Rock star David Crosby likens it to Paris in the 1930s, or even the Italian Renaissance.
The creative flowering that grew out of the Laurel Canyon section of Los Angeles in the 1960s produced some of the greatest music of that or any other era, changing the culture and the lives of some of rock & roll’s most gifted talents.
“We used to call it Oz,” remembers Johnny Echols of the band Love.
“It’s little rabbit runs,” Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas tells Deadline of the neighborhood that threads through the Hollywood Hills. “Everyone was very accessible. All you had to do was walk down the street and you were at somebody’s house and they had a guitar or a piano. It was very communal.”
Members of The Mamas and the Papas, Love, The Byrds, The Doors, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Monkees, The Eagles—at one point or another they all called the canyon home, as did Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa, Linda Ronstadt and other emerging greats. Many of the musicians who survive share their memories of that time and place in the two-part Epix documentary Laurel Canyon. The film, directed by Alison Ellwood, is contending for Emmy recognition as Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special.
There were practical reasons that drew so many aspiring young recording artists to Laurel Canyon, Ellwood explains.
“It was cheap, which it certainly is no longer. It’s opposite of that,” Ellwood notes. “It was right up the street from all the clubs that they were playing at every night. And it was like living in the country.”
Michelle Phillips lived for a time on Lookout Mountain Ave. Not far away lived bandmate Cass Elliot, who became a social magnet with an open door policy at her house.
“Someone would bring a couple bottles of wine and someone would bring maybe some pot,” Phillips laughs, “and they’d sit around all afternoon playing and basically rehearsing for their next album…[Cass] was very close to David Crosby. She put together Crosby, Stills and Nash. She said, ‘You guys really ought to sing together. You sound great together!’”
The Laurel Canyon scene really took off after The Byrds released their 1965 folk-rock single “Tambourine Man,” written by Bob Dylan.
“All of a sudden every label was looking for that new sound that these folk people were making,” Phillips says. “It was selling.”
“People saw the success of that and heard that this was happening in Southern California and people were tired of cold East Coast winters,” Ellwood comments. “The record industry was blossoming in Los Angeles.”
No single musical style characterized the Laurel Canyon scene. The cross-pollination helped bands and solo artists alike plumb greater depths. Inevitably, romantic attachments formed between some of the denizens of the canyon, including Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell. Nash wrote his classic 1970 song “Our House” about his relationship with the Canadian singer-songwriter.
“In the Laurel Canyon scene,” Nash recalls in the documentary, “we were in the very center of this beautiful bubble of creativity and friendship and sunshine and sex and drugs and music.”
The beautiful bubble would almost burst as the ’60s closed with two shattering events—the Manson murders and the chaos and death at the Altamont concert in Northern California headlined by the Rolling Stones.
“It really took this whole hippie peace love movement and, as Alice Cooper says, people suddenly were scared of hippies. ‘What have drugs done to these kids?’” Ellwood observes. “But the truth is there were always dark undertones under the whole thing, because the Civil Rights movement was happening…and the Vietnam war…And I think Manson and Altamont were just real eye-openers, that impacted [the artists] directly.”
The Laurel Canyon scene extended into the 1970s, but eventually dissipated as a hotbed of musical creativity.
“I don’t think that these things ever last forever,” comments Ellwood. “And if they did, they wouldn’t be special.”
The documentary identifies several factors that brought an end to that unique time.
“The drugs changed from pot to cocaine, which had a big impact,” the director comments. “And then the artists ultimately started making so much money that they weren’t playing in the small clubs supporting one another. They were playing huge arenas, and there wasn’t that camaraderie anymore.”
Michelle and John Phillips left Laurel Canyon for a house in tony Bel-Air.
“We had money pouring in,” Phillips recalls, adding with a laugh, “We became the establishment very quickly. It was great to be a hippie, but it was much better to be a rich hippie.”
Phillips says she didn’t miss Laurel Canyon.
“Oh, god no!” she exclaims. “Bel-Air is much nicer. It was sumptuous.”
The documentary is replete with the music that came out of the canyon at that time. Licensing it presented a major challenge.
“It’s super tough, but we were able to get it done, which is great,” Ellwood shares. “We had a brilliant music supervisor [John McCullough], who was able to pull off some miracles for us.”
The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” is heard in Laurel Canyon, written while Michelle and John Phillips were temporarily staying in New York. Michelle shares the story of the song’s creation in the documentary, adding details in conversation with Deadline.
“I was asleep. John was of course up on ‘bennies’ [amphetamines]. ‘Wake up, listen to this. I’m writing this song,’” she recalls him saying. “He plays me the first verse. I said, ‘That’s really beautiful, John.’ And he says, ‘Wake up, help me write it.’ I said, ‘I’ll help you write it, tomorrow.’ He said, ‘No, Michelle. Wake up. Help me write it now. You’ll thank me for this some day.’ And he was so right, God bless him.”
So much came together in a magical way not only for The Mamas and the Papas, but all the artists connected to Laurel Canyon.
“We were lucky,” Phillips observes. “It was the right time, the right space, the right producer, the right musicians, the right songs and the right atmosphere here in LA at the time, in Laurel Canyon where we were all living while we did the first couple of albums. It just all kind of gelled, like it did for many, many, many musicians.”