Sunday, September 20, 2020

A Quick History - Laurel Canyon

Stephen Stills and Peter Tork
From his 2006 treatise on the L.A. music scene (Hotel California), British journalist Barney Hoskyns wrote, "In a way it's a death-of-60s-utopianism story. 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."

"After 1968 I think there was a sense in the global music community that we needed to slow down and chill out," wrote 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. 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.'"

JD Souther and Jackson Browne
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. Wrote 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 had found a regular hangout in The Troubadour, but in 1973, the Roxy opened in direct competition. Its owners were David Geffen and Lou Adler, so naturally they had money on their minds; producers can only pretend or actualize their altruism for just so long. "The Roxy was very symbolic of a shift toward something that was more glitzy and in-crowd and movie-star oriented," said 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." Hoskyns tells the story of a legendary summit in David Geffen's sauna at 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." Just two years later Geffen sold Asylum to Warner Bros., and then in '73 the label merged with Elektra. Geffen immediately cut Elektra's artist roster and soon he was racking up enemies almost as quickly as the zeroes 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. The times they were-a changin'.

Carole King
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, said Walker, "to behave very much like Nero on his way to the vomitorium." A string of early 70s feel-good hits like America's "Ventura Highway (AM10)," Jackson Browne’s "Doctor My Eyes," and the Eagles’ "Take It Easy" (co-written by Browne), made the Hollywood hippies easy targets. The Laurel Canyon cohort was fracturing, and there was no Yoko to blame. 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 an essay entitled, "James Taylor Marked For Death," declaring, "I call it I-Rock because most of it is so relentlessly, involutedly (sic) 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." Despite the ridiculous contrarian journalism, no one can argue the lasting evidence: Young's “Ohio” (written in Nash's backyard), or Carole King's Tapestry or Mitchell's Ladies of the Canyon, Blue and For the Roses; or later, the Eagles' canonical (if overplayed) Hotel California, which chronicles the scene's decline into nihilism. Though Hoskyns' text is more like someone weaving a story around mythologies, the language is convoluted at times (and the grammar a bit wasted, maybe), it's a stunning read with familiar characters that 40 years on still have many of us under their spell.

Mama Cass

The magic of the LP is that it is, truly, a record — of a mood, of a time and a place with gorgeous specimens like Crosby, Stills & Nash or Court and Spark. This was a truly magical time in the industry's history: the Brits were all about art rock moving towards progressive; the Americans found jazz in its sidestep from folk - and the end result was rock's annus mirabilis. Happening upon "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" on the car radio, one can still feel the electric thrill of a moment that was less about dropping out than tuning in.