Back To The Garden: History of the Laurel Canyon Sound
Back to the Garden
Roxy (and Troubadour) music: Stills, Young, Greg Reeves, Dallas Taylor and Nash rehearsing for Woodstock, 1969 (Photos by Henry Diltz)
Money may not buy you love, but $2.4 million can buy you prime real estate on “Love Street” — as in the song Jim Morrison wrote about living in Laurel Canyon in the ’60s. The Doors’ singer and his girlfriend rented a house near “the store where the creatures meet” (the Canyon Country Store) but nobody remembers exactly where. “It’s like bars where Hemingway drank,” says Laurel Canyon author Michael Walker as he opens the gates of 2401 Laurel Canyon Boulevard, marked with a Sotheby’s “For Sale” sign. “Jim Morrison lived in every house.”
Morrison did not live at this corner of Laurel Canyon and Lookout Mountain Avenue, where a huge log cabin built by Tom Mix stood until it burned to the ground in 1981. Frank Zappa did though, with his wife, Gail, and daughter Moon Unit, their in-house nannies the GTOs, and a host of rock royalty and freaks who streamed in at all hours of the night and day. (Alice Cooper auditioned for Zappa’s record label at 7 a.m. and got signed.)
From what was once a bowling alley, the rambling, bucolic property rises up unmortared stone steps dotted with colorful tile, to seating nooks built into the hillside, where visitors would get stoned before entering Zappa’s strict no-drugs zone. Artesian waterfalls flow into ponds, and there are caves big enough to sleep in if you don’t mind bats. “It was just magical,” recalls groupie goddess and former GTO Pamela des Barres (who remembers exactly where Morrison lived). “It was like going into what I would imagine to be a forest where Pan frolicked around. It was my playground, but I was still in awe of it.”
The golden years of the Laurel Canyon scene, roughly 1967-’74, saw the birth of the singer-songwriter movement and the rise of huge stars, from folk-rock bands like the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas to Crosby, Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Carole King, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, the Flying Burrito Brothers, America, and the Eagles — many of whom played on each other’s records and slept in each other’s beds. This concentrated blitz of creativity and passionate entanglements has been compared to Paris in the ’20s, and although that’s a stretch, it was certainly as influential as the Greenwich Village folk scene and Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love. Although other musicians lived in the neighborhood, including Love’s Arthur Lee, the signature canyon sound was folky and introspective, representing a deliberate retreat from the darkness of the late ’60s and the chaos of the Sunset Strip.
Two new books, Walker’s Laurel Canyon and British music journalist Barney Hoskyns’ Hotel California, delve into the myths and the music created during this era. While taking different paths, both chart the scene’s idealistic, communal beginnings in the late ’60s through its devolution into crass commercialism, drug binges and broken friendships by the mid-’70s.
“In a way it’s a death-of-’60s-utopianism story,” says Hoskyns, who previously explored Los Angeles’ music history in 1999’s Waiting for the Sun. “When you look back down the corridors of rock & roll time there aren’t that many homogenous scenes that you can write about, that are like stories of dysfunctional families where there’s a real coherence in what a group of artists is trying to do and say. It seemed to be crying out for an overview. Plus you have this great setting, this rural oasis right in the midst of freeway hell.”
Always a bohemian enclave, Lookout Mountain Avenue was settled before building codes existed, on an impossibly narrow, winding road with a couple of flimsy wooden guard rails that “wouldn’t even stop a skateboard,” notes Walker as we drive past. Tiny, Hobbit-like cottages are piled on top of modern boxes, and the views are some of the best in Los Angeles. Here, Joni Mitchell, herself “discovered” by David Crosby, bought a cottage that her boyfriend Graham Nash would later immortalize in the song “Our House.” According to lore, it was at this cottage with the two cats in the yard that Crosby, Stills & Nash harmonized together for the first time, although some insist the historic moment took place at Cass Elliot’s, nearby. Mama Cass, true to her nickname, hosted regular salons where musicians and freeloaders would come to swim in the pool, get high, eat and jam, and she definitely did play musical matchmaker, asking the newly formed duo of Crosby and Stills if they might need a third voice. As Nash recalls the moment in Laurel Canyon, it took them three tries to get Stills’ “You Don’t Have to Cry” perfect, and then they all started laughing because it sounded so amazing.
These artists were tapping into the public’s desire for a softer sound. “After 1968 I think there was a sense in the global music community that we need to slow down and chill out,” says Hoskyns. “We’ve got to get ‘back to the garden,’ to use Joni’s phrase. And I think what Laurel Canyon represented was a place of refuge. And it happened to be right in the middle of the city. The recording studios were there, the clubs, down on the Strip. I think it was a place to stop and take stock. What did the seismic ’60s phenomenon mean? People had not looked inward up to that point; everyone was looking outward, usually through the prism of drugs. And now it was like, ‘My god, we really need to look inside and ask ourselves some questions.’ ”
And the answers happened to sound like hit records. In 1969, David Geffen, then a 26-year-old talent agent who managed Laura Nyro, took on Crosby, Stills & Nash. Soon he partnered with Joni Mitchell’s manager Elliot Roberts; Lookout Management became Geffen-Roberts and in 1971 the multitasking Geffen launched Asylum Records with the backing of Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun. Says Hoskyns, “In essence what people like David Geffen did was to market the very non-commercialism, turn that kind of laid-back, patched-denim dropout thing into a product.”
Laurel Canyon scenesters found a regular hangout in The Troubadour, which opened as a folk club in 1957. “It was like the clubhouse,” says the scene’s unofficial photographer, Henry Diltz, who also played on its stage with his band the Modern Folk Quartet. “It was a place you would go and all your friends would be there. You knew all the groups that were playing, you had affairs with the waitresses, and Harry Dean Stanton would be sitting at the bar.” For ambitious singer-songwriters, this was also the only game in town; multi-night runs bestowed instant stardom on both Joni Mitchell and Elton John. And for the period of time that the scene was small and new enough to be contained inside the club’s doors, the Canyon’s idyllic feel was carried down into Hollywood.
But in 1973, the Roxy opened in direct competition with the Troubadour. Its owners were Geffen, Roberts and Lou Adler, so naturally they had money on their minds. “The Roxy was very symbolic of a shift toward something that was more glitzy and in-crowd and movie-star oriented,” says Hoskyns. “Maybe this was the dawn of the celebrity era. You think of it in terms of Cher and people like that. It certainly isn’t about banjos anymore.” Geffen was changing — dating Cher, for one thing — and with him the scene.
In Hotel California Hoskyns tells the story of a legendary summit in Geffen’s sauna, during which he informed his guests — Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Jackson Browne and Ned Doheny — that he was starting a small record label: “I’ll never have more artists than I can fit in this sauna.” Yet just two years later Geffen sold Asylum to Warner Bros., and then in 1973 the label merged with Elektra. Geffen immediately cut Elektra’s artist roster and soon he was racking up enemies almost as quickly as the zeros in his paychecks. By the early ’80s the Bronx entrepreneur’s ruthless business practices had led to his falling out with Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Henley.
In 2000 Geffen told his biographer that if he never spoke to Joni Mitchell again he “wouldn’t miss her for a minute.” Yet he tells Hoskyns that his Laurel Canyon experience was “the greatest ride that one could possibly imagine.” Hoskyns is touched by Geffen’s sentiment: “The era still means way more to him than anything that happened subsequently. I’m convinced that he did care about these artists, he did care about their music. At the same time he saw them as a stepping stone to far greater riches.”
Voices of a generation or not, by the mid-’70s some of the leading lights of the scene — including Crosby, Stills, Henley, and Frey — began, says Walker, “to behave very much like Nero on his way to the vomitorium.” Hoskyns doesn’t spare us the sordid details, and it gets a little tedious. But then, for some, it was always tedious. A string of early ’70s feel-good hits like America’s “Ventura Highway,” Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes,” and the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” (co-written by Browne), made the Hollywood hippies easy targets. Frank Zappa came up with the derisive term “navel gazers” to describe his former neighbors. Tom Waits, whose song “Ol’ 55” was covered by the Eagles, said the band was “about as exciting as watching paint dry.” Taking those sentiments a few steps further, Lester Bangs wrote the essay “James Taylor Marked For Death,” declaring, “I call it I-Rock .?.?. because most of it is so relentlessly, involutedly egocentric that you finally actually stop hating the punk and just want to take the poor bastard out and get him a drink, and then kick his ass.”
Although Walker says his most revelatory musical discovery during the writing of Laurel Canyon was Arthur Lee’s dark, orchestral psych pop, he believes in the lasting influence of the navel-gazing singer-songwriters. “Whether you like it or not a whole generation defined itself by the music that was made here during the late ’60s and early ’70s. It was an ongoing history while they were living it, and that really helped people shape their lives and understand their values.” And who can argue with the lasting testimony: Young’s “Ohio” (written in Nash’s backyard), or King’s Tapestry or Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon, Blue and Court and Spark; or even the Eagles’ canonical (if overplayed) Hotel California, which chronicles the scene’s decline into nihilism.
Laurel Canyon, born of personal curiosity about the neighborhood Walker has lived in for the past nine years, doesn’t wallow too long in this dirt. “I was trying to write about the psychology of what it was like to be here,” he says. “I deliberately stayed away from certain stories.” So we don’t meet Crosby or Stills clutching their freebase pipes in the ’80s, but we do get a somewhat long-winded — and not especially relevant to Laurel Canyon — social history of cocaine, from the Incas to Coca Cola and Cole Porter lyrics. One former Elektra employee says that doing lines was so routine within the Hollywood music industry, the label handed out promotional coke mirrors to announce the release of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.”
These sorts of distinctions make the two books interesting companion reads. Hoskyns the music historian clues us in to lesser-known talents like Judee Sill, a folkie junkie whom he believes “should be rediscovered like a Nick Drake .?.?. I think she was really nothing short of a musical genius.” Walker, meanwhile, introduces us to then-16-year-old Morgana Welch, a second-generation Sunset Strip groupie and Laurel Canyon dweller who was a preferred consort of Led Zeppelin.
“I tried to interview as many people that were on the periphery of these music stars as the music stars themselves,” says Walker, “because Graham Nash and those guys had created this sort of popular-culture hurricane, and they were in the eye of it. And the eye of a hurricane is a pretty good place to be — it’s calm and balmy. But right on the edges of it is where the maelstrom is, and that’s where a lot of these people found themselves.”
There was, however, one peripheral figure who brought the edge, the maelstrom, right into the hurricane’s eye. Both Walker and Hoskyns retell the saga of an aspiring singer-songwriter named Charlie Manson, a hippie hanger-on who was befriended by Dennis Wilson and Byrds producer (and Doris Day’s son) Terry Melcher, and whose fractured lo-fi folk was championed by Neil Young. Young even recommended Manson to Mo Ostin, who wasn’t impressed, but Melcher made the fatal mistake of backing down on a promise to connect Manson with Columbia Records. This slight wasn’t the only source of Manson’s wrath, but it was one of them, and as it happened the house in Benedict Canyon that Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate rented during the summer of 1969 was owned by Terry Melcher. It’s unclear whether Manson had put a hit on the producer and his friends or whether he was just sending him a message. Either way, a chill set in, and doors in the canyons were locked at night for the first time.
There are some who say “the sixties” didn’t end until mid-way through the ’70s, others who believe Helter Skelter in August followed by Altamont in December slammed the book on the decade the minute the clock struck 1970. The hippie look and lexicon certainly lasted well into the ’70s, but purity in any movement is fragile and fleeting. Born of isolation and insulation, the Laurel Canyon scene couldn’t survive the scrutiny or the influx of drugs and money. By the end of 1969 the royalties from CSN’s massively successful debut album had already bought the musicians new homes in other, more upscale neighborhoods.
Yet the magic of recorded albums is that they are, truly, a record — of a mood, a time and a place. Gorgeous specimens like Crosby, Stills & Nash can exist separately from the flops and the feuds, the rehabs and the reunion tours. Happening upon “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” on the car radio, you can still feel the electric thrill of a moment that was less about dropping out than tuning in.