Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story

by: Michael Walker

I have found myself fascinated lately by the period of the sixties/early seventies, and all that was happening culturally and in the music world.

Last month's book review, Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll by Douglas Brode, focused more on the transition from the fifties to the sixties. This book spends its time on the sixties into the seventies - the Flower Power, LSD, Drugs & Hippie culture that grew - believe it or not - out of a little canyon tucked into the hills of Los Angeles, and home to not just the flower children of the sixties rock 'n' roll scene, but before that, the wild children of the early movies.

What was it about this odd little canyon - featured in several songs of the era - that drew the creative misfits and seemed to encourage a hedonistic, even self-destructive lifestyle?

"Beginning in the mid-1960s, a string of successful rock bands emerged out of Laurel Canyon, a neighborhood of Los Angeles tucked away in the hills north of Sunset Boulevard. From the success of bands like the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas, and singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Jimmy Webb, Walker proposes Laurel Canyon as rock's answer to Jazz Age Paris. It's a plausible concept, but one he stumbles to elaborate past the length of a magazine feature. The journalist, who lives in Laurel Canyon, delivers strong material on some of the musicians he cites, particularly in early chapters about Crosby, Stills & Nash and Frank Zappa, but offers little about other equally significant acts. Instead, he pads the story with lengthy sections on groupies and the music scene in other parts of the city, the Altamont concert (which was hundreds of miles away) and a digression on the history of cocaine." - Publisher's Weekly

Well, I can't say I agree wholly with this review, as the author offered an apology up front for digressing from time to time from both the chronological  order of events, and even from his theme, as he attempts to bring all the influences and influencers into the tale of the Canyon.

For anyone who was a child of that era, or those who missed it altogether, Walker brings insights into the bands, their ideas, the hidden meaning of the lyrics, and the drug culture that both fueled their creativity and brought about ultimate disaster.

And for anyone who was not tuned in to the nuance of "who was who" in the music of the era, much of what Walker writes brings "wow" moments: how deeply influential David Crosby was (and deeply troubled); the almost mythic quality of Mama Cass Elliott (and her strange power to bring together artists who would change the course of music history - and oh, by the way, she didn't die choking on a sandwich); the power Frank Zappa had in shaping much more rock history than he ever made with his own music or band.

More than that, the story of Laurel Canyon extends back to the early film days, when, originally developed as "Bungalow Land" (an effort to compete with "Hollywood Land") it became home to Wally Reid, Tom Mix (Zappa lived in his "log cabin"), Clara Bow, Richard Dix, Norman Kerry, Ramon Navarro, Bessie Love, and, some believe, Harry Houdini. Wild orgies and mysterious goings-on have been reported from its earliest days, and many of these early Hollywood notables were as disturbed and rebellious as the Rock 'n' Roll icons who came to the Canyon years later.

Reading through the Amazon reviews, it's hard to know whether the nay-sayers have knowledge Walker lacks (the biggest criticism is factual error, but given that this was the era before the Internet, it's much more difficult to find sources and piece together everything he says in this jam-packed book), but one thing stands out: Laurel Canyon is one of those places that rightly inspires interest and carries with it a mystery.


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