A tour of Laurel Canyon's rock 'n' roll haunts requires a certain historical imagination. Anyone can stroll inside the Fillmore or onto the corner of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco for a Jann Wenner-worthy nostalgia fix. But as for Frank Zappa's log-cabin compound on Laurel Canyon Boulevard? Burned to the ground on Halloween in 1981. The house where Mama Cass introduced Graham Nash to David Crosby and Stephen Stills? Could be this one, or maybe it's that one. Arthur Lee's room where he watched hippies pick flowers while writing Love's "Forever Changes"? It's got to be one of these places.
Michael Walker, author of "Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Legendary Neighborhood," is the canyon's foremost cultural documentarian. But after decades of fires, landslides and remodeled homes, even he's often stumped to find the exact spots where Joni Mitchell, Alice Cooper and the Byrds wrote their culture-shaking music.
Tracking these houses down is "the 'Da Vinci Code' of L.A.," Walker said. "But people come to appreciate Laurel Canyon for what it is." That is, a residential neighborhood where memories of a leafy bohemian lifestyle jockey with real estate prices as dizzying as the views.
Even with a guide like Walker, a drive through the canyon gives you very little in the way of landmarks but reveals much about the spirit of the place when "California Dreamin" got in bed with Hollywood ambitiousness to redefine pop culture.
A logical first stop is the Laurel Canyon Country Store (2108 Laurel Canyon Blvd.). "This store where the creatures meet" is how Jim Morrison described the neighborhood's de facto town square in the Doors' "Love Street."
"One day soon after Glenn Frey [of the Eagles] moved here, he saw David Crosby sitting on the steps smoking a joint and knew he was in the right place," Walker said. Built in 1919, the store is both deeply idiosyncratic from its '60s heyday yet also a functional place to get groceries, booze and now espresso from its outdoor cafe. Oddities like HP Sauce and Cadbury Flake bars (for British Invasion-era expats) and an optimistically trippy paint job hark back to when Morrison lived next door to the Canyon Cleaners, a block behind it.
Further into the canyon is one of the city's oddest intersections, at Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Lookout Mountain Avenue. On one side, at 2401 Laurel Canyon Blvd., is the site of the Frank Zappa compound, now a grassy field but once the favorite hangout of Pamela Des Barres' groupie coven, Girls Together Outrageously. Next door is a Mediterranean mansion once owned by Rick Rubin that will look familiar to Guns N' Roses fans -- they shot their "November Rain" video there. And across the street is the sylvan, slightly creepy Houdini House, whose network of caves and grottoes was a favorite crash pad for new arrivals to the canyon.
Though populated mostly by private homes, the thrust-together geography of Laurel Canyon creates an impromptu public space and makes for intimate and unlikely neighbors. "It forced people out of their houses, and there was no caste system," Walker said. "Micky Dolenz [the Monkees] was Joni Mitchell's neighbor."
Riding up into the hills is where the sightseeing gets more difficult, for a couple of reasons: The sheer cliff faces and guardrail-less hairpin turns will rip out the transmissions of lesser vehicles. And the likelihood that the former den of folk-rock iniquity is now home to a yuppie film-industry couple is considerable, and they may not appreciate the gawking.
That said, check out the site of the Byrds' Chris Hillman's old house (before a motorcycle fire burned it down) at 5424 Magnolia Drive; the former pad of Mark Volman of the Turtles, in the 8700 block of Wonderland Ave.; or venture to the top of Blue Heights Drive and see the panoramic vista that greeted Love's Arthur Lee each morning.
If you prefer the counterculture's seamier underbelly to its garlands of jasmine blossoms, stop off at 8763 Wonderland Ave., where four of porn star John Holmes' coke cohorts were bludgeoned to death in 1981. For a peace and love pick-me-up, coming back down Lookout Mountain Avenue, you'll pass by the house with two cats that inspired Graham Nash's ode to domestic bliss with Joni Mitchell, "Our House," but good luck finding its address. Like Mama Cass' hipster haven on Woodrow Wilson Drive on Lookout Mountain, the actual home is lost to time.
But for the locals who still gather at the Country Store for the annual group photo, that doesn't detract from the creatively fertile history of the neighborhood, something its residents still sense in both the stunning views and ever-present dangers of canyon life.
"For some reason, there's something in the water that you can't eradicate," Walker, himself a Laurel Canyon resident, said. "I get deer and bobcats on my deck, and the Sunset Strip is five minutes away."