Thirty-five years ago today, New York magazine published “Tribal Rights of Saturday Night,” a beautifully-written paean to the dancing teens of the city’s boroughs. And the story focused on a working-class disco dancer named Vincent:
Vincent was the very best dancer in Bay Ridge—the ultimate Face. He owned fourteen floral shirts, five suits, eight pairs of shoes, three overcoats, and had appeared on American Bandstand. Sometimes music people came out from Manhattan to watch him, and one man who owned a club on the East Side had even offered him a contract. A hundred dollars a week. Just to dance.
“Vincent” become the model for Tony Manero, the hero of John Badham’s 1977 disco-ganza Saturday Night Fever, a hit film which launched the 70’s hottest dance craze and the career of young John Travolta. Plus it gave us the best-selling soundtrack album of all time and introduced the line dance, an exercise in inebriated communal humiliation that would dominate the dance floors of American wedding receptions for decades to come.
With all this to its credit, perhaps it shouldn’t matter that Nik Kohn’s article was more fiction than non-fiction, and that “Vincent” was, in Kohn’s own words, “completely made up, a total fabrication.” The ostensibly conscience-stricken journalist came clean in the Guardian in 1994:
My story was a fraud, 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.” [Ed. Note: The Guardian piece is not available online, but it was quoted extensively in Charlie LeDuff’s 1996 article, “Saturday Night Fever: The Life“]
Mr. Kohn’s own life story is also worth a movie or two. In 1983, according to the New York Times, he was indicted on drug trafficking and conspiracy counts for the importation of $4 million worth of Indian heroin. His narrative abilities came to his rescue once more, this time in the form of a plea-bargain in exchange for his testimony. His charges were reduced to probation and a $5,000 fine.
Sheerly Avni is a San Francisco-based arts and culture writer. Her work has appeared in Salon, LA Weekly, Mother Jones, and many other publications. You can follow her on twitter at @sheerly.