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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.

Part of the canyon's jagged charm comes from its multifariousness, seen in houses that range from moldering hunting cabins built in the '20s to 10,000-square-foot piles with feudal overtones. As Cholodenko observes: "There's no uniformity to the architecture or the landscape"--or the residents. My neighbors have included a retired Broadway hoofer, a major record label president, the British blues legend John Mayall and several actresses, one of whom seduced a carpenter working on my garage, then had sex with him with all the windows open in the middle of the afternoon.

Which is not to say Laurel Canyon is the Delta house of Los Angeles--the rural trappings and deep quiet, at least late at night, are astonishing when you consider the Sunset Strip is three minutes away. But there is definitely a live-and-let-live esprit that has informed the canyon's culture for decades and attracted blithe spirits who go on to fame and, occasionally, infamy.

Laurel Canyon's role in the L.A. singer-songwriter juggernaut of the '70s, for example, is now so fully mythologized that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should open a patchouli-scented Canyon Store replica peopled with wax figures of the principals. (The former owner of the alleged Morrison domicile did his bit by installing a totem pole with hand-carved likenesses of Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, et al, that ran through all three floors of the house.)

In that spirit, it's instructive to contemplate Joni Mitchell's "Ladies of the Canyon," the 1970 album and song that fixed in amber Laurel Canyon's lifestyle bona fides for future generations to ponder. Today, Mitchell's canyon ladies--Trina, with her "wampum beads" ("What are wampum beads?" asks Cholodenko, with some irritation), and Estrella, she of the "gypsy shawls" and "songs like tiny hammers"--are alive and well, though they're as likely to drive Range Rovers. This last detail is more apropos of 1970 and the aspirations of the era's poet-rock stars than one might imagine.

Ron Stone, Mitchell's former manager, points out that Laurel Canyon was then "a low-end neighborhood. Most of the houses were rentals." The canyon's storied "community," like artist quartiers everywhere, was ultimately a staging ground. "Anybody who made money left," Stone says. After "Ladies of the Canyon," Mitchell ditched her bungalow on Lookout Mountain--where she lived with Graham Nash long enough for him to write "Our House"--and moved to Bel-Air.

The sheer concentration of so many musicians who would, in a stunningly short time, amass a body of work that would endure into the next millennium is heady only in hindsight, Stone says. "We didn't think anything of it." Still, even a partial manifest of Laurel Canyon's then-artists in residence is formidable: Carole King, Frank Zappa, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Leon Russell, Joe Cocker, Jackson Browne, John Mayall, Jimmy Webb, Tim Hardin, John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, Cass Elliott, Leonard Cohen, Nico, Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz, Judy Collins, Robby Krieger, John Densmore, Roger McGuinn, plus transient Beatles, Stones, Yardbirds, Zeppelins, Eagles, Animals and Steppenwolves. As Jackson Browne would reflect: "There was amazing tribal life. There were houses supported by record companies, groups living with an account at the health food store."

The canyon's intramural couplings, musically and sexually, led to some indisputably great music. Much of this centered on Frank Zappa's compound at the corner of Laurel Canyon and Lookout Mountain, a log cabin formerly owned by Tom Mix. (There was a bowling alley in the basement and caves that supposedly led to a mysterious estate across Laurel Canyon known then, now and probably forever as the "Houdini house," even though it's almost certain that Houdini never lived there.)

Ridpath Drive, a mews off Kirkwood Drive, was another hotbed. In Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman's memoir, "Follow the Music," the label's house engineer, John Haeny, mapped a typical synergy: "My Laurel Canyon house was on Ridpath. . . . At the Ridpath house I introduced Judy [Collins] to Stephen Stills, and that resulted in their romance, and their romance resulted in Stephen writing 'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.' Carole King was in and out of Ridpath. . . . Neil Young was around. I was at some friend's house with David Crosby and somebody had brought a tape in of a young girl that nobody knew much about, except Judy had discovered her as a songwriter, and it was Joni Mitchell." And so on.

Browne recalled: "We would catch a ride to Peter Tork's house on Willow Glen. Peter had been a dishwasher at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach and now he was a TV star, a Monkee. Sometimes you would walk in and there would be 12 girls in the pool, naked. One time Jimi Hendrix was up there jamming with Buddy Miles in the pool house, and Peter's girlfriend was playing the drums, naked." And so forth.

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