Legends of Laurel Canyon

LA’s Laurel Canyon music scene has been well-documented through various books and movies. Laurel Canyon was where Miss Pamala found her super-groupie training wheels trying to shag Byrd Chris Hillman. Every LA music history has a chapter (or more) devoted to the goings on in this ‘Eden above Sunset.” This now almost-mythic place was where Frank Zappa regularly provided a place to crash. David Geffen was getting knotted up with business before becoming a Free Man in Paris (and a billionaire in the process).

Canyon of Dreams by Harvey Kubernick is the best book on this topic. Kubernic provides well-researched context (and photographs) for how and why the Canyon developed into the So Cal hippie epicenter it became. From the red cars to beatniks, to the pothead hippies, and then the mainstream – it is quite a story. One that is distinctly LA. All are captured quite well in Dreams.

Haight Ashby had the Dead, and LA had the Monkees. SF had Janis and Grace Slick, and LA had Mama Cass and Van Dyke Parks. Major contrasts. Laurel Canyon Joni Mitchell’s house had “two cats in the yard.” Graham Nash met Crosby and Stills for the first time. John Lennon walked around with a Kotex on his head. It was all happening in Laurel Canyon, at least for a time.

It would have been great to have burned a few doobies with some musicians who had to “work” down the hill at the Roxy or Troubadour – ending the evening at Barney’s Beanery. It was quite a scene, and before everyone got spooked by the Manson family, the Canyon was a bit of nirvana where hitchhikers could get a ride, and the pot was everywhere. Music was everywhere. This was before the coked-out success-excess-ed-stressed artists became robotic hit-makers who made the break to calm down in Malibu (after detox).

Legends of the Canyon – a new DVD from Classic Artists, captures some of this time with a documentary featuring a narrative primarily by rock photographer Henry Diltz. Dlitz seemed to be at the center of it, snapping pictures of everyone en route to his over 80 album cover photos. He was there, is articulate, and has a perspective that isn’t overly hyperbolic. Diltz is the kind of hippie you wish was your neighbor today. Someone loaded with stories and whose brownies need consideration before ingestion.

Legends of the Canyon offers some unfamiliar vintage video footage along with photo montages of some more familiar pictures. The talking heads do a good job at the Canyon’s zeitgeist. The only problem is that the narrative focus gets a bit lost, and the film forgets it is about the Canyon, not just the history of Crosby, Still, Nash & Young.

Anyone who has read Michael Walker’s Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock-and-Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood or Barney Hoskyn’s Waiting for the Sun: A Rock and Roll History of Los Angeles knows there are a lot of great stories and details missing from this earnest documentary (a common problem with any documentary BTW). Almost all of what is it is interesting.

While not brilliant, Legends of the Canyon succeeds at conveying the magic at the Brill Building of the Southern California music scene, Laurel Canyon, which, fittingly for LA, was up in the mountains.

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