Thursday, November 8, 2018

Laurel Canyon - 50 Years Ago

Houdini Mansion - Laurel Cyn. and Lookout Mtn. Road
Ask anyone in America where the craziest people live and they'll tell you California. Ask anyone in California where the craziest people live and they'll say Los Angeles. Ask anyone in Los Angeles where the craziest people live and they'll tell you Hollywood. Ask anyone in Hollywood where the craziest people live and they'll say Laurel Canyon. And ask anyone in Laurel Canyon where the craziest people live and they'll say Lookout Mountain. So I bought a house on Lookout Mountain. —Joni Mitchell

50 years ago, Laurel Canyon was a quiet enclave of once grand mansions, homes of stars of the silent age left abandoned or in disrepair; else it was Bohemian flats, the left of center faction who just had to get away. Between the houses were nothing but eucalyptus trees and sagebrush and wild olives. People of money, new money in particular, were all about Beverly Hills or south of the boulevard on the Valley side. Laurel Canyon was quiet and the freeways at either end of Mulholland quelled the traffic. There was but one store (there still is), the canyon was narrow and inaccessible, having little appeal for the literati, the elite, the influx of New Yorkers. Yet rent was cheap and it was close to the city and the studios, and by 1965 the canyon had become a destination (or a point of departure). Within a year it would be a bastion of the soon to be famous, an endless list: Joni and Jim, The Seeds, The Turtles, Mama Cass, Jackson Browne, Peter Tork, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, on and on.

A myriad of canyons snake through the Santa Monicas from L.A. into the Valley: Topanga, Sepulveda, Beverly Glen, Benedict, Coldwater and Laurel. I lived in Beverly Glen from 1981 to 1983 in a one room cottage with a huge stone fireplace, the Beverly Glen Mart just up the road, and when I research who lived where, the rock history in those hills, it feels as if I'm a part. Through my father's contribution to music, those billboards along the Sunset Strip, I have a tangible connection, but living among the Eucalyptus and the palms, I was somehow akin to that Laurel Canyon crowd.  As a writer, and having just finished memoirs that reflect L.A. in the 60s, 70s and 80s (Jay and the Americans), and with the passing of my father,  I feel particularly close to those hills and those people. Putting the era and the canyons into perspective is a great read by Michael Walker titled Laurel Canyon: the Inside Story of Rock-and-Roll's Legendary Neighborhood. I do not have the authority to do so, but reprinted here is an excerpt from from the text (available through Amazon):

Joni Mitchell
In 1968 a British pop star and the refugees from two seminal Los Angeles bands gathered in a cottage on Lookout Mountain Avenue in Laurel Canyon, the slightly seedy, camp-like neighborhood of serpentine one-lane roads, precipitous hills, fragrant eucalyptus trees, and softly crumbling bungalows set down improbably in the middle of Los Angeles, and sang together for the first time. The occupant of the cottage, which had moldering shake shingles and draft-prone casement windows, was a Canadian painter, poet, and folksinger named Joni Mitchell. The British pop star, sporting a wisp of a goatee and a thick Manchester brogue, was Graham Nash, founding member of the Hollies. The refugees were Stephen Stills, late of the Buffalo Springfield, writer and singer of "For What It's Worth," who had three years before auditioned for the Monkees and, having failed, recommended his friend, a folkie named Peter Torkelson; and David Crosby, late of the Byrds and "Mr. Tambourine Man," possessed of a Buffalo Bill mustache, an immaculate harmony voice, and piercing eyes that Mitchell, with typical literary flourish, likened to star sapphires. (Crosby produced Mitchell's debut album, Song to a Seagull.) So it was that Nash, Stills, and Crosby sat in Mitchell's living room on Lookout Mountain, in the heart of Laurel Canyon, in the epicenter of L.A.'s nascent rock music industry, and for the first time, began to sing together.

Joni Mitchell's Laurel Canyon Home
It is a measure of Laurel Canyon's mythmaking powers that this particular watershed may have actually occurred not at Mitchell's cottage — though that's the way Nash and plenty of others remember it — but a mile away in the living room of Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas, who along with Mitchell briefly co-reigned as unofficial queen of the canyon, one an inscrutable poet-genius, the other a bosomy, meddling mother figure. What is certain is that within the year, Nash, Stills, and Crosby apotheosized into Crosby, Stills & Nash, the third group with Laurel Canyon roots within as many years — after the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield — to score a knockout with their first record. Nash moved into Mitchell's cottage on Lookout, there to write his ode to countercultural domestic bliss, "Our House." Mitchell, in turn, wrote and recorded "Ladies of the Canyon," her paean to the strange bohemian netherland where she and Nash nurtured their affair and where it would soon become evident that some of the twentieth century's most talented and enterprising young men and women had gathered at just the right moment.
Crosby, Stills, Nash, Greg Reeves and
Dallas Taylor Rehearsing for Woodstock
Laurel Canyon had been filling up with musicians from Los Angeles, New York, and London since the mid-1960s: Mitchell was a transplant from New York via Saskatoon; Carole King had recently decamped to a place on Appian Way; so had Nico, the Teutonic waif from Andy Warhol's Factory. Up the street from Mitchell's place were John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, and Denny Doherty of the Mamas and the Papas, who, until they moved west and recorded "California Dreamin'" and "Monday, Monday," had busked around as semi-obscure folksingers. British bands touring the States made it a point to stop by Laurel Canyon for a party or two — Beatles, Stones, Animals, Yardbirds, and the rest. Some never left — the British blues legend John Mayall bought a house just over the ridge from Mitchell's place. It was Brigadoon meets the Brill Building, and the repercussions thirty-odd years later continue to pour from radios, iPods, and concert stages around the world.

The Laurel Canyon scene was the reason L.A. earned it's mark on the musical map, and still maintains its hipster folk rock energy today. Emerging local artists come together to experiment, play their hearts out and remind them­selves why they're musicians in the first place.