The Era of Artists

For the better part of 2022, I’ve spent my time in the 1970s. Immersed in Joan Didion’s essays about Los Angeles and Patti Smith’s divine details of New York City; even Chicago, where Charna Halpern and Del Close brought the long-form improv game, the Harold, to Second City; YouTube videos of George Carlin’s stand-up routines on time, rules, and everyday language.

I watched the magic of the Beatles working against the clock, and sometimes each other, in the messiness of making their last studio album, Let It Be; and Jane Fonda in Five Acts, a documentary of a complicated self-aware woman defined by men and redefined by herself. When a surprise package of nearly two dozen original vinyl records arrived from a dear friend, I couldn’t believe I was in the presence of jazz geniuses Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane; and when I listened to The Band’s Music from Big Pink, I felt an instant kinship that her favorite album from that time was soon to be one of mine. It’s humbling when someone gives you their favorite things. Suddenly, you are gifted with knowing who they are, as well as discovering a new piece of yourself, and understanding both just a little bit better.

I tried on my mom’s music, listening to Carole King’s Tapestry on repeat while I walked night after night through the streets of Denver, feeling the Earth move under my feet. And just for fun, I imbibed in fiction: watching Almost Famous and reading Daisy Jones & The Six. Perhaps this all started with the record player my brother and sister-in-law got me for my birthday.

I had no intention of strolling through this era, though I have always been aware it is heralded for being the best time of people’s lives. It even resonates deeply with those born decades later, drawn to the style and substance of having something to say and needing to say it however way you can.

Being one of those said people, my friend asked, “Do you not like the 70s or have you just never been exposed to it?” Being the latter, I suppose I didn’t even know if I liked it or not, which felt worse. Had I not been interested simply because I never gave myself the chance to find out? I laughed, remembering my 18-year-old self who would not engage in my college roommate’s obsession with Jim Morrison and The Doors, shaking my head as she kissed his poster before she went to sleep at night, listening to their songs on low while I put my headphones in. I’m sure my cold dismissal must have felt like harsh rejection. It hurts when you share your favorite things and are denied the chance to connect simply because the other person isn’t open to receiving. What a missed opportunity that was.

Until now, the past had no appeal to me because I was always living in the future: what’s next? But I had some time and this gave me pause. I was glad for the second chance.

The more I learned, the more I realized that the 1970s was the era of the artist. The sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll were simply enablers for hearts and minds determined to outlive, and thoroughly enjoy, their environment at the same time they created a new one. What a blessing it is to witness the writers, poets, musicians, comedians, activists work, play, and love; to read and listen and watch what they’ve made. Abundance out of scarcity. Peace out of war. Love out of hate. Songs out of silence. Stories out of details. I was drawn equally to their group dynamics as I was their identity to the world; the interiority of their relationship to self and others, realized.

I think all the things I have ever been looking for existed in the 1970s, which is a relief because now I know they’re real and not just an intense longing I could never explain. The more time I spend here, the better I feel, like I found the circuit breaker and reset all of my electrical currents, watching now as all the inside lights turn on slowly from a newfound time and place.

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