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Book excerpt: How Los Angeles in 1974 ruled the pop culture universe

"You couldn't throw a rock without hitting a genius": That was how one observer described Los Angeles in the year 1974, when the city became the center of the pop culture universe, with a burst of innovation in the worlds of music, film and television hardly equaled before or since.

Ronald Brownstein's new book "Rock Me on the Water" (HarperCollins) looks at how and why 1974 was such a pivotal time for L.A. and the musicians, directors, producers, actors and executives who simultaneously seemed to reach a creative peak.

Read an excerpt from the book's prologue below, and don't miss John Blackstone's interview with Ronald Brownstein on "CBS Sunday Morning" March 28!


Magic Hour in Los Angeles

On the evening of February 21, 1974, Mo Ostin led David Geffen to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills for what Geffen was told would be a business meeting with Barbra Streisand.

Dignified and reserved, Ostin had been in the music business a long time. He had started as Frank Sinatra's accountant and then ascended to become the head of the Warner Bros. music operation after the studio acquired Reprise, Sinatra's record label, in 1963. Geffen, the president of Warner's Elektra/Asylum label, was Ostin's opposite in every way: young, endlessly ambitious, brilliant, relentless, and volcanic.

Behind the doors of the Beverly Wilshire's Le Grand Trianon ballroom, an array of stars waited for the two men. Bob Dylan was there with the Band; as were Cher, Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, and Bianca Jagger. So were record moguls (the elegant Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records, a Geffen mentor who had flown out from New York City; Joe Smith of Warner Bros.; rival Artie Mogull of MCA), agents (Jeff Wald), and producers (Bill Graham, who had worked with Geffen that winter to mount a hugely successful reunion tour for Dylan and the Band).

Balloons and streamers hung from the ceiling, and in a carnival theme, a fire-eater, knife thrower, cyclist, fortune-teller, and two mimes were scattered through the room. Only a few years earlier, Geffen had been laboring in the mail room at the William Morris Agency, arriving early every morning to intercept a letter from UCLA informing his employers that he had not, in fact, graduated from the school, as he had told them. Now the A-list celebrities who had patiently gathered in the posh ballroom measured how quickly Geffen, still only thirty-one, had scaled the entertainment industry's highest peaks. The point was underscored when Dylan, the Band, and Cher (improbably, Geffen's girlfriend at the time) serenaded the crowd with a twenty-minute mini-concert. Bob Dylan didn't play many private parties.

It was a triumphant moment for Geffen, but the party could just as easily have been a celebration of the stars and moguls who mingled around him. They, too, stood at a pinnacle. Los Angeles in 1974 exerted more influence over popular culture than any other city in America. That year, in fact, the city dominated popular culture more than it ever had before, or would again. In movies, music, and television, the early 1970s marked a creative summit in LA that transformed each of those industries. The "New Wave" that revitalized Hollywood, the smooth Southern California sound that ruled the album charts and radio airwaves, the torrent of groundbreaking comedies that brought new sophistication and provocation to television's prime time – all these emerged from Los Angeles. Working just blocks from one another in film, recording, and television studios around Sunset Boulevard, living in Brentwood and Beverly Hills or amid the flickering lights of the Hollywood Hills, a cluster of transformative talents produced a sustained burst of pop culture mastery and innovation. "There was a tremendous feeling of anything [is possible]," musician Graham Nash remembered. "What do you want to think of? We can do anything. What do you want? What do you want to do? Where do you want to go? What do you want to play? What album do you want to make? There was no end to [it]. We were in this pool of, like, magic stuff, and it was rubbing off on everybody." Linda Ronstadt, a few years behind Nash in the climb to stardom, felt the same way: "LA was a lens that American culture was focused through in those days," she recalled, "like Berlin before World War Two."

Those producing some of their career's greatest work in Los Angeles at this time included Robert Altman, Warren Beatty, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Jack Nicholson, Gordon Parks, Arthur Penn, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese,  Steven Spielberg, and Robert Towne in film; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, and Bill Withers in music; and Alan Alda, James L. Brooks, Allan Burns, Larry Gelbart, Norman Lear, Mary Tyler Moore, Carroll O'Connor, Rob Reiner, and Gene Reynolds in television. Behind them were legendary executives, agents, and managers, including Lou Adler, Clarence Avant, David Geffen, Berry Gordy, and Mo Ostin in the music industry; and in film and television, Barry Diller and Michael Eisner (first at ABC and then at Paramount), Robert Evans (of Paramount), and Robert Wood (of CBS). "I don't know what was in the air or in the water, but everything from Malibu to Hollywood was magical," said Irving Azoff, who rode the Southern California wave to fame and riches as the combative manager of the Eagles. "The restaurants were magical, the clubs were magical, the people." It was an "extraordinarily creative period," remembered Michael Ovitz, a Los Angeles native who became the entertainment industry's most powerful agent during the 1980s. "The birth of phenomenal music artists, the birthing of Spielberg and of Lucas and Coppola and Scorsese – all these filmmakers came out of nowhere." Danny Kortchmar, a prominent rock session guitarist and collaborator with Carole King and Don Henley, summarized it more succinctly when he recalled of Los Angeles at that time that "You couldn't throw a rock without hitting a genius."

Los Angeles has had other great periods in film (the years around World War II), television (the "golden age" of the 1950s and the peak TV era that has gathered momentum through the twenty-first century), and music (the hip-hop revolution of the later 1980s and '90s). Yet, the early 1970s was the moment when all three of these industries simultaneously reached a creative peak – and 1974 stood as the absolute pinnacle of this cultural renaissance. For Los Angeles, those twelve glittering months represented magic hour.

From "Rock Me on the Water: 1974, the Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics" by Ronald Brownstein. Copyright © 2021 by Ronald Brownstein. Excerpted with permission by HarperCollins.

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