Nik Cohn was a rock journalist.
In his late twenties, he left London and went to New York.
He got a job on New York magazine, a hip publication.
The editor gave him an assignment.
Go to Brooklyn and write about the underground disco scene there.
Nik Cohn couldn’t be arsed to go to Brooklyn.
He didn’t want to leave the glamour of Manhattan.
The good news was, he knew no one else would leave Manhattan either.
Which meant he could write whatever he wanted about Brooklyn.
They’d never go there to check it.
But Nik Cohn knew, to sound authentic it would have to be based in a universal truth.
When he worked in London in the sixties, he’d been fascinated by the mods.
The way working class, macho guys reinterpreted the dandy image.
The passion for clothes, the immaculate hairstyles, the fussiness over music, the pride in dancing.
One particular mod stood out.
Nik Cohn called him ‘the king of the mods’.
His territory was Goldhawk Road in Shepherd’s Bush, and he acted as if he owned it.
Nik Cohn recognised a universal truth: “Disaffected youth is disaffected youth, wherever you find it”.
And he simply rewrote everything about the 1960s London mod scene as if it was the 1970s Brooklyn disco scene.
The ‘king of the mods’ became a young Italian-American, Shepherd’s Bush became Brooklyn.
And the article ran in 1976 in New York magazine.
It was called ‘Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night’ and it was an immediate smash.
It made Nik Cohn’s reputation overnight.
Readers were fascinated to discover the new disco craze that was happening in Brooklyn.
Of course, the only way they’d ever know about it was his article, because none of them would dream of going there.
At the end of it he wrote “Everything described in this article is factual and was either witnessed by me or told to me directly by the people involved, only the names of the main characters have been changed”.
(Which is true if you count the main characters as London and New York.)
That article became a movie: Saturday Night Fever.
It launched the career of John Travolta.
It relaunched the career of the Bee Gees.
The movie grossed $237 million, and the album sold 40 million copies.
Making it the biggest-selling movie soundtrack of all time.
All from the article Nik Cohn couldn’t even be bothered to research.
The story he knocked off just to pay the rent.
I think there’s something we can all learn from that.
Something to keep in mind when what we’re working on just doesn’t seem important.
It’s what Nik Cohn himself said about it, years later:
“Fever has always been odd for me because it wasn’t a big deal in my writing life. It was just a small story.
I was finishing a novel at the time, King Death, which I was convinced was the most important thing I’d ever written, whereas it turned out to be the worst thing I ever did.
It confirms what I have always suspected, that we have no idea what we’re doing at the time, in life, in love, or in anything else.”