the United States had aided Israel in the Yom Kippur War against Egypt and Syria, and as a result, OPEC countries slapped an embargo on oil shipments to us. By the holidays, officials right up to President Nixon were predicting hard times and requiring difficult choices. Lines formed at service stations, and “sorry no gas” signs appeared; eventually, Nixon requested that stations voluntarily close from Saturday night through Monday morning. The Senate came eight votes short of passing a law that would have instituted gas rationing, and the order had already been given to print the coupon books. Some schools extended Christmas vacation to save energy; in Massachusetts and Connecticut, kids stayed out for all of December and January. Christmas lights became an extravagance many communities and families could not afford. In January 1974, we went back on Daylight Saving Time and did not return to Standard Time again until the fall of 1975.
All of this was happening at a time when Nixon was beleaguered by Watergate—the fabled Saturday Night Massacre happened in October while the Middle East was at war, and while a full-blown Constitutional crisis was averted at that moment, impeachment resolutions were introduced in Congress and nobody could be sure what twists were ahead. Among some commentators, there was a sense of looming disaster—that something earth-shatteringly terrible was about to engulf the country. Nobody could predict what it would be, although in retrospect, what it was seems obvious, not some grand conflagration, but a transformation nonetheless: the end of America as we’d known it since the winning of World War II. By the end of the 70s, we lived in a different country.
At the holidays in 1973, I was in the eighth grade. As I have mentioned before, 1973 is a relative blank in my head compared to the other years of the 1970s. It takes some effort now to remember things like the names of my teachers and my closest friends. There’s a shadowy memory of trouble between my parents, although I’ve never asked them about it. And I was 13 years old, with all the complications that being 13 will cause in anybody. As best I can recollect, the energy crisis did not have a grave effect on my family. If we put up fewer Christmas lights that year, I don’t recall it. I don’t remember us having trouble getting gasoline, either, or the gas shortage affecting our travel requirements much. My father kept tanks of regular and diesel on the farm for his tractors, his truck, and the family car; the only concession he made to the energy crisis was to put locks on the tanks after we heard that people were stealing gas from farmers at night.
Even the record charts, which are usually like a calendar that tells me where I was and what was happening, fail to anchor me in time. I was still buying singles in 1973, and I am almost embarrassed to admit the three from the Billboard chart dated December 1, 1973, that I would eventually buy: “Let Me Be There” by Olivia Newton-John, “Sister Mary Elephant” by Cheech & Chong, and “Love’s Theme” by the Love Unlimited Orchestra. As I look at the list now, I see only a handful of songs I can legitimately claim to love, including “Photograph” by Ringo, “The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, “Rockin’ Roll Baby” by the Stylistics, and “Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder. Some I admire more than love: “Just You ‘N’ Me” by Chicago, “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight, “Hello It’s Me” by Todd Rundgren. A few I actively dislike: “Top of the World” by the Carpenters, which was #1 on 12/1/73, “The Most Beautiful Girl” by Charlie Rich, which would eventually get to #1, and “Paper Roses” by Marie Osmond. But vast stretches of the chart leave me feeling nothing one way or the other, a condition that lasts for the next several months of charts.
As America plunged headlong into an uncertain future at the end of 1973, the songs it preferred on the way into the abyss were distinctly tepid. If our country really was experiencing the birth pangs of a new order, its musical artists—at least its most popular ones—were neither raging against the coming changes nor sharpening our perceptions of them. They were anesthetizing us against the pain.
It’s a wonder anybody remembers.