Saturday, December 04, 2010

Book Review: "Laurel Canyon", by Michael Walker

I’ve been trying for several days to write a review of Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood (Faber and Faber, 2006), by Michael Walker, but nothing I’ve written has been anything I’ve wanted to put out into cyberspace for all of you to read. I think I’ve finally figured out why this is so: I haven’t been able to decide whether I liked it or not.

I think I finally have the answer. I mostly liked it, but I think that Walker came to some conclusions about why the Laurel Canyon neighborhood went from singer/songwriter heaven to infamy of a sort that are glib but way too simplistic. Basically, he blames Charlie Manson and the switch in drugs of choice from marijuana and LSD to cocaine. And I’m sure that both those factors had something to do with why the area transformed from a hippie-nirvana party central that was essentially open to all comers to something else entirely. But there were other factors, as well, some of them sociopolitical, some cultural, and some personal, starting with the fact that many of the artists who lived in the area in the sixties and early seventies got ambitious, then got rich, and then moved out for higher-rent areas of Los Angeles, literally and figuratively.

This isn’t the first book I’ve read about Laurel Canyon and its central role in the Los Angeles music scene in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is a place that fascinates me, and not only because I’m a fan of so much of the music that came out of that time and place. I’m also interested in it because all that happened just 35 miles (less, after my family moved from Ventura County to L.A. County) from my doorstep, without my ever realizing it. I have always been attracted to the concept of how things of note can happen so close to a place I know and yet be completely unknown to me as they are happening. That is probably exacerbated by the fact that I grew up in Southern California, where lots of things of note, good and bad, seem to go on.

One of the things Walker does well in his book is to convey a sense of the geography of Laurel Canyon, probably because he lives there himself, and that it was, surprisingly, a neighborhood in the old-fashioned sense of the word, where pretty much everyone knew everyone and managed to remain on more or less friendly terms. In that place and at that time (late ‘60s/early ‘70s), the sometimes mythical idea that the creative and the famous know each other, hang out together, and are friends, wasn’t quite so much a myth. Walker tells stories such as the one about how David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Stephen Stills became Crosby, Stills and Nash because Cass Elliot brought them together because she knew them all from the Canyon.

That is the level at which I liked Walker’s book. He tells good, interesting stories that are reasonably accurate when compared with what I’ve read and heard elsewhere about the Canyon. I think my favorite story is the one about how Jim Morrison was horrible and rude (he was apparently already drunk) to a waitress at one of bars near the Canyon that was frequented by the area’s musical community. She had had enough, and came close to beating the crap out of him with her tray. She stopped herself from hitting him only because she saw what she described as “terror” in his eyes. He demanded that she be fired and she was. However, six months later she got a call from him at her new job. It turned out that he had been looking for her all that time to apologize to her for what he had done. She read him the riot act about the crap that he had been up to, and then, apparently, they became friends. Which makes a certain amount of sense in light of other things I’ve read about Morrison.

The thing that I don’t like so much about Walker’s book, though, is the way he tries to explain how those years of sex, peace, drugs, and rock and roll in Laurel Canyon fell apart. As I said, he blamed it - after a stop at a comparison between Woodstock and the Altamont Speedway free concert by the Rolling Stones and others (some of them residents of Laurel Canyon), and how those two events a few months and a continent apart symbolized the end of the sixties and the beginning of a more violent and cynical time - on the murders ordered by Charlie Manson and on the change in the drug of choice among those in the music industry, which introduced the cocaine trade into the Canyon, culminating in bloody and violent murder on Wonderland Avenue in the Canyon (which event itself has been chronicled on film).

I’m sure that those factors had an effect on the changes that came to Laurel Canyon. I know, for example, that the level of paranoia in the wake of the murders of Sharon Tate and others by Charlie Manson’s followers went way up in Southern California. It did in my neighborhood, only a few miles from the Spahn Ranch, where Charlie and his minions were living at the time of the murders. Considering the fact that Charlie was at some of those parties in Laurel Canyon as part of his efforts to secure a recording contract, I can imagine that the revelation of who had committed the murders ratcheted tensions up there, as well, as it became harder to know who to trust and who to be suspicious of.

I leave it to you to decide whether Laurel Canyon is worth a read. If you are at all interested in the Los Angeles music scene in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I would recommend it as worth the time it took to read the book. If you are looking for a sociological analysis of that time and place, the book is probably not as valuable. While Walker makes a bit of a point of the fact that he lives in Laurel Canyon, he also admits that he didn’t move there until the early 1990s, long after most of the events in the book took place.

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