A New Book Paints a Portrait of 1970s L.A. the Way It Really Was
Editor David Kukoff, left, with former L.A. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda
Courtesy David Kukoff
“It was drugs, sex and rock & roll.” This is how writer Jillian Franklyn describes Los Angeles in the 1970s.
The decade calls to mind the tail end of free love and the counterculture; the cynical, oversexed, shag-haired Warren Beatty at the heart of Shampoo (1975); and a general sense of malaise wrapped up in a cloud of smog.
Writer David Kukoff describes it as “the last decade when Los Angeles was really still very much the Wild West,” and writer Lynell George echoes this sentiment, saying, “There was something more wilderness ‘wild’ about L.A. then.”
With Los Angeles in the 1970s: Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine, a new anthology, Kukoff seeks to engage with and push beyond the clichés about 1970s Los Angeles. The collection of 29 essays, edited by Kukoff, features reminiscences and self-reflection from an assortment of writers, journalists, musicians and others. Pieces range from a photo essay about Cruising Night on Van Nuys Boulevard to poems reflecting on the city’s identity in the “Me” decade to The Doors drummer John Densmore’s account of writing the iconic song “L.A. Woman.”
The book doesn’t merely look at the sexy components of Los Angeles history, either — it engages with issues of rape, feminism, race relations, labor movements and more. “We definitely didn’t want to make this the white-guy Hollywood story of L.A. in the ’70s,” Kukoff says. “We wanted to make this as diverse and extensive a collection and as complicated a portrait as we could.”
The book presents a healthy mix of nostalgia for a bygone era contrasted with the realities and complexities of the decade. “There are some good, very hard-hitting pieces in here that very much do take on this decade where America truly wasn’t buying the sparkly child’s history it had been taught about itself,” Kukoff says. “It was really starting to take a good, hard look at itself and face its dysfunctions, and those are abundantly reflected in this book.”
Kukoff was inspired to put together the anthology as a follow-up to his debut novel, Children of the Canyon, inspired by his own childhood in 1970s L.A. Though a popular era for period pieces like this summer’s The Nice Guys, the decade is underrepresented when it comes to historical and literary excavation. “I’ve seen a lot about L.A. in the noir days and certainly the Mickey Cohen [era], but I don’t think we’ve seen a full compilation of really great takes on the 1970s,” he says.
So when Kukoff’s publisher suggested the idea of an anthology as a companion to his novel, the idea took root fairly quickly. Kukoff shared the idea with his friends and fellow writers, and it spread like wildfire through the Los Angeles literary community. Kukoff says the book came together “almost as if guided by a divine hand,” with writers pitching him a variety of stories and experiences without him having to search too hard to manufacture that diversity.
This talented cadre of writers is one of the primary things Kukoff hopes readers notice. The anthology's success and quick turnaround from fledgling idea to book in a little over the year was due to the inclusive, participatory nature of the Los Angeles literary community, which Kukoff hopes gets more exposure from this collection. “L.A.’s literary community kind of gets short shrift,” he says. “I don’t think anyone’s really blown the lid off of what an incredibly exciting, amazing, vital group of writers lives here. ... It’s not just some little fringy thing. Hollywood gets so much attention, and it’s such a sparkly creature, that somehow the milieu of prose gets a little overlooked.”
For Kukoff and fellow members of his generation (who, by and large, comprise the contributors here), the ’70s don't feel that distant — to him, it’s still rich with the associations of his adolescence rather than the annals of a history book. In that regard, the historical angle of the book crept up on him, but he says he realized that “what we’re looking at through the filter of this book is nothing short of extraordinary Americana and history.”
The history living in the pages of the book is one of its core appeals. Arts journalist and contributor Lynell George defines it as a key period in the city’s process of self-discovery, saying, “It was in this mode of self-defining. ... There was a lot of freedom to create your own space, create your own world, create your own community. It was easy to move around the city then, and we were all able to call so much of Los Angeles our own.” Contributor Jillian Franklyn echoes this, saying, “The thing I miss [about the 1970s] ... a lot was about self-discovery, and I think because we’re so on overload now that we don’t take that time because we’re busy.”
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Kukoff, Franklyn and George all speak wistfully of a time when traffic was lighter and parenting more lax — as children growing up in 1970s Los Angeles, the world was their oyster, for better or worse. “It still had a sense of the frontier, of wide-open possibilities when you could talk your way into crazy situations,” explains Kukoff. He describes the 1984 Olympics as a C.E./B.C.E. moment in Los Angeles history — the point at which the city became a more cosmopolitan entity — and this book as a record of the city on the cusp of massive change.
This historical record can also be a useful lens through which to view the present day. Los Angeles hasn’t always been great at preserving its history, but the book is part of a growing trend to reject that stereotype. “Sometimes we’re not as good at stepping back and saying our history matters too, our identity as shaped through history is really, really important,” Kukoff says. “Let’s embrace it, let’s read about it, let’s learn about it and let’s use that as a filter through which to evaluate our present.”
The 1970s are full of cautionary tales and experiences for our contemporary lives. The decade earned the moniker the “Me Decade,” and in today’s era of social media and reality TV stars, it seems the the branding could be revived. In her essay, Franklyn describes her youthful desire to be a movie star, not an actress. She reflects on her own hunger for fame with sardonic humor, but she calls today’s obsession with fame for fame’s sake “sadly massive.”
Kukoff reflects on the give-and-take of progress, noting that the city as a whole has become safer, cleaner, etc., but also far less affordable. “A city that is hostile to its young people doesn’t stay vital for very long,” he warns.
George also comments on what she calls “aggressive gentrification,” describing how the city has become less open and more isolating in many ways over the past 40 years. She hopes this book is a way to learn about those who occupied the city before you. “It is really important to think about what was there, who was there, why they were there,” she says. “That way it’s not so much nostalgia as just know that you weren’t the first person to settle there.”
Kukoff and his contributors all express a desire for this book to move beyond the stereotypes of 1970s Los Angeles: the “New Hollywood” dominated by men like Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, scored by a soundtrack of bands on the Sunset Strip. “I would love for them [readers] to get a sense of the reality of the city,” he says.
“I hope that people walk away from all these different stories, these different memories of L.A. during that time, and are able to experience a fuller, more textured idea of the city,” George says. “So many people still see us as just flash and empty, and it’s never been true.”
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