- March 23, 2021
ROCK ME ON THE WATER
1974 — The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics
By Ronald Brownstein
In 1974, the most popular TV show in America was a comedy that put a racist, sexist homophobe center stage, then let him rant, impotently, against the churning social change all around him. Some 20 million households tuned in every Saturday night to watch Archie Bunker and his dysfunctional clan hash it out. After “All in the Family,” most of those TVs stayed tuned to CBS for “M*A*S*H,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show” — a lineup of socially conscious shows that some critics have called the greatest night in television history.
It was also a singular year for movies and popular music; you could see “Chinatown,” “The Godfather Part II” and “The Conversation” at your local movie theater, and listen to new, career-defining albums from Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt or Bob Dylan. All of it was produced in Los Angeles. As Ronald Brownstein writes in “Rock Me on the Water,” his in-depth tour of the city’s pop culture in 1974, “Those 12 glittering months represented magic hour.” He paints Los Angeles then as a kind of patchouli-scented version of Florence during the Renaissance.
These are not new stories, of course — the brief window of early-1970s creative filmmaking, the Laurel Canyon music scene, the golden era of television. All have been relentlessly examined, artifacts of a once-mighty baby boomer civilization. What Brownstein has done is expertly knit the scenes together, giving the reader a plus-one invite to the heady world of Hollywood parties, jam sessions and pitch meetings, as well as a pointed demonstration of how culture can be made and unmade. By the time we approach the end of that fascinating year, it’s clear that the creative frenzy is about to come to a screeching halt.
What was it about Los Angeles in the early 1970s that attracted so many creative people? It had always been a mecca for film. But now it drew young musicians, who felt free to experiment. Some wanted to escape the dirty decay of New York, which was on the brink of bankruptcy. Los Angeles offered not just sunshine and cheap housing, but something more elusive, and more explosive: hope that the social and political activism of the previous decade was yielding fruit. The city’s first (and only) Black mayor, Tom Bradley, had just been elected in 1973.
Brownstein, a political analyst for The Atlantic and CNN, who also worked for The Los Angeles Times for many years, is the author of several well-regarded books about politics. He points out that Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974, just as 36-year-old Jerry Brown, promising a fresh vision, was elected California’s governor. (Brown went on to date Linda Ronstadt.) But this book is more interested in how politics and Hollywood ricocheted off each other. One chapter considers Jane Fonda and her left-wing political awakening during her marriage to the activist Tom Hayden. The earthquake they wanted to set off in Washington never came, while in the cultural realm, as Brownstein chronicles, America convulsed with change. More permissive attitudes about sex and drugs, a perception that the American dream was not only unattainable but rotten at the core — this new sensibility charged up the films, music and television that Los Angeles exported to the rest of the country, and the world.