During the 1960s and ‘70s, the who’s who of the music industry – folk musicians, psychedelic rock stars, country singers, and pop groups alike – were all basking in the goodness of Laurel Canyon. The mountainous neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills was idyllic – some might say magical – world in which a group of friends gathered and grew to become some of the best-known artists of the 20th century. We’re talking about artists like Joni Mitchell, The Eagles, Jim Morrison, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, all living within walking distance of one another.
Yes, looking back now, it seems like a paradise that people would pay an arm and a leg for just to get a glimpse of what it was like. But the Laurel Canyon music scene – just like the California sound that they made famous – was actually quite a mellow episode in the history of music. But as relaxed as it was, it is, nonetheless, a time and place worth exploring.
Laurel Canyon, with its twisted roads, dense eucalyptus, and hidden homes, feels like a country town a world away from Los Angeles. Yet, it’s only five minutes away from the Sunset Strip. That’s why the area was once home to the bohemian artists of the Woodstock generation. 1967 – 74 were considered the golden years of the Laurel Canyon scene that gave birth to the singer-songwriter movement.
Huge stars rose from the hillside area, from The Byrds to The Mamas and the Papas to Neil Young, to name only a few. The fun part of it all – well, at least one fun thing – was the fact that many of these musicians would play on each other’s records as well as hang out together and even sleep in each other’s beds.
It was basically like the best version of an adult musical summer camp that happened to last about a decade. The concentrated flurry of creativity and romantic entanglements that came out of Laurel Canyon has been compared to Paris in the 1920s, the Greenwich Village folk scene, and also the Haight-Ashbury scene during the Summer of Love.
There were, indeed, other musicians that lived in the neighborhood at the time, like Love’s Arthur Lee, but there was a signature canyon sound: both folky and introspective. It was an intentional refuge from the darkness and chaos of the times and places around them.
Books have been written about this place and era, like Michael Walker’s Laurel Canyon and Barney Hoskyns’ Hotel California, which delve into the myths and the music that it spawned. Laurel Canyon started out as an idealistic, communal place in the late ‘60s, but by the mid-‘70s, it became all about thoughtless commercialism, drug binges, and destroyed friendships. “In a way, it’s a death-of-’60s-utopianism story,” Hoskyns wrote.
For anyone who knows the area, however, it comes as no surprise that it started out as a perfect place to make music and enjoy the benefits of “free love.” Lookout Mountain Avenue was settled before building codes ever existed. The impossibly narrow and winding road with little Hobbit-like cottages face out onto some of the best views of Los Angeles.
Of all the stories that came out of Laurel Canyon, two things are apparent: Everyone was high, and everyone thought it was their idea to create the group Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The truth is, in 1967, David Crosby was producing Joni Mitchell’s first album. Stephen Stills and Graham Nash would hang around quite a bit, so really, the guys could have started jamming together at any time.
However, a few people are keen on claiming that they made the magic happen. Take it from Joni Mitchell herself, who told Vanity Fair that “I met Graham Nash in Ottawa and then re-met him in California. David was producing my first album, and all these people were here. I do believe I introduced them at my house; that’s where Crosby, Stills & Nash was born.”
If you listen to Stephen Stills, it was actually Mama Cass, from the Mamas and the Papas, who brought the group together. Still said that he ran into her one night at the Troubadour folk club, and she told him, “When David [Crosby] calls you to come over to my house with your guitar, don’t ask, just do it.”
Well, Stills did go to Cass’s house. He later recalled: “I can see it now — the living room, the dining room, the pool, the kitchen — and we’re in the living room and there’s Graham Nash. Then Cass goes, ‘So sing.’ And we sang ‘In the morning when you rise…’” Sounds convincing, right? Well, Graham Nash doesn’t recall it that way…
According to Nash, “Stephen’s completely out of his mind. I remember it clearly, and so does David. It was not at Mama Cass’s. We did sing at Cass’s. But not the very first time.” I think it’s safe to say that none of their memories are so reliable (they were, after all, high all the time).
Joni Mitchell bought a cottage in Laurel Canyon that her boyfriend, Graham Nash, later immortalized in the song Our House. As the story goes, it was at their cottage with the two cats in the backyard that Crosby, Stills, and Nash sang together for the first time. Either way, whether it was Mitchell or Cass, the group was born.
Our House was said to have been written in about 15 minutes. But it almost never came to be since there were two songwriters in the cottage and only one piano. Nash said, “It was a small house, and it was a thing of, who got to the piano first? She was in the middle of a record and was writing daily, and I was in the middle of a record with David and Stephen, and I was writing daily. It just got to be crazy, y’know.”
Nash went out for a walk to pick some things up for the house and got inspired to make a song, but he had to beat Mitchell to the piano. “I thought, I love this woman, and this moment is a much grounded moment in our relationship. And I sat down at the piano and an hour later Our House was done. It was kind of amazing.”
These musicians in the Canyon were tapping into a new public desire for a softer sound. “After 1968, I think there was a sense in the global music community that we need to slow down and chill out,” Hoskyns said. They wanted to get “back to the garden,” to use Joni Mitchell’s lyrics. Laurel Canyon represented a place of retreat – a kind of sanctuary.
Despite being right in the city, with all the recording studios and clubs down on the Strip, it was a place to stop and kick back a bit. As Hoskyns explained, during the ‘60s, people weren’t looking inward; they were looking outward, usually through the filter of drugs. “And now it was like, ‘My God, we really need to look inside and ask ourselves some questions.’”
Cass Elliot, aka Mama Cass, lived up to her nickname as she loved to host regular parties and picnics. All her fellow musicians and freeloaders came to swim in the pool, get high, eat, and make music. During the heyday of the Mamas and Papas, she told Rolling Stone: “My house is a very free house. It’s not a crash pad, and people don’t come without calling.”
But on an afternoon, especially on weekends, she would “always get a lot of delicatessen food in because I know David [Crosby] is going to come over for a swim, and things are going to happen.” There was one notable get together with Crosby (on a hunt for deli food), Mitchell, Micky Dolenz of The Monkees, and Eric Clapton. (I told you people would pay an arm and a leg for a piece of this action).
Here’s a piece of information that won’t surprise anyone who believes Mama Cass died from a ham sandwich (which is a myth; it was actually heart failure). According to the Mamas and the Papas bandmate Michelle Phillips, Cass’s house was downright filthy. Phillips described a rather disturbing scene to Vanity Fair in 2015…
“She never cleaned, never tidied up, never did the dishes, never made her bed… I got to her house, and she wasn’t home, so I decided to jimmy the window and get in. You know those huge, giant, industrial-sized jars of mayonnaise? She had dropped one on the floor and just left it there.” And so, as Phillips explained, she went ahead and cleaned her entire house until it was spotless. “Then I walked out the door, closed it, and never said a word to her.”
Jim Morrison wrote the song Love Street about living in Laurel Canyon in the ‘60s. The Doors’ singer and his girlfriend Pamela Courson lived in a home near the Canyon Country Store. The store was basically the town square of Laurel Canyon. If you wanted to bump into someone you know – a blonde beauty or David Crosby – all you needed to do was head to the store.
Behind the store was a small, decrepit house that would be rented out by various Laurel Canyon “scenesters.” Jim Morrison was one of them. According to legend, it was in that house that he was inspired to write the lyrics, “I see you live on Love Street. There’s this store where the creatures meet.”
Then, there was 2401 Laurel Canyon Boulevard, where a huge log cabin stood until it burned down in 1981. Frank Zappa lived there at the time, where his wife Gail, daughter Moon Unit, their nannies and rockers came and went night and day. The hillside of his house is where his visitors would get stoned before entering Zappa’s strictly drug-free zone.
Zappa came up with the sarcastic term “navel gazers” when describing his former neighbors. But his home wasn’t all about secretly stoned people coming in to admire his palace. As it turns out, Alice Cooper auditioned there. And it’s kind of a funny story that involved a mix up concerning time…
Alice Cooper happened to audition in that house at the early hour of 7 a.m. But it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Frontman Vincent Furnier and his band were in L.A. since 1967 but weren’t gaining any traction. In 1969, their future manager Shep Gordon set up an audition for them with Frank Zappa at his home. The time was scheduled for 7 p.m. However…
As the story goes, Furnier and his band showed up to Zappa’s not so humble abode at 7 a.m. instead of the more welcoming hour of 7 p.m. Rather than kick them to the curb, Zappa nonetheless invited them in to see what they were all about. That year, Zappa released Alice Cooper’s debut album Pretties for You. It was only in 1975 that Furnier officially changed his name to Alice Cooper.
While they were still just a couple of budding songwriters, Glenn Frey and Jackson Browne were next-door neighbors. In fact, they lived so close to each other that one of them could hear the other working on new music. Browne described the whole scene as an “amazing tribal life.”
As the legend goes, Frey was lying on his bed listening to Browne write the song Take It Easy on his piano. Browne just couldn’t crack the tune and threw his arms up in frustration. But Frey wanted him to finish the song, so he sat down in Browne’s place and threw him the line: “It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at me.” Frey later recorded the song with his band, The Eagles.
The founding member of the Eagles, Frey, got an eyeful of strangeness when he first stepped onto Love Street. Frey told Vanity Fair that on his very first day in California, he drove up to Laurel Canyon, and the first person he saw standing on the porch of the Canyon Store was David Crosby with his cape and a flat wide-brimmed hat. “He was dressed exactly the way he was on the second Byrds album,” Frey said.
Frey described him as standing there “like a statue.” Then, on his second day in California, he met J.D. Souther. It would also be a day that was far more advantageous, as Souther went on to write the songs Best of My Love, Heartache Tonight, and New Kid in Town for The Eagles.
Laurel Canyon wasn’t all about flannel and eucalyptus trees. When The Eagles started to take off, Frey started a new tradition: weekly poker games and Monday Night Football. In 1974, Frey moved to a place at the corner of Ridpath and Kirkwood (in Laurel Canyon, of course), and in addition to his new Monday night tradition came some notorious card games.
Joni Mitchell even got involved. The story has it she was a cool gal to hang out with and enjoyed playing cards with the guys. “We’d watch football from six to nine,” Frey recalled, “and then play cards until the wee hours. They called our house the Kirkwood casino.”
With artists like Young, Mitchell, and Morrison in the neighborhood, Laurel Canyon became the music world’s epicenter. Its pull was so powerful that even John Lennon found himself hanging around, causing his own kind of trouble when he was there. Lennon got loose in the Canyon and spent a lot of his time with fellow songwriting menace Harry Nilsson.
In 1974, Lennon’s “lost weekend” (as it was subbed) was cataloged in The Guardian’s pages. He allegedly strolled through the Canyon and the area bars with a woman’s sanitary pad tied around his head as he verbally abused artists like the Smothers Brothers.
It gets worse…
According to The Guardian, Lennon taunted the group during one of their performances on stage at the Troubadour. The audience apparently told the heckling Lennon to shut up. Lennon reportedly took a swing at the Smothers Brothers’ manager Ken Fritz. He missed, though, and took a lump to the head.
He then threw a glass at Fritz but missed, again, and hit a waitress instead. Lennon was eventually thrown out of the bar as Nilsson sat and watched it all go down in front of his eyes. The Guardian ended their report with the observation that “Apparently both men had been drinking quite a bit.”
While they’re mostly known as a TV band, The Monkees were actually a primary aspect of the Laurel Canyon scene. During the band’s rise, Peter Tork lived with Stephen Stills near the home of Monkees’ drummer Mickey Dolenz. Both homes were total party houses in those days. And they were apparently epic. According to Dolenz’s ex-wife, a party for Tork meant that everyone was naked.
Dolenz once said that parties at his place would start on a Friday night as a “little cocktail party,” but by Monday morning, “people would still be walking around naked, falling into the pool.” (If that isn’t a scene taken out of a movie, I don’t know what is).
Even though The Monkees weren’t the coolest band in the world, rock stars were still lining up to hang out with them. Dolenz recalled that one day he got a call from someone who told him, “Brian Wilson’s coming over.” You should keep in mind that this was the period when Wilson notoriously never left his house.
But, sure enough, a limo pulled up, and Wilson got out dressed in his bathrobe and flip flops. He came into Dolenz’s home and sat in his little recording studio with John Lennon, Harry Nillson, and others. He then “started playing this Beach Boy lick kind of thing.” According to Dolenz, Wilson recorded the whole session (but never released the tapes).
With the new introspective way of making music came some really great records. In 1969, David Geffen, a 26-year-old talent agent who managed Crosby, Stills & Nash, worked with Joni Mitchell’s manager Elliot Roberts. Lookout Management soon became Geffen-Roberts. Hoskyns noted that Geffen marketed the non-commercialism of these artists – turning the “laid-back, patched-denim dropout thing into a product.”
In his book Hotel California, Hoskyns tells the story of a legendary highpoint in Geffen’s sauna. He informed his guests — Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, and Ned Doheny — that he started his own small record label. He reportedly said, “I’ll never have more artists than I can fit in this sauna.” But merely two years later, Geffen sold Asylum to Warner Bros., and by 1973 the label had merged with Elektra.
If they weren’t hanging out at the Laurel Canyon Country Store, artists on the scene were at The Troubadour, a folk club that opened in 1957. “It was like the clubhouse,” the scene’s unofficial photographer, Henry Diltz, said. During this period, the scene was small and new enough to be contained within the club’s doors.
But by 1973, the club met its competition when the Roxy opened up. The owners were Geffen, Roberts, and Lou Adler, who had only money on their minds. The Roxy was a shift toward something much glitzier – geared towards more of an in-crowd and movie-star place. “Maybe this was the dawn of the celebrity era. You think of it in terms of Cher and people like that. It certainly isn’t about banjos anymore,” Hoskyns noted.
Sure, they were the voices of a generation, but by the mid-‘70s, some of the leading Canyon stars, including Crosby, Stills, Don Henley, and Glenn Frey, made Hollywood hippies easy targets. Zappa referred to them as “navel gazers” and Tom Waits, whose song Ol’ 55 was covered by the Eagles, said their band was “about as exciting as watching paint dry.” Ouch.
As for Geffen, he was racking up enemies as quickly as he was collecting zeros in his bank account. By the early ‘80s, the Bronx entrepreneur with his ruthless business practices had a falling out with Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Henley. In 2000, Geffen said that if he never spoke to Mitchell again, he “wouldn’t miss her for a minute.” Another ouch.
That said, Geffen still told Hoskyns that his Laurel Canyon days were “the greatest ride that one could possibly imagine.” After all, a whole generation defined itself by the music made there. They didn’t necessarily know it at the time, but these artists were part of history.
Really, who can argue with the lyrics of Neil Young’s Ohio (which was written in Nash’s backyard), Carole King’s Tapestry, or Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon. We also can’t ignore the Eagles’ either loved or hated Hotel California, which is said to chronicle the scene’s decline into emptiness.
Through the wave of hippies, records, and parties, there was one peripheral figure that can’t be ignored, and that’s the aspiring singer-songwriter named Charles Manson. Yes, yes, you’ve heard of him – the hippie follower turned psychopath who was befriended by Dennis Wilson and Byrds’ producer Terry Melcher (who was also Doris Day’s son).
Neil Young even recommended Manson to record executive Mo Ostin, who wasn’t impressed, to say the least. But it was Melcher who made the fatal mistake of backing down on his promise to connect Manson with Columbia Records. That snub wasn’t the only thing that infuriated Manson, but it nonetheless contributed to what went down in the house on Benedict Canyon.
This was the house that Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate rented during the summer of 1969, which was owned by Melcher. It isn’t clear whether Manson put a hit on the producer and his friends or if he was just sending the guy a message. Either way, a real and undeniable chill set in, or subsequently, all the doors to the homes in the Canyon were locked at night.
At the end of the day, Laurel Canyon and the scene it created couldn’t survive the scrutiny nor the flood of drugs and money. By the end of 1969, Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s massively successful debut album earned them all the money they needed to buy new homes in other, more upscale neighborhoods.
A recent rock documentary called Echo in the Canyon chronicles the whole Canyon scene. Made by long-time music manager and label executive Andrew Slater and hosted by Jakob Dylan, Bob’s son, it tours the impulsive world of the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and others who shaped the folk-rock revolution of that time.
For those who saw the documentary, most of the post-movie chatter wasn’t about what’s in the movie but about what isn’t. For some reason, Joni Mitchell, a major player in the Laurel Canyon movement, wasn’t in the film. Some of the film’s defenders say it’s because the movie limited itself to the years between 1964 and 1967 (and Mitchell only got there in late ’67).
Crosby was producing Mitchell’s debut album at the time, and so her impact was said to have come later on. Even more annoying to viewers was yet another omission: Neither the Doors nor Love were mentioned, nor were they both essential bands from that time and place. As for what is included in the film, there is a lot to follow, including anecdotes from Michelle Philips, Roger McGuinn, Eric Clapton, and Ringo Starr.
The non-musical stories are some of the more entertaining parts of the film and the era in general. Stills spoke about his neighbor Frank Zappa standing in the street between their homes, reciting the lyrics to Who Are the Brain Police? He admitted to fleeing out the back one time when the police showed up to his house while Clapton, Young, and others were visiting. Graham Nash reflected on the tales of the times, almost always on the verge of tears, looking back with rose-colored glasses. For him, it was, after all, the place that took him in and opened up new worlds.
Nearing the end of the ‘70s, the Canyon scene became progressively more edgy, even masculine, with alpha-male rock stars like Glenn Frey and Don Henley moving into the Canyon, not to mention their neighbor and boss David Geffen. By the late ‘70s, Laurel Canyon became a place “where drug dealers had valet parking,” as musician Michael Des Barres elegantly stated.
Eventually, drug dens and fire repeatedly ruined the area. Tom Mix’s log cabin burned in 1981, and that same year, the infamous murders at 8763 Wonderland Avenue basically marked an end to the decadence that lingered from the Laurel Canyon heyday. These days, Laurel Canyon is still a rustic and high-end community that sticks true to its legendary rock roots.
The Los Angeles Times reported in 2007 that it’s difficult to find the houses these rock gods lived in decades ago, thanks to all the fires, remolding, landslides, and landscaping over the years. Every year, residents of the area gather together to take a photo in front of the Canyon Country Store.
We Are Laurel Canyon is a non-profit that pulled together a storyteller series called Loaded in Laurel Canyon, which features stories told by people who have lived in the area. “I’d love to track down Keith Richards and ask him about the night he burned my next-door neighbor’s house to the ground. Does he even remember it?” Kristen Stavola, the executive director of the nonprofit, said.