Ron Brownstein’s ‘Rock Me On The Water’ Examines The Moment When L.A. “Reached The Zenith Of Its Cultural Influence”

Los Angeles’ turbulent year of mass Covid-19 closures, racial unrest and exacerbated homelessness has led to a somewhat predictable stream of media coverage tied to the notion that the California dream is ending.

If you lived for any length of time in the city, you’ve heard the pessimistic outlook all before, only to see the city recover.

That’s why Ron Brownstein’s new book Rock Me on the Water is a bit of a refresher that the City of Angels has had its very, very good moments, in particular the year 1974 — a time when Los Angeles’ creative energies in TV, music, movies and politics were all their high points. Those sectors of the culture certainly went through periods of renaissance before and since then, but this was a year when all was happening at once. New York, by contrast, was in a state of crisis, not that there was much of an inferiority complex in L.A. anyway, as Brownstein writes.

It’s a convincing case: It was the year of Chinatown and Shampoo. In music, it was the Eagles’ On the Border, Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky and Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel. In television, a revolution in programming was bringing the country’s social discord and mature themes to living rooms, after networks spent the 60s largely shunning controversy with rural comedies and escapist sitcoms. The difference was probably best personified by CBS’ Saturday night schedule in early 1974, considered the best lineup in TV history: All in the Family, followed by MASH, then The Mary Tyler Moore Show, then The Bob Newhart Show and ending with The Carol Burnett Show.

But the lineup did not last, nor did this burst of daring creativity in primetime. As Brownstein writes, government pressure in late 1974 led to the imposition of a “family hour” that triggered a network pullback.

“This moment of cultural and political renaissance in Los Angeles was fragile and fleeting,” Brownstein writes. “From within, it was hallowed out by a raging drug culture that cut through the music and film communities like wildfire. An array of outside forces, consolidated around 1975, also truncated this moment of peak Los Angeles influence.”

The book has its origins in Brownstein’s The Power and the Glitter, his 1990 book that, in a way never done before, captured of intersection of Hollywood and politics, and which featured many of the same players profiled in Rock Me on the Water. For this book, Brownstein interviewed just about anyone still living from that period, including Browne, Ronstadt, Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda, Peter Asher, Irving Azoff and Graham Nash. He elicits plenty of intriguing anecdotes, like details on producer Bert Schneider’s grandiose efforts to arrange to get Huey Newton out of the country to Cuba and evade a murder indictment. A couple years earlier, Newton and Beatty were at a gathering at Schneider’s home in which they bet $100 on whether voters would reject Richard Nixon for his re-election. They placed the money in a chandelier then forgot about it. Two decades later, when Beatty was looking at the home for temporary digs following the Northridge earthquake, he found it still there.

Deadline spoke to Brownstein about Rock Me on the Water, how it reflects what is going on today and about the future of Los Angeles.

DEADLINE: What keyed you in to 1974? How did you realize that was the year, or the through line for the book?

RON BROWNSTEIN: I was aware of the early ’70s being a great period in Hollywood. I left D.C. and moved back to Los Angeles at the beginning of 2014, and when I got here, I started listening — more than I had in my own youth, because I grew up in New York — I started listening to more of the California sound. Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles. And it definitely crossed my mind that, “Huh, this is occurring at the same time as the renaissance in Hollywood.” It was really after going to Norman Lear’s house for a political event early when I was here that it just kind of struck me like, “Wait a minute, All in the Family [was] on the air at the same time as the Eagles and Chinatown and Five Easy Pieces was happening. It was really that sequence: The movies had been in what they called the second golden age. There was all this great music happening, and the last piece that kind of clicked in my head was that television was transformed. And once those three cherries lined up in the slot machine, in my head I really started reading about this period. … As I say in the book, cultural eras don’t precisely follow the calendars. But the more that I looked at the span of the early ’70s — which is when this simultaneous renaissance was happening in movies, music, television and ultimately politics — I felt that ’74 was the fullest single expression of what happened. And it also was kind of a fleeting moment because it really is in ’75 that the cycle begins to turn away from L.A. and in many ways, as I argue, the kind of ’60s dreams of transforming society kind of end in the ’70s, and the L.A. renaissance kind of ends as well. And the cultural influence moves in different directions.

DEADLINE: To what extent to do think that this renaissance was a response to what was happening in Washington — the Nixon White House?

BROWNSTEIN: I think it clearly was a response to Nixon. I think that what happened was that the critique of American life that emerged in the ’60s that brought forward ideas that once would have been considered insurrectionary — like greater suspicion of authority and less deference to business, less deference to government, changing roles for women, changing relations between men and women, somewhat greater inclusion and tolerance of racial and sexual minorities — those ideas were largely resisted politically, as reflected in Nixon’s two victories, ’68 and ’72. His silent majority was composed of the voters who were the most uneasy with the changes that the ’60s were bringing to the country. But even as those ideas were being defeated politically … early ’70s Los Angeles is where they triumph culturally. And that was the time and the place where the ’60s critique of American life was embedded into popular culture irreversibly. Even while the ’60s critics of American life never won a decisive political victory at all — I mean, the Baby Boom ultimately proved to be extremely divided politically [producing Bill Clinton and Barack Obama on the left and George W. Bush and Donald Trump on the right] — it didn’t change the culture. Those ideas which were kind of insurrectionary in the ’60s are all really part of our mental architecture at this point. And the pop culture of the early ’70s, particularly the movies and television, above all, was the bridge through which all of those ideas enter the American mainstream. All of this was being produced at the same time, literally within blocks of each other. You have to think about the literary world in Paris in the ’20s or the modern art world in New York in the early ’50s. Those are the kind of precedents for that level of talent coming together in one place at one time, and all just producing the greatest work of their lives.

DEADLINE: Los Angeles also was a very different place then.

BROWNSTEIN: Shampoo takes place on election night 1968, and [there’s] a big Republican event for Nixon at one point. Sam Yorty, who was increasingly right-wing populist. … was mayor until 1973. The  business community was staunchly Republican. The L.A. Times was staunchly Republican. The city itself — Angelica Huston may be the most eloquent on this in the book — I mean, the city itself was a different place. It wasn’t the big global cosmopolitan capital that it is now. There were very few restaurants that were kind of the social scene. A lot of it took place in people’s houses. She talks about … moving out to L.A. [from New York] and riding horses and being unable to find fresh mozzarella because that was such a radical idea. It was still smog-covered. Jodie Foster told me stories about having, when she was a child actress, to stop filming because it was a smog day. Irving Azoff told great stories about the club circuit. The Troubadour, obviously. The Roxy as a competitor. The Ash Grove, while it was still open for part of this period. [L.A.] was a smaller place. It wasn’t the kind of globally influenced mega city that it is now. It was also a period where, Woody Allen’s vision and Annie Hall notwithstanding, L.A. was not looking to New York for validation.

DEADLINE: Let’s go to TV. Sometimes it is hard for people to realize how revolutionary it was then. There was an episode of Maude where she has an abortion. 

BROWNSTEIN: When I went to the Paley Center here and watched the first few episodes of All in the Family again … I was blown away. It came at me like a rock through the television screen. It was just hard to imagine that language today, much less 50 years ago. The first episode was in January ’71, 50 years ago. It’s especially striking if you think about what they came after. The whole decade of the ’60s was television and Hollywood pulling the blinds down and closing the windows against a shout in the street. … And that worked, and CBS was the leader in that strategy. The theory was you had to have something that could appeal as broadly as possible, which in practice meant it had to be acceptable to traditional rural audiences, and the urban audience are kind of slighted. But as you get later in the decade, and as you start to move into the ’70s, the same thing happens in TV that had happened a little earlier in movies and happened even earlier that music, which is that the buying power of the Baby Boom become unavoidable. You can’t ignore it anymore, you have to kind of look at this increasing share of the market. And Robert Wood … was a very unlikely revolutionary. He came out of Southern California, KNXT, very conservative Republican, USC football booster, Reagan fan, Nixon fan. He becomes president of CBS in 1969. He cancels The Smothers Brothers Show, which is one of their early attempts to try to connect to the changing culture. But ultimately under pressure from business side, which felt that even though they were the No. 1 network, they were kind of getting complaints that [CBS] may have the most farmers, but we kind of want these younger urban families. [Wood] wanted to show that [he] would that would begin to change the image of the network. … He put on Mary Tyler Moore in the fall of 1970, but then in January 71 was the real breakthrough — he put on All in the Family, which had been rejected twice by ABC but which had been produced by and created by Norman Lear… With All in the Family, he found a voice that he had never found before. It reminded him of his own upbringing with his father, and he produced this just kind of lightning bolt that was truly, I think, unlike anything TV had ever done before. It was the beginning of the road to peak TV.  The day that All in the Family went on the air is the beginning of the TV revolution that we’re living through now, because it established the idea that TV could meaningfully comment on the society around it, and didn’t have to just look away.

DEADLINE: Jerry Brown is in the same chapter as Chinatown. What is the connection? 

BROWNSTEIN: What really got Jerry Brown elected as governor in 1974 was that he was running on a cleaning-up-government agenda. He promoted a ballot proposition about government reform. His famous slogan was that he would limit lobbyists to buying elected officials two hamburgers and a Coke. And all of this was a reaction, not only to the cesspool that Sacramento was at that point, which it was, but more immediately to Watergate. I mean, Brown brilliantly positioned himself as a kind of generational response to the endemic corruption that Watergate represented. And Chinatown, like so many of the movies of that period, was really also about the endemic corruption in American society. I mean Chinatown, like Shampoo, commented on the kind of moral and social decay of Nixon-era America by exposing moral and systemic decay in an earlier version of Los Angeles. One of the reviewers described it as Watergate with real water because at the heart of the story is you don’t understand as much as you think you do. … And that was, in many ways, what was happening to America itself in the era from Vietnam through Watergate. Before Vietnam and Watergate, in polling most Americans said they trusted the government to do what was right most of the time. And we can’t even imagine that world anymore.

DEADLINE: This has been a tough year for L.A. What’s your outlook for the city? 

BROWNSTEIN: I do think L.A. has basically restored itself as the capital of the future and American life, more than not. The orientation toward Asia, on the one hand, and the tremendous presence of the creative industries. Both of those things kind of lean in to where the economy is going. So in that sense, I think that its long-term prospects for prosperity are good. But … it has among the most severe versions of the basic problems of all of these metros, which is that just enormous inequality. So many metros in the country have a model of creating a really attractive quality of life and attracting college graduates from elsewhere to fill their high-end jobs, rather than figuring out a way to get kids from their Black and Brown and low-income neighborhoods to actually be able to fill those jobs. So L.A. is not immune to that at all, and it’s suffering from that. But I think if you think about the strength of L.A. in the info-age industries — particularly everything to do with entertainment — if you think about all the ties to Asia, and also the way in which the city is really focusing on clean energy, which is probably going to be the gold rush of the next 30 years, in all those different ways, the bottom-line number is going to be good. It’s going to be prosperous. It’s going to grow, it’s going to have tax revenue. But whether it does any better than Denver or Austin or Seattle or New York or Boston or Chicago — literally every major city in the country faces the same dynamic.

DEADLINE: Could there be another moment like L.A. saw in 1974 — a renaissance? 

BROWNSTEIN: The thing that was unique about the early ’70s was that all three of the big entertainment industries were at a high point. There’s obviously been other points when L.A. has been influential. You could argue that peak TV is another point for television. I think that’s indisputable. You could argue that kind of the hip hop of the ’80s and ’90s was another high point for music out of California. I think that’s indisputable. I think it’s probably harder to see a real apex for cinema since then. But I think what made it unique was it was all happening at once. It will be hard to have that come up again and that way, that all the dials hit cherry at the same time. But I also think that the way the explosion of the channels for distributing content makes it harder for any one place to be the locus of everything, because there’s so much on. Just like, there’s no David Broder anymore. There’s no R.W. Apple. There’s no Walter Cronkite. The job just doesn’t exist because there’s just too much to flow through any one channel. And I think that’s probably true for cities as well.

I will say when I asked Jackson Browne what was the most creative period in L.A. music he’s ever been associated with, he said, “Last night.” And I get that. There is this perennial process of reinvention. I just think what made the earlier period that I write about so usual is that they were all firing on all cylinders. And I’m not sure if that’s going to happen again anytime soon. I mean, Hollywood is the most interesting one of the three, because many purists, many cinephiles would say that it’s been a rough several decades, as the kind of the tentpole phenomenon has just eaten the industry, and the only things that get made are the things that can open not only 2,000 theaters in the U.S. and another 500 in China, and that requires you to have superheroes or sci-fi or something that doesn’t have real cultural boundaries. On the other hand, things are happening that have the potential to rejuvenate the kind of socially aware filmmaking. One is that Hollywood really is facing the most pressure I think it ever has to be more inclusive in the kinds of voices, whose stories are told and how they’re told. And so that’s kind of opening it up to kind of new possibilities, and even as that’s happening, the shift of more movies toward direct to streaming probably makes it more possible to make that $15 million or $30 million socially aware movie that now won’t have to open in 2,000 screens. So you could see how those trends — more streaming, more diversity of voices — you can see how they could intersect to allow Hollywood to become more relevant to our cultural conversation than it’s been at most points really since the ’70s.

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