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Ronald Brownstein Celebrates and Elegizes LA’s ’70s-Era Cultural Dominance

Ronald Brownstein’s ode to ’70s Los Angeles is, like so many California stories, less about a sustained moment than a bright and briefly thrilling mirage.

Rock Me on the Water: 1974 The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics
Ronald Brownstein
Harper
March 2021

Having It All

Also seemingly more fun were the changes to the music scene. Rock Me on the Water spends a significant number of pages describing the trajectories of artists like the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, all of whom were, in 1974, riding the swelling wave of interest in their sunny melodies that floated in a very commercially appealing intersection between folk, country, and rock. Browne remembers the time as being particularly tight-knit, with record company people and producers and musicians suddenly hanging out together, unlike in more straightlaced New York. He argues this is “how bands got hipper, and record companies got hipper, too, because they were going down the same paths.”

That was probably satisfying for a lot of people involved. But if the end result of this lengthy jam session was something like the Eagles’ 1975 album, One of These Nights, maybe a little less fraternization between the suits and the talent might have produced more memorable music.

These sections have a more difficult time grabbing one’s interest, even given the nostalgic Once Upon a Time in Hollywood appeal of “the days of music echoing through the canyon, boozy dinners at Dan Tana’s, and spontaneous sing-alongs in the Troubadour bar.” The ups and downs of those artists’ creative trajectories might fascinate their fans, but ultimately their driving desire for success at all costs deprives the story of any driving force.  Brownstein himself notes how, even though the new breed of filmmakers wanted to change things, the musicians—despite their long hair and vaguely left politics—were less intent on rocking the boat. Per Glenn Frey: “We wanted it all. Peer respect. AM and FM success. Number one singles and albums, great music, and a lot of money.”

That same having-it-all desire is evident in the sections covering Bert Schneider’s legendary film production company, BBS. A rare and short-lived entity that served as a pot-fogged clubhouse for cutting-edge filmmakers, BBS existed due to the somewhat improbable fact that Schneider and his friend Bob Rafelson made a mint from creating The Monkees. (In a more typical Hollywood plot twist, Schneider’s father just happened to be president of Columbia Pictures.)

BBS’s ability to balance new Hollywood boundary-breaking with old Hollywood profit-making (Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show, Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson’s directorial debut Drive, He Said) allowed the rebels to essentially have it both ways. That is, until changing tastes, drugs, and Schneider’s distraction by often dubious political causes—Brownstein’s howlingly laughable depiction of the Keystone Kops escapade in which Schneider helped Huey Newton (by then a deeply tarnished and unheroic figure) escape to Cuba is almost worth its own book—snuffed BBS out.

Rock Me on the Water is ultimately, like so many California stories, less about a sustained moment than a bright and briefly thrilling mirage. That sensation is particularly evident in the sections on the revolution happening in television. Though Brownstein is clearly invested in each subject—particularly the somewhat tangential segments on political actors like Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, and Jerry Brown, which show the author more on his home turf—the book truly sparks to life when he digs into what he sees as a holy trinity of game-changing pop culture: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H, and (his clear favorite) All in the Family.

It’s a solid argument. After all, no matter how many people caught Chinatown or listened to an artfully crafted Linda Ronstadt song, nothing matched the popular impact of a successful CBS sitcom. “All in the Family commanded and concentrated national attention to a degree almost impossible to imagine in today’s fractionated entertainment landscape,” he writes.

Producer Norman Lear’s recipe was fairly simple. Use the character of Archie Bunker (played to perfection by Carroll O’Connor), a reactionary bigot from Queens whose splenetic outbursts were drawn in part from Lear’s own father, to stand up strawmen so that the show’s minorities and liberals could knock them down—but not before Archie got in a few racist slurs previously unthinkable on network TV. The show was allowed on the so-called “Tiffany Network” as part of an effort to sweep away cornpone material like The Beverly Hillbillies. The network wanted to attract controversy, excitement — and most of all, younger urban viewers. Indeed, by dealing forthrightly with feminism and war, shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and M*A*S*H also broke the mold.

Still, all three were set firmly in the sitcom mold, meaning that calling any of them “revolutionary” (as Brownstein does) is a stretch. Also, the window snapped shut quickly, with the nostalgic Happy Days (shamelessly drawing on the appeal of American Graffiti) soon garnering more viewers. Yet Brownstein is convincing in insisting that every great TV artist post-1974 owed a debt to the “great innovators … who inherited a television landscape of Jed Clampett, Andy Griffith, and Gomer Pyle and replaced it with one populated by Mary Richards, Hawkeye Pierce, and Archie Bunker.”

Rock Me on the Water can be seen as yet another book about the brief flowering of oddball California creativity in the ’70s. But Brownstein steers away from some of the romantic riffing that fills too many of those accounts. His is a more realistic take. Despite his occasional and understandable authorial cheating that takes his scope back into the ’60s and forward into the ‘80s, he shows 1974 as less a time of creative nirvana and more as an interregnum.

Once the business of show in Los Angeles lost its way following the ’60s, the City gave the keys of the industries (music, movies, television) to the rebels with the best gift of gab in hopes of striking it rich. Occasionally the rebels hit the bullseye, occasionally they didn’t, and in the meantime, art forms changed. Once the executives figured out how to get back in the game, they did so, bringing along just enough of the new wave’s edginess and inventiveness to make thing everything old new again.

And so in 1975, a little thing called Jaws ate Nashville at the box office, ushering in the age of the blockbuster. “The biggest problem” with his film, Altman told an interviewer, “is that it doesn’t have a shark.”

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