Disco as a musical style predated the movie Saturday Night Fever by perhaps as many as five years, but disco as an all-consuming cultural phenomenon might never have happened without the 1977 film and its multi-platinum soundtrack featuring such era-defining hits as the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” and Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You.” What is absolutely certain is that Saturday Night Fever would never have been made were it not for a magazine article detailing the struggles and dreams of a talented, young, Italian-American disco dancer and his scruffy entourage in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. That article—”The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” by journalist Nik Cohn—was published on this day in 1976 in the June 7 issue of New York magazine.
In the blockbuster film that was based on the article, a young John Travolta turned the role of Tony Manero into a career-maker thanks to his own considerable talents, but the character Travolta played was brilliantly drawn by Nik Cohn before a frame of film was ever shot. From his style of dress and his job in the paint store, to his god-like status at the local disco and his vague dreams of escaping to something bigger, the young man named “Vincent” whose experiences Cohn reported on practically leaps off the page with his undirected ambition and otherworldly charisma. You can practically hear the Bee Gees singing “More Than A Woman” and picture “Vinnie” pointing to the sky in his platform shoes and white three-piece suit as you read Cohn’s profile, and you can certainly see why it caught the attention of Hollywood. There was just one problem, though, with the story that served as the source material for one of the biggest pop-cultural phenomena of the modern era: “The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” was almost entirely fabricated.
Yes, there really was an Odyssey 2000 discotheque in Brooklyn, and yes, its habitués were of the general age, ethnicity and social class as depicted in Cohn’s supposedly nonfiction piece, but the truth is that Cohn never immersed himself in the life of young “Vinnie” and his cohorts, because young “Vinnie” and his cohorts were the product of Cohn’s imagination. Cohn’s admission of his fabrication came in 1994, in a piece for the UK’s Guardian newspaper. “My story was a fraud,” he confessed. “I’d only recently arrived in New York. Far from being steeped in Brooklyn street life, I hardly knew the place. As for Vincent, my story’s hero, he was largely inspired by a Shepherd’s Bush mod whom I’d known in the Sixties, a one-time king of Goldhawk Road.”