Sunday, March 25, 2007

Book review: "Hotel California" by Barney Hoskyns

I just finished reading Hotel California: The True-life Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, the Eagles, and Their Many Friends, (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2006), by British music critic and writer Barney Hoskyns. And I mean I just finished it, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes ago. And I have to recommend it to anyone with any interest in the Los Angeles folk/country rock/singer-songwriter movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.

This is a very good book. It’s quite gossipy, and no one here comes out looking like an angel. However, it also looks at this group of musicians, most of whom lived in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon for at least part of the period covered, and the various managers, producers, record executives, and hangers-on surrounding them, in a comprehensive and appreciative manner. Hoskyns talked to just about everyone involved (the list of those he interviewed runs to nearly a solid page) and relied on interviews by others of those who were inaccessible or not interested in talking. From the looks of the list, which appears in the preface, almost everyone who was still alive at the time was willing to talk.

The amazing thing…the most amazing, I should say, because there were a few amazing things here…to me was the sheer amount of cross-fertilization there was during the time covered, musically speaking. (There were other forms of cross-fertilization - and a lot of it - going on as well, but that is in the realm of that gossip I wrote about, above). At some point, it seems, everyone worked with everyone, even if they didn’t exactly get along that well all the time. I grew up during that time, listening to some of that music, and I knew about some of the collaborations that took place, but I had no idea of the extent of it. For a little while, it was a real community, making a lot of very good music.

One of the things I like best about Hoskyns’s book is that it doesn’t just cover the headliners. All the folks you’ve heard of and whose music you know are in here…CSNY, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Jackson Browne. But so are the ones you might have heard of but whose music you might not know, or might not know you know…Gram Parsons, J. D. Souther, Chris Hillman, Van Dyke Parks, and a host of others. There are guest appearances by none other than Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and a few others. And there are the ones who you’ve probably never heard of but who were, according to the information here, integral members of the community. They all have to be here, to make the story complete.

There were even things I could connect to personally in the book. When I attended the March 25, 1973 performance of Neil Young’s Time Fades Away tour at the Fourm in Inglewood (34 years ago tonight, as I write this, I just now realized) I had no idea of the drama that had accompanied the tour. That is covered briefly here, and made me sit up and take notice as a place where my own experience crossed, however briefly and on the surface, with the events of the book. It was a hell of a show, by the way, with Linda Ronstadt as the opening act and guest appearances by David Crosby and Graham Nash. I’ll forever remember the idiot in the audience shouting out a request at one point between songs. Young’s answer: “It’s my concert, and I’ll sing whatever I damn well please.” The audience, myself included, cheered the answer.

The book is bittersweet, especially as Hoskyns covers the casualties of the period, writing about the ones who didn’t survive the excesses of the era. But it is also heartening to realize that the relationships that seemed at times during that era to be irretrievably broken, didn’t really mean the end of the music that some of those folks made together. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, who certainly had their ups and downs both individually and in terms of their interpersonal relationships, have toured as recently as last year. The same with the Eagles.

At the end of the book, there is some coverage of how the music industry has changed since the time covered here. That got me to thinking. At that time, if an artist didn’t hit right away, their label might well stick with them, let their music mature into something that could be really successful. Today, on the other hand, the industry is just that: a corporate enterprise that only considers the bottom line and has to issue a profits statement every quarter. It is an environment where there are very few second chances, and where what gets heard is not necessarily what is good but simply what makes money, even though it might only make money because millions of prepubescent girls buy the music because, as in the case of the boy bands, the singers are “cute”. Well, even back in the 60s and 70s, not everything that was good got heard and being “cute” definitely helped a singer or group get heard. But the very good point is made that in the singer-songwriter era there was still some room for conscience in the industry; it doesn’t seem to be the case much now.

At the very least, Hotel California is a good enough book that I’ve already got an earlier Hoskins book, Waiting for the Sun: Strange Days, Weird Scenes, and the Sound of Los Angeles, which takes a wider look at the L.A. music scene, already on request at the library.

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