UP Laurel Canyon Boulevard at the corner of Lookout Mountain there sits a walled-in postage stamp of lawn and trees. It’s a primo slice of real estate, curiously empty. There’s no aging Craftsman bungalow, no rustic-mod hideaway, no latter-day McMansion to glower down upon the snaking progression of BMWs, Hummers and Mini Coopers traversing between Hollywood and the Valley. It’s as barely conspicuous as it is unremarkable, the kind of thing you drive by all the time without a second thought.
Yet the property in question was once the site of a massive log cabin retreat built by silent-western star Tom Mix. Then, for a brief spell in the latter half of the 1960s, the storied old pile was the home of Frank Zappa and his wife, Gail: a gathering place for all order of Sunset Strip freaks; the unofficial clubhouse of the GTOs, that whimsical band of gypsy groupies (led by Pamela Des Barres) whose Zappa-bestowed moniker stood for Girls Together Outrageously; the creative nexus for Zappa’s assorted projects, laced, as they were, with satire, virtuosity and a generous helping of in-your-face ambition; and, thanks to the Zappas’ tireless sociability, the very epicenter of the Laurel Canyon scene, a flowering of creative energy that Michael Walker, in this gossipy and overdue account, likens to Greenwich Village, to swinging London, to Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s, to Bloomsbury, even to fin-de-siecle Vienna.
While the notion that the canyon ever produced an artist of the magnitude of Jackson Pollock, the Beatles, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf or Gustav Klimt is a bit dubious, the winding byways that trace the Kirkwood Bowl and its environs did give birth to wave upon wave of hit records. Starting with the Byrds, America’s first supergroup and, for a time, worthy rivals of the Fab Four, Laurel Canyon went on to become the nursery for what could be called the greening of postwar pop. It was along thoroughfares like Ridpath Drive and, most famously, Lookout Mountain -- where Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell set up their sandalwood-perfumed love nest, depicted by Nash in that durable baby boomer chestnut “Our House” -- that the roster of ‘60s and ‘70s American rock royalty sprouted.
Besides the Byrds and Zappa and Mitchell, there were the Mamas and the Papas; the Turtles; Buffalo Springfield; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Jackson Browne; Carole King; and, later, the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, those 1970s behemoths whose immoderate and unprecedented album sales -- “Rumours,” for instance, has sold more than 18 million copies -- forever refocused the recording industry on the bottom line. As Walker describes this enchanted sylvan hotbed, where candles dripped over Mateus bottles and joints smoldered while money was virtually minted: “It was Brigadoon meets the Brill Building.”
Much like the mythic village and New York’s legendary musicians’ mecca (and like the Zappa house, which later burned to the ground), the canyon scene flickered for an incandescent moment and then faded away. Even so, its offerings continue to clog the playlists of classic-rock stations, not to mention iPods: “Eight Miles High,” “California Dreamin’,” “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Take It Easy,” “Hotel California.” If you include the extended family of L.A. musicians who drifted in and out, you could add to the list “Good Vibrations,” “Light My Fire,” “I’m a Believer,” “Cinnamon Girl” and even Alice Cooper’s schlock anthem “School’s Out.”
Except for the Byrds and Neil Young (and, perhaps, Love and the Flying Burrito Brothers, iconic bands loosely associated with the canyon), what Walker refers to as the former “musical capital of the world” doesn’t have the cachet of, say, the Memphis of Sun and Stax records or New York in the CBGB era. But there is something eternally golden about the canyon’s idyll of “writing a song on a redwood deck on Monday, recording it on Saturday, and having it hit the top of the charts six weeks later.”
Between the release of the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” in 1965 and the Eagles’ swan song, “The Long Run,” in 1979, the canyon generated no end of mythology, charted here with breezy affection by Walker, a longtime denizen (and a former editor at the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine) enthralled by the kinds of tales you still overhear in the aisles of the Canyon Country Store: a Byrds-era David Crosby roaring down Laurel Canyon on a Triumph given to him by Peter Fonda, his Hobbity cape flying behind him; Mama Cass Elliot, the ultimate Jewish Earth Mother, providing sympathy in the form of cold cuts and introducing Nash to Crosby and his friend Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield; assorted run-ins with Charles Manson and his “family,” a social unit that eerily resembled a rock star and his groupie retinue; Brian Wilson showing up and doing one kooky thing or another; endless binges and orgies and freakouts; and heady Hollywood nights down at the Troubadour, where a young Elton John first wowed the canyon’s hippest in 1970, John Lennon rampaged through his sodden “lost weekend” with a Kotex taped to his forehead and a denim-clad dude from Texas named Don Henley arrived to encounter Linda Ronstadt in a Daisy Mae dress, barefoot and scratching her backside: “I thought, ‘I’ve made it,’ ” Henley recalls. “ ‘I’m here. I’m in heaven.’ ”
It was a heaven that couldn’t last. By the mid-1970s, the promise of the canyon -- a jasmine-scented Valhalla where rock bands could smoke as much weed as their brethren up in Haight-Ashbury and yet make music that was more cogent, appealing and lasting -- had been buried under what Walker calls a “great fluffy pile”: Cocaine and the canyon became so synonymous that locals drove cars emblazoned with bumper stickers declaring “My Other Car Is Up My Nose.” (Stills, Walker reports, nearly perished from the effects of a cocaine-related “mucus mass.”) For a scene already skewed toward deadly self-involvement -- achingly earnest singer-songwriters plucking 12-string guitars and proclaiming, as CSN did in “Carry On,” that “Love is coming to us all” -- the coke avalanche covered the lords and ladies of the canyon in further layers of narcissism and paranoia and unseemly ambition. As Walker notes, the “juggernaut plowed on with songs about peaceful, easy feelings and romantic succor, even as the songwriters stayed up till dawn with fifty-dollar bills shoved up their nostrils.”
There were other bummers too: the Manson killings, Altamont and, in 1981, the Wonderland murders. At some point in the last 20 years, a proposition must have passed making it unlawful not to hang your L.A. narrative on these horrors. Walker’s prominent placement of them feels rote, an effort to load pop-historical ballast onto a story about a bunch of great pop records -- many of them relegated to the irony bin after the rise of punk rock in the late 1970s. (Perhaps this is why canyon music has lately reemerged as a forgotten treasure, receiving benediction from artists like Beck, Matthew Sweet, the Thrills, and the Autumn Defense. And rumor has it that Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne and James Iha of the Smashing Pumpkins will produce a comeback album by the group America.)
You wonder, at times, why Walker doesn’t explore the recriminations coming from within the canyon scene itself; take, for instance, Young in “Revolution Blues” (1974): “Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon / is full of famous stars / But I hate them worse than lepers / and I’ll kill them / in their cars.” And Walker remains oddly incurious about the links between the canyon’s music scene -- that Bloomsbury, that Paris in the ‘20s -- and other creative milieus from L.A.’s golden moment: the gallery world (Ed Kienholz was a neighbor of the Byrds’ Chris Hillman), young Hollywood (didn’t Fonda drop acid with the Byrds and the Beatles?) and writers like Joan Didion (who famously chronicled her quality time with onetime Rothdell Trail resident Jim Morrison).
If we yearn for first-hand accounts from such heavy hitters as Mitchell, Young and Roger McGuinn (the book suffers from a troubling lack of access), Walker makes up for it with a vivid cast of unsung hangers-on sprawling around the booths at Ben Frank’s or getting up to no good at the Continental Hyatt House, the notorious rock hotel on Sunset where bands like Led Zeppelin tossed water balloons and televisions out the windows. There’s Morgana Welch, the ringleader of the “L.A. queens,” a clique of Beverly Hills high schoolers who offered their bodies to ‘70s British rockers; Kim Fowley, the Ichabod Crane-like scenester and sometime producer, a font of withering sarcasm and sleaze; and a kid roadie named Marlowe Brien West, who became a kind of all-purpose Laurel Canyon mascot and fixture at the Zappa pad.
By the end of Walker’s wistful narrative you begin to wish that the old log cabin at Laurel Canyon and Lookout Mountain would rise again, Brigadoon-like, in this dire era of “American Idol” and Clear Channel. But even so, the next time you pass that leafy crossroads, just fiddle with the FM dial: A quick scan of the airwaves -- still redolent of jingle-jangle mornings, riders on the storm and yesterdays gone -- suggests that you can check out of the canyon any time you like, but you can never leave. *