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Laurel Canyon: no turn unstoned

August 9, 2020

On the surface. it’s hard to imagine a time and a place so far from everyday experience in our plague-ridden time than Laurel Canyon in the late sixties and early seventies.

Laurel Canyon, a wooded suburb just outside the soupy bowl of Los Angeles, was a musical Shangri-La. It was the kind of place where, if you were a member of the West Coast musical aristocracy, you would claim you had lived even if you’d you only spent two weeks dossing down on a friend’s sofa in one of the district’s ramshackle wooden houses.

One of the reasons why I loved Sky’s documentary of the same name was that although it was packed with reminiscences from the people who lived and made music there, only two were actually featured on camera, both of them observers rather than players. Sound clips from the musicians themselves were accompanied by videos of them playing and hanging out, rather than long sequences focused on grizzled faces. So we saw most of them as they were then, and not now. Which is probably a good thing, because many of them are dead.

Others, though, have survived against the odds, so we heard plenty from David Crosby, Don Henley and Graham Nash, whereas Jim Morrison, Mama Cass and Glenn Frey were voices from the grave.

There are any number of reasons why the music of The Doors, Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, the Eagles and the Byrds made such an impression on me at the time. It was close harmonies, soul-searching, idealistic innocence, balanced by commentary on the dark side – Vietnam, Kent State, the pain of broken romance and chemical excess.

Many of us lived in our own Shangri-Las – little bubbles of our own making that enabled us to ignore – most of the time – the “real world” outside. In my case it was as far from the sunny groves of Laurel Canyon as you can imagine: a smattering of shared houses in the student areas of Birmingham.

We each had our own taste in music. Many of us preferred the harder-edged stuff coming out of the East Coast of the US: Dylan, The Band, Steely Dan and later Springsteen. And of course we had our local heroes: the Stones, Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, Jethro Tull, Yes. But you’d be hard put to find a house where someone didn’t have some music from that small stretch of hills in Los Angeles.

As the residents of Laurel Canyon grew up, gorged with money, raddled by booze and various pharmaceuticals, they started to play stadiums, fence their houses, sue their managers. After Charlie Manson, they no longer trusted strangers. The Woodstock spirit was shattered by Altamont. The music business was always dirty, but as the seventies progressed it became more obviously so. I should know. I was in it.

At the same time, we in the UK lived through the IRA, miner’s strikes and three-day weeks. But most of us got on with earning a living, only to be derided as baby boomers when we wouldn’t share our wealth with our kids and grandkids.

Every successive generation of Brits and Americans had its share of political activists, but never, it seemed to me, to the same extent as in the years between 1968 and 1974. Or at least until the past four years, when Americans en masse have risen in protest for and against Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter and other causes. Over here, Brexit and a government seen by many as obviously corrupt has divided the country more than at any time since the Troubles and the Winter of Discontent.

While the current crop of twentysomethings have found their own noble causes, those whose music adorned my youth, who never took it as easy as they liked to claim, who hated as much as they loved, have felt the hard rain of age. They’re grumpy old men and women who are happy to talk about the olden days, but whose time has largely gone. Just as the rest of us, who still play their music, swap stories about our penniless days, but for whom those times were neither better nor worse. Just different.

Before too long we’ll all be gone, no longer helplessly hoping. But right to the end, many of us will still let the years slip away as we listen to the glorious sound of Laurel Canyon.

From → Film, History, Music, Politics, UK, USA

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