Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Book Review: "Laurel Canyon"

Book Review of “Laurel Canyon – The Inside Story of Rock and Rolls’ Legendary Neighborhood” by Michael Walker, 2006

In homage to Gramsci, I thought I’d write about a cultural issue. This one relates to the ‘state’ of things here in the U.S.A. This book is about the effect this Los Angeles canyon, and the people who lived in it, had on rock and folk music in the 60s, 70s and beyond. The issue relates to what I consider to be the essence of creativity – an environment where like-minded people can work together to increase the value of their art. History is replete with this happening - the groups of U.S. transcendentalists and other writers in Concord MA and Hartford, CT; the Bloomsbury group in London; the writers and painters of the 20s and 30s in Paris; the Bolshevik culturalists after the revolution in Moscow; and the later bohemians of Greenwich Village, the Algonquin Hotel in New York and North Beach in San Francisco. Musically, there were the hippie bands of San Francisco, and all the music incubator cities - Memphis, Nashville, Austin, New York, Athens, Detroit, Seattle and, even, Minneapolis. And there was Laurel Canyon in LA.

Why does this matter? Because essentially, when a local music or cultural scene matures, it has more power over the corporate controllers of culture than it would if the corporations ‘created’ the music, or they ‘discovered’ the talent, or they ‘decided’ on the trends. The best music comes out of local roots and environments. So does the best literature and painting. It is the answer to corporate culture. Local scenes can ‘explode’ on a national and international level. To paraphrase, it takes a village to raise a good art form.

The author, Michael Walker, is kind of a kitschy, poppy LA type, who trades on gossip and big names, but what do you expect about a book on rock? I did not really understand the interrelationships between the bands and musicians in LA until this book. LA rock seemed somewhat sterile and isolated, and more driven by commercialism. I thought the situation of a creative enclave was reserved for San Francisco at the time. However, a similar scene did happen in LA, close to the music clubs of the Sunset Strip, and also close to Hollywood and the mainstream music industry. Laurel Canyon musicians 'jammed' together constantly in the houses and porches of the canyon, mixing with artists, producers and dancers, then went down to the “Strip” clubs, to play, watch other musicians, or plan deals. All this outside of Hollywood or the record factories churning out Vic Damone. And they changed those industries because of the creative clout they had.

Many of the people and bands lived in Laurel Canyon. Frank Zappa moved into a large ‘cabin’ at a crossroads in the Canyon, and for half a year, played host to the GTOs, Beefheart, Alice Cooper and some ex-Turtles. Unlike his somewhat stern and sarcastic persona, he was actually encouraging to the talent that flocked up the road to his house. His ‘cabin’ became an endless music party, without many drugs, until the potential for violent behavior made Gail Zappa decide to move the family to a quieter location in the Canyon.

Musicians like Mark Volman of the Turtles, Gene Hillman of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, Roger McQuinn of the Byrds, Carole King, ex of the Brill building, Glenn Frey and Don Henley of the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Love’s Arthur Lee, Judy Collins, Mick Dolenz of the Monkees, Nick St Nicholas of Steppenwolf, John Densmore and Robby Krieger of the Doors and John Mayall all spent time in the canyon. Mayall did an album, “Blues for Laurel Canyon.” Canned Heat lived in Northridge, then moved to the canyon for awhile, until their house burned down. Neil Young lived over in the more isolated Topanga Canyon, as would be Neil’s wont. Of course the most famous residents are The Mamas and the Papas' Cass Elliot, and Byrds' David Crosby and Buffalo Springfields' Stephen Stills, and the king and queen of the canyon, Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell, who co-habited in that house. The former wrote “Our House” about their small abode on Lookout Drive. The latter did an album, “Ladies of the Canyon.” Elliot actually introduced Nash to Crosby, and put that band together, because she knew harmonies so well. Nash has said his whole life changed because he knew Elliot.

The bands and managers that lived in the Canyon attracted a whole ‘LA sound” which was really folk rock. The Byrds were the first big breakthrough, as the prior Buffalo Springfield with Stills and Young did not make it commercially. Bands like America came out of LA as well, sounding almost exactly like Crosby, Still and Nash, the biggest name of the canyon. These bands and their sound were the link between the earlier ‘pure’ LA folk scene, and the later, mellow Canyon “California rock” of the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Brown. "California rock" gave way to later LA hair rock bands like Motley Crue; then punkers like “X” dominated the clubs of the Strip, to be followed by the alternative rock of Janes Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers and No Doubt. Nikki Sixx, from the Crue, actually lived in the canyon at one time, oddly enough.

The Canyon was a short drive to the Sunset Strip, where legendary clubs like the Whiskey, the Troubadour (which was actually on Santa Monica), the Rainbow and Rodneys’ English Disco made stars of many of these bands. Without this display area, they could not have flowered. Like the Avalon, Winterland and Fillmore in San Francisco, it was a natural part of the ‘scene.’ It even applied to outsiders – Elton John’s career started at the Troubadour. He became a star after a playing 6 nights in 1970. Linda Ronstadt was no one until she hit that stage. British bands like Led Zeppelin and Cream visited Rodney’s as their home away from home, then visited up the road. Labels like Geffen grew out of this scene, a label and managers who actually gave the bands and songwriters more power and money than they’d ever had before.

All good things end, and according to Walker, what did-in the ‘hippie’ vibe of the canyon was cocaine, money and Charles Manson. Manson’s gang, who’d hung around some of the parties in the canyon, killed 4 people in Benedict Canyon in Beverly Hills. At that point, the wide open scene of the Canyon lead to doors shutting along the wooded streets. Manson actually had moved in with the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson for awhile. Wilson was too clueless to get rid of them, as Wilson was having sex with two of Manson’s women. What Walker doesn't point out is that doors closed all over LA… not just in the Canyon. Walker also links Manson with “Altamont” as a ‘culture’ ender. Though how a poorly planned rock festival ‘killed’ a counter-culture is a theory only a Time journalist could love. The Dead, for one, bailed on Altamont when they saw how bad the concert was. The only thing that took a fall at that racetrack was the Stone’s hubris, and one dead concert-goer. Manson was no different. Guy with long hair who likes the Beatles kills someone? End of the counter-culture? Come on.

The second poison was cocaine, which slowly substituted for weed and LSD. Notorious coke heads like Crosby and Stills were just a few of the victims of a massive infusion of coke into the rock and roll industry. As Walker explains it, coke is expensive, and is not ‘shared,’ so coke heads are naturally more possessive and less friendly to anyone. The third wicket was money. Walker points out that behind the friendliness of the canyon was a desire to be famous and get ahead in their careers. When many of these very young musicians finally became overnight millionaires, and bought Porsches, it changed the atmosphere, as you’d expect. After awhile, the small inexpensive houses that had drawn them there in the first place, and the run-down condition of much of the steep canyon roads and buildings lead people and families to moving out, and ‘up’, to better houses, and a different, less collective way of life.

The funny part is, Walker still lives in Laurel Canyon right now. Each year, the present denizens of the various roads intersecting with Laurel Canyon Boulevard, between Mulholland and Sunset, get together for a picture at the Canyon Country Store, the heart of the canyon. In the old days this store saw, day or night, famous musicians wandering in looking to buy something. It is still there, still painted, still full of the signs of those times, and still open for business.

Red Frog, 10-21-2007 -
And I might have bought it at Mayday books, but I didn’t. But I DID see Woodstock at Mayday Books! And of course you can by Gramsci at Mayday. Do so.


Renegade Eye said...

It's a mistake to think of LA, as culturally sterile. You can now add the Latino influence, next to the Afro-American cultural awareness after Watts exploded.

However reactionary still there was Walt Disney.

LA needs a New Yorker Magazine to get its name.


Red Frog said...

Ah, sterile. That was actually the fear of most of the San Francisco bands around Monterey. They were worried about their commercialism, same thing. And you have to admit the Monkess, and Mamas and Papas were pretty commercial. Or the production qualities of the Doors music to the Dead. One clean, one 'dirty'. But you are right, there was more to it. I did not realize all those soft rock bands and folkies came out of LA too. Belive it or not.
Now, of course, things have changed even more. Latino culture has made Los Angeles a partly Mexican city. Aztalan north.