Harper, 439 pages, $29.99
It is easy to think of transformative years. Some are obvious: 1776, 1861, 1914, 2001, last year. Others are notable, but do not immediately leap to mind: 1831 (I wrote a book about that year), 1877, 1968, 1989. Ronald Brownstein, a senior editor at the Atlantic and political analyst for CNN, offers 1974 as a pivotal year in which Los Angeles took center stage as a cultural broker that “transformed movies, music, television, and politics.”
For anyone of a certain age (Brownstein and I were both teenagers in 1974), the films, shows, and songs that he discusses evoke strong feelings. The movies include Chinatown and The Godfather Part II (somehow he omits Blazing Saddles, though it was the highest grossing film of the year); albums comprise work by Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, and the Eagles; television encompasses the famous CBS Saturday night lineup of All in the Family, M.A.S.H., The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show (all of which began before 1974); American politics embraces the activism of Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda and the election of Jerry Brown as governor of California.
Brownstein adopts a month-by-month approach to telling the story. Although appealing as a narrative device, doing so makes it more difficult to analyze the categories and draw connections between them. He is less engaged in offering close readings of any of the films, shows, or songs than in the personalities who made and promoted the work. What lifts the book out of familiar terrain (the story of All in the Family has been told many times) are the interviews with actors, singers, writers, producers, and executives who reflect on the creative urgency of the ’70s.
One of the central figures is David Geffen, the well-known billionaire businessman who started by representing artists and then co-founded Asylum Records to produce and distribute their work. Geffen comes across as smart, ambitious, and avaricious. “You have to realize that Geffen was there for Geffen,” recalls Graham Nash. But Geffen admired the songwriters and appreciated them as artists. Jackson Browne, for example, felt he erased the distinction between the creative side and the business side. Jon Landau, Bruce Springsteen’s longtime manager and producer, observes there was not “a Geffen sound, but a Geffen sensibility,” artists you would hear who belonged on the Asylum label.
Landau was alluding to a particular version of Los Angeles folk rock that differed from the sound of the previous decade. An analogous move, Brownstein argues, took place in politics, as Hayden and Fonda essentially unplugged; they softened their earlier stance as revolutionaries and, instead, through the Indochina Peace Campaign, began lobbying to effect change. The system seemed to be working, as evidenced by cuts in funding for the Vietnam War and the triumph that fall of liberal Democrats, including the election of Jerry Brown.
Brown rode to victory “with an agenda and persona that stressed social change while maintaining a skeptical distance from government.” Brownstein says the candidate also related to the bleak vision of social corruption and personal despair evident in films such as Chinatown and Shampoo. Brown’s attempt to revive Democratic politics in the aftermath of Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial reign ultimately unraveled as he soon came to be mocked as “Governor Moonbeam,” the untraditional candidate of New Age idealists.
Hollywood also lost its political tenacity as films that once challenged viewers yielded to mass entertainment. Brownstein presents a dual portrait of Robert Altman’s Nashville and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, both filmed in 1974 and released in 1975. The one represented a last gasp of movies from the 1960s that probed the American character (think Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, both 1967), and the other launched a movement toward summer blockbusters. As Brownstein is aware, these shifts are not as neat as he suggests. Dog Day Afternoon, for example, also appeared in 1975. It is telling, nonetheless, that George Lucas, in the aftermath of American Graffiti (1973), declared that he wanted to make a movie “where people felt better coming out of the theater than when they went in.”
Such was not the case with Hearts and Minds, the searing documentary about Vietnam released in 1974. Producer Bert Schneider never abandoned radical politics: He plotted and financed Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton’s escape to Cuba. Directed by Peter Davis, Hearts and Minds won the Oscar for best documentary. The story told here is less about the film than Schneider, who became increasingly destabilized from drug use and only upon his death in 2011 was remembered as a force behind Hollywood’s transformation in the 1960s and 1970s.
Brownstein’s profiles of the producers and writers behind the scenes are one of the book’s strengths. Especially noteworthy is his discussion of the writing team of Mary Kay Place and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who helped modify staid depictions of women on television with episodes for M.A.S.H., Maude, and other shows. The gradual transformation of their role in Hollywood began in the 1970s. So too for Black artists, though some of that success originated with blaxploitation films that perpetuated offensive stereotypes.
In the end, Rock Me on the Water is only partially about 1974. More to the point, Brownstein traces the currents that emanated from Los Angeles and engulfed American culture in the 1970s. The book will have done its work if it inspires readers to revisit these films, shows, and songs. I suggest starting with the tune that gives Brownstein his title, a Jackson Browne spiritual that appeared on his debut album in 1972.