The Eagles took it too easy, Debbie lit up our lives and Bruce (the shark) scared us to death
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Atlantic senior editor Ronald Brownstein makes a compelling case that Los Angeles never so thoroughly dominated popular culture as it did in the mid-1970s. In every field of mass entertainment, L.A.-based artists were remaking the mainstream in the image of the counterculture of five years prior. Popular music blended genres and turned inward. Television and film presented a more inclusive patchwork of American faces and voices while challenging the reigning received wisdom. Politics turned increasingly personal, serving as an expression of one’s identity and vision for the natural and social ecology.
Whether the auteurs were Roman Polanski and Francis Ford Coppola at the cinema, Carroll O’Connor and Alan Alda on television, the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt on turntables, or Tom Bradley and Jerry Brown on ballots, inroads by the formerly avant garde peppered everyday life. And all were based in Los Angeles—at least for a New York minute, Brownstein argues. The age of Hollywood blockbusters like Jaws, nostalgic sitcoms like Happy Days, Debbie Boone lighting up our lives, and Ronald Reagan were just around the bend.
By 1974, Los Angeles offered an alternate cultural dynamo to a country rapidly losing faith in conventional sources of power, institutional and social. While the likes of Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden, whose life and work together Brownstein thoughtfully profiles, did not succeed in remaking politics qua politics, they did remake cultural politics. Mass entertainment emanating from Los Angeles cast a thoroughly skeptical eye on the American Dream while glamorizing hedonisms scant years before it was regarded as the lotus-eating domain of renegades. Angelenos in “the business” had, in fact, found a place to make their stand AND take it easy.
Rock Me on the Water reaches beyond affirmation and appreciation. Plenty of other fine works have covered this time and place, including John Einarson in his 2001 book Desperados: The Roots of Country Rock and Mark Harris’s 2009 Pictures at a Revolution. Rock Me interrogates the era’s entertainment business, to a great extent through interviews with Fonda, Ronstadt, and Peter Bogdanovich, among many figures the book touches on. Brownstein particularly illuminates the persistent hold of an old boys’ network whose grip kept women from working behind the camera. A standout passage stars television writer Treva Silverman, best known for her work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The first woman to win a writing Emmy of her own, Silverman earned the award in 1974 for an episode in which Lou Grant’s wife leaves him. At the time and for many years after, male producers ritualistically teamed female writers with a male co-writer. As a witness Silverman recounts her struggle to build a career in this setting. She gives the reader a fly’s-eye view of head-to-head combat in the MTM writers’ room as she fought to infuse female characters with more depth and nuance than male counterparts—and to an extent Moore herself, who largely deferred to the writers’ take on characters—initially imagined. Silverman eventually was able to recast protagonist Mary Richards as frequently conflicted as she navigated the evolving societal terrain the series portrayed.
Beautifully written and brimming with great stories and tidbits, Rock Me on the Water compellingly examines a cultural moment readers will find quite familiar. Brownstein does give short shrift to LA-based Black popular culture, however. A chapter addresses blaxploitation films but the author misses a beat in his characterization of the relocation to LA of Motown Records. As much as any other single event, Motown’s exit from Detroit personified the westward trajectory of American entertainment, but Brownstein presents the move as part of Barry Gordy’s largely unsuccessful bid to get into the movie business rather than as illustrating LA’s new status as the launch pad for all things cutting edge. Nevertheless, Rock Me on the Water is one of the year’s most engrossing books about popular entertainment. It achieves the rare feat of being immediately essential reading on its subject. —Clayton Trutor teaches History at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont. His book Loserville: How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta and Atlanta Remade Professional Sports will be released in September by the University of Nebraska Press.