I had high hopes when I used my Libby app to download Rock Me on the Water: 1974-The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television and Politics written by Atlantic Senior Editor Ronald Brownstein and published last March. This nonfiction work would be a great choice for my first book review. As a teenager in 1974 and an avid follower of all things pop culture, I couldn’t wait to sink back into my era and feel my memories surge around me in surround sound.
The good news is that the anecdotes are there. I read how Jack Nicholson almost gave up acting. Various directors had given him modest roles in the 1960’s because they saw something, but the majority of the movies fell flat. But then, Rip Torn pulled out of a movie last minute. The producers, who were friends with Nicholson, asked if he would like the role. The film was Easy Rider. Or, I’ve always wondered who was Carly Simon’s target in her mocking mega-hit “You’re so Vain.” It’s now confirmed that it was written about Warren Beatty whom she dated briefly.
I found the beginning chapters informative as Brownstein laid the groundwork of what was happening simultaneously in these various industries in the 60’s in order to reach the peak of 1974.
For instance, In the 1960’s, Hollywood was still the place for making big, old-style movies like Lawrence of Arabia, Mary Poppins, Hello, Dolly! and Doctor Zhivago. In part, this was tied to the aging studio executives who still had control and still felt confident they knew their audiences. Some of them were in their 70’s and 80’s. The problem, however, was that they were also losing money.
Meanwhile, new talent (and really, a new generation) such as actors Nicholson, Beatty and directors Arthur Penn and Francis Ford Coppola to name just a few, were pushing in the studio gates. They had ideas for stories that were relevant; they wanted stories that would explore the societal changes Americans were facing.
When movies like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde appeared on Main Street marquees in 1967, followed by Easy Rider (1969) and Midnight Cowboy in 1969 (which surprisingly won Best Picture that year), all of which were hits, the Old Hollywood finally fell. As Brownstein put it “for those who had labored through the drowsy gray afternoon of Hollywood in the early 60’s, it was a change as sudden as the moment when The Wizard of Oz shifted from black and white to color.”
It was more of the same in the television industry. Remember, at this time, there were only three networks: CBS, NBC and ABC. And in the sixties, all three fervently wanted to stay away from the civil rights movement, the growing feminism movement, the drug culture and the Vietnam war. To that end, viewers watched shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction and Green Acres (better known to insiders as “The Alfalfa Curtain.”) Westerns such as Gunsmoke and Bonanza were popular too. I thought Brownstein made an interesting comment about CBS. “Each night, CBS chronicled the increasingly tumultuous strains tearing at America on Walter Cronkite’s newscast and then spent the next 3.5 hours of primetime erasing what they had just seen.”
But by the end of the 60’s, something had to give. Television executives who long feared alienating their audiences with controversial content, felt the pressure to open up programming to something to which their audiences found more realistic. In 1968, ABC introduced the Mod Squad whose diverse undercover cops faced stories of drug abuse and police brutality and NBC broke new ground entirely with Julia. Diann Carroll was the first black lead in a prime-time comedy. This was quickly followed in 1969 by ABC’s Room 222 set in an integrated Los Angeles high school.
And then Norman Lear made all hell break loose. Lear is a famed television writer and political activist. His modest start included moving to L.A. from the east and selling furniture until a friend and he wrote a comedy routine for Danny Thomas which led to writing skits for variety shows like the Red Skelton Show In the 1950’s, some of the writers he learned from were Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.
It was Lear who bought the rights to a British show called Til Death Do Us Part. It was the story of a working-class British bigot and his family. Lear initially teamed up with ABC, but when they got cold feet, Lear moved his idea and pilot to CBS. In January, 1971, Archie Bunker and All in the Family hit the airwaves and the result was seismic. “Its language crashed like a rock through the television.” It was a comedy, but it had a lot to say about racism, antisemitism and homosexuality. The success of the show led to the Bunkers’ neighbors getting their own spin-off called The Jeffersons. Lear went on to write and produce Maude, Sanford and Son and One Day at a Time. New possibilities in television programming were on an entirely new trajectory.
There wasn’t really a generational confrontation that shifted the music industry. In the 60’s, London was the hotbed with the Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who along with dozens of other successful acts.
But a new Sound, a “cars and beach” vibe was developing in southern California. Fueled by The Beach Boys, that outdoorsy, sunny California Livin’ feeling became a landscape. Just listening to the music brought you there, it felt good. Somewhere in the mid-late 60’s, this sound began to shift with the literal arrival of songwriters moving there to be a part of that scene, triggering the emergence of a new icon: “the singer-songwriter telling unique truths mined from his or her own life.”
Powerhouse names of this new genre included Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Carole King, but their lives and music co-mingled with other greats like Linda Ronstadt, Glenn Frey, Jackson Browne, Graham Nash and David Crosby who were all hanging out in a place called Laurel Canyon, helping each other with songs, singing back-up for each other, and usually dating each other too. In fact, the famous Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY) song “Our House” was written by Nash who was living with Joni Mitchell at the time. As Danny Kortchmar, a guitarist and songwriter whose work contributed to the new Southern California Sound said “you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a genius.”
Ultimately, Brownstein admits that it isn’t exactly accurate to label 1974 as the pinnacle of new creative expression, it had been building for years, but “the dynamic that rejuvenated culture and politics in Los Angeles reached their fullest expression through 1974.” I need to add here that Brownstein is a political writer first, so his long chapters (“The Ballad of Tom and Jane” comes to mind) devoted to activists Tom Hayden and his wife Jane Fonda, along with the rise of Jerry Brown make sense in their overall contributions to the theme of the book, but with an apathy for politics, I moved passed those particular storylines.
“In film, 1974 saw the release of Chinatown, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, the war documentary Hearts and Minds, and Shampoo.
Transformative television comedies with All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show (a favorite of mine), Bob Newhart, Maude and The Carol Burnett Show were at their peak, all in the same year.
And in 1974, Joni Mitchell (Court and Spark) Jackson Browne (Late for the Sky) and Linda Ronstadt (Heart Like a Wheel) all released career-defining albums, Carly Simon struck gold with Hotcakes while Bob Dylan, The Band, The Eagles and CSNY all went on record setting concert tours. In 1974, these industries were at the top of their game. As Irving Azoff, who was the manager of The Eagles said about L.A. “the restaurants were magical, the clubs were magical, the people.” The creative minds of LA were collectively capturing and producing exactly what many Americans wanted to feel and see and hear.
But these moments are always fleeting. The movie Jaws was released in 1975 and with its type of storyline and engrossing effects and monster box office returns, the movie industry was veering into the time of the Blockbuster. Star Wars would arrive soon after.
With music, as Danny Kortchmar said “there’s only so much you can do with banjos and steel guitars and acoustic guitars.” Bruce Springsteen was about to release Born to Run and in New York, Bands like The New York Dolls were gaining new fans with an entirely new sound.
In television, some studio executives felt like people were tired of comedies with a message and some of the violence. To counter that kind of programming, Michael Eisner at ABC wanted a return to a type of “Alfalfa curtain” and created a new show which ironically first aired in 1974: Happy Days. This would be the show which would knock All in the Family out of first place in the ratings.
Without question, the book is dense with well-documented research. And for me, that was part of the problem. It was 778 pages. Well, the chapters totaled 630 pages. The remaining 148 pages are the Acknowledgments, Notes, and Index which inherently describes the nature of the book. All business.
Regardless, I got a lot out of this read, and I guess that’s the bottom line.