Imagine popping out for groceries and running into The Doors frontman Jim Morrison or Canadian rocker Neil Young, maybe scoring an invite to Joni Mitchell’s house for dinner or a BBQ at Jimi Hendrix’s. If you’d lived in a small community in the Hollywood Hills in the 1960’s, the idea wasn’t so far-fetched. Throw on your virtual hiking boots and head up the long and winding road to the rocky mountain high of cool; the place where it all came together and then all broke apart; the Californian hideaway for the rock and roll elite where songs were written, bands were formed, people fell in love and people fell apart. Welcome to the dionysian clique of the most talented and the most ‘out there’ members of the love generation – the Nirvana that was Laurel Canyon.
In the early part of the 20th century, the first Hollywood glitterati that would make the canyon their home included the silent film stars of the day. Then Golden Age actor Errol Flynn and Harry Houdini would choose to reside in the seclusion of the Canyon Hills. In the 1950s, Natalie Wood relocated there followed by James Dean, Dennis Hopper, and Marlon Brando. The Hills had become hip, and the beat of popular culture had started to resound around the canyon.
But it was the 1960s that really saw the rise in popularity amongst musicians who started to be drawn into the idyllic setting. The first to arrive in the mid-60s were The Byrds (Turn! Turn! Turn!) and Frank Zappa. It was a tranquil retreat from the madness of L.A and only a few miles from the Sunset Strip, and clubs like the legendary Troubadour and the Whisky a Go Go. In the other direction lay Studio City, home of some of the recording studios used by the rock and roll elite. Geographically, Laurel Canyon made sense, but more importantly, it was cheap and secluded.
Chris Hillman, the Byrds bass player looked back on his move there.
‘It was wonderful. It was up on this road overlooking the entire city of L.A. You can imagine how beautiful it was at night, with all the lights on and everything. Shortly thereafter, David Crosby moved up there, and then Roger McGuinn. I’m not sure where Mike [Clarke] and Gene [Clark] were. They were probably up there, too. The Byrds were very early occupants of the area.’
The canyon was a twisting cascade of small roads and dirt tracks, flowers, streams, and tangles of bushes to insnare the groups and wandering minstrels of the alternative. The Byrds arrived, then The Monkees, and by the time The Turtles showed up, it seemed to have turned into a Noah’s ark of bands. The new creatures were gathering and others were to follow; Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, English Blues pioneer John Mayall, Canned Heat, and Gram Parsons.
At the Centre of the rock and roll zoo stood the Canyon Country Store, built in the 1900s to house the hunters stalking the local four-legged variety of beasts. By the 1960s, the general store had turned into the sanctuary of the wandering rock star. Jim Morrison and his partner Pamela Courson, also early residents, would dwell in not-so-domestic bliss at the rear on Rothdell Trail. The store on any given day would have a revolving clientele of the good, the bad and the spaced out of the music fraternity. It’s still there.
Morrison would immortalise the store and his road in the song ‘Love Street’ from The Doors 1968 album ‘Waiting For the Sun’.
‘I see you live on Love Street
There’s this store where the creatures meet
I wonder what they do in there
Summer Sunday and a year
I guess I like it fine so far’
Now, if we go past the general store, take a left at the traffic lights and follow the road up past a little school where you’ll arrive at Lookout Mountain, the most desirable location in the canyon and the place that would see the most ‘happenings’. Joni Mitchell had moved there after reading in a book that the craziest of the crazy of the LA scene were perched up there. Frank Zappa, probably the most eccentric person in rock and roll, had a tree house there.
Legendary singer-songwriter Neil Young had moved from Canada and formed Buffalo Springfield, but he too now ended up on Lookout Mountain with Stephen Stills. Legend has it that on any given day you could hear instruments reverberating all over the canyon as people wrote and played; the air was thick with music and ‘grass’.
And like in any bohemian environment where groups of artists have flocked together, you are going to get a cross-pollination of their practice, and in the 1960s, people are going to take drugs, make music, and indulge in some ‘free love’. An air of ancient Rome ensued with parties of debauchery and ‘free love’. Mama Cass Eliot of The Mamas and Pappas had an open house policy, and Peter Tork of The Monkees held naked cocktail parties that ran through the weekend. They were young, famous, and naked – and had found a place where they were left alone.
In 1968 at Joni Mitchell’s house in the canyon, Graham Nash the British singer-songwriter of The Hollies met Steven Stills of Buffalo Springfield and David Crosby of the Byrds and formed a supergroup with Neil Young. Their second album would feature ‘Our House’, a song about Joni Mitchel and Graham Nash’s newfound love and home. Joni Mitchell would then go on to write ‘Ladies of Laurel Canyon’, her 1970 album dedicated to creative female artists of the Hills, which included Mama Cass, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, and Michelle Phillips.
Now, as history has shown, love triangles in bands do two things: either create agonisingly personal and popular songs, break bands up, or both – think Fleetwood Mac, who also happened to live in the canyon. Bands would fracture and reform, disband then reappear with different members and a new name. Laurel Canyon had become the heart of the LA music scene like London had been the heart of the swinging 60s. Musicians started to flock there to be involved in the ‘happening’. Eric Clapton sat on a lawn and listened in awe to Joni Mitchell, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards came and spent time with Stephen Stills. Artists rented houses there hoping to soak up the atmosphere and capture inspiration. There was a transcendent vibe and the electric folk that was seeping out of the canyon in the mid 60s from bands like The Buffalo Springfield, and The Byrds would travel over to England and inspire The Beatles and other British bands.
But nothing so idyllic can last and the end of the 60s would in some ways see the end of the scene in Laurel Canyon. Harder drugs had made an appearance in the community, replacing the mind-expanding experimentation that had been popular before. When the Manson family murders took place a few miles from Laurel Canyon, it signaled the end of free love and innocence and the 60’s. Bobby Beausoleil, one of the Manson family members who would be convicted of murder had been a musician with ties to the band called Love, who were Laurel Canyon residents. It all seemed a little too close to home. Reality had arrived in its most egregious form and Shangri-La was no more. More musicians still came to the canyon looking for inspiration however, and several albums were produced through the early 1970s, notably Jackson Brown and Carole King, but the magic bubble had burst. More recently, interest in the period and location has attracted people like Lady Gaga to purchase Frank Zappa’s former property and Lana Del Ray citing the canyon in her Music. The influence on music made in a secluded pass in the California hills over a short period of time, can still be heard today nearly 60 years later. A place where folk, blues, country, rock and roll and psychedelia would join together in mutual collaboration and freedom to creat. Something so bright would no doubt burn out. Joni Mitchell may have summed it up best with her telegram to Graham Nash after she had departed Laurel Canyon to seek something new in Europe.
‘If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will run through your fingers. Love, Joan.’
Join author, actress, and former rock & roll groupie Pamela Des Barres on an “I’m with the Band” journey through the landmarks of Laurel Canynon, or take a hike (and a walk on the wild side) with local Laurel Canyon residents