In the late sixties and early seventies, an impromptu collection of musicians colonized a eucalyptus-scented canyon deep in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles and melded folk, rock, and savvy American pop into a sound that conquered the world as thoroughly as the songs of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had before them. Thirty years later, the music made in Laurel Canyon continues to pour from radios, iPods, and concert stages around the world. During the canyon's golden era, the musicians who lived and worked there scored dozens of landmark hits, from "California Dreamin'" to "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" to "It's Too Late," selling tens of millions of records and resetting the thermostat of pop culture.
In Laurel Canyon, veteran journalist Michael Walker tells the inside story of this unprecedented gathering of some of the baby boom's leading musical lights—including Joni Mitchell; Jim Morrison; Crosby, Stills, and Nash; John Mayall; the Mamas and the Papas; Carole King; the Eagles; and Frank Zappa, to name just a few—who turned Los Angeles into the music capital of the world and forever changed the way popular music is recorded, marketed, and consumed.
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About the Author
Michael Walker has written extensively about popular culture for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and other publications. He lives in Laurel Canyon.
Michael Walker has written extensively about popular culture for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and other publications. He is the author of Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock-and-Roll's Legendary Neighborhood. He lives in Laurel Canyon.
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The Inside Story of Rock-and-Roll's Legendary Neighborhood
By Michael Walker
Faber and Faber Inc.Copyright © 2006 Michael Walker
All rights reserved.
SO YOU WANT TO BE A ROCK-AND-ROLL STAR?
L.A. folkies meet the Beatles, the Byrds take flight, young girls (and everybody else) come to the canyon
In the autumn of 1964, a nineteen-year-old bluegrass adept and virtuoso mandolin player named Chris Hillman stood at the corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Kirkwood Drive contemplating a FOR RENT sign on a telephone pole across from the Canyon Country Store. Hillman's folk-bluegrass group, the Hillmen, had recently disbanded after one album and untold gigs around Southern California — they'd played the Harem Lounge, in Lynwood, the night of November 21, 1963. Now the handsome musician had just joined a trio at loose ends after their first record had tanked. The trio — young journeymen singer-guitarists with solid folkie credentials — had recorded as the Jet Set and the Beefeaters and had now decided to reconstitute themselves with electric guitars and drums. Hillman ended up on bass, an instrument he'd never played but one that the Hillmen's manager, who also managed the Beefeaters, figured he could quickly master. The Beefeaters added another handsome young man, Michael Clarke, on drums, who had slim experience but, it was agreed, looked the part. Thus did Jim McGuinn (soon to change his name to Roger), Gene Clark, David Crosby, Michael Clarke, and Chris Hillman — shepherded by a resourceful L.A. jazz producer and man-about-town named Jim Dickson — become the Byrds. Hillman couldn't have known it, but by the time he stood on a corner in the heart of Laurel Canyon in 1964, he was about to participate in the creation of a milestone of twentieth-century popular culture.
With Hillman and Clarke in the lineup and McGuinn and Crosby playing electric guitars, the Byrds married the drive of rock and roll to the harmonies of folk music, then nearing the peak of its popularity with baby boomers in the persons of Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Bob Dylan. At the time, folk was also still very much the music of left-leaning middle-agers, whom Dylan would famously scandalize at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival by "going electric." "There was a folk scene, but it was yet to be a folk scene of the youth — that wasn't Kingston Trio bullshit," says Judy Raphael, a musician and writer who worked at the Troubadour and the Ash Grove, L.A.'s premier folk clubs, and attended UCLA's film school with Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, soon to form the Doors.
All that was about to change. Crosby and every aspiring Southern California folk musician had logged time at the Troubadour's Monday open-mike Hoot nights, which were instrumental in providing a venue where performances could be honed and collaborations struck. A good showing at the Hoot could raise one's stock in town literally overnight. "The first time anybody heard Linda Ronstadt sing would have been in '64 when she did a solo at the Hoot and everybody was just talking about her the whole next day," says Raphael. The Ash Grove, too, was crawling with apple-cheeked folk acolytes in thrall to the music. "There were all these little Jewish boys sitting around in front thinking they could emulate the latest lick by Robert Johnson or Doc Watson. Ry Cooder gave guitar lessons there in '63 at age sixteen. It was really a center where a lot of stuff evolved."
Folk and rock may have made sense as a hybrid musically, but philosophically they could scarcely have been further apart. Though no clear-cut definition exists, folk is generally accepted to comprise music that is populist, lyrically dense, and simple enough to be played by amateurs on whatever instruments are at hand. "In the strictest sense, it's music that is rarely written for profit," Gene Shay, the co-founder of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, said. "It's the people's music." While rock and roll's roots reach deeply into the folk traditions of blues and country, it was from the beginning unabashedly commercial music dependent on, and enhanced immeasurably by, the charisma and dynamism of the musician performing it. Anybody with an Autoharp and a third-grade singing voice can pull off a passable rendition of "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore"; it takes Chuck Berry to sing "Johnny B. Goode."
In the early 1960s folk began launching stars singing the "people's music" in a manner that made the songs inseparable from the singer, as with Elvis Presley's indelible association with "Hound Dog," previously a hit for the blueswoman Big Mama Thornton. Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary sold millions of records and became celebrities of a magnitude that eclipsed pop singers like Connie Francis. Singing hand-sewn songs interpreted as allegories for the civil rights, antiwar, and antinuclear movements, they made a deep impression on millions of young baby boomers raised in the stultifying atmosphere of the American 1950s. Making an equal impression on a generation already showing signs of creeping entitlement was the quality of the folk stars' celebrity, the deference they were shown, and the fact that they, too, were young and sexual. No one could have known it then, but the folk stars of the early 1960s were the first rock stars.
Still, folk had yet to evolve into anything as irresistible and visceral as rock and roll. The Beatles' earliest records, with their Everly Brothers–style harmonies and unapologetic backbeat, hinted at the possibilities — McGuinn and Clark had played Beatles songs in their folk sets, sometimes to the derision of purist coffeehouse audiences. In San Francisco, the Beau Brummels were playing Beatles-influenced rock with intricate folk-style vocal harmonies a year before the Byrds formed. But no one had achieved unambiguous commercial success marrying folk and rock until the Byrds recorded a version of an unreleased Dylan song written in herky-jerky two-four time, which McGuinn slowed to the steady-rolling four-four moderato of rock and roll.
Released on April 12, 1965, "Mr. Tambourine Man" — McGuinn's ringing twelve-string electric guitar sounding the refrain followed by his and Crosby's close-spaced, ethereal harmonies — quickly caught fire and shot all the way to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, becoming a worldwide smash. By spanning the divide between rock and roll and folk music, the Byrds created a hybrid — folk rock — that gentrified American-made rock and roll while putting a commercial sheen on folk only hinted at by Baez, Dylan, and Collins. Dylan would trump the Byrds that summer with "Like a Rolling Stone," a noisy six-minute masterpiece that melded elements of folk, pop, and rock while somehow summing up an entire generation's inchoate longings and paranoia; but before Dylan's breakthrough the Beatles loomed largest in the aspirations of L.A.'s nascent folk rockers.
"I remember the day David Crosby came over with Chris Hillman and knocked on my door when I lived near the Troubadour," says Raphael. "They used to come over to tune up. And [Crosby] turned my radio from FM to AM, to those pop-music stations, which was sacrilege to me. AM had been Frankie Valli and that bullshit, and all of a sudden because of the Beatles it was very, very important, because now all the guys wanted to grow their hair and be pop stars. [Crosby] said: 'Do you mind if I change the station to AM?' And they started playing along. I remember that very distinctly as a turning point. They were listening to all that stuff." Folk rock would prove more popular and remunerative than either genre had separately, and it presaged the truly humongous folk-country-rock "L.A. Sound," perfected by Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Eagles, Jackson Browne, America, Linda Ronstadt, and others, which would dominate from the late 1960s to the late '70s and utterly transform the record industry. But it all started in 1965 with the Byrds. For Hillman and his bandmates, as well as for the eucalyptus-scented Los Angeles canyon where Hillman would soon reside, life would never be the same.
Hillman was raised in northern San Diego County, a largely rural area that had yet to be besieged by veterans perfecting the California dream amid the cosseting climate in subdivisions financed by the G.I. Bill. It was an environment one might expect to foster in a shy young man a consuming passion for arcane country music, less so the primordial rock and roll of L.A.'s chaotic Specialty Records, home of Little Richard. But for the young Chris Hillman, it was everything he could want in the way of excitement. He was captivated by the gritty subgenre of country music associated with Bakersfield, a sunbaked city in California's vast Central Valley. Compared with the mournfully embroidered melodies of Nashville, Bakersfield country was looser, harder-driving, and more apt to swing — perfect for the headlong restlessness of postwar Southern California and, later, as a foundation for the sort of music Hillman would make with and without the Byrds. Bakersfield proponents like Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, and Spade Cooley, a singer and fiddler from Pack Saddle Creek, Oklahoma, who led a ten-piece band partial to snazzy matching cowboy outfits, were huge stars in Southern California when Hillman was growing up. Cooley hosted his own TV show, The Hoffman Hayride, which at its peak drew 75 percent of the television viewers in Los Angeles. Hillman couldn't get enough of it.
"I would dial in the Spade Cooley live TV show every Saturday night from Los Angeles," he says. "Then I'd watch Cliffie Stone's Hometown Jamboree, then the Johnny Otis show, which was R&B. I'm, like, a thirteen-year-old kid and my father was going, 'What's wrong with you?'" Hillman added folk music to his obsessions when his sister returned from college with an armload of albums and his mother drove to Tijuana and bought him a ten-dollar guitar, which he assiduously taught himself to play. Next came the mandolin, whose reedy imprecations he picked out from Flatt and Scruggs records. In 1961 Hillman joined a high-school bluegrass band with the Mighty Wind –ish name Scottsville Squirrel Barkers; his next band, the Golden Gate Boys, acknowledged the young mandolin player's burgeoning chops and commanding good looks by renaming themselves the Hillmen.
It was not the sort of résumé that would seem to prefigure worldwide stardom, but Hillman joined the Byrds at what in hindsight was precisely the right moment. Beatlemania, arriving just three months after Kennedy's assassination, had acted like a tonic on the American psyche. "I feel the Beatles actually healed us," Hillman says. "It was almost God-sent that they came over." The Beatles' phenomenal success served as a goad and role model to prospective male American musicians. Crosby always carbon-dated the turning point in the Byrds' folk-to-rock-and-roll conversion to the night he, Clark, and McGuinn saw A Hard Day's Night together. "I can remember coming out of that movie so jazzed that I was swinging around stop sign poles at arm's length," Crosby recalled. "[The Beatles] were cool and we said: 'Yeah, that's it. We have to be a band.'"
Like so many other young men of their generation, the Byrds selected their Rickenbacker and Gretsch guitars and Ludwig drums in emulation of John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. Their Beatlesque matching suits were, according to Hillman, another matter. "We hated them. I think we wore the suits once, when we worked Ciro's on the Strip the first time. We left them in the dressing room on purpose." The Beatles represented the equivalent of a clean sheet of paper that the largest generation in American history suddenly had license to fill any way it chose. "I felt that there were no boundaries, no rules," says Hillman. "Especially in the music business, which was then a tiny cottage industry. Nothing like it is today. The guys running the companies were music guys, and we didn't have these conglomerate corporate monsters eating up everything. Then it was new, uncharted territory. It was a special time, and for that moment we held the pulse."
Every incipient cultural movement needs its golden nexus. The New Yorker crowd of the 1930s had the Algonquin Hotel (and, when in Hollywood, the Garden of Allah at the mouth of Laurel Canyon on the Sunset Strip). So it was in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s that Laurel Canyon, by unconscious lottery of the hip, became the place where every heads-up young musician just knew he had to live. "Laurel Canyon was sort of the mecca," says Hillman. "From '63–'64 up until '69–'70, it was quite the place to be." Billy James, a pioneering artist manager and music publisher who championed some of the brightest lights on the emerging L.A. scene, already lived at 8504 Ridpath Drive, not far from Hillman's FOR RENT sign. "It's all happened within the last year or so," James told Jerry Hopkins, Rolling Stone's first Los Angeles correspondent, in 1968. "If creative artists need to live apart from the community at large, they also have a desire to live among their own kind, and so an artistic community develops." Those selfsame creative artists may also have had an equally consuming desire to live where the rent was dirt cheap. Which is how Hillman found himself in Laurel Canyon looking for a place. It didn't take him long to find one, and, in the canyon's emerging mythos of enchanted serendipity, one presented itself as if by magic.
"This guy drives up and he says, 'You looking for a place to rent?'" Hillman recalls. "I said yeah, and he said, 'Well, follow me up.' It was this young guy who was a dentist. It was his parents' house, a beautiful old wood house down a dirt road — and he lived on the top, and he was renting out the bottom part. I just went, 'Wow, perfect.' The guy ended up being my dentist for a while."
The house was at the top of Magnolia Lane at the summit of the Kirkwood Bowl, a box canyon cut into the west flank of Laurel Canyon. Like many of the roads in the Kirkwood Bowl and on Lookout Mountain, another canyon within the canyon a half mile to the north, Magnolia Lane had been hacked out of the granite by real estate speculators without regard to guardrails or turning clearances. Then as now, the narrow roadways with their incredible pitch dictate that two cars cannot pass without one of them backing up. Protracted horn-blowing standoffs are common, and the unprotected shoulders promise a leisurely plunge, usually through the roof of an unsuspecting house below. There is, of course, an upside to these inconveniences: Hillman's house had a view that stretched from downtown Los Angeles all the way to the Pacific. "It was wonderful up there," Hillman says. "It was the top of the world, a beautiful, beautiful place. I had the best place in the canyon." Not to mention that Laurel Canyon's longtime status as a haven for freethinkers could lead to intriguing neighbors. "Right above me was this old Spanish Mediterranean sort of house and [the sculptor] Ed Kienholz lived there," Hillman says. "You'd hear him up there soldering and sawing."
The canyon was meanwhile being colonized by Hillman's bandmates and L.A. contemporaries. McGuinn moved in. Crosby, a headstrong twenty-two-year-old from Santa Barbara with a matchless tenor harmony voice who was already feuding with McGuinn over leadership of the Byrds, was in transient residence all over the canyon before settling in Beverly Glen ten miles west. "At the end of '64, early '65, the folk-rock explosion, that's when the Byrds took their first money and a lot of them moved up to Laurel Canyon," says Kim Fowley, an early L.A. rock producer and entrepreneur. "Everybody else in that folk-rock community decided they'd move up there, too, because you could smoke dope and get laid and be an asshole with your Porsche convertible out of the prying eyes of the Man." The proximity of so many of L.A.'s emerging rock elite had predictable collateral consequences. John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, from his perch on Lookout Mountain, would soon famously pen the lyric "young girls are coming to the canyon."
This would turn out to be a colossal understatement. As Fowley recalls: "All these chicks would hitchhike up to the Canyon Store from the Strip, girls from Kansas who'd heard about Laurel Canyon: 'Hi! Folk-rock musicians! I'll clean your house and fuck you and I'm a vegetarian and I can make you macrobiotic stuff as you're shooting heroin.' So those of us who didn't live in Laurel Canyon, we'd go up and grab them and say: 'These guys aren't going to have sex with you, because you're not from New York, so come fuck us.'"
The canyon's gathering folk-rock firmament made an impression on Pamela Des Barres, née Miller, then a seventeen-year-old protogroupie who ran with a gang of like-minded young women that Frank Zappa would dub the Girls Together Outrageously, or GTOs. Pamela frequently hitchhiked over Laurel Canyon Boulevard to Hollywood from her home in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Reseda. "It was perfect — I used to call it God's golden backyard," she says, "just knowing that the people you thought were cool lived up there. The Byrds were my favorite band and they lived there, so that was it for me. It wasn't that hard to find rock-star addresses back then. I went to every single one of their houses and scoped them out."
Excerpted from Laurel Canyon by Michael Walker. Copyright © 2006 Michael Walker. Excerpted by permission of Faber and Faber Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
PART ONE: Jingle-Jangle Mornings,
1. So You Want to Be a Rock-and-Roll Star?,
2. Uncle Frank's Cabin,
3. Lady of the Canyon,
4. Everyday People,
5. Businessmen, They Drink My Wine,
PART TWO: Cocaine Afternoons,
8. She Don't Lie,
9. The L.A. Queens,
10. All the Young Dudes,
11. Eve of Destruction,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Much has been written on the subject of 60's/70's Rock and Roll. This book takes a fresh and interesting angle by focusing on a 'neighborhood' and it's influence/involvement in the history of the LA based music scene of this era. Well researched and fun read.
Let Your Freak Flag Fly for 248 Pages-Illuminating.Given my interest in this subject, I could not put this down. Excellent. A meaningful historical account which puts things into perspective. The ¿real¿ 60¿s of LSD, Marijuana, singer-songwriters living in a ¿love-in¿ flowery peace, paisley and tie dye existence, perhaps lasted for only a few years before things became darker. But, then again, that is part of the history of it all.What is also interesting is how the talented musicians of Laurel Canyon in the mid to late sixties spawned a Los Angeles music culture and business which took over the world. It eclipsed New York and might have had its only peer in London with the Beatles and the Stones.What is for sure is that nothing was ever the same again. I highly recommend this one for those who have an interest in the music, its historical context and the emergence of the music business as we know it today.
A fun read. I lived in Nichols Cny from mid 60's to mid 70's. I know a # of the folks interviewed for this book (some famous, some now gone, some just were average residents). The book relates what was quite an extraordinary time for 'the canyons.' Author's research is well done. This period was electrifying, heady, experimental & a lot of other adjectives. It also in hind sight was scary and many were very immature and all too trusting. But times were different then and those times changed very fast. This book captures the vibes well. I wished I had know when the author was doing his research. I would have contributed and urged him to speak to a few others I keep in touch with to this day.
The book was entertaining in places. I question the accuracy of some of the subjects but he captured the mood of the eras he wrote about quite well. I remember a few of the people mentioned in the part of the book that covered the early-mid 60's to the early 70's, from their coming down to Laguna Beach. Most of it was pathetic and sad. And to portray teenage girls who let themselves be used by over-blown, screwed up, and self inflated musicians as having the least bit of significance or relevency is depressing. That is the one word I can use to describe this book; depressing.
If you are looking to explore popular music history particularly focusing on the 60s and 70s, this is one of the books you must read. Walker uses his knowledge of the time period, and the musical movements going on during those times, to craft a history of Laurel Canyon. His use of concrete examples and stories, like that of Frank Zappa's emergence onto the scene, give the reader a great deal of understanding. One of my favorite quotes from the book comes from a recount of Laurel Canyon, "...it was kind of a refuge for people who were incapable of eye-to-eye hustling on Sunset Boulevard. You'd look out the window and write songs in a flannel shirt about timber and chrome and guys would come by and sit and listen and whenever they'd do a line that meant it was a good song." Overall I thought this was a great book if you are interested in the musical eras of the 60's and 70's; while at times it did seem a little dry, there was always an interesting anecdote to help spice things up. Anyone over the age of 14 can appreciate this book and I would recommend it to most people.