A instant bestseller, LOS ANGELES IN THE 1970s, an anthology edited by David Kukoff, gives an insider’s look into the good, the bad and the ugly of L.A. in its heyday, with contributions from The Doors’ John Densmore, Matthew Specktor, Luis Rodriguez, Susan Hayden, Deanne Stillman, Dana Johnson, Jeremy Rosenberg and more. Below, an excerpt by David Kukoff.
As our city’s poet laureate (and one of our contributors), Luis Rodriguez, says, “To truly love LA you have to see it with different eyes, askew perhaps, beyond the fantasy-induced Hollywood spectacles.” That “askew”-ness has all too often been the dominion of the outsider, the Eastern media interloper who has painted a portrait of Los Angeles in brush strokes of smog gray, palm tree green, ocean blue, and desert beige—none of it entirely inaccurate, but all of it superficial at best and downright inorganic at worst.
Like most of my native peers, I spent years bristling at Woody Allen’s dismissal of our city’s cultural offerings. Especially given that when Annie Hall was released, I was all of nine years old and had no idea how liberating it was to come upon a red light and realize that, depending on your lane and direction, it had no power to impede your progress. In time, I would come to appreciate the symbology behind this and realize that Woody had, in assessing LA’s ostensible sole cultural perk, unknowingly identified one of the great virtues our city bestows upon its citizens: the ability to grasp the fluidity behind life’s red lights.
I wrote my novel, Children of the Canyon, for many reasons, but among them was my desire to add a dimension to the countercultural terrain Joan Didion and Joni Mitchell had so vividly conferred upon the cultural canon. Here, now, these women were finally making their voices heard…and yet there was still something missing from the filmy residue of the flower children’s experience: namely, the experience of the actual children. I had attended school with several kids whose parents were part of this world, and it occurred to me that we had never seen it depicted through their eyes. The more I wrote, the more I realized that there was more to the story than a series of local episodes at the hands of our opposite-of-helicopter parents. That while the seventies were single-handedly responsible for more nostalgia among my contemporaries than all the other decades of their existences combined, it was a decade that also represented a tectonic, seemingly permanent shift in the country’s psyche. At some point in those ten years, America went from the “we’re all in this together” mentality of the Great Society Sixties to the “greed is good” ethos of the Reagan Eighties, an ethos that still reverberates in the sociopolitical landscape today. And Los Angeles —the second- rate beach town, the Hollywood fluff-factory—had, fittingly enough, been an actor that had played a crucial part in that shift; not only had so much of the most visible counterculture taken place right in our own backyard, but the solution to the perceived failure of the sixties’ idealism— Ronald Reagan—was also something of a local product. It occurred to me, long after I’d finished writing Children, that while a great swath of Los Angeles’ history (certainly anything to do with corruption and our indigenous juxtaposition of sunshine and noir) had been covered in print and film, the 1970s remained something of a dark decade in the city’s recorded history.
I soon realized that the Los Angeles of the 1970s might, on the surface, have looked like a cultural desert—complete with all the requisite mirage metaphors—but it was also a thirsty, parched terrain at the edge of Big Sky territory where smarts, hustle, and more than a little chutzpah could turn a half-assed dream into a full-fledged reality. It was a landscape fashioned on Brady Bunch-worthy Astroturf, but one on which, in reality, pre-teens challenged—with more than a little complicity from the lax sexual ethics of the era—the threshold that, in generations prior, had so inviolably separated them from full-fledged adulthood. It was a metropolis in which racial discrimination had seemingly never before been so forcibly challenged, yet at the same time remained so business-end-of-a-police-baton as usual. It was postwar (two, if you count Vietnam) and pre-Olympics, which is the event most Angelenos identify as the origin point of Los Angeles’ current status as not only a world-class, but perhaps America’s most important, city. It 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—the unchartered, “anything goes”- fertilized soil that had granted so many repressed, cast-off souls a shot not only at redemption (there was plenty of that too, but redemption is cheap and hardly region-specific), but at something far greater: reinvention. Which—as anyone who’s ever sailed right through an intersection that, by New York’s rules, would stop them dead in their tracks, knows—is why the demography continues to favor the East to West migratory pattern, and not vice versa.
David Kukoff is a screenwriter, author of the novel CHILDREN OF THE CANYON and editor of LOS ANGELES IN THE 1970s: Weird Scenes in the Goldmine, published by Rare Bird Books.