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How Laurel Canyon Became Rock Star Central In The 1960s And '70s

Music | January 30, 2019


'The Hollywood Vampires' (L-R -- John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Alice Cooper and Micky Dolenz) and Anne Murray celebrate an early Thanksgiving at the Troubadour on November 21, 1973 in Los Angeles (Photo by Richard Creamer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

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.

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

Jackson Browne in 1977. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

Graham Nash in 1976. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“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

Jim Morrison in 1969. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

David Crosby in 1976. Source: flickr.com/photos/dgans

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

Crosby, Stills & Nash in 1974. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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. 

Mama Cass Never Cleaned Her House

The Mamas & The Papas in 1967. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.

Glenn Frey Hosted Poker Games During Monday Night Football

Glenn Frey and Don Henley of the Eagles. Source: Showtime

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

Frank Zappa in 1973. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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. 

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

Exterior of the Troubador. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

John Lennon on the Tomorrow Show, 1975. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

The Monkees, 1967. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.”

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.

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Cass Elliot | Crosby Stills and Nash | David Crosby | Graham Nash | Jackson Browne | Jim Morrison | Joni Mitchell | Laurel Canyon | Los Angeles CA | Music In The 1960s | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Sunset Strip | The Doors | The Eagles | The Monkees

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.