Los Angeles, 1964. In winding canyon roads just minutes from the hustle and madness of Sunset Strip, hidden among the eucalyptus trees, down single-track lanes, and in quaint, crumbling shacks, something happened that was to change the world forever.
The occupants of these collapsing bungalows were to come together – by accident as much as design – to define a whole new era of popular culture. Their names read like a roster of some of the most significant musicians and recording artists of the twentieth century; their influence continues to resonate today.
Over a single fertile decade, Laurel Canyon played host to songwriting legends Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Carly Simon; it was where Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young got together, and the Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac first met.
Singer-songwriters James Taylor and Jackson Browne were locals; The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Canned Heat, the Eagles, and Love all lived there, as well as Beach Boy Brian Wilson, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Harry Nilsson, and Jim Morrison. Mama Cass Elliot’s door was always open; Frank Zappa’s home was party central, as were houses belonging to Love’s Arthur Lee, and Mickey Dolenz and Peter Tork of the Monkees.
Laurel Canyon was the breeding ground for the confessional singer-songwriter sound made popular by leading lights Mitchell, Taylor, and King. It was the birthplace of the laid-back, uniquely Californian country-rock music pioneered by the likes of the Byrds and taken to unimaginable heights by the Eagles. It was the inspiration for the Doors’ "Love Street" and the Mamas & the Papas "Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon".
In 1970, Joni Mitchell’s third album Ladies of the Canyon was dedicated to the area and its inhabitants, and that same year, the Crosby, Stills, & Nash hit “Our House” was written by Graham Nash about the Laurel Canyon home he shared with Mitchell.
British blues legend John Mayall – whose band the Bluesbreakers had included Cream’s Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, Rolling Stones’ Mick Taylor, and Fleetwood Mac’s John McVie, Peter Green, and Mick Fleetwood – was so influenced by the neighborhood he recorded the LP Blues from Laurel Canyon after a 1968 vacation there.
If it was a place of extraordinary creative fertility, it was also, perhaps just as importantly, where businessmen David Geffen and Elliot Roberts got together to tap into the sunshine-soaked good vibes and make a global phenomenon out of them – one that continues to generate millions of dollars today.
In the late sixties and early 1970s, Laurel Canyon was more than just a neighborhood: It was a perfect collision of lifestyle and art and ideology – and the tale of those years in these winding streets is the story of the flowering, corruption, and eventual collapse of the hippie dream.
The story of Laurel Canyon is the story of the 1960s and '70s – drenched in beautiful music, free love, good drugs and idealism ... and ultimately destroyed by money, success, bad drugs, and murder.
Some places breathe magic. Decades before rock ‘n’ roll came to define the hills north of Sunset Strip, Laurel Canyon had long been a favored hangout of creatives, bohemians, and left-field geniuses.
Harry Houdini, Bella Lugosi, and Roaring '20s “It Girl” Clara Bow all owned homes in the Canyon. In the years after the war, those houses were taken over by jazz musicians, writers and beatniks.
Scandal was never far away: Robert Mitchum was arrested for marijuana possession at a Laurel Canyon house in 1948, as he partied with a dissolute crowd of actresses and dancers. He was later sentenced to 60 days in jail.
But history remains beguilingly hazy about when what we now call the Laurel Canyon scene really began – partly because nobody was really keeping records, partly because almost everybody concerned was stoned most of the time, and partly because – as with all such scenes – there was no plan, no grand design; but rather, an organic flowering, a unique, accidental, haphazard coming together of the right people, in the right place, at the right time.
If there has to be a definitive beginning, however, then a good time might be October 1964, when 19-year-old mandolin player Chris Hillman rented a house on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. He had come to L.A. from San Diego to audition for a band his former manager Jim Dickson was putting together.
Joining Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, and Michael Clarke – and playing bass guitar, an instrument he had previously never picked up – they formed The Byrds, and Hillman’s house became their primary writing and rehearsal space, as well as the inspiration for their unique blend of Bob Dylan-esque folksiness and Beatles-influenced electric pop.
Within a year and following the success of debut single "Mr. Tambourine Man" – a turned-on, blissed-out take on the Dylan song – the Byrds had become arguably the biggest band in America (and unquestionably the coolest) and a scene had begun to coalesce around them.
Attracted by the proximity to the band, cheap rent, and the canyon’s peculiar geography as an oasis of calm in the heart of L.A., other musicians began to move into the surrounding streets. Almost immediately, new collaborations were formed.
At clubs like the Troubadour and the Whisky a Go Go – just a short drive away on Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevards respectively – the young musicians would meet up, perform, watch other bands, swap ideas, and continue the party at nearby Ben Frank’s diner before heading back to someone’s house to keep jamming.
The Troubadour especially was a hotbed of creativity. According to record producer David Geffen, who along with Elliot Roberts would manage the careers of Canyonites Mitchell, Neil Young, Judee Sill, David Blue, Jackson Browne, J. D. Souther, the Eagles, and Crosby, Stills & Nash, “Everywhere you looked there was another talented person.”
Carole King, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, and Neil Young were regular performers – and even after many of the musicians had become huge stars in their own rights they continued to play at the club, thanks in part to a devious contract clause introduced by the Troubadour’s owner Doug Weston binding them to a specified number of shows.
The result was an explosion of creativity – with bands whose lineups now read like supergroups. Among them was Buffalo Springfield, formed when singer/guitarist Stephen Stills persuaded Ohio-born Richie Furay, whom he had met in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village, to come to the Canyon.
Furay later described the formation of Buffalo Springfield as a typically laid-back kind of happy accident: “Stephen Stills said, ‘Come out to California, I’ve got a band together. I need another singer.’ I said, ‘I’m on my way.’ Once we started playing at the Whisky, everybody moved to Laurel Canyon. It was the spot. Neil Young had been living in his Pontiac hearse, but he moved up to Lookout.”
Along with Young’s fellow Canadians Dewey Martin and Bruce Palmer, Buffalo Springfield took the Byrds’ sound still further, injecting more psychedelia and harder rock into the electrified folk. The band only lasted two years, but it set the template for the kind of easy-come, easy-go, collaborative vibe that defined so much of Laurel Canyon’s music.
Everyone knew everyone, and everyone was a musician. Glenn Frey of the Eagles remembered arriving at Laurel Canyon in 1968 as a struggling guitarist and almost immediately bumping into one of his musical heroes.
“My very first day in California I drove up La Cienega to Sunset Boulevard,” he said, “turned right, drove to Laurel Canyon and the first person I saw standing on the porch at the Canyon Store was David Crosby. He was dressed exactly the way he was on the second Byrds album: that cape, and the flat, wide-brimmed hat. He was standing there like a statue.
“There was just something in the air up there. There’s houses built up on stilts on the hillside and there’s palm trees and yuccas and eucalyptus and vegetation I’d never seen before in my life. It was a little magical hillside canyon.”
Joni Mitchell also remembered the magic – albeit touched with a little more of the anything-goes vibe of the time.
“My dining room looked out over Frank Zappa’s duck pond,” she said, “and once when my mother was visiting, three naked girls were floating around on a raft in the pond. In the upper hills the Buffalo Springfield were playing, and in the afternoon there was just a cacophony of young bands rehearsing. At night it was quiet except for cats and mockingbirds. It had a smell of eucalyptus and in the spring, which was the rainy season then, a lot of wildflowers would spring up. Laurel Canyon had a wonderful distinctive smell to it.”
If everyone was a musician, many of them were also supremely talented, and a few houses in particular played host to some extraordinary collaborations.
The home of Cass Elliot became a center of pot-fueled creativity – so much so that the former Mamas & the Papas singer was described by Graham Nash as “the Gertrude Stein of Laurel Canyon”, with an open-door policy similar to Stein’s 1920’s Parisian salon, which played host to artists and writers including Picasso, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Henri Matisse.
It was at Cass Elliot’s home that perhaps the most defining of the Canyon collaborations was to come together. It is a typically Laurel Canyon tale – not only in the apparently haphazard nature of its happening, but in the fact that everyone concerned remembers it differently (with some insisting it was Joni Mitchell’s house rather than Elliot’s).
Stephen Stills, David Crosby, and Graham Nash had all arrived at Laurel Canyon separately. Stills as part of Buffalo Springfield, Crosby thanks to the Byrds, and English-born Nash with girlfriend Joni Mitchell, after becoming disillusioned with the mainstream sound of his former band The Hollies.
Crosby and Stills, like the dozens of other talented young musicians in the Canyon, had almost certainly jammed together before, but it was at a dinner party at Mama Cass’ when one of the greatest bands of the era was born.
Stephen Stills later remembered the moment.
“I always had a place in my heart for alley cats, and David was really funny,” he said. “We would scheme about a band, and one night at the Troubadour I saw Cass… and she said, ‘Would you like to have a third harmony?’ I said, ‘I’m not sure, it depends on the guy, the voice.’ So she said, ‘When David calls you to come over to my house with your guitar, don’t ask, just do it.’ I knew that the queen bee had something up her sleeve, and sure enough, David calls me and says, ‘Get your guitar and come to Cass’s house.’ I can see it now – the living room, the dining room, the pool, the kitchen – and we’re in the living room and there’s Graham Nash. Then Cass goes, ‘So sing.’ And we sang, ‘In the morning, when you rise…’”
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the coming together of Crosby, Stills & Nash (later joined by Stills’ old Buffalo Springfield partner Neil Young) was that – at that time, and in that place – it was not particularly extraordinary at all.
Everyone, it seemed, was either jamming with or sleeping with everyone else.
At Frank Zappa’s house a revolving parade of musicians, groupies, dropouts, stoners, and freaks meant that the party never really stopped, while in the calmer atmosphere of Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash’s home, the queen of American songwriting would write and share songs with anyone who happened to be around, something Nash later described as “a beautiful bubble of creativity and friendship and sex and drugs and music.”
Ultimately, however, in what can be seen as a metaphor for the hippie dream itself, Laurel Canyon was to become a victim of its own idealism. As the parties grew wilder, the drugs grew harder, and with them came a new, more disturbing kind of groupie. These girls bristled with intensity, had harder politics, and were in thrall to the leader of their so-called “family” – a failed musician and sometime Canyon hanger-on by the name of Charles Manson.
The Manson murders of August 1969 in nearby Benedict Canyon, in which six people, including the actress Sharon Tate, were slaughtered in their own homes over two nights, effectively signaled the end of the '60s and the beginning of the end of Laurel Canyon’s dream. Suddenly, the endless parties and open-door jamming sessions were over.
As Cass Elliot’s Mamas & the Papas bandmate Michelle Phillips remembered: “Before 1969, my memories were nothing but fun and excitement and shooting to the top of the charts and loving every minute of it. The Manson murders ruined the L.A. music scene. That was the nail in the coffin of the freewheeling, ‘Let’s get high, everybody’s welcome, come on in, sit right down.’ Everyone was terrified. I carried a gun in my purse. And I never invited anybody over to my house again.”
At the same time, the inevitable result of all that musical talent was to, ironically, destroy the very scene that had fostered it. As Geffen and Roberts made huge stars of their artists, the appeal of living in a crumbling, drafty shack surrounded by hangers-on began to fade, and gradually the scene’s biggest names drifted away to classier, more secure neighborhoods.
And yet, some magic lingered. In 1974, British drummer Mick Fleetwood rented a house in Laurel Canyon. Already familiar with the area thanks to his time in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, his own band, Fleetwood Mac, had by that time released no fewer than nine albums without ever breaking through to mainstream success. In the course of one meeting in that Canyon house, all that was to change: It was there, on New Years Eve, that he persuaded Americans Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks to join his band.
The following year, Fleetwood Mac’s tenth studio album – now infused with Buckingham and Nicks’ distinctly Laurel Canyon-esque folk-rock influence – was to become their first to reach Number One in the charts. Two years after that, their eleventh LP, Rumours, would smash records as one of the most successful albums of all time, selling over 40 million copies worldwide.
There were just 10 years between a teenage Chris Hillman arriving on Laurel Canyon Boulevard with a mandolin to meet what were to become The Byrds, and Mick Fleetwood welcoming Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks into his Laurel Canyon home to join Fleetwood Mac. Ten years and barely a single mile between the start of one musical collaboration and the start of another. Ten years that transformed a quiet backwater of Los Angeles into one of the most important neighborhoods in modern cultural history.