30 Vintage Candid Photos of Rockstars Living in Laurel Canyon
By Sarah Norman | May 30, 2023
Mama Cass Never Cleaned Her House
This may not come as a surprise to anyone who believes that Mama Cass died from an overdose of a ham sandwich (that's a myth -- it was actually heart failure), but according to her Mamas and Papas bandmate Michelle Phillips, Cass kept her house downright filthy. Phillips described the very gross scene to Vanity Fair in 2015:
She never cleaned, never tidied up, never did the dishes, never made her bed. I remember going to her house in Stanley Hills before she moved to Woodrow Wilson. I got to her house and she wasn’t home, so I decided to jimmy the window and get in. You know those huge, giant, industrial-size jars of mayonnaise? She had dropped one on the floor and just left it there. I cleaned up her entire kitchen, her entire house; it took me, like, three and a half hours. I just kept cleaning until it was spotless. Then I walked out the door, closed it, and never said a word to her.
Success ruined Laurel Canyon
Michelle Phillips from the Mamas & the Papas explained that success made her feel like she should leave Laurel Canyon, which may have been a mistake. She said:
John [Phillips] and I left Laurel Canyon and moved to Bel Air, three Rolls Royces in the garage. We were hippies, but we were rich hippies, there was no question about that. We’d been so innovative, but we had become the establishment.’
David Crosby and Joni Mitchell met on Lookout Mountain Avenue
One of the places in Laurel Canyon that you can still visit today is Lookout Mountain Avenue, the spot where Joni Mitchell and David Crosby first met while wandering around the area individually. As the years went on the two would work together, party together, and perform together. It's amazing that this historical spot is still standing.
Rivalries formed faster than many friendships
Elliot Roberts, Manager and Co-Founder of Asylum Records says that once money entered the equation songwriters stopped sharing their work with one another out of fear that they'd be scooped. He said:
As people became very, very successful the camaraderie changed. People started guarding their songs. You didn’t want to give up one of your melodies to somebody else.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, folk musicians, psychedelic rockers, country rockers, and pop groups trying to get a little edge flocked to Laurel Canyon. Rock stars, it seemed, had found their Shangri-La, an idyllic world where a group of disparate friends all grew together to become some of the best known artists of the 20th century. Artists like Joni Mitchell, The Eagles, The Monkees, and Crosby, Stills & Nash all lived within walking distance of one another and would routinely hang out and jam together into the wee hours of the morning. The Laurel Canyon rock star scene was, like the California sound many of them made famous, a mellow affair.
The canyon’s twisted, humpbacked roads, dense eucalyptus, and neighborhoods of hidden homes feels like a woodland, country town that’s a world away from Los Angeles, but it’s somehow only five minutes away from the Sunset Strip. That’s what made the area so charming to the bohemian artists of the Woodstock generation.
What is the Laurel Canyon sound?
To be quite literal, the Laurel Canyon sound is basically just The Beatles run through the prism of Americans living in the beautiful climate of southern California while trying to replicate their heroes. Director Andrew Slater surmised:
I think [it was] the California musicians trying to grab hold of the sound of the Beatles. It's like light goes through a prism and comes out something else. And I think that was what was happening here with California. I think Roger [McGuinn] sees ‘A Hard Day’s Night.’ He sees George Harrison playing the 12-string guitar. He electrifies folk music. He does a version of ‘Bells of Rhymney.’ George Harrison hears ‘Bells of Rhymney.’ He writes ‘If I Needed Someone.’ That goes on Rubber Soul. Brian Wilson hears Rubber Soul and he writes Pet Sounds and The Beatles hear Pet Sounds and they write Sgt. Pepper and that really is the echo of people's creativity bouncing between each other and then across to England.
Why Laurel Canyon?
There are a lot of fine places in Los Angeles for future rock stars to settle down, so why would these Beatles-inspired musicians pick Laurel Canyon. According to Jakob Dylan, son of eclectic singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, the area was equally close to the city while feeling kind of like San Francisco. He said:
It's the wilderness up here. It feels like Northern California, but you’re less than 10 minutes from anywhere, which is probably why it wouldn't have been downtown or the Valley. If you go up the hills here, you've got coyotes, you've got deer. So it gave them more of a homey-woodsy vibe than typical Los Angeles.
Everything started with The Byrds
Echo in the Canyon director Andrew Slater explains that when The Byrds started scoring hits on the radio everyone wanted to capture that west coast sound:
The Byrds had a hit song, and the music business shifted from New York to LA and people came here in search of that dream. In New York, the rigidity of the folk scene maybe never would have given birth to the electrification of folk music, but California represents a sense of freedom. And I think in that way, when Roger McGuinn [from The Byrds] picks up the Rickenbacker twelve-string and electrifies folk music and has a hit with that, it's the first time songs of poetic depth and grace become hit songs and inspires people to write differently. And it also inspires them to come to the place where that music is being made.
Mama Cass Routinely Held Picnics At Her House
In stories of the Laurel Canyon scene, Cass Elliot, a.k.a. Mama Cass of the Mamas and Papas, is lovingly described as the “Gertrude Stein” of this circle of singer-songwriters. She loved to have everyone over to her home to jam, shoot the breeze, and of course eat. During the heyday of the Mamas and Papas she told Rolling Stone:
My house is a very free house. It’s not a crash pad and people don’t come without calling. But on an afternoon, especially on weekends, I always get a lot of delicatessen food in because I know David [Crosby] is going to come over for a swim and things are going to happen.
One such get together was notable for featuring David Crosby (on a hunt for deli food), Joni Mitchell, Micky Dolenz of The Monkees, and Eric Clapton.
Jackson Browne Lived In A Basement Beneath Glenn Frey
While they were still up-and-coming singer songwriters, Glenn Frey and Jackson Browne were neighbors, and they lived so close to one another that one could hear the other working on new music. Browne described the scene as an “amazing tribal life.”
The legend goes that Frey was lying on his bed and listening to Browne write “Take It Easy” on his piano. Browne couldn’t crack the tune and gave up, but Frey needed him to finish the song so he popped down to Browne’s place and gave him the line “It's a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowin' down to take a look at me.” The song was then recorded by The Eagles and over the years has become a new American standard.
Graham Nash Wrote ‘Our House’ In A Tiny Home In Laurel Canyon
“Our house is a very, very, very fine house with two cats in the yard. Life used to be so hard. Now everything is easy 'cause of you.” The lyrics to “Our House” by Crosby, Stills & Nash might be the sweetest declaration of domesticity ever set to music and it was written in about 15 minutes in the house that Graham Nash shared with Joni Mitchell. But it almost didn’t come to be, because there were two songwriters in the house and only one piano. Nash said:
It was a small house and it was a thing of, who got to the piano first? She was in the middle of a record and was writing daily; and I was in the middle of a record with David and Stephen and I was writing daily. It just got to be crazy, y’know.
After going on a walk through the canyon and picking up some things for the house Nash got inspired and beat Mitchell to the piano. He said:
I thought, I love this woman, and this moment is a very grounded moment in our relationship. And I sat down at the piano and an hour later ‘Our House’ was done. It was kind of amazing.
Jim Morrison Lived Behind The Canyon Country Store
The Canyon Country Store was essentially the town square of Laurel Canyon. If you wanted to bump into to someone - be it a California beauty or David Crosby - all you had to do was pop down to the Canyon Country Store and hang out for a while, maybe have a glass of apple wine. If you walked to the back of the store you’d find a small, decrepit house that was rented out by various scenesters. For a time, Jim Morrison, the leather-clad singer of The Doors, lived in the house with his longtime girlfriend Pamela Courson.
According to local legend, he was inspired to write the lyrics, “I see you live on Love Street. There’s this store where the creatures meet,” from “Love Street” after watching various scene luminaries come and go.
The First Person Glenn Frey Saw In Laurel Canyon Was David Crosby
If you’re moving to Laurel Canyon in the ‘60s then you know that you’re in for a little weirdness, but Glenn Frey from The Eagles got an eyeful when he first stepped onto Love Street. Frey told Vanity Fair:
My very first day in California, I drove up La Cienega to Sunset Boulevard, 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. And the second day I was in California I met J.D. Souther.
Frey’s second day in California would be far more advantageous, as Souther would go on to pen the songs “Best of My Love,” “Heartache Tonight,” and “New Kid in Town” for The Eagles.
Everyone Thinks They Introduced Crosby, Stills & Nash
When looking into the stories of Laurel Canyon in the ‘60s there are two things that are apparent: everyone was high, and everyone thinks it was their idea to get Crosby, Stills & Nash together. In 1967 David Crosby was producing Joni Mitchell’s first album, and Stephen Stills was hanging around quite a bit, as was Graham Nash, so the guys could have gotten together any time, however a few key people are pretty sure that they made the magic happen.
Joni Mitchell told Vanity Fair:
I had met Graham Nash in Ottawa and then re-met him in California. David was producing my first album, and all these people were here. . . . I do believe I introduced them at my house; that’s where Crosby, Stills & Nash was born.
Stephen Stills says that it was actually Mama Cass who put the group together. He says that he ran into her one night at the Troubadour and she told him “When David [Crosby] calls you to come over to my house with your guitar, don’t ask—just do it.” Well, the call came and he popped over to Cass’s house. He continued, “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…’”
What does Graham Nash have to say? “Stephen’s completely out of his mind. I remember it clearly and so does David. It was not at Mama Cass’s. We did sing at Cass’s. But not the very first time.” Well that clears things up.
Glenn Frey Hosted Poker Games During Monday Night Football
Laurel Canyon wasn’t just singer-songwriters wearing flannel and singing about eucalyptus --when The Eagles started to take off, Glenn Frey started up a weekly poker game that coincided with Monday Night Football, and one of the attendees will definitely shock you. Frey explained:
In 1974, I moved to a place at the corner of Ridpath and Kirkwood in Laurel Canyon, and we had poker games every Monday night during football season. Notorious card games. Joni Mitchell got wind of those card games, and she always was a good hang, so she started coming every Monday night and playing cards with us. We’d watch football from six to nine and then play cards until the wee hours. They called our house the Kirkwood casino.
Alice Cooper Auditioned For Frank Zappa At 7AM
The Mother of Invention himself lived high up in Laurel Canyon, and while he was there he ran his label, Straight, and worked on his own freaky music while producing acts like Captain Beefheart and GTO. It was at this home where he would catch an Alice Cooper performance before he even had his coffee.
Vincent Furnier and his band Alice Cooper had been in LA since 1967 and they weren’t gaining any traction. But in 1969, future manager Shep Gordon saw the band clear a room within their first song and he knew there was something there. Gordon set up an audition for the band with Frank Zappa for seven o’clock - 7 P.M.
Early is on time for Alice Cooper
As the story goes, Furnier, the frontman, and his band showed up at 7 A.M. instead, and rather than kick them to the curb Zappa brought them in to see what they were all about. That same year Zappa released Alice Cooper’s debut album, Pretties For You. It would still be years before the band had a major hit on their hands, but they were on their way. In 1975, Furnier would officially change his name to Alice Cooper.
You Could Find Everyone Hanging At The Troubadour
If you walked down to the Canyon Country Store and couldn’t find anyone hanging out, there’s a good chance all you needed to do was head down to Sunset and stick your nose into the Troubadour. Anyone who was anyone hung out at this longstanding club, drinking and jamming until last call. Photographer and musician Henry Diltz explained:
It was like the clubhouse. It was a place you would go and all your friends would be there. You knew all the groups that were playing, you had affairs with the waitresses, and Harry Dean Stanton would be sitting at the bar.
Artists like Joni Mitchell and Elton John performed multi-night runs at the venue, and The Eagles tightened their act playing as backing band for Linda Ronstadt.
John Lennon’s Lost Weekend
With artists like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Jim Morrison in the neighborhood, it didn’t take long for Laurel Canyon to become the epicenter of the music world. Its pull was so heavy that even luminaries like John Lennon found themselves hanging around and causing trouble. Lennon especially got loose in Laurel Canyon, and spent much of his time with fellow songwriting troublemaker Harry Nilsson.
In 1974 John Lennon’s “lost weekend” was catalogued in the pages of the Guardian, and over the course of those two days Lennon allegedly trolled through Laurel Canyon and the surrounding bars with a lady’s sanitary pad tied around his head while he verbally abused artists like the Smothers Brothers. According to the paper Lennon taunted the group during a performance at the Troubadour while the audience told him to shut up.
Lennon took a swing at the Smothers Brothers manager, Ken Fritz, missed and took a lump to the head. Then he threw a glass at Fritz but hit a waitress instead. Lennon was then thrown out of the bar while Nilsson watched. The Guardian ends its write up of the events with the qualifier: “Apparently both men had been drinking quite a bit.”
Everyone Loved Partying With The Monkees
Even though they’re remembered as a TV band, The Monkees were actually an integral part of the Laurel Canyon scene (and they have no less than five excellent tunes). During the band’s meteoric rise, Peter Tork lived with Stephen Stills of CSN, near the home where Monkees drummer Mickey Dolenz lived. Both pads were full-on party houses throughout the height of their fame. According to Dolenz’s ex-wife, a party with Peter Tork meant that everyone was naked, especially Tork.
Dolenz told ABC that parties at his place would start out on a Friday night “as a little cocktail party with some food and then on Monday morning people would still be walking around naked and falling into the pool.”
You never knew when Brian Wilson was going to show up
Even though they weren’t the coolest band, rock luminaries were still lining up to hang with the guys. While chatting with ABC, Dolenz recalled that one day he received a phone call where someone said, “Brian Wilson’s coming over.” Keep in mind that this was in the period of time when Wilson wasn’t leaving his house. Dolenz continued:
Sure enough a limo pulls up and Brian gets out with his bathrobe still on and his flip flops and comes in and sits in my little recording studio with John (Lennon) and Harry (Nillson) and a bunch of people and he started playing this Beach Boy lick kind of thing.
Dolenz says that Wilson recorded the whole session, although he’s yet to release the tapes.
Captain Beefheart used his nose as a flute
According to Moon Unite Zappa (Frank's daughter):
I have a nose ring because I was so inspired by Captain Beefheart. [He] came to the house and he had drilled a hole in his nose with a pencil. But he had made his nose into a flute. I was amazed by that.
Free love was definitely a thing in the Canyon
Michelle Phillips, who was married to Mamas and Papas bandmate John Phillips during their heyday, says that for many in the Laurel Canyon area it wasn't really a big deal to sleep with someone outside of your relationship:
I was raised in a very free atmosphere. To me, having an affair was not as serious as it was for the rest of them. The first night we got together, we had all been sitting at the table, and John and Cass’, we looked over, and they were asleep. And that’s when Denny got up and went over to the sliding glass door and off we went. And that’s when he [John Phillips] wrote ‘Go Where You Want to Go.
The Country Store was where Laurel Canyon came together
Everybody's got to eat, including rock stars. For those folks who lived in Laurel Canyon the one place to pick up groceries, share ideas, or just grab a drink (or all three) was the Canyon Country store. The patio to the store was the site of many of a jam session for those living in the neighborhood, and it was also the unfortunate place where Jim Morrison and his girlfriend Pamela Courson's insane knock down drag out fights.
Laurel Canyon was super cheap too
According to Mark Volman from the Turtles:
You didn’t move [to Laurel Canyon] because you were wealthy. You moved there because it was right in the middle of town. It was really cheap to live.
Glen Frey felt that the Canyon was 'magical'
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.
It was all about hanging with like-minded individuals
For Jackson Browne, the draw of living in Laurel Canyon wasn't the nature or the parties, it was being around other songwriters all working on their craft. He said:
I was writing songs and playing open mic night at the Troubadour. That was a fun hang too because you’d wind up waiting around for about four hours with a bunch of songwriters on the street, waiting for this window to open. I made a lot of friends there.
Don Henley treated the scene like rock 'n' roll school
For Henley, the Laurel Canyon scene wasn't just hanging out at the store and the Troubadour in between gigs. He soaked up all the information he could in order to better his songwriting. He explained:
It was great scene because a lot of people trying to write songs and trying to make records were very supportive of one another. Jackson Browne was a mentor to all of us because he had broken through first and we all aspired to what he was, to write like that, and have that kind of insight.
Neil Young left the scene because he found it stifling
Neil Young got out of Laurel Canyon and Buffalo Springfield at the same because the area was getting too claustrophobic. He said:
Well, we didn’t achieve anywhere near the success that we expected or wished to. It’s hard enough to live with yourself when you consider what you’ve done a failure. Living with four other guys is even harder.
Laurel Canyon wasn't a place, it was a time
Jackson Brown puts it best with this simple quote:
Places become a focal point for breaking out of convention. What was happening in Laurel Canyon was the universe cracking open and revealing its secrets. It was just about a time, a creative awakening.