“To read,” wrote E.M. Cioran, “is to let someone else do the work for you.” Indeed, David Kukoff has done extensive footwork collecting an array of varied experiences to give us an idea of what it was to live in LA during what might arguably be one of its most pivotal decades. His new anthology, Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine: Los Angeles in the 1970s, commands a collection of writers, performers, and artists who were part of the city’s ensemble during that decade.
John Densmore of The Doors recounts some final days with the band, Matthew Specktor recalls the era of the late great Z Channel, Lynne Friedman writes of hamburgers and haute cuisine, Joe Donnelly describes Venice Bohemia from Abbot Kinney to the Z Boys—and there are contributions from many others. There is a world waiting to be discovered here, if your idea of the 1970s only brings to mind Studio 54 and flashing disco balls. What made these years so crucial to LA in terms of film production and musical creations is brought together in these recollections, which allow us glimpses into a gone world.
David Kukoff is a graduate of Columbia University and UCLA Film School with numerous film and television credits to his name. He has written books on film and television writing, and a novel, Children of the Canyon. We corresponded recently about the new anthology and the magic that was the 1970s in LA.
The Rumpus: What attracted you to the 1970s?
David Kukoff: Los Angeles in the 1970s has been an important character in both my books.
On a purely personal, nostalgic note (plus it’s kind of a challenge, as memory becomes less and less something I take for granted with age), the decade’s hazy, flickering images have continually framed the edges of my mind, giving me a fleeting, smog-tinged picture of my past, and, like most of us, I’d love to have as vivid a rendering of it as possible. I turned fourteen in 1980, and the more I read about the decade, the more I challenge myself to intersect “young me” at various places in time and space. I remember being driven by The Source, the health food store run by a cultish group (and where Woody Allen bashed up his car in the parking lot in Annie Hall), and wondering if I could get a hamburger there. I remember the pony rides on Beverly and La Cienega, run by those faded cowboys, clinging to their little slice of the frontier as the place was bulldozed to make way for one of the ugliest malls in the history of ugly malls. Movie producer fathers of friends of mine who had groovy bachelor pads, high in the hills. My kindergarten, crunchy and progressive, onto whose playground one day a man in white robes wandered, telling us his name was God. The kind of proverbial “shit you can’t make up” seemed de rigueur in Los Angeles in the 1970s.
But then there’s this creeping realization I get, the more I think about it, that the 1970s were kind of an important bridge between the “We’re all in this together” spirit of the 1960s and “I’m getting mine” ethos of the 1980s. Somehow, in that time span, the country’s values seemed to change. We wanted to forget we’d ever created a Great Society and, in its stead, celebrate individual (and by “individual” I mean “financial”) greatness. We decided that debt should be viewed as an asset. The 1970s offer us endless clues as to how we got from there to here.
Mind you, I hope that doesn’t come off as over-romanticizing, since it’s pretty clear that America’s past was, for the most part, great for exactly one demographic. But I do think that collectively, somehow, the “Me” decade made it okay to view your fellow American not as colleagues, but rather as a means to a personal end.
Lastly, I’d say that Los Angeles in the 1970s is a very different place than New York in the 1970s. The latter was a troubled symbol of the urban decay that flowed endemically from the backwash of the 1960s. But Los Angeles, as the book hopefully makes clear, was more of the Wild West back then; there seemed to be few rules, and anyone with a smart idea and the verbal and operational dexterity to put that idea into play could do so. That all changed, in the minds of most Angelenos, when we hosted the Olympics in 1984; the city, whether willfully or not, went from a kookily lovable backwater to a world-class, cosmopolitan metropolis from which other cities today take a fair amount of their social and cultural cues.
Rumpus: How much of what happened in LA during the 70s do you think was a reaction against the events of the 60s, which ended on many tragic notes?
Kukoff: I think there was definitely a reaction, but it seemed to take a long time to shake out. The revolutionaries of the 1960s didn’t just go away because Manson and Altamont put a face on the dark side of the counterculture. After all, Vietnam didn’t officially end until 1975, the same year Patty Hearst was captured and Squeaky Fromme pointed a gun at President Ford. But it did seem as though the fringe had grown more alienated; that the country’s mood went through a significant depression for a few years, before deciding that all we wanted to do was dance and elect a grown-up who’d magically transport us back to the 1950s.
That sounds flip, but I do think the 1970s were equal parts aftermath and transition. And yet my book’s perspective is less sociological and more experiential. So many of the essays in this book reflect a city that’s still so open to experimentation—a studio giving Albert Brooks free rein to make a completely experimental movie (Real Life), a drug recovery cult that went homicidally off the rails, etc.—and yet so many of these tales reveal a naiveté, a lack of sophistication at what are ostensibly the highest levels of business, politics, etc. To me, the nostalgia reflected in this book isn’t so much “look how cute we were” as it is “look how crazy/funny/absurd we were.”
Rumpus: I was going you ask you about that: how dangerous is nostalgia when reflecting back on a time period that happened decades ago?
Kukoff: The immediate thought that comes to mind involves the intersection where accuracy meets sentiment. It’s pretty clear we can’t trust our memories to provide us with absolute validity, even when there’s more or less complete objectivity involved. Now, obviously long-term and short-term memories are stored in different parts of the brain, and there’s a whole host of factors that determine what we retain versus to what we give the proverbial, cerebral boot. But from my experience, it’s hard to recount nostalgia without infusing it with narrative, and where there’s narrative, there’s invariably… well, if not fiction, exactly, then at least license.
Rumpus: Your collection covers a multitude of experiences in LA during the 1970s. Do you have a personal stand-out moment that is an iconic event for that decade?
Kukoff: I don’t have a personal stand-out moment, per se, but the book has a number of essays that, to me, embody the decade’s aforementioned frontier mentality. Like Howard Gewirtz’s story of how, as a twenty-two-year-old NYU grad, he talked his way into running the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s nascent TV studio. Or Jillian Franklyn’s recounting of how easily she infiltrated the celebrity-laden nightclub and party scene as a fourteen-year-old girl. In addition to the city not being as, for lack of a better word, “establishment” as the Eastern and Midwestern metropoles, there seemed to be a willful embrace of progressive values. Which meant that an LAUSD-sanctioned alternative school that wound up practicing EST and Scientology wound up on the campus of one of LA’s most prominent high schools, Uni High (my contribution to the collection).
But the truth is, every one of these stories embodies the “can’t make this up” ethos that seemed so prevalent here in the 1970s. That’s why I loved putting this collection together.
Rumpus: You mentioned the “Wild West” mentality; how different do you think LA was from the rest of the country during the 70s?
Kukoff: Bearing in mind that any comps are purely impressionistic, the overall feeling I get is that while LA might not have been all that different politically or socially from the rest of the country, there was a sense that this was where you came to explore whatever freedoms the counterculture was promising. That there was a sense of Los Angeles representing both a physical and psychic frontier. Joe Donnelly, one of our contributors, writes about a teenage Skip Engblom (who, along with Jeff Ho and Craig Stecyk would be instrumental in the skate and surf scene depicted in Dogtown and Z Boys) riding his bike to the end of Santa Monica Boulevard, going out into the ocean on a rubber raft, seeing a guy surfing and realizing the extent of the horizon that lay before him. That sentiment is echoed over and over again in the book, from Geza X’s unlikely journey from Gong Show reject to pioneering punk producer, to Bob Chinn creating the first mainstream pornographic noir detective character in Johnny Wadd.
But there’s also a dark side to those freedoms. The counterculture’s openness made it also something of a repository for a much seedier element. I’ve mentioned Manson, of course, but there were cults and fringe elements all over the less-traveled parts of the city as well. Samantha Geimer outlines how seemingly normal it was for her mother to send her off into the custody of Roman Polanski that afternoon. Steve Hodel—who, before identifying his father as the Black Dahlia murderer, was a decorated homicide detective in Hollywood for years—contributed a piece about a kidnap/murder scheme at a private sex club in the hills.
Perhaps less impressionistically, the movies offer us one medium where the perceived contrasts between the country’s two major cities (I’m excluding Chicago because for all intents and purposes, the media seems more fascinated with comparisons along coastal lines) are notably reflected. Think about how New York is, for the most part, depicted in films like The Panic In Needle Park, Taxi Driver, The Warriors, Death Wish, and Serpico, which reflect a corrupt, dangerous dystopic landscape. Hell, even the film adaptation of The Wiz placed its fantastical journey in a Harlem junkyard. Whereas Los Angeles is portrayed, in films like The Long Goodbye, Welcome to LA, Shampoo, A Star Is Born, and countless others, as a place where dreams may go to die, but in a warm, kooky paradise. One of our contributors, Bruce Ferber (who would ultimately go on to run the sitcom, Home Improvement), wrote about how he came out here to be part of the film auteur movement, but instead wound up working for Roger Corman on films like Death Race 2000 and Black Dracula.
Rumpus: How did you go about assembling this collection? It is such a wide ranging spectrum of experience I wondered if you had a certain criteria.
Kukoff: I was fortunate enough to be friends with a lot of great writers, and I started putting the word out. Fortunately, Los Angeles, in addition to being chock-full of amazing scribes of all shapes and sizes, is also home to one of the most inclusive literary communities on earth. Once word got around, I started hearing from people who had wonderful stories to tell. There were a few subjects I solicited that I felt were a must, but by and large I’m fond of saying that this collection came together as though it were almost guided by a divine hand.
And that divine hand gave us a fantastic, diverse array of experiences. I like to say that this collection, even the pieces that aren’t from a firsthand perspective, truly feel lived-in, rather than merely observed or reported-on.
Ultimately, there’s a fair amount of 70s terrain that’s been the subject of various print, film, and TV fare. What I was shooting for in this collection in many instances was the presentation of different perspectives on familiar stories. So where there might be familiarity with the Polanski rape case, most people haven’t heard about Samantha Geimer’s life in the months preceding it. Nor might they know about John C. Holmes pre-Johnny Wadd, or Venice in the decades pre-Dogtown and Z-Boys, etc.
Rumpus: Any decade since that you feel has had a formidable impact on LA?
Kukoff: A lot of people I know feel that the Olympics was a major turning point for the city, that there was something of a “before and after” effect on how LA wanted to present itself to the world. And there’s a good chance that if this collection does well, the next logical step would be to examine the Eighties through the same prism.
But I’m not sure if, with regard to other decades since, there’s quite the same nostalgic patina, nor immediate sensory identification/connotation. The minute I tell people the name of this collection, their eyes light up with curiosity and recognition. It’s a ground-floor gettable association that seems to immediately suggest high adventure. Maybe in ten or twenty years we’ll feel the same way about the nineties or the aughts. And hopefully I’ll still be covering it!
Author photograph © Natalie Crane.