By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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And the answers happened to sound like hit records. 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. Says 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 found a regular hangout in The Troubadour, which opened as a folk club in 1957. “It was like the clubhouse,” says the scene’s unofficial photographer, Henry Diltz, who also played on its stage with his band the Modern Folk Quartet. “It was a place you would go and all your friends would be there. You knew all the groups that were playing, you had affairs with the waitresses, and Harry Dean Stanton would be sitting at the bar.” For ambitious singer-songwriters, this was also the only game in town; multi-night runs bestowed instant stardom on both Joni Mitchell and Elton John. And for the period of time that the scene was small and new enough to be contained inside the club’s doors, the Canyon’s idyllic feel was carried down into Hollywood.
But in 1973, the Roxy opened in direct competition with the Troubadour. Its owners were Geffen, Roberts and Lou Adler, so naturally they had money on their minds. “The Roxy was very symbolic of a shift toward something that was more glitzy and in-crowd and movie-star oriented,” says 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.” Geffen was changing — dating Cher, for one thing — and with him the scene.
In Hotel California Hoskyns tells the story of a legendary summit in Geffen’s sauna, during 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.” Yet just two years later Geffen sold Asylum to Warner Bros., and then in 1973 the label merged with Elektra. Geffen immediately cut Elektra’s artist roster and soon he was racking up enemies almost as quickly as the zeros 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.
In 2000 Geffen told his biographer that if he never spoke to Joni Mitchell again he “wouldn’t miss her for a minute.” Yet he tells Hoskyns that his Laurel Canyon experience was “the greatest ride that one could possibly imagine.” Hoskyns is touched by Geffen’s sentiment: “The era still means way more to him than anything that happened subsequently. I’m convinced that he did care about these artists, he did care about their music. At the same time he saw them as a stepping stone to far greater riches.”
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, says Walker, “to behave very much like Nero on his way to the vomitorium.” Hoskyns doesn’t spare us the sordid details, and it gets a little tedious. But then, for some, it was always tedious. A string of early ’70s feel-good hits like America’s “Ventura Highway,” Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes,” and the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” (co-written by Browne), made the Hollywood hippies easy targets. 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 the essay “James Taylor Marked For Death,” declaring, “I call it I-Rock .?.?. because most of it is so relentlessly, involutedly 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.”
Although Walker says his most revelatory musical discovery during the writing of Laurel Canyon was Arthur Lee’s dark, orchestral psych pop, he believes in the lasting influence of the navel-gazing singer-songwriters. “Whether you like it or not a whole generation defined itself by the music that was made here during the late ’60s and early ’70s. It was an ongoing history while they were living it, and that really helped people shape their lives and understand their values.” And who can argue with the lasting testimony: Young’s “Ohio” (written in Nash’s backyard), or King’s Tapestry or Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon, Blue and Court and Spark; or even the Eagles’ canonical (if overplayed) Hotel California, which chronicles the scene’s decline into nihilism.
Laurel Canyon, born of personal curiosity about the neighborhood Walker has lived in for the past nine years, doesn’t wallow too long in this dirt. “I was trying to write about the psychology of what it was like to be here,” he says. “I deliberately stayed away from certain stories.” So we don’t meet Crosby or Stills clutching their freebase pipes in the ’80s, but we do get a somewhat long-winded — and not especially relevant to Laurel Canyon — social history of cocaine, from the Incas to Coca Cola and Cole Porter lyrics. One former Elektra employee says that doing lines was so routine within the Hollywood music industry, the label handed out promotional coke mirrors to announce the release of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.”