Los Angeles in the '70s: The Place & Time That Won't Behave
by Joel Drucker
What happens when you take two phenomenon that fail to conform to standards of time and place? You get Los Angeles in the 1970s: Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine, an anthology of essays about a city that thrives on volatility and a decade frequently overlooked and misunderstood by everyone from those who have long cherished the '60s to those anguished by the '80s. (Disclosure: I wrote a piece about tennis for this book and was also interviewed by anthology editor David Kukoff for a story he wrote about the alternative high school I attended that drew on ideas from est, Scientology and more.)
Los Angeles in the '70s, writes Kukoff in the book's introduction, "was still, put simply, very much the Wild West, the last decade in which Los Angeles bore some resemblance to the frontier town it had once been."
Anthologies about Los Angeles often feature pieces by those who arrived there as adults, their sensibilities already formed by coming of age in regions quite different than Los Angeles and are often bemused, dismayed and perhaps won over by a city constructed like none other. And while there are several such authors in this book, many more were written by people who were children in Los Angeles during the '70s -- a decade heavily flavored by the spirit of hedonism, experimentalism and the ongoing absorption of massive social changes that had come to light in the '60s.
As you'd expect, pop culture figures heavily. Pieces include tales of TV pilots, film productions, an early cable channel, New Age media experiments and the rise to fame of a porn star. Even stories written about areas far from Hollywood touch on encounters with the famous. But while fame may be a distant notion in some communities, for Angelenos it is near at hand. Fame here is not to be merely witnessed. It will be created.
Michael Lazarou, raised in the LA suburb of Whittier (known as the hometown of Richard Nixon), celebrates "Dr. Demento," a humorous DJ from the time. As Lazarou explains in "Heart of Dorkness," "Dr. D would even give a generous portion of shout-outs to many of his petitioners. . . For perhaps the very first and only time - and in the second largest media market in the country - a very large and very young demographic that invariably had to bend over and listen to what industry grown-ups said they were going to listen to were decidedly in the driver's seat."
Even a new arrival, music industry journalist turned publicist Mitch Schneider, comes to realize in his piece, "Merging Worlds," that, "in New York City, there were toll bridges between the boroughs, which created geographical - and psychological - boundaries. Los Angeles was free and sprawling, and it felt less divided."
Other pieces explore the inner city, a women's race for city council Chicano political activism, the making of a popular song, LA's food culture. a fabled USC running back, growing up in the inner city and an attorney literally snake-bitten by a vengeful cult leader. The cumulative weight of these pieces is a forceful counterpunch to a longstanding notion that Los Angeles has persistently lacked the alleged culture of more centralized urban areas.
What exactly is culture? Is it an externalized, institutional, third party? In some ways, in many cities, certainly. But in Los Angeles, this book proves emphatically, culture is often a matter purely of individual intent, a city where you do not enter a subway or seek the approval an institution, but instead, grab the wheel and do your own thing. "Los Angeles had flexed its own regional culinary muscles," writes Lynne Friedman in "Hamburgers, Hemorrhages and Haute Cuisine," "creating a veritable groundbreaking earthquake that, to this day, is still referred to as California Cuisine."
And yet, still, in the same way that nature casts its shadow on literature set in places like Nebraska and Michigan's Upper Peninsula and Alaska, in Los Angeles the sensibilities of this book's storytellers remain inevitably seasoned and, in some cases, deeply flavored by celebrity. This, after all, is a city of reinvention and the pursuit of transcendence; not just in the name of material success, but in the quest to participate in the making of a community's history and in time earn one's own pages.
As these pieces show, that played out in many ways in the '70s. To the pleasure of those who enjoy confining history, in the 20th century, each decade from the '10s through the '60s could often be comfortably bracketed, easily articulated by iconic personalities and headline-making events.
But the '70s was a time when it became clear that social problems could not be so easily understood, much less solved. The lessons from the Vietnam War revealed deep fissures in everything from social class to leadership. Watergate's biggest legacy: further mistrust in government. And the geopolitics and economics of the Energy Crisis remain incredibly complicated. Were New Age ideas truly meant to liberate souls or merely provide eventual cover for greed? The '70s, a decade less of obvious heroes and more one of extended ambiguity, uncertain, dialectic, where ideas are constantly in process. This is the world these authors write about - and in large part, one we continue to occupy.