Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Other Canyon - Back to '68

Laurel Canyon has a history that movies are made of, with Mama Cass the acting mayor of a quirky enclave of artists. AM has spent a lot of time chronicling CSN&Y and the Laurel Canyon Scene from the late 60s through the end of '71, but there was another canyon endowed with a rich musical history: Topanga. Like Laurel Canyon, Topanga was initially the home of many Hollywood actors, including Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Shirley Temple, Johnny Weissmuller (Olympian more famous as Tarzan) and Dennis Hopper, to name a few.

The Topanga Corral, a nightclub nestled deep in the canyon, featured an eclectic mix of performers, including Canned Heat, Spirit, Little Feat, Taj Mahal, Emmy Lou Harris, and Neil Young. Jim Morrison of the Doors was inspired to write "Roadhouse Blues" while driving up the canyon to hang at The Corral. Even the infamous Charles Manson had a band, "Milky Way," that was fired from the club because they didn't draw a beer drinking crowd. The Topanga Corral burned down in the late 70's.

Among the Topanga elite was Spirit. The band featured Randy California on guitar, Mark Andes on bass, Jay Ferguson's vocals, and John Locke and Ed Cassidy on drums. California was a tremendous guitarist underrated by critics. Jimi Hendrix gave him the surname (real name Wolfe), and invited him to England to play backup guitar in his band, The Experience. California's family expressly forbid it. Thanks, family.

The debut album Spirit was an icon of psychedelic music in the mid-sixties and reached No. 31 on the Billboard album chart in 1968. Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit on their 1968 tour and here we find the catalyst of contention that surrounds Spirit's "Taurus" and "Stairway to Heaven." While there are definitive similarities, both songs hinge on a common A minor chord progression with a descending bass line. Far from uncommon. What's unfortunate is the controversy diminishes both tracks when each has merit in the rock canon. In essence, "Taurus" is a brief instrumental that seems to lay the groundwork for only the first movement (of six) of "Stairway." Listen to and enjoy them both.

The band that truly reflects the other canyon attitude, in addition to indoctrinating the hippie culture to boogie and blues, was Canned Heat. Bob Hite, known as "The Bear" because he weighed well over 300 lbs, and Allen Wilson, known as "Blind Owl" (he was practically blind), formed in 1965. Since both Hite and Wilson were blues purest, they acquired the name Canned Heat from a song written in 1928 by Tommy Johnson. The song's about an alcoholic so down on his luck he'd drink sterno, also known as "Canned Heat." Canned Heat's boogie/blues stylings garnered acclaim for their performances at both Monterey and Woodstock. 

Blind Owl Wilson suffered from clinical depression issues and many times attempted suicide, when sadly, in September 1970, at age 27, he succumbed to an overdose of barbiturates in Bob Hite's backyard. He was known to sleep outside under the stars. His death came weeks before Janis Joplin's and Jimi Hendrix' deaths, though he never received the same notoriety.

Other Topanga musicians include Woody Guthrie, Lowell George, The Flying Burrito Brothers' Gram Parsons and Spanky McFarlane of Spanky and Our Gang. While The Mamas and the Papas get all the press, Spanky and Our Gang were as effervescent and timely as John Phillips et al. Their debut LP from 1967 remains one of my guilty pleasures, with hits like "Lazy Day" and "Sunday Will Never Be the Same" interspersed with hippie cabaret including a wonderful rendition of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" and a tribute to our friend the dictionary in a short piece called "The Five Meanings of Love." As an impressionable five-year-old, I was particularly enamored with hippie culture through the track called "Commercial," an advertisement for marijuana with the catch line, "Pot's too good to be just for the young." While humorous, it also captured the true spirit of a honky tonk. Not on the LP is one of my all-time favorite singles, "Like to Get to Know You," released in 1968. To this day I just love the song's coda; a slow, dreamy version of the core melody – Like to get to know you on acid. It exemplified canyon life.