Bruce and Donna and Why ’70s Music Packed Such a Punch
Taylor Jenkins Reid’s engaging new novel ‘Daisy Jones & the Six’ follows a kinda Fleetwood Mac ensemble through a turbulent decade culminating with the disco apocalypse.
The last dance of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s fictional rock-and-roll epic Daisy Jones & The Six takes place at Chicago Stadium on July 12, 1979. That night in real-life Chicago, the White Sox’ “Disco Demolition Night” rocked Comiskey Park in the flame of burning records. The mob, white and male, raged against sounds from the radio, dances in a club. Thousands stormed the field, forcing a Sox forfeit loss amid the detritus.
“I chose that date because I wanted the band to break up in the heat of the summer,” Reid told The Daily Beast. “But when I realized it landed on ‘the night disco died’ it felt like a nice coincidence.”
It is a good coincidence. Knowing the real events, a reader can imagine the smoke from Comiskey wafting over the book’s finale fireworks. Reid captures the dynamic of relationships within her perfectly described construct of a rock band in the ’70s stadium era; when Daisy Jones and The Six take the stage for one final time, it’s no spoiler to say that years of emotional engagement will boil over.
“I wanted to write about men and women performing together on stage. Soft rock gave me that opportunity. And maybe more to the point, I just felt it that way,” Reid told The Daily Beast. “I had nostalgia for that time… and that fueled me through the writing.”
So much good came out of the ’70s creative maelstrom—a singularity with a gravitational pull we still surrender to. Bruce Springsteen can sell out a year’s worth of solo Broadway shows, and the late Donna Summer’s songs can carry her own Broadway musical.
Although, in another real-world event from that July week in 1979, President Jimmy Carter was entrenched at Camp David, preparing a speech for July 15. His warning still rises up.
“I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy,” Carter said, lightly striking his desk with a closed fist. “It is a crisis of confidence… that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. In a nation that was proud of hard work… piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no purpose.”
Forty years later, people post comments to YouTube clips of 1979’s The Warriors, nostalgic that they grew up with its youth gang’s Odyssey across a ravaged New York City. The movie’s opening scene literally calls for revolution against the state. Like Carter’s plea, another ignored call to action.
Today, The Warriors seems as threatening as Winnie the Pooh. Back then, they pulled its release on account of fights and stabbings. A Village Voice reviewer saw this overreaction as a bit silly, basically telling the movie’s fearful critics to pay attention to the real world: “It’s possible that what is most frightening is the essential truth of its basic premise: that the streets already belong to the violently and criminally inclined.”
Riots over music, violent cities worse than the movies, and a president hectoring a selfish nation to stop fucking around. The mid to late-’70s sure looks like a bad time to not have your shit together.
It looks good now because 2019’s adults are addicted to their own histories—resurrected every time someone uploads a lost Scooby Doo episode to YouTube and reminisces about watching it in their pajamas before their parents got divorced. Maybe for me it’s the Star Blazers theme song, and for you it’s Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live, or Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” video. Present days can’t compete against an ideal past.
Daisy Jones & The Six feeds our nostalgic appetites about that rock era. It’s positive and quite entertaining, a product of hard work and historical recreation, and not the simple emotion of a three-minute YouTube time machine. Using documentaries, biographies, and buying old Rolling Stone magazines on eBay, “I scoured them not just for the features but also looking to see how records and fashion were advertised to readers,” Reid said, “trying to place where this band would exist.”
From that, Reid’s book presents an “oral history,” with the band’s 1975-1979 lifespan told as though band members had consented to wide-ranging interviews. If they are unreliable narrators, stories match against another’s until a “truth” emerges.
A fair critique is that Daisy Jones is bite-sized gossip like VH1’s Behind the Music, every dirty secret and hidden dream unveiled—but not even real. No notebooks contain Daisy Jones’ scrawled ideas that become songs of star-crossed love, there’s no photoshoot where the band creates iconic poses for their album Aurora, no album called Aurora. No real lives were exploited in the writing.
The easiest comparison is Fleetwood Mac—a real group of mixed couples and coupling. Reid’s will-they-or-not characters of Daisy Jones and Billy Dunne can be seen in Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, Christine and John McVie might be represented by Karen Sirko and Graham Dunne. Mick Fleetwood shows in Warren Rhodes and Eddie Loving.
Stevie Nicks’ classic lyric “I’ll follow you down until the sound of my voice will haunt you,” has a tribute from Reid’s, “And baby when you think of me, I hope it ruins rock and roll.”
It’s not Reid’s fault her song’s lyrics—all included in the end of the book, and primed to be heard for real when the book turns into an Amazon Prime series—can’t compete with Stevie Nicks’. Whose could? Reid does a fine job imagining the internal dramas inherent in creative efforts:
Daisy: I tossed his pages at him… I said: “This whole pack of songs is about Camila. You can’t keep writing apology songs about your wife and making the band play them.”
Billy: She thought she was brilliant because she’d realized I replaced my addictions. I said you want to know your problem? You think you’re a poet, but other than getting high you don’t have anything to say. She said, “I don’t need this shit.” And she left.
Daisy:… I realize that if I leave, Billy would just write the album himself. And I turned right back around and said, “Oh no you don’t, asshole.’”
Earlier, Daisy expresses her resolve after a musician she is dating takes a lyric she came up with, and then builds a whole song around it:
“That was how it was back then. I was just supposed to be the inspiration for some man’s great idea. I had no interest in being somebody else’s muse. I am not a muse. I am the somebody.”
Reid’s book consistently entertains by hitting all the notes we know our musical heroes encountered. The flailing romances in Daisy Jones happened to Nicks and Buckingham, to Donna Summer, to Bruce Springsteen—but for them the stakes were real and high.
During a few 1974-75 performances with Springsteen, especially his epic “Incident on 57th Street,” violinist Suki Lahav would appear from backstage, illuminated in a separate spotlight in a willowy dress next to the bearded, leather-jacket wearing Springsteen as he hit the lyrics: “And from out of the shadows came a young girl’s voice, said, ‘Johnny, don’t cry.’ Puerto Rican Jane, oh, won’t you tell me your name.”
The violin adds a plaintive melancholy absent from the album’s piano and guitar, and even in grainy videos Lahav’s appearance from out of the shadows is an arresting image. She ends the song with an elegiac solo David Sancious’ piano can’t match.
Bruce’s Born to Run autobiography doesn’t mention Suki at all, just a few references to her husband Louis, bidding him goodbye with a “I felt we needed a new engineer.”
In Marc Eliot’s Down Thunder Road, Bruce’s old manager Mike Appel is blunter in his belief about Bruce and Suki’s brief time together: “There was male and female heat, right up there live in front of everyone, a lot of sexually provocative actions. Quite simply, Bruce fell in love with her, and she with him. She then had to try and get out to save the marriage.”
For her part, Lahav said in a 2003 interview with an Israeli publication, “The connections are complex. It sounds a little hallucinatory, the truth. Because I am the heroine of this story, it seems completely natural to me.”
It’s a neat story because the truth of Springsteen and Lahav remains unknown, but open to interpretation and speculative what-ifs. It’s like Jimmy Hoffa’s 1975 disappearance. Of course, some aging gangster told the truth at some point; but after all the lies, nobody can know for sure unless Hoffa’s skull gets dropped on a desk.
Daisy Jones & The Six has the luxury of providing all the answers, while giving a present-day insight into the energy of the ’70s. It’s a best guess and a streaked window, looking into a long-over party.
It’s easy to take these aging stars for granted now, in the overexposure of the internet age. Pre-cable TV, you couldn’t easily see these ’70s artists perform except at a concert. Television’s Midnight Special and Soul Train offered a few songs at a time—if you were in front of the TV when it was on; there was no way to record the show for later. Album covers like Led Zeppelin’s used psychedelic paintings and photographs, not the band’s faces. Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled 1975 album only showed Mick Fleetwood and John McVie.
The creation of a visually arresting album cover—a kind of music video before videos—is a central part of the creation of Daisy Jones and The Six’s legend:
Karen: …And then Daisy comes in and she’s wearing… a white tank top with no bra on… her shirt was thin, and white, and you could see her nipples clear as day. And she knew that. And suddenly it was clear as day: this cover is going to be about Daisy’s chest.
Daisy: I’m not apologizing for shit having to do with that album cover. I dress how I want to dress.
No oral history examines how Casablanca Records chose the image for Donna Summer’s Love to Love You Baby album cover. Summer wears a thin, white shirt, with her nipples visible clear as day. Her head tilts back to erotically expose her neck.
The album’s title is the picture. A man looking at the cover wants to trace his fingertips along Donna Summer’s throat; maybe a woman would want the full erotic power that Summer’s body conveys. The cover can inspire fiction, but no fiction can improve it.
Even as Chicago’s fine young men burned her albums on a baseball field, Summer was #1 on July 1979’s Billboard charts with “Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff” at #3. The night disco died? Donna never went anywhere.
Her own breakout coincided with Springsteen’s. Her 17-minute “Love to Love You Baby” had hit #1 on The Disco Files charts of popular club songs and would soon enter the Billboard charts for the first time, on Oct. 18, 1975—a few days before Bruce Springsteen appeared simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek.
Reid recognizes disco’s ’70s rise with the character of disco star Simone Jackson, on a Summer-like path to solo success. Mostly, the character serves as Daisy’s conscience and more focused alter-ego.
Today, disco’s melodrama and deliberate excess are easy to mock. Reid rhetorically asked The Daily Beast, “Who wouldn’t want to spend a little time imagining a night at Studio 54?”
But that’s the point—it’s only imagination. Would you want it for real—with butterfly collars, bell bottoms, and dancing to “The Hustle”?
Summer’s cascading encouragement on the 17-minute version of “Love to Love You Baby” is twice as long as Springsteen’s “Jungleland,” but her continuous satisfaction provides nothing to earn nostalgia’s necessary wistfulness.
In Love Saves the Day, Tim Lawrence wrote, “Cramped and unexceptional in its [three-minute] version, Giorgio Moroder used a… device to extend “Love to Love You Baby,” bringing in a fresh bass line 20 seconds from the end of the original recording… the bass continued, forming a bridge… which transformed the track… into an orgasmic symphony that welled up and relaxed and welled-up again as if it was designed for extended sex—or the dance floor.”
It’s completely manufactured—synthesizers, drum machines, and Summer’s endless desire. The long version is impossible to listen to, even ironically, outside of a dance floor or a bedroom.
It’s anti-nostalgia—disco’s rhythm and beat put listeners right in the moment, and only in the moment of right now. Conservative commentator William Safire complimented this aspect of disco, writing in 1975 that “suddenly attention must be paid, steps must be learned… that means that turning inward is no longer ‘in.’”
Disco’s military march repetition wasn’t a problem—it was the point. The beat hits over-and-over with clear intent: Let this moment never end.
Safire would have scorned an audience enraptured by Springsteen’s Spanish Johnny and Puerto Rican Jane. He would have mocked readers of Daisy Jones & The Six, immersed in made-up stories. He would have ridiculed both groups as “enshrined in detachment.”
Springsteen’s ’70s storylines required exactly the inward-turning detachment that Safire disdained—Springsteen’s listeners could become Mary, as her dress sways and a screen door slams, or a boy on a rattlesnake highway, trying to live his life the right way.
Bruce’s dreams and visions are only for nostalgia. They can’t mean anything with the first listen; the songs only matter after applying melodies and lyrics to future bad choices and occasional good luck.
Daisy Jones & The Six could only have been about classic rock, never disco. If classic rock’s truth is necessarily more interesting than Reid’s fiction, her book is a neat and worthy approximation, with a few twists at the right time and a gentle attitude toward its hopeful characters’ compromises, collapses, regrets, and redemption. Reid cares about each band member the same way I hope that Eddie and his friend made it back safe, from their meeting across the river.
Springsteen’s “Jungleland,” or any classic rock song, is the opposite of the bedroom repetition of “Love to Love You Baby.” The storyline of “Jungleland” begins with Lahav’s violin whispering hints of unrequited love, sweeping characters and audience into the opera on the turnpike.
I want to be the hero of that story. I don’t want to wait in line at Studio 54.
At the end of Daisy Jones, a character says, “I’m surprised people still care. The other day they were playing ‘Turn it Off’ on the classic rock station. I sat in the car and listened. We were pretty good.”
Daisy Jones reminds us that we care because it was good. Those ’70s rock songs—and the creative forces behind them all—make us remember waking at night to the sound of thunder, how far off, we’d sit and wonder. Thinking back at a time without as much to lose.
But an unsettling aspect of constantly reliving rock’s sprawling, character-filled stories is ignoring the disco beat of today’s real life. Think about Jimmy Carter’s long-lost warning about “material goods.” The material has become virtual: message boards of memories, reliving and dissecting television, movies, and music with the minutiae of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, teasing us that some vital part of our past is within reach to learn.
We are all Citizen Kane, searching for our digital Rosebud. The internet’s constant content paralyzes us in a way President Carter accidentally foretold: “Too many of us tend to worship self-indulgence… consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.”
Isn’t there something self-indulgent in this era’s non-ironic conversations about old cartoons and songs from 40 years ago? Can any meaning come from constant consumption of a long-gone past?
Daisy Jones sings the cautionary tale in Reid’s lyrics of ‘Turn it Off,’ angry at herself for holding on to something toxic for far too long: “Baby, I keep trying to turn away, I keep trying to see you in a different way. I keep trying to turn it off, but baby you keep you turning me on.”
Those Chicago brats rioted in 1979 because they thought their youth could last forever.
In “Love to Love You Baby,” Donna Summer is all woman, giving disco’s message in every longing breath: Put away childish things.