The year 1974 was a tumultuous, if not a transitional, year in modern history. The Watergate scandal was spreading like wildfire and ended up scorching Richard Nixon’s presidency. Newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped by a fringe militant group called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). North America was recovering from an energy crisis that arose as a result of the 1973 Yom Kippur War in the Middle East. The Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Flyers and Oakland A’s dominated the sports world by winning their respective pro sports championships. It was a year when the 60’s officially ended and the 70’s began with a bang.
However, for a brief, shining moment, the year 1974 became a revolutionary year in TV, movies, rock music and politics, and it was all germinating from its somewhat obvious nucleus: the city of Los Angeles. During those landmark 12 months, L.A.’s entertainment and political scene woke up from its stodgy predecessors during the 50s and 60s, and its creations transformed the way we were entertained and how its leaders governed; it was basically a world created by a mostly younger generation that was aimed at its peers to consume and absorb.
And yet, no sooner had it started, this remarkable L.A.-based cultural and political transformation ended its run by the time 1975 rolled around. However, its legacy has been long-remembered and far-reaching, and is fondly recalled in Ronald Brownstein’s book Rock Me On the Water.
Brownstein, a veteran reporter and current CNN political analyst, has written a book (whose title is taken from a song by Jackson Browne) that is like a study in politics and popular culture, and how all of its circumstances and dramatis personae practically converged together to bloom in the space of one short year, within the confines of a paradise-like city at the far western end of the United States.
It reads like a stage play, in which the acts are each month of 1974, and its scenes involve the four disciplines that Brownstein has made its focus. There’s music, where a new California sound emerges from a mix of rock, country and folk thanks to Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles, all under the guidance of David Geffen and his newly-formed record label Asylum Records. In movies, there’s Roman Polanski, Robert Towne and Jack Nicholson, whose Watergate parable film noir “Chinatown” is about to be released on an unsuspected movie going public; and Warren Beatty, who is in the middle of shooting the memorable dramedy “Shampoo” that will try to make sense of the late 1960s on the night Nixon was first elected president. In TV, there’s Norman Lear, the veteran writer and producer who is on top of the television world as the creative force behind such socially-relevant sitcoms as “Good Times”, “Sanford and Son”, “Maude”, “The Jeffersons” and his flagship show “All in the Family”, which by 1974 was at the peak of its popularity and was about to experience its fourth year in a row as the #1 rated TV show in America; and with great support from “The Mary Tyler Moore” and “M*A*S*H”, viewers were learning how to laugh and be reflective at the same time about the issues these sitcoms were presenting. And in politics, California voters were witnessing how local and state politics were leaving the stodgy, old school style of L.A. mayor Sam Yorty and Governor Ronald Reagan thanks to future mayor Tom Bradley, future governor Jerry Brown, and the anti-Vietnam War activism of Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden.
This is not just a regurgitation of familiar facts of the events of this transitional year. Brownstein uses his journalistic acumen to great extent, has he gives the reader the background story of each of these scenes and the players that are involved from their difficult starts and rocky roads that brought them to their respective pinnacles of influence; and he does with a great deal of attention to details and research, as we find out how these players slowly rose up from obscurity and mediocrity. And there’s plenty of highly readable stories of the supporting players who played their part, but mostly from the wings. A great example is film and TV producer Bert Schneider, who for a decade starting from the mid-60s, had a meteoric rise of unconventional fame as the man behind The Monkees, Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, but threw it all away in a wave of personal excess and radical activism (especially with the Black Panthers), and came to a crashing halt in 1975, when he accepted the Best Documentary Oscar at that year’s Academy Awards ceremony, for the controversial anti-Vietnam War film “Hearts and Minds”, read aloud a congratulatory telegram from the government of North Vietnam.
And like I wrote earlier, it all came to a quick, rather inglorious end as 1975 began. The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne still recorded hit songs and albums throughout the remainder of the decade, but were overwhelmed by the onslaught of mainstream pop music; the success of relevant movies like Chinatown, Shampoo and The Godfather, Part II quickly ceded their popularity to another movie that was filmed in 1974 – Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” — which launched the ongoing phenomenon of the multi-million dollar summer movie blockbuster; shows like “All in the Family” surrendered their influence on the TV world and the top spot in the ratings to more softer sitcoms like “Happy Days”, “Laverne & Shirley” and “Mork and Mindy”; and new wave politicians like Jerry Brown began to lose ground to populists like Jimmy Carter, and went the mainstream route like their predecessors. And Los Angeles lost its power as a major entertainment and political center to its other metropolitan rivals, New York and Chicago.
Rock Me On the Water is a fascinating, panoramic look at how a generation that protested what was wrong with America during the 60s, managed to exert their influence on what we watched, listened to and voted for from their base in the City of Angels that had such a far reaching ripple effect, only to lose that vital grasp on the society that they helped to create after only 12 short months on top of the mountain.