David Kukoff compiles weird, wild and wonderful personal histories of The Me Decade

By Bliss Bowen

Kukoff collected 29 essays for his book, the first genuine attempt at compiling a Los Angeles-based history of the decade

L.A. in the 1970s: a trend-setting hotbed of musical creativity and fashion, the setting of many an iconic TV show, a film backdrop so ubiquitous that millions worldwide recognize it without ever having visited.

Many assume they know it, thanks to reams of media coverage. Yet screenwriter David Kukoff, whose 2014 novel “Children of the Canyon” addressed Laurel Canyon’s 1960s counterculture, believed the stories of people who actually grew up here in the ’70s hadn’t been adequately told.

The specter of Charles Manson’s “family” shadows his recently published “Los Angeles in the 1970s: Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine,” but the anthology is less interested in sensational headlines than in the citizens who went to school and learned about life in the shadow of the Hollywood sign and Venice’s crumbling piers, the people who recall their first Tommy’s chiliburger like a rite of passage.

Kukoff, who grew up “haunting movie theaters” and riding his bike around his hometown of Westwood, was mindful that he “knew nobody who had grown up in the south or eastside,” so he reached out to fellow Angelenos whose experiences would “fill out” his own. He solicited pieces from an array of journalists, novelists, poets, ex-cops, musicians, screenwriters and producers; Rick McCloskey’s “Cruising Van Nuys Boulevard” is the lone photo essay.

The colorful list of contributors includes porn impresario Bob Chinn, Doors drummer John Densmore, KCET columnist Lynell George, poet and Library Girl hostess Susan Hayden, Emmy-winning writer/director Ken Levine, former L.A. City Council member Joy Picus, L.A. Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez, award-winning journalist Deanne Stillman, Los Angeles Review of Books founding editor Matthew Specktor, Dead Kennedy’s/Germs producer Geza X and actor/writer Del Zamora.

They give the collection more texture with stories about L.A.’s manufacturing core, invisible color lines, sports, Transcendental Meditation, late great punk club the Masque, foodies, Synanon, performance art, Ruben Salazar, Uni High, the Z Channel and, inevitably, Hollywood.

The book surveys L.A. history through people’s individual stories, which is an interesting way to study The Me Decade. Was that your original concept?

Yeah, it was always meant to be a series of lived-in experience stories — less academic, more first-person perspective, or journalistic, from the point of view of people who really know their topic intimately. Joe Donnelly didn’t grow up in Venice, per se, but he has probably forgotten more about the Dogtown Z-Boys than most of us will ever know. [Laughs] … I wanted to design this both as a valentine and also as an education: Here was our city the last decade before it went cosmopolitan, before it really became world-class, when it was still kind of a local experience.

Several contributors, including you, cite Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” wisecrack that being able to turn right on red was L.A.’s only cultural advantage.

It goes to show you just how much issue so many of us took with that. It wasn’t fair even then. Even when L.A. wasn’t as obvious a metropolis as, say, Chicago or New York, it wasn’t lacking culture; it had its own culture, it just wasn’t the opera or classical music. It was outdoors. It was reinvention. It was a sense of freedom of opportunity that people back East clearly weren’t getting. There was a reason why the demographic tended to go westward, rather than vice versa.

You make a thoughtful point that the ’70s represented a tectonic shift from the 1960s “we’re all in this together” mentality to the “greed is good” ethos of Reagan’s ’80s, and that L.A. “played a crucial part in that shift.” As we start 2017, how would you say the 2000s have redefined L.A.?

That’s a really good question. I, as well as everybody I knew, was really proud to be not only Californian but an Angeleno in this election cycle. If there was one silver lining [chuckles] it was that we felt that … we are setting a progressive agenda for the rest of the country to follow.

The counterculture’s failings in a lot of ways led to a backlash that helped put Reagan into the White House. I think we’ve got opportunities now to learn from the mistakes of the past. How can we continue to define what a multicultural, progressive future looks like for so many? I think a lot of that takes place here. We saw so many high school students walk out after Trump was elected. Our police chief stood up and said we’re not going to comply if he wants to come here and start mass deportations. Los Angeles has really established itself as an incredibly exciting, forward-thinking, central hub of where the country’s headed. I think people look to us as a beacon.

Do you think L.A. — and, by extension, Hollywood — has been eclipsed by Silicon Valley as a cultural force?

I’m not sure if “eclipsed” is the right word. Certainly there’s a complementary aspect to it. Movies are still America’s titanic export.  … Shows like “Transparent” and films like “Loving,” “Spotlight” and “Moonlight” — these are films asking important questions about where America is and where we’re headed.

There’s no question [technology] is shaping our behavior. But I’m not quite sure if people are discussing technology the same way they’re discussing the content. Ultimately, I think the distinction is content vs. platform, and content still tends to come from here, and still tends to attract a lot more attention vis-à-vis the national mood and the cultural temperature.

Steve Hodel’s Chandler-esque “Snake and Bake Murder” and Chip Jacobs’ “Snake vs. Wolf” reminded me that some crimes seem like they could only happen in L.A.

The true crime stories couldn’t have been more perfect encapsulations of some of the strangeness that was here. [Laughs.] Here you were in the second-biggest city in the country and, yet, parts of it felt uncharted. They were almost officially off the grid, and if you wandered too far off, the cavalry wasn’t coming. You could definitely get a feeling that there were fringe elements, cults
and weirdos living at the edge of the city well into the ’70s, which certainly isn’t the case now.

In both those stories, you have this wild flaunting of the rules, of convention. In the case of Hodel’s, what happens when you have this hedonistic sex club up in the hills with no boundaries and no rules as far as couples? The way it seemed to work, invariably, in the counterculture was something ugly would permeate that and come pouring forth and unleash itself, and it wouldn’t end well.

A lot of people would view this and have a negative take on California, like, “Oh, you want your paradise, but you don’t necessarily want to live with the ugliness.” Here was the ugliness staring you in the face, and there was a lot of it in L.A. in the ’70s.

What do you hope the book will accomplish?

We want people to get to know our city in all its wonderful, wild, brilliant glory, and that period in particular. I told people writing it, “I don’t want this to feel like an academic journal; I don’t want it to be [something] that only a certain select group of serious sociological scholars will understand. I want it to be accessible.” It was meant to be very reader-friendly.

“Los Angeles in the 1970s: Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine” editor David Kukoff appears in conversation with contributors Bruce Ferber, Jillian Franklyn, Lynne Friedman, Howard Gewirtz, Ken Levine, Jim Natal, Deanne Stillman and Mitch Schneider at 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 8, at the Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Ave., Santa Monica. $10. Call (310) 397-3244 or visit davidkukoff.com.