By Michael Walker
Michael Walker, writer and Laurel Canyon resident since 1991, documents this Los Angeles neighborhood during the ‘60s and ‘70s when it was a nexus for talented musicians who affected the culture, similar to the artists of ‘20s Paris, the Beat writers of late ‘50s San Francisco, and the musicians of late ‘80s/early ‘90s Seattle. In those days, Walker writes, Laurel Canyon became populated by “young, footloose, self-styled bohemians attracted by cheap rents and the down-market esprit of living among similarly broke brethren.” Rock producer Kim Fowley cuts through the poetry to provide his assessment of the area’s appeal: “you could smoke dope and get laid and be an asshole with your Porsche convertible out of the prying eyes of the Man.”
The book begins in 1964 with Chris Hillman moving in. He was a member of The Byrds, a band credited with bridging the gap between the folk of Dylan and the rock and roll of The Beatles. Their success in ’65 signaled a change in the music business on many levels. Songs were pushing past the boundaries of the three-minute single and altering what was played on the radio. New record industry executives and businessmen, like David Geffen, were the same age, so they understood the music and the musicians, and lived the lifestyle. The game was changing and with no experience Elliot Roberts and Ron Stone created Lookout Management, an agency whose “roster almost single-handedly created the folk-rock-country-whatever L.A. sound essayed by [Neil] Young, CS&N, Jackson Browne, America, J.D. Souther and the future Eagles Glenn Frey and Don Henley.”
The musicians interacted and flourished together. Cass Elliot brought David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash together at her home. Nash shared a cottage with Joni Mitchell, which inspired “Our House.” Zappa helped new acts like the GTOs and Alice Cooper. Among the albums that have their roots in Laurel Canyon are the debuts by Jackson Browne, CSN, CSNY, The Eagles, The Mamas & The Papas, and The Mothers of Invention, the first two albums by The Byrds and Alice Cooper, The Doors’ Waiting for the Sun, Carole King’s Tapestry, and Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon.
Laurel Canyon attracted many who enjoyed the lifestyle and wanted follow in the footsteps of their idols or at least just be near them, and Walker adds their voice to the mosaic. Henry Diltz, whose Modern Folk Quartet never took off, succeeded as a photographer. Crystal Beresford moved out from Vermont following her musician boyfriend, Waddy Wachtel. She raised two children after their mother committed suicide and went on to briefly marry Warren Zevon. Marlowe West was a roadie for a Long Island band called Rich Kids during the summer of 1968. He returned home, but two weeks before the semester for college was starting he returned to L.A. with a friend and became part of the Zappa’s extended family.
But so much success led to excess and things inevitably came crashing down. The carefree spirit of the ‘60s ended with the Manson family murders in nearby Benedict Canyon and The Rolling Stones' Altamont concert where some of the residents played. Cocaine bypassed pot and LSD as the drug of choice in the canyon. Users saw the latter as tool of enlightenment while the former “magnified and amplified the worst qualities of nearly everyone.” Drug abuse damaged many people thought they were invincible, like Stills who passed out and turned blue from a mucous massdeveloped from coke abuse, lodging in his windpipe. Musicians moved out of the canyon and drug dealers moved in. The book closes out with the Wonderland murders of ’81 where four people were brutally murder in a plot involving porn star John Holmes and businessman/drug dealer Eddie Nash, a story recreated in film in Wonderland.
Walker provides an in-depth look at the scene through research and interviews of many of the former residents and guests, including new interviews with Graham Nash, Chris Hillman, Gail Zappa, the Turtles’ Marl Volman, legendary groupie Pamela Des Barres, and others. “Laurel Canyon” is a great read for fans of the music and times, providing a cautionary tale without feeling preachy.