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Still dreamin'

Fifty years since its California sound took over the airwaves, Laurel Canyon, LA’s mythic rock ’n’ roll neighbourhood, is inspiring a whole new generation of musicians. But, asks Mike MacEacheran, is it still the craziest place in America?

  • Still dreamin'
  • Still dreamin'
  • Still dreamin'
  • Still dreamin'
  • Still dreamin'
  • Still dreamin'
  • Still dreamin'
  • Still dreamin'
  • Still dreamin'

Text by Mike MacEacheran Photography⁄Tim E White

When singer-songwriter Glenn Frey came to Los Angeles from Detroit in the late 1960s, the first person he met was a cherub-faced man sitting on the steps of the Canyon Country Store in Laurel Canyon. The twenty-something was none other than David Crosby, of The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young fame, wearing the same cowboy hat and green leather bat cape as on the cover of the second Byrds album. It seemed, Frey later told Rolling Stone, like an omen. He remembers that moment, taken by the canyon’s laid-back, freewheeling vibe, as the inspiration for him to start his own band. We know them now as The Eagles. 

In any other place, a chance encounter between two of the biggest names in music would seem out of the ordinary, but in the 1960s in Laurel Canyon this was an everyday occurrence. The magical hillside hang-out was home to most of LA’s new generation of rock stars. Jim Morrison, Jackson Browne, Mama Cass, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa, Carole King… practically every hippy to pick up a guitar could at one time be found up in the canyon, sporting bell-bottom denims and plaited headbands.  

Even if you’ve never been there, Laurel Canyon has affected you. Magic-hour records by Canyoners, such as California Dreamin’, Mr Tambourine Man and Big Yellow Taxi, have soundtracked a million lazy summer afternoons. The floaty hairstyles, peek-a-boo lace dresses and printed floral shirts on show at Coachella or Glastonbury every summer are testament to its enduring influence on pop culture.  

Fifty years on and the Canyon’s history has become especially relevant, thanks to a new wave of artists who have picked up its sound. Fleet Foxes, My Morning Jacket, Conor Oberst and the Avett Brothers are among those rocking the alt-country stylings of its early days, while local LA heroes Dawes, Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Wilson are now putting the city’s folk-rock scene back on the music map.  

Driving into the Canyon from West Hollywood, it’s hard to imagine these windy roads and woodsy houses were the backdrop for some of the most melodic, atmospheric, and subtly political American popular music ever made. Yet Michael Walker, author of the counterculture movement’s definitive history, Laurel Canyon:  The Inside Story of Rock-And-Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood, calls it the most energised place in American rock ’n’ roll. In the midst of one of America’s most urbanised, »   uncompromising environments, he explains, it was once an unlikely anomaly: cheap, secluded from the law, yet just off the Sunset Strip, with great places to play live and better recording studios nearby. All the elements were there for a creative revolution, and Laurel Canyon was the catalyst.  

“For a little window of time – from 1966-69 – Laurel Canyon was the centre of the musical universe,” says Walker, as I join him on a tour of the area. “You had these creative, wilful people who were only 23 or 24, but they were living beyond the rules of the 1950s. It must have been incredibly liberating. San Francisco takes the credit for the Summer of Love, but it all started in Laurel Canyon.” 

Today the Canyon seems like a regular LA suburb. Yucca palms with laden branches hang over the main boulevard and minor roads funnel upwards past prime real estate towards the even glitzier Mulholland Drive. On the way, there are dream-like houses on stilts overlooking the Hollywood Hills. Gardeners mow lawns in gardens buzzing with insect life, school children race off to Wonderland Elementary and old-timers catch up on porches over coffee.  

With Walker’s help, however, its musical past comes to life once more. He takes me to the corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Lookout Mountain, where Frank Zappa once partied with groupies – as well as Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger – at his Wizard of Oz-like wood cabin. Today it’s a forlorn wonderland of forgotten caves, dried-up waterfalls and boarded windows, yet once it was the most happening place in America. Fans travelled from Europe to be invited to parties inside.  

 “You’d see Stephen Stills walking down the street, or Jackson Browne playing piano in his garden,” says Walker, listing off other famous residents who hung out in the neighbourhood. “They all lived in each other’s orbits.”  Farther up the Canyon, on Woodrow Wilson Drive, Walker points to where Mama Cass Elliot from The Mamas & Papas bought a ramshackle house. As photos from the late-1960s show, she  created the ultimate bohemian enclave here, decorating with robed curtains and exotic cushions, and instilling an open-door vibe that drew a constant stream of flower-power followers and neighbours. 

That group included The Monkees’ Mickey Dolenz, who lived on Lookout Mountain, and Ridpath Drive residents The Eagles and Jackson Browne. In those days, David Crosby – yes, him again – was notorious after parties for cruising the Boulevard, his cape flying in the wind, riding a Triumph motorcycle given to him by Peter Fonda.  

Now the rock stars have gone, and the mansions and villas have been taken over by business moguls and movie producers taking advantage of the Canyon’s proximity to Hollywood and Studio City. Only a few stragglers who come to drink coffee, hang out, and smoke are left, according to Walker. Even for diehard pop pilgrims, there are few clues as to how the Canyon created such an incredible swathe of popular culture in the 1960s.  

In fact, for those with an eye on rock history, the lack of landmarks is probably just as well. Around 1969, the rose-tinted sunglasses came off in a spectacular backlash. Canyon fixture Neil Young was the first to puncture the dream in his song »  Revolution Blues. “I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars,” he sings, “but I hate them worse than lepers, and I’ll kill them in their cars.” Eventually a wave of eclectic misfits and groupies arrived, the drugs dealers moved in and the notorious Manson Family carried out a series of grisly murders, killing the hippy ideal overnight. After that, people started to lock their doors. 

Nowadays, there’s just one place where the spirit of ‘66 lives on. Canyon Country Store is the neighbourhood’s makeshift cultural centre, and a store Jim Morrison once described as the place “where the creatures meet”. Today, old hippies come to find the 1960s they left behind, others intrigued by a weird nostalgia for a life they never lived.  

One of the latter is Angélie Buddie Guilbaud, a wistful twenty-something who’s says that, despite growing up here and now working in the store, she’s still in awe of the 1960s’ pop ethos. “I grew up chasing fairies,” she says. “I lived up on Wonderland Avenue and all my friends’ parents were in bands.” Frank Zappa chose her middle name. 

It’s said that as long as the Canyon Country Store stays open, the spirit of peace, love and understanding will survive in the Canyon, and this is the spot on our tour where it’s still possible to feel that this was once the epicentre of counterculture. We’re surrounded by girls wearing love-bead strings and Indian bracelets, while men sport fuzzy, woodsman beards, their faces framed by hairstyles that could easily have fitted a Byrd or an Eagle 50 years ago. 

This is where the old guard came to pay their respects when Glenn Frey sadly died earlier this year, bringing the good times back for many. But while the Canyon sound has been passed on to a new generation, there’s only an echo here in the Canyon of the creative powerhouse that once was. 

“The new generation will never have what these young musicians had,” says Walker, looking across the misty hills. “There was once peace and liberation here – and Laurel Canyon had hope, at least for a while. It’s a place that could have lived forever.”

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