Laurel Canyon by Michael Walker

When one thinks of “networking,” longhaired musicians of the late-1960s hardly spring to mind alongside cocktail-party businessmen and over-ambitious college students. Michael Walker’s Laurel Canyon argues that for the career-driven (not that they’d admit that) musicians of the titular Los Angeles neighborhood, friends and neighbors played an essential role in the rapid rise to national stardom and influence. Thus, readers expecting a book about music may be disappointed. Laurel Canyon is a study of musicians, Joni Mitchell, the Byrds, the Eagles, and Frank Zappa among others, and their shared surroundings. Of their social lives and how the unique lifestyle of their neighborhood contributed to the timeless American music they left behind.

Walker — a first time author who work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and other newspapers — is a resident of Laurel Canyon, a community in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles along the road linking Sunset Boulevard and the San Fernando Valley, considered the “epicenter” of LA’s burgeoning rock music scene in the mid-1960s. His approach is not one of longing for the mythologized days of peace and love, but the emergence of massively influential and ubiquitous popular culture out of a small segment of the country in a relative eye blink.

In addition to the role of Beatlemania and technological breakthroughs in this emergence (such as FM radio and long-playing records), Walker credits the neighborhood itself. The impact of the various factors that made Laurel Canyon a hub for many of the era’s most influential artists, he explains, is best understood as fine wine, a rich multi-ingredient terroir. Just as a sophisticated tongue can taste the nuances of the region that grows the grapes of a fine pinot, “when you hear [CSN’s] “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” you are hearing Laurel Canyon, vintage 1969.”

In his attempt to revive the era, Walker interviews former and current residents who lived and played in Laurel Canyon during both its heady days of seemingly limitless possibility and its inevitable decline into materialism, drug abuse, and tragedy. Included are revealing chats with musicians, former spouses and groupies, band managers, club owners and others who were simply, like, there, man. These recollections comprise the book’s main informational source, each chapter based around one of Walker’s themes — jam hubs such as Zappa’s log cabin and “Mama” Cass Elliott’s house; the prevailing gender expectations of women (“comforts creature and carnal”) during the period; the co-optation of the music as moneymaker; the psychological devastation wrought by the Manson murders and Altamont festival of 1969; the scourge of cocaine; the effects of new genres like punk, glam and disco — and the relevant quotations from his interviewees.

The book’s strongest chapter, “Lady of the Canyon” (seems like every book about rock of this era persists with the tiresome practice of song lyrics for chapter titles) looks at the singular influence of “Mama” Cass Elliott: den mother, confidante, and benevolent svengali of the region’s most talented residents and visitors. Walker praises Elliot’s instincts for networking, such as when she unites local residents David Crosby and Steven Stills with the frustrated British musician Graham Nash. During an LA tour stop, Elliott called Nash at his hotel in downtown Los Angeles and drove him to her house, where Crosby and Stills waited. “Just think about that,” Nash tells Walker. “What an incredible thing to envision, and secondly to pull off. It’s as if it was already a predetermined future to her.”

In a book that portrays women as groupies, centerpieces of intraband love triangles, and strung-out streetwalkers — the subject matter of most great songs — only in the Cass chapter does Walker effectively address the zeitgeist’s complicated sexual politics, especially as involved female musicians. He implies that Elliott’s networking intuition and ear for talent (“for sheer influence … no one came close to this woman”) resulted from her weight rendering her sexless among her peers. “Inevitably, [Elliott’s] obesity … allowed her to become closer to many of the canyon’s male musicians than they, or she, might otherwise have allowed,” he writes. “Elliott’s home was a neutral ground where they could share food, dope, songs, and something approaching real friendship.” In Laurel Canyon, “Mama” symbolized more than simple stage name for Cass Elliott.

While the Elliott chapter is the standout for insight, analytic conviction, and contribution to our understanding of the music and sexual politics of the time, Walker makes other interesting observations that simultaneously bring into question what he imagines as his target audience. Savory nuggets of insight are often buried between redundant, overlong depictions of period events covered ad nauseam in existing literature. Does anyone who might be interested in this book need a lengthy recitation of the Woodstock or Altamont festivals, and their subsequent psychological impact? Or that Led Zeppelin enjoyed groupies? The author’s suggestion that Altamont, despite the (isolated) violence committed by the Hell’s Angels security force, was “no more inherently evil” than the for-profit Woodstock, and as a free concert, “truer” to the era’s ethos. The presence of documentary cameras, also a new addition to the music world, displayed images that led to an enduring polarity. More important to Walker’s book, several bands played both shows, taking the stigma back to Laurel Canyon with them.

Methodologically, Laurel Canyon illustrates the danger of reliance on modern-day interviews in historical studies: can an accurate picture of the past come from people with 40 years of hindsight, reflection, and regrets? Subjects are all too eager to reminisce and share rumors and gossip even when they admittedly can’t remember details and/or sources. Faced with such dubious information, Walker scarcely utilizes contemporary primary sources for verification, instead relying on his own interviews or recently published biographies. Admittedly, it is great fun to hear wizened vets of the scene reminiscence about crazy fun and outlandish behavior, but this strategy fails to provide a fully believable portrait of a time and place. (Of the 37-book bibliography, seven were published prior to 1985.) Deeper research would undoubtedly enable Walker to expand on the book’s first part (of two), ending in 1970, and both the book and the author’s clear passion and strength. The second half of the book, tangential, aimless, and trying to cover too much time and too little significance, could easily be combined into a much stronger epilogue a third the size.

Laurel Canyon is ultimately unsatisfying, contributing little to what we already know about the music and times of the era. Each chapter’s brevity, notably pre-1970, combines with Walker’s increasing diversions in the post-1969 half (one-third of a chapter about cocaine (ab)use devoted to the history of cocaine; five pages for anonymous interviewee “Marty Belack’s” typical party night in the early 1970s) is more padding than insightful.

Walker’s narrative style rarely exceeds functional; most paragraphs consist of a transitional sentence or two followed by a lengthy quotation from an interview or cribbed from a previous book. Head-scratching sentence structure (“[women folksingers] had achieved success unmatched by solo male folksingers, spectacularly so in [Judy] Collins’s and especially [Joan] Baez’s case”) and oxymoronic word choice (Cream’s “peripatetic drummer” Ginger Baker) occasionally distract from interesting anecdotes and arguments. Walker certainly has interesting neighbors and is a talented interviewer, but the result hardly feels complete.