REMEMBER THE ROLODEX? That pre-cell-phone directory that looked like a duck with earmuffs: a circular card index file for contact names, numbers, and addresses. How about the encyclopedia, that pre-Google multivolume storage system for information from A to Z. Ronald Brownstein, the senior political analyst for CNN and a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, has both of them beat. In his brilliant cultural history, Rock Me on the Water: 1974 — The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television and Politics, Brownstein drops enough names to fill the once-massive Los Angeles phone book (remember those?), elicits memorable moments from several entertainment industries, and recalls political machinations across decades.

His laser focus on the “creative summit” of 1974 designates that 12-month period as a “New Wave that revitalized Hollywood” in which Los Angeles “exerted more influence over popular culture than any other city in America.” Films shifted from a “steady procession of World War II movies, Westerns, musicals, and above all, gargantuan historical epics” toward more edgy offerings that “fundamentally challenged America’s self-image” with visions of social and sexual freedom. At the same time, music introduced the “smooth Southern California sound that ruled the album charts and radio airwaves,” and television brought “sophistication and provocation” to prime time with pathbreaking comedies.

Brownstein is astute enough to acknowledge that “cultural eras don’t precisely follow the calendar.” Pathbreaking years are often decades in the making. In his analysis, 1974 marked the generational change that was precipitated by political activists in the 1960s and that stretched into the 1980s and beyond. Each chapter of Rock Me on the Water tracks a single month in the development of the media he examines — that “extraordinarily creative period” when you “couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a genius.” The prologue is front-loaded with a cascading card catalog of legendary names:

  • From movies: Robert Altman, Warren Beatty, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Jack Nicholson, Gordon Parks, Arthur Penn, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Robert Towne;
  • From music: Jackson Browne; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; the Eagles; Carole King; Joni Mitchell; Linda Ronstadt; James Taylor; Bill Withers;
  • From television: Alan Alda, James L. Brooks, Allan Burns, Larry Gelbart, Norman Lear, Mary Tyler Moore, Carroll O’Connor, Rob Reiner;
  • From politics: Jerry Brown, Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden.

Brownstein calls all of these figures (and more) to center stage and then brings them to life as his coverage moves from month to month.

The first three chapters, covering January through March, establish the format. After a general overview of his subject (in order, movies, music, television), he homes in on specific individuals and their creative contributions. Brief biographical sketches — including information on when and how they arrived in Los Angeles — illuminate their characters and careers. In the January chapter, a section on “Hollywood’s Fall and Rise” spotlights Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, while February unites Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt as the “Republic of Rock and Roll,” and March watches as Carroll O’Connor, Mary Tyler Moore, and Alan Alda turn Saturdays into the “Greatest Night in Television History.”

Accounts have Nicholson and Beatty meeting in 1970 in Vancouver. Each was headlining major new movies: Nicholson in Mike Nichols’s Carnal Knowledge (1971), Beatty in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971). They “bonded quickly” because they respected each other’s work and understood each other’s distinctive personalities. Their temperaments seemed to make them “unlikely friends”: Nicholson was “gregarious, sociable, happiest in a crowd,” while Beatty was “veiled, reticent, best known to many of his friends as a disembodied late-night voice on the phone.” Add in aspiring screenwriter Robert Towne as catalyst and you have the career explosion the two actors enjoyed in the mid-1970s, with Nicholson in Chinatown (1974) and Beatty in Shampoo (1975) — films that came to define Hollywood’s renaissance.

As he does with other celebrities throughout the book, Brownstein carefully explores how Nicholson and Beatty fit into and formed their genres. While Nicholson rose from his career-defining supporting role in Dennis Hopper’s revolutionary Easy Rider (1969), Beatty’s star turn in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961) established him as a romantic lead who could morph into the “sexy and restless, captivating but elusive” Clyde Barrow in Arthur Penn’s controversial Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (both ironically set in earlier times) gave each actor indelible roles while providing the “style, liberation, and rebellion” that characterized the period.

Just as movies were ushering in edgier material, the music industry was introducing the “new sound” of California, of “summer sunshine and open roads.” With their hopes, frustrations, and breakthroughs, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt were leaders of this movement. Indeed, it’s Browne’s song — and Ronstadt’s performance of it — that gives Brownstein the title for his book: “Rock Me on the Water” (from Browne’s 1972 debut album) was a “rock-gospel blend with evocative lyrics that veered from spirituality to sexuality and back again”; its “guarded optimism” provided the “moment of maximum cultural influence” for emerging new voices.

Browne and Ronstadt seemed as unlikely a duo in their field as Nicholson and Beatty were in theirs. Hailing from the conservative areas of Orange County, California, and Tucson, Arizona, respectively, the two had similar childhoods and aspirations. Their music was a “smooth blend of rock and folk with country influences,” and they “absorbed influences from many styles.” When Browne was growing up, his house was “always ringing with blues, jazz, and folk records,” while Ronstadt listened to radio stations from Chicago and Tennessee, especially (in her words) “rhythm-and-blues stations and white and Black gospel stations […] a ton of Mexican music […] a lot of dance band music.” She was aware of the “labor movement and civil rights struggles,” and the folk revival music of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. Browne relied on the stories in folk music to provide an alternative history to the “close-minded and oppressive” teaching he was experiencing in the classroom.

All of this translated into paying their dues with long nights on the road, to the point that Browne didn’t even recall playing Carnegie Hall in New York City. Ronstadt played small clubs, made appearances at the famed Troubadour on the Sunset Strip and the Palomino Club in North Hollywood. Browne, the songwriter, opened for Ronstadt, the voice, in 1969 at the Troubadour. Other singer-songwriter acts like James Taylor and Carole King also offered “music of generational transition.” The catalog grew with the Byrds, the Eagles, and Joni Mitchell. Artists were “examining relationships as intently as the best filmmakers” and “beginning to explore corruption and abuse of power […] all toward the same end: constructing an alternative vision of how a new generation of Americans might live their lives.” They were all searching for a “greater authenticity.”

Meanwhile, the greatest social leveler of them all — television — was forging its own new path. Saturday nights became essential viewing. Audiences accustomed to being fed “banal comedies celebrating the simple wisdom of rural life,” such as The Beverly Hillbillies (1962–’71), Petticoat Junction (1963–’70), and The Andy Griffith Show (1960–’68), were soon offered a menu featuring an outspoken bigot, an independent woman, and an irreverent gaggle of army surgeons.

Once Brownstein establishes his organizational pattern, Rock Me on the Water segues seamlessly between movies, music, and television, often adding politics to the mix. There is an overlap among these forms when Beatty befriends record producer David Geffen, whose sensibility was based around “melodious singer-songwriters” like Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro, and Ronstadt starts dating future California governor Jerry Brown. It was Jane Fonda’s marriage to Tom Hayden, however, that established the most striking synergy of mass media and politics. Like Nicholson and Beatty, like Browne and Ronstadt, Fonda and Hayden were brought together by common causes to become the “First Couple of the far left.” Fonda had a “combustible intensity” that was “ardent, committed, and fearless,” while Hayden’s formidable ambition — his insistence that “if you want change, you have to be part of the mainstream, part of a kind of normalcy” — eventually led him to a seat in the California legislature.

As comprehensive as Brownstein’s exploration of popular culture is, he misses out on a provocative link among the various media he analyzes — namely, the popular theme songs that identified key TV shows. For M*A*S*H (1972–’83), “Suicide Is Painless” (by Johnny Mandel and Michael Altman) carried over from the successful 1970 film of the same name, with the characters seeing “through early morning fog […] visions of the things to be.” For The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–’77), Sonny Curtis sang, “You’re gonna make it after all,” while Norman Lear’s ultra-feminist Maude (1972–’78) was serenaded with a fist-in-the-air anthem by Dave Grusin with Alan and Marilyn Bergman, performed by Donny Hathaway. All in the Family (1971–’79) opened with Archie and Edith Bunker warbling out nostalgic sentiments (penned by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams) for lost halcyon days, when “girls were girls and men were men […] hair was short and skirts were long […] I don’t know just what went wrong, Those were the days.”

Brownstein’s coverage of the second half of 1974 sometimes repeats information about people and events, as might be expected in such a dense, lengthy study, but he also underscores “new faces, new voices, and new stories” on the ever-changing horizon. The October chapter focuses on women who managed to muscle into the traditionally male writers’ room, with Linda Bloodworth and Mary Kay Place penning a groundbreaking script that turned M*A*S*H’s Hot Lips Houlihan from a one-dimensional sexist stereotype into a real character with a defining backstory. The same chapter provides an overview of the path African Americans took in television (from sitcoms to dramas), film (including the blaxploitation subgenre), music (e.g., Berry Gordy, Sam Cooke, Bill Withers), and politics (with Tom Bradley becoming the first African American elected mayor of a mostly white large city). Brownstein admits that “[o]pportunity for women and minorities in Hollywood and television remains constricted” but argues that “the range of stories […] is vastly more diverse than half a century ago” — a “world of widening options [that] began in early 1970s Los Angeles, with the first female and Black pioneers who fought, inch by inch, to open the doors.”

Indeed, those were the days.

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Robert Allen Papinchak is a former university English professor whose reviews and criticism appear in The New Yorker, Publishers Weekly, On the Seawall, World Literature Today, Washington Independent Review of Books, and elsewhere. He is the author of award-winning short stories and of Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction.