Rock Me on the Water

1974-The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics

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A readable look at American culture, circa (see the subtitle) 1974, with focus on (again, see the subtitle) the denizens of Los Angeles. It has twelve chapters, conveniently titled January, February, …

But that turns out to be kind of misleading. Many of the events the author, Ronald Brownstein, describes slop into years both before and after 1974. And the monthly chapter titles are cute, but not really relevant.

Brownstein writes as an unabashed fan about the showbiz folks, musicians, and politicians he admires. On TV, he liked M*A*S*H, All in the Family, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, … Movies: Chinatown, Shampoo, Jaws, Nashville, … Musicians: Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, … Actors: Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda, … Politicians? Just Jerry Brown, really. Tom Hayden, sort of.

The politics of the book are slanted left, reflecting the outlook of nearly all the subjects. Somewhat discordantly, since just about all those folks were propelled to fame and fortune by their active partnership with capitalist corporations, and their participation in the market economy. Nevertheless, Brownstein reserves his most fulsome praise for efforts that "expose" the corruption, racism, militarism, etc. of 70s America. He also describes (from his 21st century vantage) the overwhelmingly white-male control of 70s culture. (There's a side tour into the "blaxploitation" movie phenomenon, which caused me to stream the Pam Grier movie Coffy a few days ago.)

And cocaine. Lots of cocaine.

Brownstein details the "Icarus"-like career of Bert Schneider. He produced The Monkees! Also Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show. His anti-Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds won him an Oscar, and his acceptance speech at the 1975 ceremony cheered that "Vietnam is about to be liberated". Yes, by becoming a Communist dictatorship. He then proceeded to read a telegram from the head of the North Vietnamese delegation to the Paris peace talks. Before that, in 1974, he was deeply involved in a scheme to fly Huey Newton to Cuba, in order to avoid arrest and prosecution for shooting a 17-year-old prostitute in Oakland and assaulting a tailor fitting him for a suit.

Brownstein tut-tuts about Schneider's bad-boy behavior with sex and drugs, but can't seem to condemn his pro-Communist sympathies.

Brownstein really likes the adjective "brilliant": Amazon's "Look Inside the Book" search finds 30 occurrences. OK, we get it, Ron: you think they're brilliant.

Brownstein also gets a little too inside-baseball with his history. Do we really need to know about all these CBS vice chairmen and associate VPs?

One bit of sloppiness I noticed: on page 74, Linda Ronstadt is quoted as referring to "Jennifer Warren, who was a great singer." Boy, I'm 99.9% sure she was talking about Jennifer Warnes. (Don't know if the error was Linda's or Ron just mistranscribed the interview. As always, this is a warning flag about taking other details in the book with a grain of salt.

I was 23 years old in 1974, and (I confess) owned those musicians' albums, watched those movies and TV shows. I enjoyed reading the anecdotes Brownstein tells. His analysis of the era is simplistic and tendentious, but fortunately easy to ignore.

Last Modified 2024-06-02 10:47 AM EDT