Ronald Brownstein's "Rock Me on the Water: 1974 - The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television and Politics" gives a more complex analysis of Los Angeles-centered pop culture in the 1970s than implied by the book's misleading subtitle.
While Brownstein cites the release of breakthrough albums by singers Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt, the release of "Chinatown" and "The Godfather Part 2," and Jerry Brown's winning the California governorship, the book makes a case for other landmark years beyond the arbitrary selection of 1974. He probes cultural changes from the 1960s through the end of the 1970s, not limiting his narrative to that year.
A senior editor at the Atlantic and a CNN political correspondent, Brownstein champions Los Angeles as the center of American culture in the 1960s and 1970s, citing the city's movie, television and music industries. Although Brownstein covers a lot of familiar ground, he gives a fresh perspective in placing the creative endeavors together. He gives detailed biographies of lesser known screenwriters, producers and musicians.
In television, he cites CBS' ground-breaking “All in the Family," "MASH” and "Mary Tyler Moore Show," all of which appeared before 1974 and already at their peak popularity.
While the shows were produced in Los Angeles, the decisions to place them on the air were made at CBS' headquarters in New York City. And executives at "Black Rock" decided what was permissible in the show's scripts.
CBS' hit shows appeared together in a dynamite Saturday night lineup that drew millions of viewers, long before the rise of cable TV and streaming. Network TV's dominance and massive Saturday night ratings are hard to imagine now that the night is a TV graveyard except for college football.
Along with the innovative and controversial "All in the Family," "MASH" and "Mary Tyler Moore," the network's Saturday night closed with the middle-American comedies "The Bob Newhart Show" and "Carol Burnett Show."
While "All in the Family" still appears revolutionary, the book points out that lead actor Carroll O'Connor made bigot Archie Bunker appealing and that many in the audience probably agreed with his views. In an interesting diversion, Brownstein examines O'Connor's bitter dispute with series creator Norman Lear. O'Connor wanted more money and control over the series, which Lear refused to give.
After moving to Monday night, "MASH" continued to receive huge ratings, its comic appeal overriding its anti-war attitudes. Its finale in 1983 was at the time the most highly rated show ever. But as Brownstein relates, American tastes turned to the All-American wholesomeness of ABC's "Happy Days."
Later shows like NBC's "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue" in retrospect had more long-term revolutionary significance for the rise of shows like HBO's "The Wire" and "The Sopranos." Brownstein doesn't delve into whether "All in the Family" and its spinoffs had any long-term influence.
"Chinatown," "Godfather Part 2" and Robert Altman's "Nashville" represented the end of the revolutionary era of independent films begun by "Easy Rider," "Five Easy Pieces" and "The Graduate," as Brownstein points out. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, members of a younger generation, ended the era of social commentary in films. Spielberg's "Jaws" and Lucas' "American Graffitti" and "Star Wars" brought the era of mass-entertainment blockbusters.
In music, Brownstein looks at how mogul David Geffen boosted the careers of Browne, Ronstadt and the Eagles. He also touches upon the influential careers of Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Geffen's management led to developments like stadium tours, as Brownstein relates.
Yet Geffen's Los Angeles dominance didn't last. He failed in efforts to sign Bob Dylan to a long-term record deal. And New York and London's punk rock scene countered the rock-star excesses of Geffen's groups. While Browne, Ronstadt and the Eagles reached mainstream popularity, their careers were overwhelmed by a truly transformational talent, Bruce Springsteen, whom Brownstein briefly mentions.
Brownstein's weakest argument is that Brown was a major influence in national politics. He looks at Brown's fitful efforts to gain the Democratic presidential nomination without establishing the long-term relevance of his ideas. Little mention is made of Jimmy Carter's presidency or Ronald Reagan's.
While Brownstein's premise is overstated, he presents a valuable comprehensive survey of Los Angeles' culture during the transition from the socially conscious 1960s to the materialistic 1970s. A sense of loss prevails rather than triumph.