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The decade of the living dead


The problem with the good old days is that they're gone -- unless you happen to be living in 1994, in which case the good old days are still here and better than ever, really.

You watched Lassie and the Flintstones 25 years ago? Hey, we " watch Lassie and the Flintstones, too!

You listened to stuff like Ben E. King's "Stand By Me"? Cool! We just heard that on a Citibank commercial!

You went to Woodstock? Hey, we're going to Woodstock, too! And our Woodstock is better than your Woodstock. Your Woodstock had music, dope and free sex. Our Woodstock has giant video screens, low-fat yogurt stands and no sex (it's icky and dangerous now). Plus our Woodstock has a few dozen ATMs, in case we need money for the $40 souvenir T-shirts.

The point -- if there is a point to all this -- is that here we are, just around the corner from the new millennium and we find ourselves on Nostalgia Overload, a curious phenomenon wherein otherwise sane people grow weepy and fixated on the halcyon days of the '60s and '70s.

Ah, the memories: race riots, the Vietnam war, body bags on airport tarmacs, violent student protests, Charlie Manson and his loons running around the California desert, Ted Kennedy air-mailing his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick with a young woman in the passenger seat, Watergate, a bloated Elvis playing Vegas in rhinestone jumpsuits when he wasn't helping the Sarah Lee trucks back up to Graceland . . . who wouldn't want to keep memories like that forever?

Actually, given the fact that neither disco nor powder-blue leisure suits evoke wistful print essays or warm and fuzzy TV commentaries, we're not much interested in recalling the bad stuff from that era.

"By and large, we remember the good stuff that happened back then, when we were caught up in it, when we were active, younger," says Jim Dasinger, the well-known Reisterstown clinical psychologist and radio personality. "People forget the bad things. They have to, in order to survive and . . . move on.

"Nostalgia reassures us. It's like having your blankie back . . . It's away we combat aging. I recommend it, actually. If we don't get lost in it."

Well. Maybe we're not lost in it yet, but we may want to put the search and rescue teams on standby.

Every time you turn around we're glorifying another landmark event from our past: the 25th anniversary of the first lunar landing, the 25th anniversary of Woodstock, the 30th anniversary of the Beatles' first U.S. tour, the 30th anniversary of Malibu Barbie.

Movies today -- if it weren't for the prices at the candy counter, you'd swear it was 1966. "Lassie," "The Flintstones," "The Addams Family," "The Fugitive" -- watch the trailers on TV and you're waiting for Walter Cronkite to break in with news that American warplanes are bombing Hanoi.

Commercials today are even worse; it seems like every other song they use is a '60s or '70s rip-off. The Buffalo Springfield classic "For What It's Worth" and the Band's "The Weight" are used to sell beer, for God's sake! Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now" sells Windex.

The publishing world has also embraced the nostalgia boom, big-time.

Not long ago, Barry Williams, who played Greg Brady on the old "The Brady Bunch" sitcom, wrote a book about the show.

Among the, ahem, bombshells divulged by Mr. Williams was that he routinely showed up for taping whacked out on pot, which should have been no surprise to anyone who actually watched the show.

He also told about fooling around in the back seat of a car with Florence Henderson, who played his stepmom on the show and who (mercifully) never interrupted their sweaty necking to chirp about "Wessonality!"

Anyway, you figured this book would sink out of sight like it had an anvil tied to it, right? Wrong. The book sold 250,000 copies. It spent 15 weeks on the New York Times paperback nonfiction best-seller list. Barry Williams walks around now like he's E. L. Doctorow or something.

Then there is William Shatner, a man so shameless that he once recorded "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" despite a frog-like voice and no Barry Williams-like excuse that he was high on pot. Soon after Mr. Williams' book was published, Mr. Shatner wrote a stunning piece of dreck called "Star Trek Memories."

lead,.200l That book, a tell-all by the former starship commander Captain Kirk, sold 333,000 copies. It spent 11 weeks on the Times best-seller list. Mr. Shatner, heck, Mr. Shatner thinks he's Norman Mailer.

Look, you talk about nostalgia, people now write checks that feature cartoon characters such as Bugs Bunny and Friends and the Jetsons. It's hard to envision any bank treating as legal tender a piece of paper emblazoned with a grinning Yosemite Sam, but it happens all the time.

There is even a new magazine devoted exclusively to nostalgia. It's called, appropriately enough, Remember ("The People and News We Can't Forget"). The inaugural June/July issue features a sizzling (if you like this sort of thing) interview with Milton Berle, who discusses handing out cigars to JFK and dating Marilyn Monroe and her cleavage, among other topics.

There's also a profile of seminal variety show czar Ed Sullivan, who, it is revealed, once urged "the late Irving Berlin" to stand up in the studio audience and take a bow.

On another occasion, Sullivan asked the audience to give a big hand for "Jose Feliciano! He's blind -- and he's Puerto Rican!"

Hoo, boy. As we reach the upper limits of Nostalgia Overload, maybe a good question to ask is: Will people ever look back at this era with similar fondness?

Twenty-five years from now, will people be saying: "Gee, remember back when they had Pepsi Clear? And Tonya Harding's buddies whacked that other ice skater's knee with a tire iron?"

Will people ever grow misty-eyed at memories of the O. J. Simpson trial ("Heck, I remember your father was changing a flat on the freeway when O. J.'s white Ford Bronco sped by. We waved, of course. Although the young man next to us flipped O. J. the bird . . .")

Will young twentysomethings hanging out in pool halls in the year 2030 ever turn to one another and say: "Gee, whatever happened to that horse-faced guy, Jim Varney? God, he was great in "Ernest Scared Stupid!"

Somehow, that's hard to envision.

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