TV Invented the Rock Star (Part I)

Rock stars.

Is there even such a thing anymore?

The answer seems to be no, at least not in the traditional sense. There are YouTube sensations and American Idol winners, but they’re more like karaoke performers with choreography. Beyond that, the up and comers who sell out arenas and bring out the crowds seem to be DJs.

DJs! I don’t even know how to spell it right: Is it deejay or DJ? I’ll go with the latter since it’s fewer keystrokes. I have no right to judge, but the world I grew up in had certain immutable laws, one of which was that rock and roll would always be king. No one challenged this monolithic truth besides a small number of Anita Bryant types in Seventies news clips.

The only time you ever pondered the genre’s mortality was during the quiet part of The Who’s “Long Live Rock,” when Daltrey intones “rock is dead” three times slowly. Of course, that lyric was just meant as a warning to remind you of what could happen if you let them take your rock away. It was an affirmation. And the affirmation that trickled down to teenage America was that even though you’re just a minor, you could contribute your own dollars, along with your heart and soul, to help keep rock and roll alive.

The century progressed and new generations of teenagers came of age. Trends rose and fell, but rock and roll was still the mother ship to which they all returned. Oh sure, DJs were already on the scene, but few took them seriously as rivals to actual rock stars. They worked the occasional dance club, but their natural purview was bar mitzvahs and wedding parties, not headlining arenas and stadiums.

When the notion of rock star-level DJs did eventually surface in public media, there was no reason not to believe that soon enough the kids’ enthusiasm for the fad would quickly max out and they would drop it like a moldy potato. That’s what happened with hair-rock and every other fanciful trend that took rock and roll too far away from its roots. The youth culture would quickly and aggressively self-correct this trend, it always did. These DJs would get bounced to the curb with the spandexed hair-rockers soon enough.

But in the 2000s, a strange thing happened. The correction never came. Instead, the digital realm began to completely displace rock and roll’s analogue roots. Analogue, in fact, became obsolete. Tapes, records, even CDs were rendered superfluous. Musical instruments themselves became unnecessary. In theory, with the swipe of a finger, one kid with one Ipad could mash and tweak every note ever recorded in the history of man to create masterpieces that Beethoven and the Beatles could only dream of. In theory.

We all know that there’s more to making music than generating a sequence of sound waves. And we all know that actual musical ability isn’t always at the top of the list of what makes an actual rock star. There are reasons we love the Beatles and Hendrix while remaining indifferent to the multitude of dedicated note-for-note Beatles and Hendrix cover artists.

So what are those reasons?

To understand the rock and roll phenomenon a little better, we need to go back to Year Zero, where it all began.

* * *

Who was the first rock star, anyway?

Why, Elvis, of course.

The harder question is why?

Was it Elvis’ ability to channel race music to a white audience? Was it the opportunity he had to work with the hit-makers of the Sun Records crew? Was it the pompadour and the pelvis?

Most people would agree that it was some sort of combination of all three. But in doing so, they omit the most crucial ingredient of all.

Television.

The Age of Television.

The Age of Television.

There is no Elvis without television, not the Elvis we know, which begs the question, how much of rock and roll itself is the result of television?

Is it any coincidence that the era of rock stars more or less matches up with the era of TV?

A milestone was reached with the first-ever televised presidential debate, between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960. If you listened to the debate on the radio, you likely thought Nixon beat Kennedy. If you watched the debate on television, you probably thought Kennedy was the winner.

Guess who ended up taking that first election in the live television era?

The power of television is that strong.

***

The Nixon-Kennedy debate occurred halfway between two other major television events: the first Elvis appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and the first Beatles appearance on that program.

Would there have been Elvis as we know him without television? Would the Beatles have had their mania without television?

People like to credit the ascent of rock and roll to some sort of collective generational awakening, as if the fingers of teenage America all magically walked themselves over to the sweet spot on the Ouija board together at the same time. But what if the answer was far more mundane? What if rock and roll initially became the coolest thing ever because it was on television Sunday night at 8:00?

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The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show, 1964.

Movies enabled performers to be seen on multiple screens across all across the nation. Radio allowed them to be heard live in people’s living rooms simultaneously all across the country. But television marked the first time entertainers could be seen live in your living room nationwide and simultaneously. Rock and roll as we know it begins with this visual being seen by hundreds of millions of eyeballs in their living rooms at the same time.

It’s ironic that an aural experience like music would depend on a visual medium like television to gain traction, but maybe that tells us something about the essence of rock and roll, or lack thereof.

Elvis already had four gold records by the time he got on Sullivan. People knew what he sounded like, and they liked (or hated) it. What was different about a live appearance was the chance to get a look at Elvis himselvis, and just as importantly if not more so, to get a look at the audience. Check out all those screaming teens.

In a way, THAT was the sound that reverberated most strongly with us, not the performances of Elvis or the Beatles. Listen to that sound. It was like nothing ever before heard in the annals of Western Civilization. Teenage girls were succumbing to their hormones while the adults in the room pretended not to notice. But in hindsight it seems obvious that they sensed a loss of control over this marketed-to, largest generation in American history.

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Beatles fan overcome with emotion.

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More emotion

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And more emotion.

***

Throughout the pre-Woodstock era, the shifting norms of American society played out in the triangulation between Ed Sullivan, his audience, and the performers on the show. It was a Sunday night ritual.

Sullivan, the stiffest possible authority figure left of Nixon, introduces the act and then stands back while the kids go crazy. Sullivan then returns to the stage after the performance to comment on the audience’s behavior and to banter with the talent. Sullivan rarely gets what all the hubbub is about, but he’s powerless to stop it. You could see the generation gap itself acted out in those little vignettes. Little did they know at the time just how thoroughly these nascent Baby-Boomers would overturn the status quo in America or how soon.

1964, the year the Beatles debuted on Sullivan, was a Presidential election year. By the next election cycle, 1968, these teenagers would take over campuses, political conventions, and make serious grabs at the levers of power. Society itself would cross over the cultural Rubicon that year, with rock music as its unlikely masthead. (Part two of this piece will follow next week.)

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Excited young American during “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” from the Beatles’ debut performance on Ed Sullivan in 1964. What would she be up to in 1968?

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Categories: 1950s, 1960s, counterculture, Music, television, The Age of Television | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

In Praise of Rockford

Though it may be hard to believe, Apr. 7, 2013 marked the 85th birthday of one of TV’s most timeless icons, James Garner. Thanks to the magic of syndicated reruns, Garner is instantly recognizable to generations of TV viewers as Jim Rockford, private investigator and beach parking lot trailer inhabitant.trailertitle

If you’re like me, the phrase, “two hundred dollars a day, plus expenses” served as a childhood credo, the magic over/under number that seemed like some sort of gateway into adulthood. Whatever your chosen profession, if the quote on your business card–or answering machine message–was $200 a day plus expenses, you’d be writing your own ticket and living in a beachfront condo.  In 1974, two hundred dollars a day was a princely sum, more than the average major league baseball player earned in fact. But it was the “plus expenses” part that hinted at the great unknown.

rockopenerOf course with Jim Rockford, the carpet didn’t match the drapes. There was no beachfront condo, there was a beachfront trailer badly in need of a coat of primer. Rockford’s answering machine and outgoing phone message may have been 1974’s version of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” but the incoming messages were from bill collectors with overdue dry-cleaning notices.

The Yellow Pages ad.

The Yellow Pages ad.

Rockford had a full ¼ page ad in the Yellow Pages, but he also had an unfinished game of solitaire on his desk.

Rockford’s people weren’t Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, they were Beth & Rocky &, Dennis & Angel. (By the way, Rockford taught me another another truism: Anybody named Angel is born to be trouble, male or female.)

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Jim Rockford was an everyman, a tall, handsome everyman whose profile was worthy of Mount Rushmore, but an everyman nonetheless, just a guy in a trailer trying to keep the power from getting shut off.

There were plenty of other TV dicks with hour-long primetime slots in those days, but Rockford was the most photogenic of them all. Malden, Ebsen, Cannon, Baretta–not a particularly good-looking bunch of lead detectives by any stretch. But Rockford’s handsomeness was countered by his outsider status. Jim Rockford did time, and although we’re told that it was for a crime he didn’t commit, we also see that in the eyes of the law, Rockford will always be an ex-con, an eternal outsider in the American judicial establishment.

Another random encounter with a glamorous woman of mystery.

Another random encounter with a glamorous woman of mystery.

Rockford was too busy being a fugitive from injustice to ever become a legitimate sex symbol. In the Seventies, you needed a moustache for that. Unlike Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck, there were no James Garner wall posters adorning bachelorette bedrooms. Rockford’s Pontiac Firebird was probably the biggest sex symbol on the show.

Rocky

Rocky

Is Dennis actually about to smile?

Is Dennis actually about to smile?

***

Whether in movies or television, never underestimate the strength of a soundtrack. We do as much watching with our ears as with our eyes. While the Rockford Files’ visuals are compelling enough, the show also offers great ear candy. This ear candy is the secret ingredient that makes “The Rockford Files” so much more watchable than other similar shows. It is rerun comfort food, and the soundtrack is the subliminal reason why it tastes so good.

The theme song is famous in its own right. Other than Garner himself (and possibly Stuart Margolin as Angel), this tune is the single most memorable thing about the show. It was the first TV theme song to achieve Top-40 radio success in the 70s, peaking at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and going on to win a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement of 1975. This is the song that put Mike Post and Pete Carpenter on the map.

City of Angels?

City of Angels?

Other TV theme songs quickly followed on the heels of The Rockford Files in becoming Top 40 radio hits–Happy Days, Welcome Back Kotter, and later The Dukes of Hazzard and Greatest American Hero–but these were all ballads with lyrics. The Rockford Files theme was pure instrumentation: Soundtrack music accompanied by a montage of photo stills illustrating the life and times of James Rockford.

It’s easy to forget that this was an era before MTV and VH-1. Show intros like Rockford’s fulfilled the same role that music videos would in the 80s. In the Seventies, show intros were our MTV.

Go ahead and watch a Rockford Files rerun. You’ll realize that the musical mood established with the opening theme carries through for the entire episode. Country/bluegrass jams are used throughout as sound beds for car chases, describing a character’s emotional arc, to evoke a sudden mood change, punctuate a hard cut, twist the plot, or simply to brighten up the scenery.

The Rockford Files reminds us how good L.A. could look with a country twang, even in the disco era. By the 70s, L.A. had become a prisoner of its own gridlock, smog, and overdevelopment, but Rockford liberated the landscape simply by using music that evoked the freedom and wide-open spaces of the Old West. Revisit an episode with open ears and see if you don’t find that it is the best use of harmonica ever.

 * * *

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Of course, no visual pairs better with a country-bluegrass sound bed than a good car chase scene, and car chases are a staple of every Rockford Files episode. The Arthur Penn-directed “Bonnie & Clyde” (1967), was a groundbreaking film in many ways, one of which was the marriage of car chases with banjo and fiddle music, which had an invigorating effect on audiences. Following Bonnie & Clyde, the period from 1968-74 was the golden age of car chase movies, when the classics of the genre came out, starting with “Bullitt” (1968), followed by “The Vanishing Point,” “The French Connection,” and “Gone in 60 Seconds.” This six-year span also included “The Seven-Ups,” “Two Lane Blacktop,” “Duel,” and “The Italian Job.”

But as far as I know, no one was doing it on television until Rockford came on the scene. Country-fried car chases were a new phenomenon on TV in 1974, like answering machines were. Of course, “Starsky & Hutch” and “Dukes of Hazzard” would follow, but Rockford was doing it first. And what’s notable about those other car-chase shows is that it took two-men to do what Rockford did on his own.

There were not too many muscle cars on the tube in 1974 either. Most of the TV dicks of the time–Cannon, Barnaby Jones, Karl Malden–drove land yachts. The above-mentioned Starsky & Hutch did indeed drive a Seventies-looking sports car, and, what a surprise, their show debuted at the end of The Rockford Files’ first, and highly Nielsen-rated, season.

The pilot episode. Bill Mumy, all grown up.

The pilot episode. Bill Mumy, all grown up.

Turning on that Rockford charm.

Turning on that Rockford charm w/Lindsay Wagner.

 

 

Beth and Jim. Are they or aren't they?

Beth and Jim. Are they or aren’t they?

***

While revisiting “Bonnie & Clyde” for car-chase information, I stumbled onto an epiphany: In addition to being a groundbreaking film, Bonnie & Clyde represented everything that was wrong with the 1968 generation. The film rewrote history to portray a couple of violent thrill-killers as a misunderstood Romeo & Juliet hopelessly pitted against an omnimalevolent Establishment. It glorified Bonnie & Clyde as martyrs and reveled cartoonishly in the blood they spilled. It inspired hundreds of thousands of gullible youths to take the message literally and to act out in ridiculous self-serving ways, in essence to loot the noble ideals that had been so painstakingly built up during the earlier part of the 60s and pawn them on an orgy of sex, drugs, violence, and rock and roll, no doubt setting back the legitimate aspirations of that decade by at least half a generation.

At Angel's pad. Speaking of the 60s, Is that Bob Dylan's "Self Portrait" in the background?

At Angel’s pad. Speaking of the 60s, Is that Bob Dylan’s “Self Portrait” in the background?

And what about that generation that followed the Sixties? I had another epiphany:  Jim Rockford is the Bonnie & Clyde of the post-Woodstock generation. Rockford Files was the go-to afternoon re-run for latchkey kids of the 70s and 80s. It’s a big part of what makes us the people we are today. We don’t self-identify with an extroverted glamour couple shooting up banks and pissing off old folks just for kicks. Our patron saint is a guy who lives in a trailer by the beach and appreciates the little things in life: the smell of the sea, the sound of the gulls, and an onion ring basket shared with a good friend over a picnic table. This was the same strain of disillusioned anti-materialism that ushered in the 90s in response to the steroidal greed of the 1980s. That’s why Ben Folds writes lyrics about getting stoned and watching Rockford Files reruns instead of Barnaby Jones or Magnum, PI.

Unlike Bonnie & Clyde, who decided to combat the boredom of their lives by robbing banks and killing for kicks, Rockford was set up; he was wrongfully convicted of a crime he did not commit. Nearly every episode sees him going up against a hostile police force that continues to hold his false conviction against him in perpetuity. If anyone had a right to be angry at society in general and authority in particular, it’s Jim Rockford. But do you see Rockford acting out like Bonnie & Clyde? Not even close.

Inadvertently, James Rockford is the folk hero of post-Watergate era America. Respect for the establishment is at an all-time low, but people are also burned out on the Bonnie & Clyde-style excesses of the Sixties. Each week, Rockford treads the fine line between powerfully corrupt authority figures (ie The Man) and shallowly groveling opportunists (eg Angel Martin), and he does so without ever having to fire a shot (almost). He was the ideal outlaw figure for the times.

Perhaps it was the leaded gasoline fumes that made us all more lethargic, but to the best of my recollection, the mood in America just after Watergate was decidedly hung over, and no one pulls off a ‘where the hell’s the damned aspirin’ look like Jim Rockford does.

The trailer’s leaking, the Pontiac just blew a retread, Angel’s shaking him down for another sawbuck, and the insurance company isn’t going to pay out after all. That was exactly how the Seventies felt; but Rockford persevered with style, ending every episode with a wry twist that let us know that no matter how much it felt like things were spiraling out of control, at the end of the day we always break about even.

Where the hell's the aspirin?

Where the hell’s the aspirin?

***

What is sometimes overlooked is that “The Rockford Files” was actually James Garner’s second great act in television. Garner is one of the select TV actors who starred in his own series not once but twice, and in two very different timeframes. In the era when television was black and white, Westerns reigned supreme, and Eisenhower was still President, Garner was Bret Maverick. In the era of dystopian, post-Watergate detective shows, he came back as Jim Rockford.

During that interregnum between 1959 and 1974, America had changed about as radically a society could in 15 years, Not too many actors could bridge that gap and stay relevant, but Garner did just that. It was a totally different America in 1974, but Garner was still Garner and Maverick was now Rockford. The people who ran television liked Garner so much they paid him the ultimate network tribute, allowing him to use his real first name for the character of Rockford.

Garner was still a smooth-skinned post-adolescent when he played Bret Maverick.  As Rockford, his majestic profile had matured into its fully chiseled peak. When the time came, Garner walked away from both shows on his own terms, leaving money on the table each time, enhancing his outlaw status.

Rockford portrayed an ageless quality on-screen, so it might surprise people to know that James Garner was 46 years old when the show embarked on its five-year run.  And unlike other leading men, Garner did almost all his own stunt-work and live car chases, as well as appearing in almost every scene of every episode. He put his middle-aged body through the ringer to play that part, and the toll it took may have been the primary reason he decided to pull the plug on the program during its sixth season.rock1

***

“I knew those two weren’t Feds. Feds still wear narrow ties.” Rockford fingering a couple of imposters in an early episode of the first season.

Yes we are boldly in 1974 with this program. There is no ironic Seventies appreciation here, only the real thing. When “The Rockford Files” came out, it was cutting edge, not nostalgic. That’s why it gives us such great insight into what was actually considered cool in the mid-70s: wide ties, earth-tone Pontiacs, and witty answering machine banter.

Kids, that's a payphone; notice the rotary dial. Payphones were a major part of Rockford's business model.

Kids, that’s a payphone; notice the rotary dial. Payphones were a major part of Rockford’s business model.

One other thing about 1974. It’s closer in time to the 1930s than the 2010s. With fresh 2013 eyes, what you notice is just how much a Rockford Files script mirrors one from the classic LA Hardboiled detective genre of the 1930s and 40s (think “Double Indemnity” 1944). It’s all there: The snappy banter; the archetypal characters–hoods, goons, dicks, Seamuses, high-class dames and femme fatales; and air that bristles with sexual electricity but always maintains a puritanical approach to what is actually portrayed on-screen (which happens to be much less than a Close-Up toothpaste commercial of the same era).

Detectives have been part of L.A.’s fictional landscape since L.A. began producing fiction. In novels, movies, or T.V. serials, the City of Angels has always had detectives as protagonists. But there was only one that ever lived in a trailer in a beach parking lot. As I touched upon in a different blog post, Jim Rockford represented the fusion of one Southern California archetype, the hardboiled detective, with another SoCal archetype, the off-the-grid beachcomber. It’s uncertain when we will see another like him come this way again, but Rockford’s place at the top rung of syndicated reruns is eternal.

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Categories: 1970s, counterculture, Los Angeles, television | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

For as long as I’ve been around, Ray Bradbury has been there as an esteemed literary elder. Even back in the Seventies, a time when American society was especially divided and polarized, Bradbury was a transcendent grandfather figure, respected by all, disliked by none.

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Ray Bradbury, visionary of the Atomic and Space Ages.

Bradbury was an author of novels, but he also penned scripts. He was an oracle of television when television was becoming the premiere medium of our time.  Like his contemporary, Rod Serling, Bradbury was a man from TV’s black and white era, when the best writers on the small screen worked behind a veneer of strict, straight-edged respectability, long before Archie Bunker’s toilet flush set the new standard for TV excellence. Unlike Rod Serling, he was neither edgy nor beatnik, and he didn’t die young.

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“The Martian Chronicles” (1950).

Ray Bradbury passed away in the city where he spent the last 77 of his 91 years, Los Angeles, CA.

Bradbury would appear to be an atypical Angeleno by our contemporary estimation, but in fact he represents a classical L.A. archetype: the Midwestern Angeleno. As a boy of 14, Bradbury moved from Waukegan, Illinois to Los Angeles with his family at the tail end of L.A.’s initial boomtown era–a period of four decades that saw the city’s total population soar from 33rd in the nation in 1890 to 5th by 1930. What made this growth unique from the other major American cities whose populations swelled in those decades was that it was fueled largely by WASPy Midwesterners, rather than European immigrants. People like the Bradburys came from places like Iowa and Illinois and settled in areas like South Central and Inglewood.

Ray Bradbury graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1939 but said his real education came from hours spent reading and writing at the L.A. Central Library. Unable to afford college, Bradbury worked selling newspapers on a corner of Olympic Blvd as he peddled his stories to movie studios and literary publishers.

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Central Library, downtown Los Angeles.

Incredibly (for a resident of Los Angeles), Ray Bradbury never learned to drive.

It surprises people to learn that the man who penned such unmistakably Midwestern flavored Americana spent his entire career in Los Angeles, but Bradbury clearly retained enough youthful memories of Illinois to populate his prolific body of work.  Indeed, perhaps leaving Illinois at such an innocent age is what allowed Bradbury to preserve such an idyllic Midwestern childhood from which to draw.

Ray Bradbury and his wife lived and raised four daughters in a relatively modest home in the quietly elegant neighborhood of Cheviot Hills, precisely the kind of place where you would expect a writer to reside. It’s a nice area for leisurely strolls, but being L.A., Cheviot Hills is surrounded by freeways and major thoroughfares; it’s not an area with lots of walkable destinations, but it is an ideal place to contrast a cozy family home life with an endlessly sprawling dystopia.

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Ray Bradbury (1920-2012).

Ray Bradbury might be more quintessentially Los Angeles than we think.

Categories: 2012: The Year in Review, Los Angeles | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Be There, the Ides of March

Beware the Ides of March, particularly for those of you named Julius, or Ethel for that matter. The rest of you are probably alright.

The Ides of March is upon us, marking the beginning of the week when I traditionally like to ring in the New Year. It’s not without precedent: The Babylonians, Aztecs, Zoroastrians, and Sikhs all celebrate New Year’s Day sometime during this week, and that’s not even delving into the possible pagan origins of St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, and Passover.

The Jews, Copts, and perhaps the Muslims calibrate the New Year to the autumnal equinox, when darkness begins to overtake light (in the Northern Hemisphere), and I presume that’s because they mark their days with the lunar calendar and rising of the moon in the sky rather than the sun, probably not a bad idea if you live in the Middle East. Otherwise, New Year’s Day tends to correspond to one of two seasonal markers: Winter Solstice when the days have reached their shortest length and begin to get longer again, or Vernal Equinox when the days become longer than the nights.

Modern society chooses to mark the New Year ten days after the Winter Solstice, when the days are darkest and the sun is just beginning its long climb back after hitting bottom. But I choose to set my alarm for Spring, when the days actually become longer than the nights  and are further enhanced by the generous federal subsidy of Daylight Savings Time, when mid-morning risers like myself gain an extra hour of afternoon sun at the expense of farmers and children with long morning commutes.

Spring feels like the time of morning when I prefer to rise–bright, warm, bursting with life. The people who begin their New Year in December? Those are the kind of people who wake up when it’s still dark out, splash cold water on their faces and hit the bricks for a power jog. I say God bless ’em, but my circadian clock waits until there is more light than dark in a day before it recognizes a New Year.

So, Happy New Year from the Rancho, and stay tuned for some thoughts and reflections on 2012: The Year That Was over the coming weeks on these pages.

Categories: 2012: The Year in Review | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

“Echo Park” (1986). A Film Review

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The opening title lets us know right away that this is an ’80s film, made in the era of Swatches, Nagel prints, and neon fonts–long before anyone even knew what a font was. The Tangerine Dream-like original score reminds us of how ’80s movies sounded.

“Echo Park” drew me in for three reasons. The first is its co-star, Susan Dey. As a boy, I wanted to kiss the TV screen whenever Lori Partridge came on. As a teen, I made a point of seeing any movie that Susan Dey was in, even if it was dubbed into Spanish on KMEX.

Reason number two is the film’s other co-star, Tom Hulce. To me, Hulce will always be Pinto from “Animal House.” Pinto was the straight-laced, virginal freshman who was thrown into the anarchy of the Delta House, where all his adolescent angst was wiped away in one alcoholic swoop. I got through junior high and high school knowing that if Pinto could do it, I could do it.

The third thing that compelled me to see this film was the title itself: Echo Park.

Echo Park is a venerable neighborhood of Northeast Los Angeles, nestled into the low hills between Silver Lake and Dodger Stadium. In full disclosure, I spent part of my childhood in the ’70s near Echo Park. One of my good friends in 5th and 6th grade lived there, and a group of us would often ride the school bus home with him in the afternoon. After rummaging through his pantry for junk food, we’d walk over to Dodger Stadium to catch a ball game (In 1977, bleacher tickets for children 12 and under cost 75 cents!).

Echo Park had been considered a gang intensive neighborhood for as long as I can remember (see Mi Vida Loca). Even back then, in 6th grade, my friend was facing situations I could scarcely comprehend: Teenagers jumping out of the bushes and demanding, “where you from, dood? Where you from?!?” and the like. There was one 15-year old red-haired, glue-sniffing tough in particular named Bernardo who was always in and out of juvie, and for some reason had it out for my friend. When you saw Bernardo, you just ran and didn’t look back.

But Echo Park also had its multi-generational families, its mom-and-pop stores, and its faded grandeur that bespoke a certain historicity. The neighborhood dates to the 1880’s, which by L.A. standards is ancient history.

The film industry itself was originally centered in Echo Park during the silent movie era, before World War I. Mack Sennett built what is considered the first true movie studio there (Keystone Studios) in 1912. Many Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, and Fatty Arbuckle comedy shorts were shot along the hillsides of Echo Park.

It is on these same hillsides, some sixty-odd years later, that “Echo Park” the movie takes place. Susan Dey plays May, an aspiring actress currently working as a bartender. Tom Hulce plays Jonathan, a songwriter and romantic who delivers pizza. And Michael Bowen plays August, an Austrian bodybuilder determined to make it in America.

“Echo Park” opens with a dream sequence in which August’s father emerges from the Alps straight into Echo Park’s eponymous public park, wearing a garland of sausage links around his neck and leading a cow by a rope through a phalanx of zombie-like male and female bodybuilders that includes his son, August.

“Papa? What are you doing in America?”

“A good butcher uses every part of the cow, August,” the father responds, purposefully raising his knife to stab a female bodybuilder.

August jolts awake in his bed with a terrified start from the nightmare. His demons now established, August steps out onto his little back stoop in the predawn to greet the new day.

August in the pre-dawn.

August in the pre-dawn.

The palm tree affirms that we are in Los Angeles, and the lifeguard tower-sized room with sheets hung up for curtains indicates that it’s the kind of residence where a starving artist/body-sculptor lives. Back in his room now, August steps over to his workout machine and commences the day’s first sets of seated lat pulldowns with grim determination, punctuated by loud grunting screams that could symbolize anything at this point.

The camera next pulls back for an external shot, revealing that August’s pad is one part of the second story of a dilapidated house, the other part of which is occupied by May, who, wearing her nightshirt, flips on the light and presses her ear firmly to the thin wall to listen to August’s anguished grunts, and starts to get turned on.

Before May’s imagination can get too carried away, a little boy, her son, walks into the room and asks for a glass of milk.

“At this hour of the night? It’ll just make you fart,” May answers, leading him back to his bed. The boy says he’s scared and asks May if she’ll lie down with him in her bed. “Sure,” she says, taking him to her closet-sized bedroom that has a curtain for a door.

So far, so good. May is a single mom who has sacrificed any semblance of party life because she is devoted to raising her child. That’s why the next scene shocks me so. After tucking the boy into her bed, May sits on the edge and lights up a cigarette.

I forgot that they used to do that in movies–have the sympathetic characters smoke in their establishing shots to show…what exactly? That they’re cool? Relatable? Responsible parents?

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May greets the morning.

Last but not least, we meet Jonathan, a pizza delivery guy out on the job. As a veteran of the pizza delivery profession in two different time zones myself, I can say with authority that Jonathan’s gig is like nothing I’ve ever seen. He gets to wear espadrilles, panama hats, and clothing that looks like it came right off the back of a field worker. I know it was the ’80s, but come on.

Jonathan.

Jonathan.

He drives a custom delivery truck that has no doors and surely can’t be street legal, and when he can’t locate the address of a pizza delivery, his boss tells him to eat the pizza himself if he has to, just don’t bring it back.

Vinnie's Pizza delivery truck. No way it's street legal.

Is this thing street legal?

QUIRKY

“Quirky” seems to be the word favored by reviewers to describe this movie, and perhaps nothing establishes this depiction as well as the opening credits sequence, which is accompanied by a note for note cover version of the Sir Douglas Quintet’s “She’s About a Mover.” This enigmatically titled song is Tejano music rather than East L.A., but it has the low rider vibe of Echo Park.

As the credits flash across the screen, we are presented with a montage of nocturnal Echo Park street scenes interspersed with footage of Jonathan on his pizza delivery rounds and an entire house from floorboards to rafters being transported in one piece on an oversized flatbed.

Night turns to day as our main characters, who still don’t know each other yet, get busy with their morning commutes on the streets of Echo Park.

“She’s About a Mover” reprises as Jonathan locates a pizza delivery address and discovers there’s nothing there but a vacant lot. He phones Vinnie the dark-personalitied pizzeria owner to report this news, and Vinnie responds, “Whaddya mean you can’t find the place? It couldn’t just disappear, unless there was a mover…” And voila. With that Delphic non-sequiter, the circle of quirky has just been squared: The Sir Douglas Quintet song, the house being transported by night, the vacant lot. It all ties together, or not.

The film’s writer is Michael Ventura, who came from Austin, TX to Los Angeles, where he began writing for the alternative newspaper, the L.A. Weekly, in the late 1970s. If there’s anybody who would pick up on the special vibes of a place like Echo Park, it would be someone like that. Ventura’s Austin, TX roots might explain the selection of the Sir Douglas Quintet song as the movie’s establishing number. “Sir Doug” originated in the nearby Texas city of San Antonio, and its founding members were about four years older than Ventura, just the right age for a teenager to be out enjoying their shows, and to gain a lasting impression of their music.

♠♣♥♦ ♠♣♥♦ ♠♣♥♦ 

Echo Park. The house where the kisses are his and his and hers.

Echo Park. The house where the kisses are his and his and hers.

Back to the plot development: Inevitably, Jonathan and May’s paths cross when he delivers a pizza to her door after she has had a fruitless day of interviewing prospective tenants to help defray her rent expense. Once again, the delivery process is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. He knocks on her front door with the pie, but instead of completing the transaction there at the door, she says, “the kitchen’s that way.” Jonathan wordlessly goes into the kitchen, slides out the cutting board, and places the pizza box on top. He then opens the box, procures a 99 cent store pizza cutter and begins slicing up the pie, making sure to pin down the crust with his unwashed hand for leverage as he hacks away.

Prospective tenant.

Prospective tenant.

“Oh, you don’t have to do that,” May protests.

“It’s part of the service,” Jonathan explains.

Really? When was the last time you ordered an unsliced pizza, let alone had the delivery guy slice it up for you in the kitchen? That’s like going to a bar, ordering a round of beers, having the waitress bring a bunch of unopened bottles to your table, where she procures a bottle-opener while you protest, “oh, you don’t have to do that.” Only in Hollywood.

But of course, this sequence of events happens for a reason, three reasons actually: So Jonathan can develop a crush on May, find out she has a room to rent, and make an offer on the room himself.

Bodybuilders on a mission. August is front and center.

Bodybuilders on a mission, August front and center.

Next we go to the gym to see August working his day job as a personal trainer. August trains his clients by repeatedly telling them in his Austrian accent that their muscles are puny. Keep in mind, this movie came out a solid year before Hans and Franz debuted on Saturday Night Live, so let’s give credit to Michael Bowen and the creators of “Echo Park” for developing this character.

Bowen really did his homework for this role, studying all the Arnold Schwarzenegger footage to glean the future governor’s core ideas about muscles, orgasms, masturbation, superior genes, and celebrity, and mold them into an overarching narrative that became the character of August.

The manager of August’s gym is played by Richard “Cheech” Marin, and the receptionist is played by Cassandra Peterson, better known to many as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

Cassandra Peterson & Cheech Marin

Cassandra Peterson & Cheech Marin

Cassandra Peterson

Cassandra Peterson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the 14-minute mark, the three protagonists in “Echo Park” are already in place. All that’s left to do now is watch the plot unfold and the characters develop. We see firsthand the ups and downs of May, Jonathan, and August as they struggle to tightrope across the gap between the dream and the reality, trying not to plunge into the insecurity roiling below.

May attempts to strip-o-gram her way into legitimate Hollywood while maintaining her dignity and the respect of her son. The cynic in me suspects this role is just a ruse by the director to get Susan Dey to dress and undress in a series of tarty costumes.

But the raciest dialogue comes when May is out of costume. For anyone who ever dreamed of seeing Lori Partridge talk dirty, this is your film. All in all, it’s a bold role for Susan Dey. In a positive example of life imitating art, I’d like to think her portrayal of May is what propelled Susan Dey into the great second act of her career, the “L.A. Law” years, which began mere months after the release of “Echo Park.”

May’s foray into stripperdom introduces us to Hugo, a sleazy producer who operates out of an office on skid row. For my money, John Paragon’s rendition of Hugo is the best performance of the entire film. And don’t worry, Hugo may be dripping with slime, but underneath it all he’s got a heart of gold.

John Paragon as Hugo.

John Paragon as Hugo.

***

Jonathan is the broodiest of the trio. He’s an intellectual who dabbles in songwriting, but spends most of his time in his book-filled bedroom or delivering pizza.

“Echo Park” does a very good job of showing rather than describing Jonathan’s failure to connect romantically with women.

This would be a good place to note that the hearing of grunting through walls we experienced in the opening scene becomes a leitmotif throughout the movie that ties together all three characters and advances the plot.

August and May, two beautiful months, discuss grunting.

August and May, two of the finest months, discuss grunting.

Throughout his workday, Jonathan occasionally hums an unrecognizable tune, but the only tangible clue of Jonathan’s songwriting ambitions comes when he delivers a pizza to a recording studio. As we know, Jonathan likes to make himself at home wherever he drops off a pie, so as the session band takes their lunch break, Jonathan noodles around on a keyboard and mumbles his way through the song he’s working on.

“That has a nice feel to it,” the beer-gutted studio engineer says tenderly, looking up from his pizza slice. “Carry on; it’s good.” In the business, that’s called major label interest. But as the guitarist steps in to pick up the melody, Jonathan explains that the song’s not finished yet, and makes a hasty, Cinderella-like retreat as the engineer begs him to come back.

August’s dreams are more involved. He’s a go-getter who, unlike the other two protagonists, takes direct, pro-active steps to make those dreams come true. When Hollywood doesn’t cooperate with August, his demons emerge.

neonfont

AFTERWORD

Roger Ebert’s 1986 review of “Echo Park” concludes by saying, “(it) has no great statement to make and no particular plot to unfold. Its ambition is to introduce us to these people (August, May, Jonathan) and let them live with us for awhile…”

Indeed, in the fullness of time, what redeems “Echo Park” is its sincere effort to identify and portray the occasion of artistic-idealistic 20-somethings congregating in rundown but charming ethnic neighborhoods, where they share dilapidated housing in roommate situations, surrounded by freaks, haphazardly chasing their dreams. In the end, it is the journey and the interactions they have with each other that become the story, while the dream falls by the wayside.

It is a storyline that is much more familiar in the ’90s, once Generation X becomes identified and celebrated in popular culture. Back when “Echo Park” was shot in 1985, no one knew what to call this phenomenon, but at least one team of filmmakers knew it was there and tried to say something about it.

Watching the movie all these years later, I was immediately reminded of the ahead-of-its-time single from the musical duo David + David, “Swallowed by the Cracks,” off the “Boomtown” album, which happened to be released the same month (July 1986) as “Echo Park.”

In the opinion of this blog, the thinness of “Echo Park’s” plot is trumped by the boldness of the statement it was trying to make.

NOTES & OBSERVATIONS

  • You may notice many irregularities in the way Jonathan delivers pizza. One is that he quotes prices in whole dollars, seemingly off the top of his head: “mmm…seven dollars American…” “uhh, ten dollars per pizza…” Even stranger is the total absence of “hot bags.” Jonathan just walks around trudging a stack of dented cardboard pizza boxes on his deliveries, but this might actually be historically accurate. Although hot bags were standard by the time I started delivering pizza in 1989, apparently they weren’t in general use until Domino’s patented them in 1984. If this is the case, then the odds are good that “Vinnie’s Pizza” would be a late adapter.
  • Though they are in East L.A. in summer, Jonathan goes the entirety of the movie wearing button-down shirts, long-sleeve shirts, or two layers of shirts, including on a day at the beach. Then, inexplicably, he goes shirtless for the last ten minutes of the movie, even though these scenes take place in the cool of the night and in the Austrian Alps. Perhaps it’s meant to symbolize the liberation of Jonathan’s character. My guess is Tom Hulce lost an off-camera bet with Susan Dey.
  • The film is bookended by a pair of intriguing sequences filmed in Austria that last about two minutes in total and have absolutely nothing to do with the storyline. Other than keeping it surreal, the most likely reason for including these scenes in “Echo Park” is to give the film a “Made in Austria” imprimatur and thus secure funding from the Austrian Film Fund. “Amadeus,” of course, starred Hulce in the lead role, and was filmed largely in Vienna, Austria.
  • “Echo Park” appears to have been filmed in the spring or summer months of 1985, when Tom Hulce would have been at the apex of his “Amadeus” fame, just after that film in which he starred in the lead role triumphed at the 1985 Oscars. Yet, “Echo Park” grossed less than $800,000 in the U.S.A.
  • At about the 1:17:00 mark in the film, Jonathan (Tom Hulce) walks up a staircase, past a portrait of Mozart, and stops to do a double-take.

    Mozart

    Jonathan encounters Wolfgang Amadeus.

  • When Jonathan moves in to May’s house (Susan Dey), he is carrying a stack of records, which includes a prominently displayed Partridge Family LP. Susan Dey, of course, played Lori Partridge.
  • There is an “Elvira” poster on August’s wall, as well as an ‘I Heart Elvira’ bumper sticker on the Vinnie’s Pizza delivery truck.

    elvirasticker

    “I Heart Elvira,” lower left.

  • Vinnie the pizzeria owner was the final feature film role of character actor Timothy Carey.

    Timothy Carey.

    Timothy Carey.

  • Burt Reynolds’ double is played by longtime colleague of this blogger’s father and all-around L.A. County renaissance man, Fred Leaf.

    Fred Leaf

    Fred Leaf

  • Included in the film’s soundtrack is the song, “Tomorrow’s Gonna be a Better Day,” performed by “Johnette,” who is none other than Johnette Napolitano, longtime resident of Silver Lake (which shares a zip code with Echo Park), just before she formed Concrete Blonde. The song (sans vocals) can be heard during the climactic pursuit scene towards the end of the film, when Jonathan first loses his shirt.
  • Also included in the soundtrack is “Imagination,” by David Baerwald, one half of the duo David + David, and singer/songwriter behind the aforementioned song, “Swallowed by the Cracks.” The film’s music (as per the opening credits) is by David Ricketts, the other half of David + David.
Categories: 1980s, Film, Los Angeles | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

HAPPY NEW YEAR ABE VIGODA!!

vigoda

Until December of 2011, whenever somebody mentioned that Abe Vigoda was still alive, I would say, “Hey, that’s great, but what about Harry Morgan?”

 

 

 

Vigoda has been playing guys with one foot in the grave since the ’70s, but Harry Morgan has been looking old on TV since 1966 and he’s still alive, too. Where’s his brass ring?

Harry Morgan in Dragnet

Harry Morgan in Dragnet

Well, Harry Morgan passed away in Dec. 2011, and I still say he went out as the all-time champion in the old-looking guys who are still alive category.

When 2012 began, we still had Ernest Borgnine, Andy Griffith, and Jack Klugman giving Vigoda a run for his money.

We said goodbye to Borgnine and Griffith in the first part of the year. But for my money, Jack Klugman was always the dark horse in the race. From his Twilight Zone appearances to the Odd Couple, he made a living playing guys who seemed destined to die in their fifties.

Who could have dared imagine that Oscar would outlive Felix Unger by nearly a decade? Yet, as 2012 wound down to a close, Jack Klugman was still here, while Tony Randall had passed away in 2004. It seemed the cigar-voiced Klugman might just be indestructible.

But as we learned on Christmas Eve 2012, this was not the case. Klugman went to his reward at the age of 90.

Abe Vigoda is the only one left.Abe_Vigoda

In 2013, when we celebrate Vigoda’s “still living” status, it’s a little more poignant than it was 13 months ago.

Categories: 1960s, 1970s, television | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Quick Obituary for Ed Cassidy

RIP Ed Cassidy, 60s icon and drummer of LA psychedelic band, Spirit.
He was born in 1923, a full generation older than everyone else on the scene. He played in swing bands in the 30s, served in the navy in WW2, and played in Spirit with his stepson, Randy California. He had a shaved head even in the 1960s, which was unique. He was an experienced showman and gave effusive performances.

220px-Spirit_-_Clear

Soundwise, there are times in his solos where you expect the drums to spring forward, but instead they fall back, behind the beat. I came to see this style as the missing link between the psychedelic rockers of the 60s and the cool stylings of the jazz musicians favored by the Beatniks who preceded the hippies. Ed Cassidy was basically inserting cool jazz riffs of the b&w Kerouac/Ginsberg era into electric kool-aid acid rock, and he wore all black.
If you ever wondered what it would sound like if a vanful of hippies went back in time and crossed paths with their immediate counterculture ancestors, the Beatniks, take a close listen to some of Ed Cassidy’s drum parts from Spirit’s earlier albums, especially “The Family That Plays Together (other than the album’s hit single, “I Got A Line On You.”)

 

220px-Spirit1-1

Categories: 1960s, counterculture, Music | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The Richmond (posted on my other blog)

The Richmond.

Categories: San Francisco | Leave a comment

Presidential Party Politics

“Who would you rather have a beer with?”

Wasn’t that the deciding question of the 2000 and 2004 elections?

By the time the morning after of 2008 rolled around, we already hated ourselves for our choices over the previous eight years, and in 2012 the hangover is still too fresh to begin reliving that awful bender this soon.

But the question remains. Who would you rather have a beer with? To sweeten the deal, let’s say you could choose from any of the Presidents in American history.

I have a friend who is always up for investing an afternoon in armchair time travel, so I put that very question to him: “If you could drink with any U.S. President, which one would it be?”

“Interesting query, and so many contenders to choose from,” he responded. “If I had to pick just one, I’d probably go with Old Hickory himself, the man on the $20 with the rockabilly hair, Andrew Jackson.  This has nothing to do with politics. He just looks like a blackout drunk with a hair-trigger temper and few inhibitions, which is what I want most in a drinking partner.

For two terms, the male equivalent of Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies occupied the White House, carrying a hip flask and a sidearm with him at all times (one presumes). Old Hickory probably passed out on the White House lawn more times than all the other Presidents combined. Drinking with Ole Hic’ would be like walking around New York City with Billy Martin and an open whisky bottle; you’d never know what trouble you’d be getting into from moment to moment, only that it would never be a long wait.

POTUS drinking buddy #2 would be Abe Lincoln. They say manic-depressives make the best party guests. Lincoln had a way with words, a famously great sense of humor, and probably some eye-raising tales from his years of country lawyering. If you happened to catch him during a depressive phase, it’d be an unforgettable moment just to nurse a julep and gaze upon that beautiful, tragic, sulking face for a spell.

Jefferson…I’m conflicted about Jefferson.  He’s got a sweet pony tail alright, but with any of those plantation owning presidents, there’s just no avoiding the subject of slavery for long. Not even hippy hair and a hemp field can make up for that.

Plantation owners like to give you a grand tour of the place, show off all its attributes. They’ll uncork a bottle of good stuff from the still for you; you’ll go out to the smokehouse to sample a choice cut of cured ham still hanging from the hook; you’ll head off to the barn to admire the loins of his prize stud animal. But at some point it would all come back to the slaves.

I’ll tell you what though, it would be interesting to compare hemp farming notes with those guys.

The one Founding Father I’d like more than anything to share a beer with, or an absinthe, or even a jar of lukewarm mead, is no President at all; he’s a pear-shaped man by the name of Ben Franklin. Could you imagine drinking with him in San Francisco?

I can, and often do. I think he’d quite like the city. Of all the founding fathers, he’s best -suited to this rarefied place with its celebrated freedom of expression, its prosperous marketplace of ideas, and its bounty of life, libertines, and the pursuit of happiness. I think he’d also appreciate the prodigious work of the Invisible Hand behind the City’s many holes of glory.

After Lincoln’s tenure, the party potential really plummets.  The Gilded Age Presidents all seem like a bunch of wet noodles.

Other than banqueting with Taft, I don’t think there’s any Twentieth Century President that I’d particularly want to tie one on with besides Harry S. Truman. Eisenhower maybe, but I’d probably start getting paranoid under the cold scrutiny of his Five Star General glare. Nixon? Perhaps. But he’s already Hunter S. Thompson’s muse, and besides, Nixon’s private-most Oval Office rantings are already public domain. There’s no mystery there.

On the other hand, some of those Vice-Presidents must have been epic partiers who slipped below the radar. The Vice Presidency is a great place to park a troublesome heir apparent for four or eight years; giving him a “promotion” that takes up most of his day while keeping him at a safe distance from the real levers of power (as long as Mister President has a heart beat), but that shall remain a subject for another day.”

Categories: Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Where Were You in ’72? (Reflections on the passing of time and of George McGovern)

Hi. My name is Dave. I’ve been thinking a lot about 1972 lately, and of what a long time 40 years is, even if it feels just like yesterday.

It was a big year for me. I started first grade, and not at just any school, but at “The Alternative School.” You can get a pretty good idea of what the school was about from the name and the fact that it started in 1972.

I was in class when I heard about Nixon beating McGovern. Our teacher’s name was Steve. It was the afternoon and we were in our makeshift classroom. The Cuisenaire rods were put away in the closet; math time was over. We were transitioning to the afternoon, sitting on little squares of carpet with the lights dimmed, attempting to have some sort of quiet time, but it was no use. “I think they had the election for the President yesterday!” a kid said.

“No way. Just for one day? That seems like a rip-off. Let’s ask Steve.”

Steve confirmed that it was true, that the elections had been the day before and the results were already decided. “Nixon beat McGovern in a landslide,” were his exact words. A landslide.

You take stuff literally when you’re six. I had just learned about the horrors of quicksand, and I was pretty sure people were killed in landslides. My take on the whole thing was that the popular vote was neither here nor there, but that Nixon became President by default because McGovern got taken out by falling rocks.

Aah, memories…Hard to believe 1972 was 40 years ago. In 1972, 40 years ago was 1932. Hoover was President. The New Deal was still in the future. The world changed unfathomably in those four decades. Sociologically at least, 1972 would have been unrecognizable to a citizen of 1932.

From our current vantage point, 1972 was a different world as well, but not nearly as different as 1932 was to 1972. The Alternative School opened for business in the fall of that year, meaning the school would have begun to be conceptualized and realized in 1970-71 or so. In other words, the Alternative School emerged during America’s most turbulent decade since the Civil War, founded by a small group of committed parents and educators.

It turns out that the tumult and upheaval of that period had largely run its course by 1972, but there was no way of knowing this at the time. The Weathermen and Yippies were still very much active as the 1970s began. The 1968 Democratic National Convention would have been the most recent presidential political marker. Kent State and Jackson State represented the contemporary state of relations between government and higher education.

To us they were Nixon, to them we were Manson. Having long hair in public could still land you in a fistfight.

This was the zeitgeist into which the Alternative School was born. Not all the goals of the school’s ideologues and their generational cohorts were attained.  Few of us first graders stuck with the program all the way through high school. Most of my former classmates who now have kids of their own have chosen to raise them in a far more structured environment. The Alternative School itself ceased to exist by the early 1980s.

But looking back now, 40 years later, in an era when the Rolling Stones play Super Bowl halftime shows, a multiracial former Occidental College student sits in the While House, and the term “alternative” itself has acquired mainstream cachet, it’s easier to appreciate how far we’ve actually come since “The Landslide” of 1972.

Categories: 1970s, counterculture, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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