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Still Hazy After All These Years

Decades Removed From Having Fostered L.A.'s Pop Music Golden Age, Laurel Canyon Remains, as One Observer Says, 'Kind of Lazy and Kind of Dirty and Kind of Earthy and Sort of Reckless.'

June 01, 2003|Michael Walker | Michael Walker, a former senior editor of the magazine, has written about pop culture for the New York Times, Washington Post, GQ, Esquire and other national publications.

Every year--sometimes it's July and sometimes it's August, you never know until the last moment--the people of Laurel Canyon come down from the hills to get their picture taken in front of the Canyon Country Store. They come from the Kirkwood Bowl and Lookout Mountain, from Grandview and Colecrest and Ridpath and Jewett and Yucca and Willow Glen and Wonderland.

There's undoubtedly a good reason for this tradition, which involves a lot of drinking of Red Bull while the photographer, on a teetering ladder across Laurel Canyon Boulevard, waits for a break in the traffic, but nobody remembers what it is. Most Canyon-esque, nobody cares. As soon as the picture is taken--and everyone conspires to delay this moment as long as possible--the subjects melt back into the hills.

There's something affirming about this ritual, as organic and inevitable as the waxy yellow flowers that bloom every winter and fill the canyon with jasmine musk. It's as if, once a year, the "creatures," as Jim Morrison immortalized them in the Doors' "Love Street," are driven to renew their neighborhood vows. Or something. (Morrison is said to have lived in a house cater-corner from the Canyon Store, though it must be remembered that alleged Morrison domiciles are to Los Angeles what bars that Hemingway drank in are to Key West.)

I've lived in Laurel Canyon since moving to L.A. from New York 10 years ago, and keep meaning to ask Tommy Bina, the genial Iranian expat who's owned the Canyon Store since 1982, how Picture Day got started. I never get around to it. This, too, is very Canyon-esque. Hazy existentialism, tempered by a work ethic necessary to afford the real estate, is a way of life here.

A while ago--I can't remember exactly when, of course--little gravity-defying towers made from hunks of the canyon's granite walls began appearing to the north and south of the Canyon Store. They just seemed to materialize, like crop circles. Later, word got around that Ed LaDou, chef and owner of Caioti, the former restaurant below the store, had put them up as a freelance beautification project. Really? Cool.

The director and writer Lisa Cholodenko tackled some of this vibe in her recent movie, "Laurel Canyon." The film is ostensibly about a '70s-centric record producer, played by Frances McDormand, who manages to take care of business while smoking herb by the bong load, but spaces out on details such as a promise to vacate her canyon house for her son and his fiancee (see "very Canyon-esque").

McDormand's character, of course, is a metaphor for Laurel Canyon itself. Cholodenko grew up in Encino and commuted with the rest of the Valley through the canyon, intrigued by "that kind of irreverent, Land of the Lost thing that people get into up there in the middle of a high-pressure, functioning city," she says. "That you can actually tuck yourself away in a canyon in the middle of Los Angeles--that's extraordinary." Cholodenko characterizes the canyon, quite accurately, as "kind of lazy and kind of dirty and kind of earthy and sort of reckless."

Laurel Canyon, with approximately 6,500 dwellers, mulishly resists attempts to modernize, sometimes--as in the case of the four-lane freeway the city once proposed to ram through to the Valley--thankfully so. On the other hand, until very recently cell phone reception was on par with Apollo astronauts broadcasting from the dark side of the moon, and guardrails along some of the canyon's most vertiginous lanes (hello, Colecrest Drive!) are nonexistent or folksy white-painted wooden numbers that couldn't stop a skateboard. The social contract allows wide latitude in matters such as, say, keeping your unbalanced German shepherd outdoors where it can bark at phantom rivals for 14 hours straight, which actually happened one New Year's Eve.

Not everyone in the canyon goes for this level of laissez faire. Somebody once spray-painted SHUT YOUR DAMN DOG UP! in huge red letters across the fence of a house on Lookout Mountain--but I doubt it did any good. Complaining is equated with whining and is usually ignored. Weary of being blasted out of bed by a driver who insisted on honking her way around the corner below my house, I got up early one morning, flagged her down and asked her very politely to cool it. She stared at me, lowered her sunglasses and snapped: "That's one of the disadvantages of living on a blind corner." Then she drove off. (I eventually prevailed by dropping a note in her mailbox that implied the entire neighborhood was ready to mutiny, which it probably was, though true to form nobody had said anything.)

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