Where The Creatures Meet: Harmony and Discord in Laurel Canyon

Laurel Canyon

In April 1970 Joni Mitchell released her third record, Ladies Of The Canyon, an ode to the denizens of the neighborhood she called home, Laurel Canyon, a mountainous paradise nestled in the purgatory of Los Angeles. The gentle title track is perhaps the most obvious tribute: Accompanied by a guitar that sounds like wind chimes and a backing choir that sounds like a waterfall, Mitchell portrays three different women who define the canyon as an inviting, enticing utopia. Trina wears wampum beads and decorates vintage coats with lacy trims. Annie spends her days surrounded by mewing cats and fat babies, welcoming passersby into her kitchen to try her brownies. And Estrella is a singer wrapped in gypsy shawls, her songs “like tiny hammers hurled at beveled mirrors in empty halls.” That’s the most violent imagery in the whole song – and on the entire record, for that matter – which only reinforces the friendly embrace of Mitchell’s music.

Laurel Canyon is a geographical oddity, a jumble of largely undeveloped mountain acres adjacent to the busy streets of West Hollywood. By 1968, when Mitchell wrote and first published the song, the neighborhood had become the center of the local music scene, even though it boasted no clubs or venues. Nearly every Los Angeles musician lived there, jammed there, or crashed on somebody’s couch there: The Byrds, The Mamas & the Papas, Crosby Stills Nash and sometimes Young, The Beach Boys, The Doors, Love, a few of the Monkees, Frank Zappa, The International Submarine Band, Jackson Browne, and scores more. “It was Brigadoon meets the Brill Building,” writes Michael Walker in his 2006 best-seller Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story Of Rock-and-Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood.

“Ladies Of The Canyon” paints the area as a loose commune defined by the creative zeal and gregarious spirit of its inhabitants. It’s tempting to read real-life counterparts into the three women Mitchell sings about. Is Trina really a stand-in for Szou Paulekas, who recycled vintage clothing into hippie-freak fashion and defined the look of a generation? Might Annie actually be Mama Cass Elliott, widely regarded as the matron of Laurel Canyon? Could Estrella be Joan Baez, or possibly a less celebrated artist like Collie Ryan or Priscilla Quinby? Or even Mitchell herself?

With its steep hills, winding dirt roads, and a handful of manmade caves strung with lights (for anyone who wanted to get back to the land or had run out of couches), the canyon provided a woodsy refuge from Los Angeles’ hard urban landscape. Along with beautiful views of the city, it offered an escape from the social turmoil that defined the 1960s: the Watts riots in 1965, the violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the draft, the general sense of societal entropy – what Joan Didion in her essay “The White Album” called “the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” That dark reality rarely invades the music made in or inspired by Laurel Canyon, which is defined by its folk-rock guitars and its dusty harmonies.

SO YOU WANNA BE A ROCK AND ROLL STAR?

In 1964, the words folk and rock were believed to be fundamentally incompatible. Folk was even by then considered traditional American music and therefore proud, dignified, reverent – and maybe a little dull. Rock and roll was new, lascivious, vulgar, and –especially after the Beatles’ arrival on these shores just months after the Kennedy assassination – exciting.

The Byrds were all refugees from folk bands. Roger McGuinn was one-third of the Chad Mitchell Trio, Gene Clark a New Christy Minstrel; Chris Hillman played mandolin in the Hillmen, and David Crosby was well known as an outspoken folk singer. The group lived and practiced in Laurel Canyon, their rehearsals reverberating across the granite hills and caves. In the evenings they – and so many of their neighborhoods – would descend on the Sunset Strip to play clubs like Ciro’s Le Disc and the Hullabaloo Club.

Those two settings – the remote wilderness of the Canyon and the urban bustle of the Strip – offered a useful contrast that would define folk rock, which was both acoustic and electric, country and city, harmonious and aggressive, steeped in tradition but animated by generational irreverence. A year before Dylan electrified the Newport Folk Festival, the Byrds had invented a new kind of pop music that mirrored the messy geography of Los Angeles. As Michael Walker writes in his 2006 best-seller Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story Of Rock-and-Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood, “By spanning the divide between rock and roll and folk music, the Byrds created a hybrid – folk rock – that gentrified American-made rock and roll while putting a commercial sheen on folk only hinted at by Baez, Dylan, and [Judy] Collins.”

Their first single, a chiming cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” was a smash that reached number one in both the States and the U.K. and earned them the dubious distinction of America’s answer to The Beatles. The song not only made them overnight sensations, but arguably established Laurel Canyon as the busy center of the West Coast rock scene. The emphasis on several voices singing complimentary parts reflected the scene’s emphasis on make-love-not-war harmony, yet within the Byrds line-up there was only discord. The girls went wild for handsome Gene Clark, but Crosby and McGuinn fought for control of the group. Over the next few years they landed several more hits, including the sublime “Eight Miles High,” but they were soon eclipsed by another band featuring some of the same singers.

WHERE THE CREATURES MEET

Laurel Canyon Boulevard sprouts from Sunset Boulevard, runs a circuitous route through the canyon and finally peters off near the Golden State Freeway. It’s a scenic drive and one of the main thoroughfares through the neighborhood, toasted in Van Dyke Parks’ gently parodic “Laurel Canyon Boulevard,” off his 1968 album Song Cycle: “What is up in Laurel Canyon? The seat of the beat.” Along this road sits a funky patchwork building adorned with plants, colorful signs, and askew awnings: the Laurel Canyon Country Store, a center of activity since the 1930s. When Rolling Stone profiled the Los Angeles music scene in 1968, the writer Jerry Hopkins noted that, “The attraction of the small store, with a cleaners and tiny restaurant nearby, is social as much as culinary. It is here where dates are made, new homes are found (on a bulletin board or through friends), grass might be scored, and where you usually get some sort of vague answer to the question, ‘What’s happening?’”

It’s impossible to count the musicians who have over the years patronized the Country Store, buying groceries or sipping coffee or ordering from the deli. Jim Morrison feted the place on “Love Street,” which began as a poem and later became a song on the Doors’ 1968 album, Waiting For The Sun.” “There’s this store where the creatures meet,” he sings. “I wonder what they do in there.” Morrison lived next door with his long-time girlfriend Pamela Courson, and when they weren’t having arguments loud enough to wake the neighbors, the couple would sit on their porch and watch the parade of freaks and hippies – the creatures – drift in and out of the Country Store. It’s impossible to imagine that he didn’t know what they did in there.

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The Mamas & the Papas scored one of the first hits about Laurel Canyon when “Twelve Thirty” landed at number 20 on the Billboard singles charts. The song begins in “dark and dirty” New York City, then proceeds triumphantly westward as the four voices separate into high-flying harmonies: “Young girls are coming to the canyon,” they sing, “and in the morning I can see them walking.” The song paints a sunny picture of the neighborhood where all four singers lived, wrote, rehearsed, and hung out, and the setting engenders a new sincerity in them: “At first so strange to feel so friendly, to say good morning and really mean it.”

The chorus is magisterial, a great swelling of emotion made possible by Mama Cass Elliott – born in Baltimore as Ellen Naomi Cohen – whose voice careens into a high register, as if trying to express some feeling just out of reach. Because of her obesity, she had to finagle her way into The Mamas & the Papas and was constantly overshadowed by the slender Michelle Phillips. Back in Laurel Canyon, however, Mama Cass was the center of the scene, living up to her nickname by acting as a maternal figure within the scene. As Michael Walker writes in Laurel Canyon: “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.” Her cabin on Woodrow Wilson Drive (previously owned by the actress Natalie Wood) was the site of innumerable parties, jam sessions, guitar pulls, and songwriting sessions, frequented not only by musicians but by young actors like Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper, who would revolutionize Hollywood in just a few short years.

Elliott’s reputation as a networker rivaled her reputation as a vocalist, as she seemed to be constantly introducing people. When Eric Clapton retreated from the U.K. to California, she threw a welcome party where he met some of the musicians with whom he would later work. And when David Crosby and Stephen Stills were having difficulty starting a new band after the dissolution of The Byrds, it was Mama Cass herself who saved the day. Reports vary and details conflict, but Elliott is generally credited with introducing them to Graham Nash, a British musician who had recently defected from The Hollies and was shacking up with Joni Mitchell in a nearby bungalow.

Perhaps even more than The Byrds, Crosby Stills & Nash (and, later, Neil Young) became the standard-bearer of the Laurel Canyon sound. Their 1969 self-titled debut notched two hit singles, “Marrakesh Express” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” and their performance at Woodstock (which was only their second show with Young) became legendary. As their popularity grew, however, they were pulled further and further from Laurel Canyon, ostensibly the wellspring of their music, and throughout the 1970s the group would splinter and reunite repeatedly.

As the scene dissipated and other L.A. neighborhoods grew in influence (most recently, Silver Lake), the neighborhood lost some of its remoteness, its sense of retreat from the world. Yet the music made by its inhabitants continues to inspire new generations of musicians who may never have even visited the Country Store, yet feel a kinship with those denizens of the granite hills: Fleet Foxes, My Morning Jacket, First Aid Kit, Lily & Madeleine, Father John Misty, and the Treetop Flyers. In other words, Laurel Canyon is no longer just a neighborhood. It has become a musical ideal.