Saturday, April 19, 2008

Michael Walker’s April 2008 Playlist:

April 9, 2008, 10:48 am
Living With Music:
A Playlist by Michael Walker
Michael Walker (Hilary De Vries)
On Wednesdays, this blog is the delivery vehicle for “Living With Music,” a playlist of songs from a writer or some other kind of book-world personage.

This week: Michael Walker, author of “Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood.”

Michael Walker’s April 2008 Playlist:

Each song was either written in or about Laurel Canyon, or the performer lived there.

1) Our House, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell were in the thick of their affair and living together in Mitchell’s Laurel Canyon cottage when Nash wrote what would become the counterculture’s ode to domestic bliss. He and Mitchell had just returned from breakfast and a stop at an antiques store where she bought the song’s storied vase. “It was one of those L.A. mornings that are gray and not-quite-rainy,” Nash told me, “I said to her, ‘Y’know, why don’t you put some flowers in the vase and I’ll light a fire.’ And I started to think: here we are, Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash, and 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.”

2) Ladies of the Canyon, Joni Mitchell. The title song of Mitchell’s breakthrough 1970 album essayed with bemused affection the women passing through her Laurel Canyon cottage (which she still owns). What some may not realize is that those are real-life ladies populating the song. “I was the Trina who ’sewed lace on widows weeds,’” Trina Robbins, now a San Francisco-based comics writer and artist, wrote to me after “Laurel Canyon” was published. “The coat that was a ’second-hand one’ was a three-quarter length skunk coat from the 1940s, which, with its big shoulder pads, was as wide as it was long. I made clothes for people like David Crosby, Donovan and especially Cass Elliot, because she couldn’t find anything decent in her size.” Gary Burden, who designed the covers of the first Crosby Stills & Nash album and Mitchell’s “Blue,” told me the Annie in the song (”Annie sits you down to eat…”) is his wife.

3) Laurel Canyon Home, John Mayall. John Mayall bunked with Frank Zappa at the latter’s Laurel Canyon log cabin in 1968 and became so besotted with canyon he wrote a song-cycle about it. Centerpiece of the “Blues from Laurel Canyon” album, “Laurel Canyon Home” captures the canyon’s sleepy inertia perfectly (”got the sun and trees and silence / I’m in my Laurel Canyon home”). Mayall moved into his own Laurel Canyon home thereafter; the house was destroyed in a 1979 wildfire but Mayall rebuilt and hung on until the mid-90s before moving to the San Fernando Valley, the last of the canyon’s 1960s music fraternity to leave. On the same album, Mayall recalls the frantic scene at the Zappa household on “2401” (the Zappas lived at 2401 Laurel Canyon Boulevard) which was overrun day and night with members of the Mothers of Invention and half the freak population of L.A. Mayall’s lyrics name-check Zappa’s wife, Gail, and infant daughter Moon, as well as members of the GTO’s groupie clique and a gun-toting intruder identified as “The Raven.” (Zappa artfully talked him out of his gun - and the house - and moved soon thereafter.)

4) Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon), the Mamas and the Papas. John Phillips started writing “12:30” when he was a folksinger living in New York. Joining forces with folkie veterans Denny Doherty, Phillips and his second wife, Michelle, moved to L.A. and, with Cass Elliot, coalesced as the Mamas and the Papas around a string of landmark hit singles in the mid-’60s, including “California Dreamin’” and “Monday, Monday.” The band installed themselves in houses in Laurel Canyon; Elliot’s would become the canyon’s de facto salon (see “You Don’t Have to Cry,” below). Plagued by internecine rivalries, infidelities and drug debilitation, the group was close to disbanding when “12:30″ - their last hit - was released in 1968. A combination of the song Phillips started in New York and another begun after he’d moved to the canyon, it opens with Phillips lamenting that New York was “dark and dirty,” the view outside his window a church clock with hands stuck at 12:30. When the song moves to Laurel Canyon for the chorus the tempo picks up, the harmonies soar and Phillips exults at the now much-improved view: the “young girls” of the title - proto groupies looking for rock stars - such that he “can longer keep my blinds drawn.” California dreamin’ indeed.

5) Love Street, the Doors. Among Jim Morrison’s many temporary Los Angeles domiciles was an apartment in a house catty-corner from the Laurel Canyon Country store on Rothdell Trail. From this perch, when not sparring with long-suffering girlfriend Pamela Courson or sleeping off one his epic benders, Morrison could watch customers drift in and out of the store in their hippie splendor. It is an article of faith among canyonites that the line in the song “there’s a store where the creatures meet” refers to the Canyon Store and its clientele. (But then, who wouldn’t want to be immortalized in a Doors song?) During the ’90s, when the house was derelict, somebody spray-painted “MR. MOJO RISIN’” across the front; a subsequent owner installed a three-story totem pole with carved likenesses of Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

6) You Don’t Have to Cry, Crosby, Stills & Nash. Graham Nash always maintained that he, Stephen Stills and David Crosby first sang together in Joni Mitchell’s Laurel Canyon cottage; Stills just as adamantly insists it was at Cass Elliot’s. The casual evidence seems to support Stills. Elliot was renowned on the L.A. music scene as a hippie yenta, and her house on Woodrow Wilson Drive was everyone’s second home and salon in the carefree, pre-Manson days. There was a pool, privacy and plenty of good food and dope to share in a scene rapidly fragmenting as people’s records and careers came in. When Elliot found out that Crosby and Stills were busking around the canyon with new songs and desultory plans to form a group, she dragooned Nash, in L.A. on tour with the Hollies, to the Woodrow Wilson house, where Stills and Crosby sang for Nash “You Don’t Have to Cry.” Nash asked for them to sing it twice more then laid in his harmony. The rest, as they say, is history. “When David and Stephen and I were halfway through ‘You Don’t Have to Cry,”’ Nash told me, “all of a sudden we realized we’d have to be a band.” Elliot’s clairvoyance still amazes Nash. “What an incredible thing first of all to envision and secondly to pull it off. She knew what we had to do - but how do you know that when we haven’t even sung together?”

7) Seven & Seven Is, Love. Written and sung the world-class eccentric Arthur Lee, this blistering piece of proto punk rock and psychedelia from one of L.A.’s most inventive bands served notice of the creative fire burning through the canyon in the mid-’60s. To say Love was groundbreaking would be extreme understatement, including where their leader chose to lay his tinted granny glasses - Lee, who died in 2006, always claimed he was the first of the ’60s musicians to move to the canyon. He also recommended the Doors to Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman; Jimi Hendrix may have copped from him his groovy Regency look; and years later, the many incarnations of Prince are a testament to Love’s racially integrated lineup and Lee’s inscrutable charisma onstage and off. Lee’s former house at the very top of the canyon is still pretty much as it was in the ’60s; several scenes in the Jack Nicholson-scripted 1967 counterculture-exploitation classic “The Trip” were shot there - look for an indoor-outdoor swimming pool spanned by a bridge.

8) Cocaine, Jackson Browne. As the 1960s bled into the 1970s and cocaine supplanted pot and acid as the drug of choice across the L.A. music scene, a wave of canyon-based singer-songwriters became superstars singing about romantic succor and earnest introspection. Among them was Jackson Browne - who a few years before was billeted in a music publisher’s laundry room in the canyon. He and future Eagle Glenn Frey wrote this adaptation of Rev. Gary Davis’s folk-blues standard, rendered as a woozy field recording punctuated by loud snuffles and sniggers on Browne’s 1977 “Running on Empty” album. The 1970s coke blizzard killed off whatever was left of Laurel Canyon’s 1960s atmospherics; Browne later sharpened the cautionary notes sounded in his and Frey’s version of “Cocaine” with the lyric: “There was damage to the body, there was damage to the soul, there was damage to the rock and roll.”

9) Mr. Tambourine Man, the Byrds. The folk-rock explosion that put L.A. and Laurel Canyon at the epicenter of the post-Beatles youthquake starts here, in 1965, with the Byrds’ jingle-jangling adaptation of Bob Dylan. “Mr. Tambourine Man” was a worldwide No. 1 smash and catapulted the fledgling Byrds into superstardom, along with Beach Boys the first American band to seriously challenge the primacy of the Beatles, whom both wound end up influencing. Chris Hillman, along with Byrds founding member Roger McGuinn, moved to a house in the canyon just as it was starting to fly its freak flag high. The Byrds’ ethereal harmonies captured the Edenesque feel of the place perfectly and evoked the eucalyptus- and marijuana-scented hills where David Crosby would thunder down Laurel Canyon Boulevard on a Triumph motorcycle with a cape flapping from his neck - “Lawrence of Laurel Canyon,” sneered the Byrds’ manager, Jim Dickson. “Laurel Canyon was sort of the mecca,” Hillman said. “It was quite the place to be.”

10) Laurel Canyon, Jackie DeShannon. The fingerprints of the gloriously prolific singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon - she wrote songs with Jimmy Page! she toured with the Beatles! - could be found all over the music coming out of the canyon, first in the folk-rock era (the Byrds covered her “Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe”) and later, in the glossy pop-country-whatever L.A. sound of the ’70s, prefigured in her 1969 smash “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” “Laurel Canyon,” DeShannon’s mash note to the canyon from the 1968 album of the same name, hints at the soulful country-funk about to explode via Eric Clapton’s collaboration with Delaney & Bonnie and includes couplets like “shades of Camelot / giving all I’ve got to Laurel Canyon.” (The album cover was shot on the Canyon Country Store’s steps.)

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