Blogs > Cliopatria > Kirk Bane: Review of Michael Walker's Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood

Nov 28, 2007 10:21 pm

Kirk Bane: Review of Michael Walker's Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood

Many of the most talented and influential musicians of the Sixties and Seventies resided in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles: Jackson Browne, Eric Burdon, Judy Collins, Alice Cooper, David Crosby, John Densmore, Denny Doherty, Mickey Dolenz, Cass Elliot, Glen Frey, Don Henley, Chris Hillman, Carole King, Robby Krieger, Arthur Lee, John Mayall, Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, Graham Nash, John and Michelle Phillips, Stephen Stills, Peter Tork, Mark Volman, Jimmy Webb, Paul Williams, and Frank Zappa. In Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood (New York: Faber and Faber, 2006) journalist, and current Laurel Canyon resident, Michael Walker provides a fascinating glimpse of a magical place during a magical time. In 1968, Laurel Canyon was a “slightly seedy, camp-like neighborhood of serpentine one-lane roads, precipitous hills, fragrant eucalyptus trees, and softly crumbling bungalows set down improbably in the middle of Los Angeles”; it was also, Walker observes, “a hothouse of creativity.”

Walker focuses on the years 1964-1981, Laurel Canyon’s “golden age.” He divides his book into two sections: “Jingle-Jangle Mornings” examines the Sixties while “Cocaine Afternoons” explores the Seventies. “As a group,” Walker contends, Laurel Canyon artists “were nominally countercultural, favoring long hair and thrift-shop apparel, but possessed of ambition as blinding as any junior investment banker in a Brooks Brothers suit.” Of course, this drive produced such rock classics as “California Dreamin’,” “It’s Too Late,” “Our House,” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”

A deft writer, Walker has a sharp eye for detail. Take, for instance, this vivid passage: “The change between 1964 and 1965 in Los Angeles was astonishing. In a photograph of a Johnny Rivers performance at the Whisky in 1964, the patrons look like extras from an episode of Dobie Gillis: short brilliantined hair and skinny neckties for the boys, Doris Day-style bouffants and sack dresses for the girls. One year later, post-Beatles, the Byrds are onstage—David Crosby has grown his hair and Yosemite Sam mustache and is wearing fringed buckskin; the audience appears to have been made over by some species of hip aliens.” And consider Walker’s depiction of singers Cass Elliot and Michelle Phillips. Mama Cass, whose house served as Laurel Canyon’s “de facto salon, a rock-and-roll Bloomsbury,” had “a nurturing personality as expansive as her girth, plus a quick mind and highly evolved sense of humor. Inevitably, her obesity kept her from being a sexual object, and that in turn allowed her to become closer to many of the canyon’s male musicians than they, or she, might otherwise have allowed…Michelle Phillips, a lithe, gamine beauty, had the opposite effect; men competed for her sexual attentions inside and outside the band, and her presence became just as inevitably divisive.”

Walker also delves into the dark side of Laurel Canyon history. He discusses the terrifying Manson murders (the Tate house was located in nearby Benedict Canyon); the notorious Altamont concert, in which a young African American, Meredith Hunter, was stabbed to death by a member of the Hell’s Angels; and the shocking butchery on Wonderland Avenue. Walker asserts that the Wonderland killings, “just up the road from the house where Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell composed their hippie pastorals, were more than anyone could take…Porn stars, moldy drug misanthropes, and murder were about as far as you could get from peace, love, and understanding.” Furthermore, he documents the damage caused by cocaine’s arrival in Laurel Canyon. According to Walker, cocaine “leeched whatever charm and innocence, real or imagined, the canyon scene still possessed. Whereas pot and acid were seen as tools of enlightenment, encouraging collaboration and damping, as much as was possible, the egos raging beneath the tie-dye and buckskin, coke magnified and amplified the worst qualities of nearly everyone who became heavily involved with it.”

Walker interviewed such former denizens of Laurel Canyon as Pamela Des Barres, Chris Hillman, Graham Nash, Mark Volman, and Gail Zappa; this is truly impressive. His bibliography, however, lacks a number of key texts, including Barney Hoskyns’s Waiting for the Sun: Strange Days, Weird Scenes and the Sound of Los Angeles, Johnny Rogan’s Timeless Flight: The Definitive Biography of the Byrds, and The Family, by Ed Sanders. Surely Walker consulted these essential works during the course of his research. Additionally, it should be noted that the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” is on Revolver, not Rubber Soul.

Pop culture students and readers interested in the history of twentieth century Los Angeles will heartily applaud Walker’s effort. In sum, Laurel Canyon is an exceptional book, insightful, entertaining, and skillfully written.

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