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The music and mythology of Laurel Canyon

Wednesday, Jun 14 2006

Money may not buy you love, but $2.4 million can buy you prime real estate on “Love Street” — as in the song Jim Morrison wrote about living in Laurel Canyon in the ’60s. The Doors’ singer and his girlfriend rented a house near “the store where the creatures meet” (the Canyon Country Store) but nobody remembers exactly where. “It’s like bars where Hemingway drank,” says Laurel Canyon author Michael Walker as he opens the gates of 2401 Laurel Canyon Boulevard, marked with a Sotheby’s “For Sale” sign. “Jim Morrison lived in every house.”

Morrison did not live at this corner of Laurel Canyon and Lookout Mountain Avenue, where a huge log cabin built by Tom Mix stood until it burned to the ground in 1981. Frank Zappa did though, with his wife, Gail, and daughter Moon Unit, their in-house nannies the GTOs, and a host of rock royalty and freaks who streamed in at all hours of the night and day. (Alice Cooper auditioned for Zappa’s record label at 7 a.m. and got signed.)

From what was once a bowling alley, the rambling, bucolic property rises up unmortared stone steps dotted with colorful tile, to seating nooks built into the hillside, where visitors would get stoned before entering Zappa’s strict no-drugs zone. Artesian waterfalls flow into ponds, and there are caves big enough to sleep in if you don’t mind bats. “It was just magical,” recalls groupie goddess and former GTO Pamela des Barres (who remembers exactly where Morrison lived). “It was like going into what I would imagine to be a forest where Pan frolicked around. It was my playground, but I was still in awe of it.”

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The golden years of the Laurel Canyon scene, roughly 1967-’74, saw the birth of the singer-songwriter movement and the rise of huge stars, from folk-rock bands like the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas to Crosby, Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Carole King, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, the Flying Burrito Brothers, America, and the Eagles — many of whom played on each other’s records and slept in each other’s beds. This concentrated blitz of creativity and passionate entanglements has been compared to Paris in the ’20s, and although that’s a stretch, it was certainly as influential as the Greenwich Village folk scene and Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love. Although other musicians lived in the neighborhood, including Love’s Arthur Lee, the signature canyon sound was folky and introspective, representing a deliberate retreat from the darkness of the late ’60s and the chaos of the Sunset Strip.

Two new books, Walker’s Laurel Canyon and British music journalist Barney Hoskyns’ Hotel California, delve into the myths and the music created during this era. While taking different paths, both chart the scene’s idealistic, communal beginnings in the late ’60s through its devolution into crass commercialism, drug binges and broken friendships by the mid-’70s.

“In a way it’s a death-of-’60s-utopianism story,” says Hoskyns, who previously explored Los Angeles’ music history in 1999’s Waiting for the Sun. “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.”

Always a bohemian enclave, Lookout Mountain Avenue was settled before building codes existed, on an impossibly narrow, winding road with a couple of flimsy wooden guard rails that “wouldn’t even stop a skateboard,” notes Walker as we drive past. Tiny, Hobbit-like cottages are piled on top of modern boxes, and the views are some of the best in Los Angeles. Here, Joni Mitchell, herself “discovered” by David Crosby, bought a cottage that her boyfriend Graham Nash would later immortalize in the song “Our House.” According to lore, it was at this cottage with the two cats in the yard that Crosby, Stills & Nash harmonized together for the first time, although some insist the historic moment took place at Cass Elliot’s, nearby. Mama Cass, true to her nickname, hosted regular salons where musicians and freeloaders would come to swim in the pool, get high, eat and jam, and she definitely did play musical matchmaker, asking the newly formed duo of Crosby and Stills if they might need a third voice. As Nash recalls the moment in Laurel Canyon, it took them three tries to get Stills’ “You Don’t Have to Cry” perfect, and then they all started laughing because it sounded so amazing.

These artists were tapping into the public’s desire for a softer sound. “After 1968 I think there was a sense in the global music community that we need to slow down and chill out,” says 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. What did the seismic ’60s phenomenon mean? 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.’ ”

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