By David R. Altman
If you're a baby boomer, particularly one born between 1948 and 1958, there's new book out there that might explain your generation better than you remember it.
Ronald Brownstein, a writer/editor for The Atlantic and former national correspondent for CNN, has written an absorbing new book that defines the year 1974 as "…the year that Los Angeles…exerted more influence over popular culture than any other city in America."
The classic television shows spawned in this period included All in the Family, M.A.S.H., and Mary Tyler Moore; and the movies included Chinatown and Godfather II, arguably two of the greatest films of all time.
Brownstein wrote that this era spawned The Eagles, Crosby Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell, and Jackson Browne (who wrote two of the Eagles’ earliest hits, “Already Gone” and “Take it Easy”). It was also Browne’s hit song, Rock Me on the Water, that Brownstein chose as the title for the book.
The author’s look behind the scenes also included record company producers like David Geffen, an energetic young entrepreneur who formed Asylum Records, which at one point had signed stars including Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, The Byrds, Tom Waits and Linda Ronstadt.
The year 1974 was described as a "...New Wave that revitalized Hollywood, [creating] the smooth Southern California sound that ruled the radio airwaves [and] the torrent of groundbreaking comedies.”
To write the book, the former political reporter conducted dozens of interviews with many of the celebrities he wrote about, including Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, Jodie Foster, Norman Lear, James L. Brooks, Jane Fonda and Rob Reiner.
A deep dive into the California rock and roll scene and the recording artists that made it famous, featured fascinating background on The Eagles, from their genesis as Linda Ronstadt’s backup band to their ultimate signing by David Geffen. The Eagles, often thought of one of rock’s greatest groups, evolved from what Brownstein called a country-type, ballad-style band to the hard -edged sound that came to be heard on songs like “Life in the Fast Lane” and “Hotel California.”
The television airwaves in 1974 were led by All in the Family, which Brownstein documents from its inception to production to is inevitably inglorious conclusion. It became one of the most highly rated TV shows of all time.
Brownstein writes that the three major television networks, led by CBS, began to tire of "social issue or confrontation comedy" made famous by the celebrated Saturday night lineup that included All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett--perhaps the highest rated single night of television for any one network in history.
CBS led the way with spinoff's featuring social commentary, where M.A.S.H. set new ratings records. But after Bea Arthur's character in Maude decided to have an abortion on one episode (at age 47), Brownstein wrote that this one occurrence "led to growing complaints about violence [and sex] on television from conservatives" in Congress.
Research showed American's were tiring "from all the national tensions that the Bunker household" generated each week, wrote Brownstein.
Instead of All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore, (and spinoffs Maude & The Jeffersons) Americans made Happy Days it's number one show, followed by Laverne & Shirley and Three’s Company. These shows, reflecting a shift in public opinion, resulted from the creation of the “family hour” between 7 and 8 p.m.
Brownstein wrote that ABC's programming chief (and former CBS executive) Fred Silverman, "...divided his prime-time offerings between inanity for kids and titillation for adults", using Happy Days and Charlie’s Angels as examples.
Brownstein points out that many opportunities were created for women and minorities in that one year, often in jobs that had never been occupied by women. He featured groundbreaking writers alike Mary Kay Place and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who together wrote award- winning episodes of M.A.S.H. Later, Bloodworth-Thomason would create the hit series Designing Women.
You will read how stars Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty (born about a month apart in 1937) became close friends, even with their totally different personalities both on and off the screen. They even dated several of the same women, including Michelle Phillips of Mamas and Papas fame and singer Carly Simon, who "immortalized" Beatty in her hit song, "You're So Vain". Interestingly, Nicholson's first acing job, after working in the mailroom at MGM, was on Divorce Court (remember that one?).
Both actors were involved in films that would help to capture the turbulence of Hollywood, Nicholson’s Chinatown and Beatty’s Bonny & Clyde, released seven years earlier, were films that reflected—in different ways--the social and political upheaval of the Vietnam/Watergate era.
The author moves seamlessly from Hollywood to television to rock and roll and then politics. His revealing chapter on Jane Fonda's marriage to activist Tom Hayden and Jerry Brown’s successful run for governor reflected the chaos and trend-setting drama that originated in L.A.
For those of you who lived through the heyday of the late sixties through the mid-seventies (I would imagine that covers most of you reading this column), this book is part history and part drama, and you will be anxiously turning the page to find out what else you didn’t remember about 1974.