In perhaps one of the most important events in modern American political history, Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974— two weeks before the most important event in my history. During that summer when I was born, Burt Reynolds’ prison-football movie The Longest Yard was popular, and apparently John Lennon reported seeing a UFO during that time. Since I’ve long felt out of place in Alabama, reading that latter fact made me wonder if I might have been dropped off here by that UFO. Some people who know me might say yes.
1974 was a wacky year for American culture. Nixon and Watergate dominated the scene, and the January 17, 1974 Rolling Stone cover showed Nixon with his hand up the back of a buxom Lady Liberty’s dress. Ted Bundy was on his killing rampage. Steven King’s debut novel Carrie, about a bullied girl who bloodies up the prom, was published. Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in February. Charles Bronson’s revenge film Death Wish and Jack Nicholson’s hard-boiled Chinatown came out that summer, and in the fall, the gruesome original Texas Chainsaw Massacre also premiered. Even though the racist cowboy comedy Blazing Saddles was released that year, blaxploitation films were an established genre by that time, and 1974 brought TNT Jackson, Jive Turkey, and Foxy Brown. On TV, The Flip Wilson Show went off the air, as did The Brady Bunch, but Good Times came on, putting “Dy-no-mite!” into our American lexicon.
In the late summer months around my arrival, the Ramones played their first show at CBGBs, Blind Faith played their first concert together, and the Runaways were formed— otherwise, we wouldn’t have “Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb!” That fall, Bob Dylan was also recording one of my favorite albums, Blood on the Tracks. Earlier in the year, Steve Miller’s laid-back “The Joker” was a number-one single, but in the weeks around my birthdate, the highly appropriate “(You’re) Having My Baby” by Paul Anka and Odia Coates – a song I’d never heard of in my life – was on top of Billboard’s Hot 100. Earlier that summer, it was “Sundown” by Gordon Lightfoot, a song I really like, but by December, the fickle tastes of the American public had put Carl Douglas’ less-than-funky “Kung Fu Fighting” on top! Which is awesome.
In sports, a pre-infomercial George Foreman knocked out Ken Norton in Venezuela, but later in the year, Muhammad Ali knocked out Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire. The Cy Young winner that year had one of the coolest names ever – Catfish Hunter – and in April, Hank Aaron tied Babe Ruth’s home-run record.
As an old-movie guy, looking through the list of releases from the year of my birth is heartbreaking when I think about the crap being peddled today: on top of the ones I listed already are now lesser-known classics like Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, oddball comedies like Gene Wilder’s Young Frankenstein and John Waters’ Female Trouble, and The Great Gatsby with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.
And cars. Just look at the ‘Vette, the Camaro, the Chevelle, or the GTO from that year. Hell, even the Chevy Nova was cool in 1974. Though I’ll admit that it wasn’t a good year for the Mustang. (After the late ’60s fastbacks, the Mustang had nowhere to go but down.)
But it can’t all be good news. In 1974, musicians Duke Ellington and Lightning Slim, singer Mama Cass Elliott, poet Anne Sexton, and TV host Ed Sullivan all died.
Closer to home, the news in Alabama was mixed. On the downside, George Wallace was re-elected governor with 83% of the vote, and the state was affected by the “Super Outbreak” of tornados in April. The University of Alabama football team was enjoying its heyday with Bear Bryant, and they beat my Auburn Tigers 17 – 13 in Legion Field in November. On the bright side, the Tigers ended the season 9 – 2, #8 in the AP poll. Elvis Presley played a sold-out concert in Montgomery in March, and KISS played Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham in July. Artist William Christenberry was taking photos in rural Alabama in 1974, and though they were from Florida, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s big hit “Sweet Home Alabama” was released in June.
On my birthday, my hometown newspaper, the Montgomery Advertiser, contained mainly mundane news about taxes and furniture sales. However, they did remember Buford Pusser (of Walking Tall fame), who died in a car crash earlier that week, and Ann Landers’ column “Latent Homosexual?” was about a fifteen-year-old boy who enjoyed showering with other guys. The Montgomery Rebels baseball team was in a slump, and among the other great movies listed already, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry was running at the Martin Twin.
The best news is: I came along. Whether I was born in Baptist Hospital like I was told, or whether John Lennon’s UFO delivered me stork-like into this strange land, I’ve been here for forty-four years now, plugging along and trying to make do.