Music: Woke War I, Prelude

 

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 Like a Simon and Garfunkel lyric whose out-of-date-ness always amused me, “Thirty dollars pays your rent on Bleecker Street,” the idea that Laurel Canyon was once a cheap place to get a house with a pool was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…”

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  1. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    LA’s fine, the sun shines most the time
    And the feeling is laid back
    Palm trees grow, the rents are low
    But lately I’ve been thinkin’ ’bout
    Makin’ my way back

     

    • #1
  2. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Love had a few good songs & they were among the hippies who pointed out how inhuman the new love really was:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPbNpIG8x_s

    • #2
  3. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    That album, Forever changes, strikes me as better than most successful albums of the time.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3xzHYz6L5w

    • #3
  4. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    LA’s fine, the sun shines most the time
    And the feeling is laid back
    Palm trees grow, the rents are low
    But lately I’ve been thinkin’ ’bout
    Makin’ my way back

    Believe me, I’ve thought about makin’ my way back. For nearly every other emigre who made it to L.A., they can at least console themselves with the thought, “If I move back home, at least living expenses will be so much cheaper”. But if you’re from New York, that t’ain’t so. 

    • #4
  5. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    Love had a few good songs & they were among the hippies who pointed out how inhuman the new love really was:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPbNpIG8x_s

    For any newcomers to the site, this is Typical Titus Genius: not only does he know the period and the scene, but he examines its premises better than people who are 30 years older and born, oh, 5000 miles closer.

    It’s not just that he fully knows who these forgotten people are, but he can fit them into place, culturally and historically. Hell, as I’ve joked before, he could even tell you how much pocket change has fallen behind Elsa Lanchester’s seat cushions. Get a drink into him, and he might just confide how Charles Laughton left it there. 

    • #5
  6. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    I only know about Love because one of the people on my dorm floor my freshman year was from New York and had one of their albums.  Their Little Red Book was a Saturday Night Classic.

    • #6
  7. Marjorie Reynolds Coolidge
    Marjorie Reynolds
    @MarjorieReynolds

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    Love had a few good songs & they were among the hippies who pointed out how inhuman the new love really was:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPbNpIG8x_s

    For any newcomers to the site, this is Typical Titus Genius: not only does he know the period and the scene, but he examines its premises better than people who are 30 years older and born, oh, 5000 miles closer.

    It’s not just that he fully knows who these forgotten people are, but he can fit them into place, culturally and historically. Hell, as I’ve joked before, he could even tell you how much pocket change has fallen behind Elsa Lanchester’s seat cushions. Get a drink into him, and he might just confide how Charles Laughton left it there.

    The first posts I enjoyed on Ricochet were by Titus and yourself Gary.

    • #7
  8. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Ladies & gentlemen, you are too kind! You gotta love Ricochet–in-between my European breakfast & coffee, I sit around with Gary & the gang, who are passing the midnight hour, we’re all talking about long gone days & whistling tunes.

    • #8
  9. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    That album, Forever changes, strikes me as better than most successful albums of the time.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3xzHYz6L5w

    In fact, it’s frequently considered in the pantheon of all rock albums.  There is also a live version of the album, recorded on tour a few years before the band’s leader and principle song writer, Arthur Lee (once known as Arthurly), died.

    The song “7 and 7 is” was the band’s first minor hit, and is proto-punk  all the way.

     

    • #9
  10. Unsk Member
    Unsk
    @Unsk

    Arthur Lee and Love was a great rock group.  I don’t understand why they didn’t get hardly any play outside of LA.  Alone again Or is the one of my favorite rock songs of all time. 

    That said, in spring of ’69 I saw them play at a  free dance in the dark and hipster gloomy cafeteria below the Student Union  at SC and they were mostly ignored by the dance crowd. It was also a terrible dance but that wasn’t the fault of Love.  But also songs and groups came in and fell out of fashion so very quickly then. 

    In the sixties, rents and home prices were low in LA , but the combination of the FED’s easy money of the Carter Administration, the shutting down of freeway construction by Jerry Brown and the beginnings of stringent and destruction housing regulations hit California hard by the late 70’s. House prices were skyrocketing by then.  In ’72 I knew a bunch of guys who rented a nice five bedroom house just steps from the beach in Manhattan Beach for $450 a month. By the late seventies that $450 might not get a two bedroom apartment in Manhattan apartment. Now forget about it.  Now houses by the beach in Manhattan Beach cost mega-millions. 

    • #10
  11. Dotorimuk Coolidge
    Dotorimuk
    @Dotorimuk

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    That album, Forever changes, strikes me as better than most successful albums of the time.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3xzHYz6L5w

    “Forever Changes” is definitely of its time, but it’s my single favorite rock album. It’s wild, wacky, tragic, beautiful, darkly humorous, sad, triumphant, poignant and trivial. The gamut. Nothing else like it.

    • #11
  12. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher
    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo…
    @GumbyMark

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    That album, Forever changes, strikes me as better than most successful albums of the time.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3xzHYz6L5w

    Forever Changes is one of the great albums of the 67-68 period.

    • #12
  13. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher
    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo…
    @GumbyMark

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    That album, Forever changes, strikes me as better than most successful albums of the time.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3xzHYz6L5w

    In fact, it’s frequently considered in the pantheon of all rock albums. There is also a live version of the album, recorded on tour a few years before the band’s leader and principle song writer, Arthur Lee (once known as Arthurly), died.

    The song “7 and 7 is” was the band’s first minor hit, and is proto-punk all the way.

    If those who haven’t heard it, 7 and 7 is, is worth a listen.

     

    • #13
  14. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    Love had a few good songs & they were among the hippies who pointed out how inhuman the new love really was:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPbNpIG8x_s

    For any newcomers to the site, this is Typical Titus Genius: not only does he know the period and the scene, but he examines its premises better than people who are 30 years older and born, oh, 5000 miles closer.

    It’s not just that he fully knows who these forgotten people are, but he can fit them into place, culturally and historically. Hell, as I’ve joked before, he could even tell you how much pocket change has fallen behind Elsa Lanchester’s seat cushions. Get a drink into him, and he might just confide how Charles Laughton left it there.

    The first posts I enjoyed on Ricochet were by Titus and yourself Gary.

    Many thanks, Marjorie!

    • #14
  15. Buckpasser Member
    Buckpasser
    @Buckpasser

    I found it amusing that these “legitimate” musicians had no issue being friends with and hanging out with members of the Monkees.

    • #15
  16. Unsk Member
    Unsk
    @Unsk

    If notice Arthur Lee is black, but he wasn’t a “black” musician.  Love’s music transcended color as most of the band members were white, and one would not normally guess the color of Arthur’s Lee ethnicity in their music by listening to it.   One I think could also say the same thing for Jimi Hendrix, another one involved in the Laurel Canyon scene and whose career got a huge push at the  Monterey Pop Festival in his band’s  first major American appearance created solely by his inclusion in the event by his Laurel Canyon cohort John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas. Hendrix’s music transcended color and is still unique today.

    Perhaps those so racially focused at Antifa and Black Lives Matter could learn a thing  or two from this band from over 50 years ago.

    • #16
  17. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    Buckpasser (View Comment):

    I found it amusing that these “legitimate” musicians had no issue being friends with and hanging out with members of the Monkees.

    Um, yeah, except I don’t think these people generally defined themselves as “legitimate musicians” even though most of them very much were,  or came to be. They certainly were great songwriters which is perhaps a different skill/talent than being a musician. Like who for example , first violin in the Berlin Symphony?

    Again, definitions matter.

    The Monkees were mocked by some but celebrities know how artificial it all is while simultaneously knowing you don’t get anywhere with zero talent. The Monkees were actually talented. Davy Jones starred on the London Stage as a child actor/singer playing the Artful Dodger in the musical Oliver!. All of them auditioned for their parts,  could sing, and they did take music seriously but we’re stymied by producers and the star-maker machinery (h/t Joni) All artists are packaged, the Monkees were just more packaged, but it wasn’t their plan or fault.

    So, not in the least hypocritical or ironic.

    • #17
  18. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    Unsk (View Comment):

    If notice Arthur Lee is black, but he wasn’t a “black” musician. Love’s music transcended color as most of the band members were white, and one would not normally guess the color of Arthur’s Lee ethnicity in their music by listening to it. One I think could also say the same thing for Jimi Hendrix, another one involved in the Laurel Canyon scene and whose career got a huge push at the Monterey Pop Festival in his band’s first major American appearance created solely by his inclusion in the event by his Laurel Canyon cohort John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas. Hendrix’s music transcended color and is still unique today.

    Perhaps those so racially focused at Antifa and Black Lives Matter could learn a thing or two from this band from over 50 years ago.

    Billy Preston–the “Fifth Beatle”–also comes to mind.

    Sly and the Family Stone were “black” in the sense that their music had a lot of funk in it, but they were very popular outside the “black music” mainstream.  See “Hot Fun in the Summertime.”

    • #18
  19. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    This is roughly the same time period when Johnny Carson moved The Tonight Show to L.A., Berry Gordy moved Motown Records from Detroit to Sunset Boulevard, and Hugh Hefner left Chicago behind and bought a mansion. People mocked, and still mock, Los Angeles “mellowness”, but it stood out in contrast to what was going on in other cities. 

    • #19
  20. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    This is roughly the same time period when Johnny Carson moved The Tonight Show to L.A., Berry Gordy moved Motown Records from Detroit to Sunset Boulevard, and Hugh Hefner left Chicago behind and bought a mansion. People mocked, and still mock, Los Angeles “mellowness”, but it stood out in contrast to what was going on in other cities.

    Apropos of nothing, I always wanted to stay at the Chateau Marmont back in the day and never did.   For an Easterner, a couple of nights there and some clubs on the Strip seemed like the height of cool.  Maybe throw in Rodney Bingenheimer for good measure.  Of course, I could be wrong.

    • #20
  21. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    We used the Marmont as the official film festival hotel for a while. It was steeped in dubious history. 

    • #21
  22. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Crosby, Stills and Nash added Neil Young for what amounted to packaging reasons. David Crosby and Graham Nash were fine singers, but only decent on instruments, so once CSN was successful enough to require live shows, they needed a higher level of guitar virtuosity. 

    • #22
  23. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    We used the Marmont as the official film festival hotel for a while. It was steeped in dubious history.

    I’m good with that as an endorsement, although Belushi’s passing is nothing to celebrate.

    • #23
  24. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    From the hills to the beaches, a lot of good music was being made.

    Share a few pieces of music of any genre in your own playlist. Sign up to write about “Music that makes me . . . .”

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #24
  25. namlliT noD Member
    namlliT noD
    @DonTillman

    Very cool!

    I reviewed Jakob Dylan’s film Echo in the Canyon last year.

    • #25
  26. Michael S. Malone Contributor
    Michael S. Malone
    @MichaelSMalone

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    That album, Forever changes, strikes me as better than most successful albums of the time.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3xzHYz6L5w

    “Alone again or” will stand with any song of the era.  It is the LA sound that the Eagles and others got rich off of, while Arthur Lee just went to prison.  “A house is not a motel” and “Red telephone” saw Manson and the darkness coming while everyone else was still singing about brotherhood. . .

    • #26
  27. Buckpasser Member
    Buckpasser
    @Buckpasser

    Franco (View Comment):
    So, not in the least hypocritical or ironic.

    Agree.  It’s just that the “conventional wisdom” was that they were a joke.  Also, the fact that Stephen Stills auditioned for the Monkees concurs with your reply.

    • #27
  28. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Above Top Secret
    @CarolJoy

    Mama Cass was the most beloved of the Mamas and the Papas as she helped so many musicians connect with one another, meet the right agents. She also  offered emotional support to people who went on to make  it but wouldn’t have made it without her.

    I was rummaging around in the basement  through old utility company bills and what not. There I  found a Rolling Stone from back in late 1969. The mag was filled with one lament after another about the very poor selection of music available that year, and how the music world was falling apart.

    If only those writers had seen the future, right?

     

     

    • #28
  29. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    Buckpasser (View Comment):

    Franco (View Comment):
    So, not in the least hypocritical or ironic.

    Agree. It’s just that the “conventional wisdom” was that they were a joke. Also, the fact that Stephen Stills auditioned for the Monkees concurs with your reply.

    Let’s not overlook the fact that the Monkees–like a good number of acts in the era–benefited greatly from studio musicians.  I’m not disputing that there was talent there–Michael Nesmith in particular– but their intitial success was certainly a product of the studio.  As time went on they began to chafe at not playing their music.  Whether the result would have been as succesful as The Wrecking Crew’s contributions, I don’t know.

     

    • #29
  30. namlliT noD Member
    namlliT noD
    @DonTillman

    Franco (View Comment):

    Buckpasser (View Comment):

    I found it amusing that these “legitimate” musicians had no issue being friends with and hanging out with members of the Monkees.

    […] The Monkees were actually talented. […]

    The Monkees were very talented musicians.  Mike Nesmith had previously written a number of successful songs, including “Different Drum” for Linda Rondstadt.  Micky Dolenz is a excellent rock singer.  They’re all solid.

    The Monkees had the first rock songs to feature a Moog synthesizer.

     

    • #30