Book Review:  Rock Me on the Water: 1974: The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics by Ronald Brownstein

Whether or not its premise is entirely accurate, this book is brilliant. The premise is embodied in the subtitle. According to Brownstein, 1974 was the pivotal year in which Los Angeles became the epicenter of the entertainment industry and radically altered perceptions and directions in films, TV, music, and politics. Each month has its chapter and focuses on a distinct industry. To prove his points, Brownstein elicits examples of major players such as Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg, Bert Schneider, and numerous others in film; Norman Lear, James L. Brooks, and others in television; Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, the Eagles, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young in music; and Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, and governor Jerry Brown in politics. He delves into the making of such hits as Chinatown, The Godfather Part II, Nashville, Shampoo, Jaws, and Hearts and Minds; All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and MASH; and several of the rock albums that defined the era.

In 1974 I was twenty-one years old. I was back living and working in Seattle after my one drug-suffused year of college in northern California. At that time I had substituted drinking for drugs, for the most part at least, and on the weekends I’d go out with a buddy and one girlfriend or another to bars and parties and invariably over-imbibe. I was in a stage of transition – aimless in a sense I suppose, but I already knew I wanted to be a writer, and the thoughts and ambitions I was formulating would eventually, in a year or two, propel me out onto the open road to Central America, Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent. In the meantime, besides the books that I voraciously devoured, I followed what was happening in popular culture. I remember most of these artists that Brownstein tells of and what my attitude had been towards them. What fascinated me as I read the back stories behind the seminal works of the period is how Brownstein amalgamates all these efforts into a coherent picture of what underlying artistic and historic trends were the motivations for these outstanding efforts. His research is exhaustive. When writing of Shampoo, for instance, he delves into producer and actor Warren Beatty’s entire career and the decisions that brought him to create this singular film. Likewise when telling the story of the radical political efforts of Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden, he traces their personal histories so that readers understand what brought them together and caused them to unite romantically and in protest of the war in Vietnam. He also delves into the difficulties that women and Black artists experienced, as for the most part during this era they were shut out of positions of responsibility in the entertainment industry.

I experienced intense nostalgia as I read this book. Not that things were so much better for me back in 1974. I was messed up in a lot of ways; one of the main reasons is that I was clinging to the past and had not yet cut loose and gone out to seek my destiny. But there were good times too, and some of those good times were when I would get lost while experiencing absorbing films, TV, and music.

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1 Response to Book Review:  Rock Me on the Water: 1974: The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics by Ronald Brownstein

  1. Pingback: Book Review:  Like a Rolling Stone: A Memoir by Jann S. Wenner; Part One: The Era | John Walters

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