Dazed and Confused: The ’70s Obviously Sucked—NOT! (Or at Least Not the Music, Anyway)
In one of my favorite scenes in Richard Linklater’s heartfelt, hard-rocking, kills-me-every-time-I-see-it Dazed and Confused, the lovably geeky redhead Cynthia Dunn (Marissa Ribisi, now the wife of alt-rocker Beck) plays amateur sociologist and armchair rock critic while laying out the “every-other-decade theory.”
“The fifties were boring. The sixties rocked. And the seventies—oh my God, they obviously suck. Come on! Maybe the eighties will be radical.”
Talk about multiple layers of meaning: Linklater is firing on more cylinders in this passage than David “Just Keep Livin’” Wooderson’s beloved Chevy Chevelle.
The fifties were boring. Well, maybe, but only if we accept the sanitized version of the decade that gave us rock and roll and the beats—the declawed, gutless, and thoroughly superficial take passed down by Happy Days and the movie that inspired it, American Graffiti, which was exactly the sort of film that Linklater said he didn’t want to make when he set out to write and direct Dazed and Confused.
The sixties rocked. Yeah, well, any of us born during that decade or since—Linklater arrived in 1960, I in 1964—have certainly been told that throughout our entire lives, sold a rose-colored, hyperromanticized, and mostly bullshit version of that allegedly halcyon era of peace, love, and understanding by our baby boomer parents or older siblings, who insist that just because we missed the Beatles on Sullivan, and Crosby, Stills & Nash at Woodstock, nothing we experience will ever measure up.
Maybe the eighties will be radical. Ha! That’s the killer punch line, of course, because in 1993, when Dazed and Confused was released, we all knew that mainstream culture in general, and music in particular, had well and truly bit the big one through most of that decade. In fact, far from being radical, it had been exactly the opposite, thoroughly reactionary, during the years that gave us yuppies, Ronald Reagan, “Just Say No,” the Moral Majority, the onslaught of AIDS, and the most destructive and insidious force ever unleashed upon rock, MTV.
The key statement in Cynthia’s monologue, though, is the one that precedes that joke, the one that resonates throughout the movie, and the one that I believe inspired Linklater to make the film: The seventies obviously suck.
Throughout the twenty-four hours charted in the script, we certainly understand how it could seem that way to the characters we care about most, stuck in high school in unspecified small-town Texas during the bicentennial, dodging sadistic, paddle-wielding jock assholes, cruel and narrow-minded cheerleaders, and hard-assed, empty-headed coaches who’ve accomplished absolutely nothing in their lives and intend to make sure that everyone else winds up as miserable and unfulfilled as they are.
What’s more, the pundits of the day were forever insisting that the culture of the seventies just wasn’t as “important” or “significant” as that of the preceding decade. In particular, rock critics who came of age during the Summer of Love balked at the lack of musical subtlety, the party-hearty rather than political messages of the lyrics, and the gritty, blue-collar aesthetics of a new wave of heavy metal, blues-rock, and funk bands who most certainly weren’t graduates of the English art schools. It had been a long way from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to Deep Purple’s Machine Head, Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold,” and War’s Why Can’t We Be Friends.
But there is a counterargument to all of this running through Dazed and Confused, powering nearly every scene and refuting this dismal view of the Me Decade. It says loud and clear that we should forget the perceived wisdom and the hollow truisms about the time; the nostalgia of the flower children who belittled the stoners, the punks, and every other subculture that followed; the lectures from the social studies teachers who charged that we could never match the idealism and activism of the sixties (we see one in the film); and the glib and easy barbs of the critics who dismissed or damned with faint praise much of what came after the mythical high point (pardon the pun) of American popular culture.
“The seventies didn’t suck!” Linklater screams. Or at least the music didn’t.
“Dazed and Confused is a rock-and-roll movie—a lot of music and cutting to music and trying to get its energy,” Linklater said in an interview that journalist Jon Lebkowsky conducted during the editing of the film. (It’s posted online at the digital magazine Mindjack.com.) “That was the most fun thing: the music.”
In every movie he’s made, Linklater has proven himself to be a magna cum laude graduate of the School of Rock, expert at singling out exquisite musical moments. Indeed, if he hadn’t gone into filmmaking, he would have made an excellent record company A&R man: the two soundtrack albums inspired by Dazed and Confused were more immediate hits than the movie itself, which needed the afterlife of video to find its real audience. Released in September 1993, the first self-titled album featured fourteen stellar grooves and peaked at number 70 on the Billboard album chart, though it quickly went gold. The sequel, Even More Dazed and Confused, dropped in October 1994 and included another dozen primo jams from the movie. Back in the days before digital downloads, a combined total of 2.5 million copies of the two discs were shipped to record stores, if anybody remembers those quaint old joints.
Linklater didn’t just go for the obvious choices, either: he dug deep to resurrect golden nuggets by forgotten heroes, among them the sadomasochistic anthem “Love Hurts,” by Scottish hard rockers Nazareth; the existential “There’s Never Been Any Reason,” by Missouri longhairs Head East; the delightfully pre-PC “Fox on the Run,” by English bubblegum-glam rockers Sweet; and the explosive “Cherry Bomb,” by proto–riot grrrls the Runaways, which featured the talents of a jailbait-aged Joan Jett.
In fact, when it comes to highlighting the best of seventies rock, Linklater’s only peer has been Cameron Crowe—and Crowe spent those years as a wunderkind writer at Creem and Rolling Stone, jetting around America with the stars themselves, while Linklater forged his appreciation for Kiss and Peter Frampton, Black Oak Arkansas and ZZ Top, Foghat and Lynyrd Skynyrd, by driving around Huntsville, Texas, listening to eight-track tapes, much like his main men Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London) and Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), though I suspect that, of the many cliques so accurately portrayed in the film, he was probably most like Cynthia’s fellow nerds, Tony Olson (Anthony Rapp) and Mike Newhouse (Adam Goldberg).
Linklater’s use of music blew me away when I first saw the movie, sitting beside my colleague at the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert, who also gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up. I sensed that the director was as tired as I was of the lack of respect accorded hard rock in the seventies, the last period pre-MTV, when image mattered not a whit—when you could be fat, sloppy, hirsute, and ugly as sin, as long as you invested your soul in tasty licks
and anthemic choruses and rocked like a motherfucker, man. The music, gloriously stoopid though it may be, is the unifying force that brings all of the disparate groups together: when Clint picks that fight with Mike at the moon tower, if Mike had simply said, “Dude, I was just singing a Zeppelin tune,” he may well have saved himself a beating. Don’t laugh: it often worked for me.
Shortly after Dazed and Confused opened in theaters, I interviewed Linklater about the soundtrack. And rather than offer some grandiloquent, rock-critic-style defense of seventies rock, I’m pretty sure he insisted, “I just picked the tunes I liked, dude.” Surely it couldn’t have been that random: you’ll note that all of the music carefully predates May 1976, adding as much verisimilitude as the well-researched prices for cigarettes and gas posted at the convenience store. But one of the strengths of seventies rock is that its power is almost entirely visceral—it’s made for head-banging, not heady analysis. This was garbage, not art, many critics complained, without realizing that in the realm of rock and roll, the most disposable crap can sometimes be the very best art. The only critic who really understood that at the time was the man who’d go on to champion punk and the “trash aesthetic,” Lester Bangs, and as his biographer, the biggest compliment I can pay Dazed and Confused is to say that I’m pretty sure Lester would have loved it, if only he’d lived to see it.
Linklater’s greatest strength is that he understands the unspoken power of the best rock and roll, and his most extraordinary feat is the way he uses the music to perfectly express the complicated emotions of his characters: the mix of melancholy and anticipation at the start of the last day of school (Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion”), the overwhelming sense of freedom when that final bell rings (Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”), and the liberating feeling the morning after, when the bravest among us say, “Yeah, the future is scary, but fuck it—bring it on, and I’ll just keep livin’!” (Foghat’s “Slow Ride”).
Best of all, none of this is ever cheapened or tainted by the sickly stench of nostalgia. Though, demographically speaking, Linklater was born at the tail end of the baby boom, his complete and utter loathing of pining for the you-just-hadda-be-there “good old days” is 100 percent Generation X. Let’s not forget that he unwittingly gave this group, my group, its alternative moniker, courtesy of Slacker (1991), or that during the months when he was writing and shooting Dazed and Confused, his fondness for this grungy music was echoed and updated by a new generation of bands exploding in Seattle and throughout the American underground. The often dissed sounds of the seventies were finally redeemed in much of the best alternative rock of the nineties; Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain always said his music was a mix of Black Sabbath and Black Flag, and having interviewed him at length, I can tell you he would have felt right at home calling shotgun in Wooderson’s Chevy.
In the end, the central theme of Dazed and Confused is that the life force inherent in this music is always with us, but you are an idiot if you want to turn on the wayback machine and relive these days, like some reject from the cast of That ’70s Show—as much of a loser as Wooderson, who clearly doesn’t follow his own credo. Or, as Randall puts it in the movie, “If these are the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself.”
This essay was originally written for the Criterion Collection in 2006.
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