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Bette Midler’s album Songs for the New Depression was released in January 1975. Typical of its glum times was the sour humor of “Mr. Rockefeller”, about a delusional woman trying to reach the billionaire from her perch in a phone booth. Nobody’s idea of a great song, but it has a sting of truth; she’s been wiped out by the recession, says she’s broken down, not feeling so good, and is hanging on the line because she’s finally down to her last dime. For millions of people, the album’s provocative title was the bitter truth: The biggest, baddest recession since World War II left the country reeling. Few saw it coming. Inflation was out of control. Confidence in the future plunged lower than it had ever gone, even in the depths of the Great Depression. After postwar decades of so much mass prosperity that many of our “leading thinkers” had just about grown ashamed of it, the Great Invisible Guiding Hand of Capitalism gave America a merciless slap upside the head. And man, it hurt.
Only the year before, the leadership of the country united to dump the most hated Republican of his day, someone who had won great political victories only a few years before. The new president was widely derided as an ineffectual buffoon. His attempts to beat inflation by handing out Whip Inflation Now buttons became an instant joke, and helped make him a lasting punchline of ineptitude. Our luck overseas was no better. America’s seemingly endless war finally came to an end on his watch, the way we’d always dreaded it would: disastrously, humiliatingly. Images of US foreign policy failure filled every television screen in the electrified world.
I have a late 1974 paperback “coffee table” book, now a crumbling stack of pages, called “Better Times: The Indispensable Guide to Beating Hard Times.” It had some good, practical advice for people who’d never had to cut expenses. It had earnest introductions from Russell Baker, a humorist along the lines of Jean Shepard; Studs Terkel, an ancient lefty recycled as a colorful old labor union man; and Nicholas von Hoffman, one of the top liberal writers of his day, but also a nonconformist who did his own thinking. Averaged out, their advice amounted to: capitalism is entering its final stage of crisis. Stock some food and learn how to sew.
Inflation didn’t come out of nowhere. A distant regional conflict resulted in drastic increases in the price of oil. A combination of bad weather and poor planning raised the cost of food. It hadn’t happened quite this way before, but it would happen again.
Inflation had an especially devastating effect on the automobile industry. The new expression “sticker shock” conveyed a very unpleasant novelty. Conflicting new federal demands added greatly to the cost. Cars were required to be safer—which generally meant more weight; they were required to start shaping up, mileage-wise, which generally meant less weight; and by law, they had to burn fuel more cleanly, which required expensive materials like platinum. Taken individually, each of these measures was popular, but car prices were driven up inexorably.
That’s why cars began sprouting so many phony upper-class design cues, like “formal” squared-off rooflines, opera windows, fake plastic woodgrain on the instrument panel, and velour loose-pillow seats. These were cheap, tragicomic gestures towards the kind of luxury that might conceivably have justified these sharply higher new car prices.
Other than Jaws, a true phenomenon, the era’s movie hits were often cynical views of American life, like Robert Altman’s Nashville or the dystopian Rollerball. The year’s big foreign film, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (outside of the US, The Twentieth Century) ended in what amounted to a singing commercial for Communism.
Fact is, a few things did seem to be better back then, like our relationship with Moscow. The final flight of Apollo hardware was officially called the Apollo Soyuz Test Program. Orbital rendezvous with the Soviets, and weightless televised handshakes, coincided with the new policy of détente. Moscow distributed millions of packs of a special edition cigarette, Soyuz-Apollo, to commemorate the occasion. It was the final hurrah of the Space Race, and it would be America’s last manned space flight for nearly six years.
The New York Times was far from the only newspaper running articles on the theme “Capitalism in Crisis.” Big business, almost the definition of conservatism at the time, said we needed to cut wages, create a synthetic fuels industry, and automate basic manufacturing. But the majority intellectual view was to accept that capitalism was washed up. With the Bicentennial only a year away, the consensus was the political future would soon go to socialism in bold colors, a stronger, left-ier program of income equalization. It just had to.
Looking back now, we see other glimpses of what the future looked like from there. NBC was putting together a weekly live comedy show, which one of its creators, Dick Ebersol, would call “A post-Watergate victory party for the Woodstock generation.” That spring, Lorne Michaels and Chevy Chase met for the first time in a ticket line for the Los Angeles Film Festival. Both young men were veterans of the kind of routine, inoffensive network variety shows that they’d later mock satirically. George Carlin delivered Saturday Night Live’s first monologue, telling SNL’s first joke, about hashish.
Back to that Bette Midler album. Today, Songs for the New Depression is remembered, if at all, for a song called “Buckets of Rain,” a high-spirited duet with Bob Dylan. As memories of the Seventies started to fade, people wanted to forget the hard times. Soon they would. Few lessons were learned. Here’s my lesson:
We’ve been here before.Published in