1977 may not be remembered as an especially important year, even though it started with Commodore demonstrating the first personal computer – the Commodore PET – in early January. Gerald Ford was finishing out his short term as President, while Jimmy Carter was getting ready to move into the White House. But in 1977 three pieces of popular culture were released which represent major reflections of and influences on my world view.
On May 25, 1977, 20th Century Fox released a film many in the company thought would not be worth the $12 million they spent producing it: Star Wars. It was the creation of George Lucas whose surprise hit American Graffiti had given him the credibility to pitch this sometimes silly sounding story of good vs. evil in a galaxy far, far away to the movie execs. Sci-fi films rarely made much money, though. Moreover it opened at only about 40 theaters because of lack of interest.
Yet from that first day it was an instant hit, with lines in every city where it was shown. Most people think that a smart strategy of hitting sci-fi conventions and releasing a comic strip before the movie’s release generated enough beneath the radar buzz to turn what some expected to be a flop into a major success. In any event, overnight it changed the film industry and unleashed a phenomenon that spread across the country. Now almost 35 years later my 8 and 5 year old sons know every character, have toy light sabres, Star Wars Lego sets and video games. 3D versions of the films will start being released to theaters next year — the force is still with us.
On July 7, 1977 (7/7/77) the struggling band Styx released The Grand Illusion. Styx had hit the big time with the single Lady, but its two recent LPs Equinox and Crystal Ball failed to push them to the next level; Crystal Ball actually undersold Equinox. The release was met with a yawn. The first single from the album, Come Sail Away, moved slowly up the charts and seemed to stall. Then suddenly it took off to the top ten. The album quickly went platinum and Styx became a certified big time act. They would dominate the concert circuit and LP sales for the next five years, the largest and most successful act of the late seventies/early eighties.
Also in 1977 author Richard Bach published Illusions: the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, a follow up to his unexpected best seller Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which had been published in 1970. Illusions would not sell nearly as well as Seagull had, but when I read it I was amazed. It not only reflected thoughts I had inside about the nature of reality, it also helped shape how I look at the world. The book exemplifies a kind of new age spiritual philosophy, a bit neo-Platonist, and one which if embraced requires one to take full responsibility for every aspect of ones’ own life.
What sets Illusions apart from other spiritual descriptions of life, or ideological attempts to define what life means and how one should live is the books final thought: Everything in this book may be wrong. Bach did not provide dogma around which cultists would gather, he presented his personal philosophy in story form, allowing readers to find it as persuasive as they wished, reminding them that it’s just his interpretation of experience. Unlike religious leaders he did not claim divine authority; unlike some philosophers, he did not claim to have discovered truth.
Styx album The Grand Illusion has a similar theme — ‘if you think your life is complete confusion because your neighbor’s got it made, just remember it’s a grand illusion, and deep inside we’re all the same.’ Yet the album focused less on giving a world view than reflecting the way in which America’s cultural embrace of materialism and consumerism lead to a dead end. We can fall under the spell of believing we need wealth, beauty and fame, but in the end those things aren’t real — they are illusions. From the biting cynicism of Miss America, the hopeful escapism of Come Sail Away to the introspective Man in the Wilderness, the album explores the human quest to find meaning in modern America from a number of perspectives. Whatever the external trappings or competitions won and lost, we still ask “who the hell we are.” The Grand Illusion remains my favorite album of all time.
Star Wars, of course, contained similar allusions. We are surrounded by an invisible force that permeates and unites all that is; reality is much deeper than its material appearance. George Lucas studied mythology as he designed the story, casting it as good vs. evil, and ultimately a story of the redemption of what might be one of the heinous criminals one can imagine. On the surface it was a throw back to the old Flash Gordon type serials of the fifties, when the good guys were very good and the bad folk were pure evil.
It was fun, the mysticism didn’t overwhelm the action, and though the characters were not well developed, the plot moved quickly and audiences connected. It also had another connection to the other two cultural products – it dealt with reality beneath appearances. That’s why people connected – it wasn’t a complex cynical analysis of the human condition, it was a straightforward appeal to our basic ideals of freedom and values.
Taken together, what influence did these 1977 works have on my world view? I guess they reinforce my view that we each have to take responsibility for our lives, recognizing that much of what we strive for and take seriously is temporal and unimportant. Beauty fades, wealth does not satisfy ones’ spirit, and battles and competitions are quickly forgotten (this obviously connects with my last post on Augustine and Petrarch). More importantly, there is a purpose. Life isn’t meaningless. Just as it was Luke’s fate to confront Darth Vader, I trust that life leads us to where we are meant to be; each of us is actually the captain of our life voyage. Blaming others only pushes us deeper into delusion.
The final song (save the album coda) on Grand Illusion is Castle Walls by Dennis DeYoung. I’ve often thought about the Star Wars saga as I listened to these lyrics. I also suspect the last two lines reflect true wisdom.
Far beyond these castle walls
Where I thought I heard Tiresias say
Life is never what it seems
And every man must meet his destiny