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These sorts of distinctions make the two books interesting companion reads. Hoskyns the music historian clues us in to lesser-known talents like Judee Sill, a folkie junkie whom he believes “should be rediscovered like a Nick Drake .?.?. I think she was really nothing short of a musical genius.” Walker, meanwhile, introduces us to then-16-year-old Morgana Welch, a second-generation Sunset Strip groupie and Laurel Canyon dweller who was a preferred consort of Led Zeppelin.
“I tried to interview as many people that were on the periphery of these music stars as the music stars themselves,” says Walker, “because Graham Nash and those guys had created this sort of popular-culture hurricane, and they were in the eye of it. And the eye of a hurricane is a pretty good place to be — it’s calm and balmy. But right on the edges of it is where the maelstrom is, and that’s where a lot of these people found themselves.”
There was, however, one peripheral figure who brought the edge, the maelstrom, right into the hurricane’s eye. Both Walker and Hoskyns retell the saga of an aspiring singer-songwriter named Charlie Manson, a hippie hanger-on who was befriended by Dennis Wilson and Byrds producer (and Doris Day’s son) Terry Melcher, and whose fractured lo-fi folk was championed by Neil Young. Young even recommended Manson to Mo Ostin, who wasn’t impressed, but Melcher made the fatal mistake of backing down on a promise to connect Manson with Columbia Records. This slight wasn’t the only source of Manson’s wrath, but it was one of them, and as it happened the house in Benedict Canyon that Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate rented during the summer of 1969 was owned by Terry Melcher. It’s unclear whether Manson had put a hit on the producer and his friends or whether he was just sending him a message. Either way, a chill set in, and doors in the canyons were locked at night for the first time.
There are some who say “the sixties” didn’t end until mid-way through the ’70s, others who believe Helter Skelter in August followed by Altamont in December slammed the book on the decade the minute the clock struck 1970. The hippie look and lexicon certainly lasted well into the ’70s, but purity in any movement is fragile and fleeting. Born of isolation and insulation, the Laurel Canyon scene couldn’t survive the scrutiny or the influx of drugs and money. By the end of 1969 the royalties from CSN’s massively successful debut album had already bought the musicians new homes in other, more upscale neighborhoods.
Yet the magic of recorded albums is that they are, truly, a record — of a mood, a time and a place. Gorgeous specimens like Crosby, Stills & Nash can exist separately from the flops and the feuds, the rehabs and the reunion tours. Happening upon “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” on the car radio, you can still feel the electric thrill of a moment that was less about dropping out than tuning in.
LAUREL CANYON: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood | By MICHAEL WALKER | Faber & Faber/FSG | 277 pages | $25 hardcover
HOTEL CALIFORNIA: The True-Life Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, The Eagles and Their Many Friends | By BARNEY HOSKYNS | Wiley | 336 pages | $26 hardcover
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