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Laurel Canyon is an Epix documentary about a Los Angeles hillside neighborhood and the years when it first became a refuge for like-minded folk and rock musicians. Like a Simon and Garfunkel lyric whose out-of-date-ness always amused me, “Thirty dollars pays your rent on Bleecker Street,” the idea that Laurel Canyon was once a cheap place to get a house with a pool was already long untrue by the time my wife and I moved to the Hollywood hills in 1977, but in the mid-’60s, it was a bohemian paradise.
Laurel Canyon would be a good companion piece for All Things Must Pass, the recent documentary about the Tower Records store on the Sunset Strip. They take place next door to each other in a unique physical environment where busy boulevards, and much of the business infrastructure of the west coast music industry, is only minutes away from bucolic hillsides. The films share a sense of whatever camaraderie the LA recording industry had in the ’60s and early ’70s, when much of New York’s popular music scene was moving to California.
Everyone looks incredibly young in photos and 8mm and 16mm home movies, which brings us to one of the interesting choices of this doc: other than the two elderly photographers who took many of the pictures and provide some connecting narration, you don’t see any people as they look today. You hear them speak, sounding candid and often funny. But since the movie is about a certain long-ago time and place, not about individual lives or careers, it doesn’t distract you with discordant notes of how they—and boomer viewers like me—have aged since those days of Monterey and Woodstock.
The status of women in pop music, and in general during this period, was changing but still traditional in more ways than we’d think. Hippie husbands still expected dinner on the table at seven. In the summers of love, sex appeal still ruled. Michelle Philips and Joni Mitchell, major characters in this doc, were very attractive, and it’s not sexist to note that a lot of the access that got them where they were was based on beauty. They and others of that time, and of every time, go through lovestruck enablers like knives through butter, break hearts, and make strategic career alliances as instinctively as the women of the court of Louis XIII.
One of the narrators of Laurel Canyon says, self-deprecatingly, that despite their progressive image, the LA music “scene” in general wasn’t very advanced politically until the very end of the ’60s. The country was weary of the Vietnam war, to be sure, and no doubt there was scarcely a Nixon vote in the whole rock music industry.
But most of these folkies and sweet harmonizers of the Canyon, though certainly pacifist in spirit, weren’t hard-edged cultural leaders either. It’s one reason why they enjoyed mainstream success.
We were reminded just how tight-knit and local a scene this all was when the documentary kept mentioning an up-and-coming band called Love, a fixture at Sunset Boulevard’s folk-rock music clubs. The group had a recording contract and apparently “charted” modestly but I have to admit that I’ve never heard of them. A band member claimed it was because they had a black singer in the group, but frankly the song fragments we hear are not all that special.
Love is a case of one of the oldest bits of showbiz drama—not just the has-beens, or the never-will-be’s, but the almost made it, the one-hit wonders who missed major stardom by that much; the coulda-been-big if they’d had just slightly better luck, timing, or management. It’s only a sidelight in the film’s wider stories of friends, partners, careers, and rivals.
The ones who did make it are a motley bunch; Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, The Mamas and the Papas, Buffalo Springfield, and The Byrds, who make a point of noting that they were acoustic folk singers who became electric rockers, not the other way around. “We were never a garage band.” David Crosby is one of the centers of the story, including the personnel shifts that led to the formation of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Hugely popular in their day, CSN&Y was rarely a critic’s favorite in the decades afterward.
Being neighbors in Laurel Canyon meant improbable-seeming backyard friendships that extended from the Mothers to the Monkees, Columbia Pictures Television’s answer to the Fab Four. Plenty of musicians weren’t originally from city streets and the quirky almost-rural charms of the nearby Canyon appealed to them.
Part 1 of Laurel Canyon more or less ends in the summer of 1969. It was the year of Woodstock, but also of Altamont; of the Moon and the Mets, but also of Manson. The Pepperland-like dreaminess that people talk about in this documentary was real, but so was the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood dark reality in its shadows.
The changeover point between decades is usually exaggerated, but in 1969/70, it really did line up pretty neatly with a time that claimed to have a mandate for limitless change. The results show something else entirely. When the campuses exploded and the cities burned, the country didn’t turn left. Instead, they turned to Richard Nixon, a much-scorned, politically battered figure of the ‘50s, because he was the tough SOB who seemed able to handle it.
The problem was, much of the news media, academia, Hollywood, and culture in general was already locked into a victorious 1967 narrative that anticipated a lurch leftwards. They wrote metaphorical checks, and in Hollywood literal ones, in the hundreds of millions of dollars, predictive bets of radical social change in 1969-’70; bets that 1971-’73 would refuse to cash. I had a post last year about that changeover point, then applying to movies and TV shows. It was a time when 20th Century Fox tentatively added Salute to a Rebel to the title of Patton because some were afraid that America was no longer willing to honor warriors. Hollywood did not really intend to make screen heroes out of General Patton, Popeye Doyle, Archie Bunker, Dirty Harry, or Vito Corleone, but the people decided for themselves.
The music industry briefly joined the revolution, then sheepishly retreated. With few exceptions, the folk-rock Los Angeles musicians that are the center of this story were harmonic, not discordant, without urban grit or blue-collar edge. Today, singers like Joni Mitchell and Stephen Stills are gently ribbed by Gen-Xers and Millennials as Things White Boomers Like.
In part 2 of Epix’s Laurel Canyon, the next generation of Canyon dwellers were more unabashedly commercial than their predecessors, less hung-up on progressive ideals. Think Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, or The Eagles. Sixties folk/rock musicians were delighted to discover that you could make a good living doing what they loved. By the ‘70s, it was now possible to become seriously rich. The communes and the Maharishi and the acid were faded memories by then.
This post is part of the June 2020 Ricochet Group Writing project, relating to “Music that makes me want to…”Published in