When Joni Mitchell first came to Los Angeles, she was given a book by a friend that said, “Ask anyone in America where the craziest people live and they’ll tell you California. Ask anyone in California where the craziest people live and they’ll say Los Angeles. Ask anyone in Los Angeles where the craziest people live and they’ll tell you Hollywood. Ask anyone in Hollywood where the craziest people live and they’ll say Laurel Canyon. And ask anyone in Laurel Canyon where the craziest people live and they’ll say Lookout Mountain.”
So Joni bought a house on Lookout Mountain.
This was the sentiment among many in the late 60’s and early 70’s seeking an alternative lifestyle in the Los Angeles hills. Not only was Laurel Canyon just a stone’s throw away from the Sunset Strip, it smelled of eucalyptus, acted as a reprieve away from the hustle and bustle, offered a groovy scene, and it was chalk full of characters.
That said, this scene wasn’t the first to have Laurel Canyon as its home base. In fact, in the early 20th century, when the area was first being developed, the Canyon attracted personalities such as Wally Reid, Harry Houdini, Bessie Love, and Errol Flynn. Then, in the post-WWII boom, the area began to welcome residents from the Beat Generation, with a couple cool jazz cafes having popped up nearby.
But while the Canyon has lived a few lives, it was the late 1960’s / early 1970’s that put Laurel Canyon on the map for all things creative, open minded, and free-wheelin. Sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, man.
Just… please don’t watch the movie Laurel Canyon. I love Frances McDormand, I do (hello Almost Famous, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, etc.), but that movie was beyond terrible (I blame Kate Beckinsale and Christian Bale though to be honest…like just WHY).
*Scroll down to the bottom of this post to listen to the full playlist, and more, on Spotify!*
A Classic Laurel Canyon Playlist (Late 60’s & Early 70’s)
The Mama’s and The Papa’s “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls are Coming to the Canyon)”
So much can be said about The Mama’s and The Papa’s in regards to Laurel Canyon – for example, John and Michelle Phillips lived on Lookout mountain, and Mama Cass Elliot was basically known as the scene’s den mother of sorts (or, as Graham Nash referred to her, the Gertrude Stein of the Canyon), constantly influencing and bringing musicians together.
Released in 1967, “Twelve-Thirty” is an ode to Laurel Canyon, and also one of the last great recordings the Mama’s and the Papa’s produced.
Joni Mitchell ” The Circle Game”
Released in 1970, Joni Mitchell’s third album Ladies Of The Canyon was a groundbreaking album for Mitchell – both commercially and stylistically. Of course, the name album itself pays ode to the creative scene in Laurel Canyon at the time, of which she was a member, and has multiple themes referencing the aura. For example, the song “Willy” on the album is an ode to Graham Nash, whom she was dating and living with in the Canyon at the time.
“The Circle Game” is one of my favorite tracks from the album, doubly so as Joni once said that she wrote this song as a response to Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain”; in which song he references losing his youth.
Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now
Cartwheels turn to car wheels through the town
And they tell him,
Take your time, it won’t be long now
Till you drag your feet to slow the circles down
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young “Our House”
And as a follow up to Joni, it’s only fitting that I put CSNY’s “Our House” in the mix. The song was released on their 1970 album, Deja Vu, and became an instant classic.
One of my favorite Laurel Canyon stories, this song was written by Graham Nash after he and Joni Mitchell went for a walk, grabbed some breakfast, bought a flower vase at an antique store along the way, and then realized peak “countercultural domestic bliss”. The pair then went home, Graham sat at Joni’s piano, and “Our House” was finished an hour later.
Buffalo Springfield “For What It’s Worth”
Before CSNY, Stephen Stills and Neil Young were in a little band together with Richie Furay, Dewey Martin, and Bruce Palmer called Buffalo Springfield.
The song “For What It’s Worth” was born out of the ’66 Sunset Strip riot where around 1000 young protesters congregated to save the club Pandora’s Box, and to take a stand for legislators having recently introduced a curfew to the area.
Poco “Pickin’ Up the Pieces”
Following the breakup of Buffalo Springfield, Richie Furay went on to form Poco, one of the pioneering country-rock groups of the era, along with Jim Messina and Rusty Young. Their first album, “Picking Up the Pieces” was in reference to the Buffalo split.
Eric Clapton (Cream “Sunshine of Your Love”)
While Eric is primarily known as an English musician through and through, I include him on this list because of his influence on the scene of the time and his work with with The Yardbirds, then John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers (which will further come into focus in a second), then Cream, then Blind Faith, then… okay i’m cutting myself off here.
Another reason I put him on this list, in this exact spot? Because of a photo, one of my favorite photos from this era. You know the one, the one taken by Rock n’ Roll photographer extraordinaire Henry Diltz at Mama Cass’s house in 1968. The one with Eric Clapton and David Crosby listening intently to Joni Mitchell as she plays guitar; with Clapton’s eyes transfixed on her. If I could have sat in on a moment…
John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers “Miss James”
A Laurel Canyon resident from 1969 – 1979, John Mayall released his 1968 album Blues From Laurel Canyon after he first landed in Laurel Canyon and met local characters such as Frank Zappa and resident groupie, and namesake of the song “Miss James”, Catherine James.
I read about her in the magazine
The writer painted her in colors of a queen
Other people said bad things instead
So I was curious to check up what I’d read
But askin’ around
She couldn’t be found
Strange, elusive Miss James
Frank Zappa “Willie the Pimp”
Confession: I have a little bit of an obsession with Frank Zappa. In 2012, I took a writing workshop by his one-time governess, Pamela Des Barres (for like, so many more reasons than that though). A few years later, I read “Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa” by Pauline Butcher, and was subsequently in correspondence with her regarding an edited version of the tome. Then, in 2016, I went to Laurel Canyon on Pamela’s LA Rock Tour and got to see not only where the infamous Log Cabin that Frank lived in for a short period (it eventually burned to the ground in 1981), but his long-term estate further into the Canyon.
I’m obsessed because, in my eyes, Frank was the King of Laurel Canyon and the Log Cabin, while only part of the story for a short time, was the setting of legends. Musicians and madmen would come strolling into the cabin day or night looking for a party and a story, and it was with Frank that many people came together to make history.
I could go into this so much further, but I’m going to just leave you with this song featuring LA character/musician Captain Beefheart. Oh, and I should mention that Miss Christine of the GTO’s is on the cover of the album on which this song is featured, Hot Rats.. more on that shortly as well.
The GTO’s “I’m In Love With the Ooh-Ooh Man”
Formed under the direction of Frank Zappa, The GTO’s (Girls Together Outrageously, Orally, or “anything else starting with O”) were an all-girl group made up of Miss Pamela (Miller, later Des Barres), Miss Christine, Miss Sparky, Miss Cynderella, Miss Lucy, Miss Mercy, and Miss Sandra. While the group only performed together 4 or 5 times, they gained notoriety when they opened for Wild Man Fischer, Alice Cooper, and the Mothers of Invention at Shrine Auditorium in 1968.
The group’s only album, Permanent Damage, was released in 1969.
Alice Cooper “Levity Ball”
In the late 60’s, after Vincent Furnier and crew had cemented their band name as Alice Cooper, they were playing a club in Venice Beach when they were approached by Supermensch himself, Shep Gordon. Shep took the band over to Frank Zappa’s studio where they were subsequently signed to Straight Records. While far from refined, I love the psychedelic sound of these early Alice Cooper recordings, which seem a far cry from, and yet still set the groundwork for, the harder sound for which they eventually became known.
Once signed to Zappa’s label, the GTO’s gave the band their special touch, with Christine and Pamela specifically in charge of setting the boys up with their uniquely costumed and heavily made-up look.
The Byrds “So You Wanna Be A Rock N’ Roll Star”
The Byrds, one of the first acts to achieve fame out of the LA scene, had a bit of a rotating lineup, but the important people for our purposes are David Crosby (later of CSNY), Jim (Roger) McGuinn, Gram Parsons (later of The Flying Burrito Brothers), and Chris Hillman. If you were a Byrds fan in the late 1960’s and you wanted to stalk the people behind the music, all you had to do was pay a visit to Chris Hillman’s house at 5424 Magnolia Drive (it has subsequently burned down due to a motorcycle fire), or Gram’s house nearby which, uh, also burned down in a fire.
“So You Wanna Be A Rock N’ Roll Star”, released in 1967, was essentially a low-key swipe at manufactured acts such as The Monkees (Mickey Dolenz was also a Canyonite btw), and was written in Chris’s Canyon home.
The price you paid for your riches and fame
Was it all a strange game? You’re a little insane
The money, the fame, and the public acclaim
Don’t forget who you are, you’re a rock and roll star
The Flying Burrito Brothers “Christine’s Tune”
A band born out of The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers further pioneered the country-rock sound of the late 60’s. While the band has an insane and seriously convoluted amount of members and lineups since its heyday (wiki it, there’s like 70 of ’em), Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons basically stole the show as far as the original’s are concerned (in my eyes, anyway).
For further reading, I have a whole article on Gram Parsons and the place he tragically passed away at the age of 26 from an overdose, the Joshua Tree Inn and Motel.
The Doors “Love Street”
Take a walk around the Canyon Country Store and you’ll find a plaque that says “Love Street” and details why the little chunk of land it’s dug into is so important to music history.
Released on The Doors’ 1968 album Waiting For The Sun, “Love Street” was originally a poem written by Jim Morrison as an ode to the street in Laurel Canyon that he lived on with his girlfriend, Pamela Courson (the address was 8021 Rothdell Trail for anyone wondering). Apparently, the pair nicknamed the street love street because they would sit out on their balcony and watch all the hippies go strolling by.
Jim wrote Waiting For The Sun and a lot of The Soft Parade while living in this apartment.
She has wisdom and knows what to do
She has me and she has you
I see you live on Love Street
There’s this store where the creatures meet
I wonder what they do in there
Summer Sunday and a year
I guess I like it fine, so far
Linda Ronstadt “Don’t Cry Now”
A Tuscon native, Linda Ronstadt established herself early on as a Californian folk-rock / country rock leader.
Her fourth album, Don’t Cry Now was released in 1973 and was co-produced by J.D. Souther, also of Laurel Canyon folk rock fame. The duo ended up dating and living together for some time in the Canyon, before fleeing due to the growing cocaine/boy’s club scene that was becoming more and more prominent by that time (the change in vibe partially spearheaded by The Eagles, more to come on that).
The songs on this album have been composed by a hodgepodge of great writers, with one of my favorites, the title track of the album, having been written by J.D. Souther.
Eagles “Take It Easy”
As Eagles member Glenn Frey once stated, “My very first day in California, I drove up La Cienega to Sunset Boulevard, turned right, drove to Laurel Canyon, and the first person I saw standing on the porch at the Canyon Store was David Crosby. He was dressed exactly the way he was on the second Byrds album—that cape, and the flat wide-brimmed hat. He was standing there like a statue. And the second day I was in California I met J. D. Souther.”
Being part of the Laurel Canyon scene, and having formed in 1971, the Eagles had the chance to see a lot of the early country-rock bands break-up, reform, and produce some of the most classic music of the era. They essentially took what was great out of bands such as CSNY, Poco, and The Flying Burrito Brothers, mashed it all together, and then found their own groove from those influences.
At the same time, with the rise of the Eagles began the demise of the Canyon scene. Of course, this wasn’t a single-handed venture, but from all I’ve read the band perpetuated a lot of the negative vibes that were going on in the early 70’s. When Don Henley and Glenn Frey arrived, they not only brought with them the aforementioned ‘boy’s club’, to which a lot of people either wouldn’t bow down to or who were shunned from, they were heavily involved in the cocaine scene, which eventually made users in the Canyon closed off and hostile.
I list “Take It Easy” here as not only is it my favorite Eagles tune, it was written by Glenn Frey and Jackson Browne, his Canyon neighbor at the time.
Longbranch/Pennywhistle (Glenn Frey & J.D. Souther) “Run Boy Run”
As previously mentioned, J.D. Souther is a singer, songwriter, comma slash actor who, in the early 70’s, was an integral part of the Laurel Canyon scene. Not only did he provide a wealth of his own material, he was an influence to other notables such as Linda Rondstat, Eagles, and Jackson Browne.
Which leads me to the fact that, pre-Eagles, Glenn Frey and Souther had a band together called Longbranch Pennywhistle.
Jackson Browne “Rock Me On The Water”
Once having held up residence in the laundry room of Columbia Records A&R guru Billy James’ Laurel Canyon home, Jackson Browne was a prolific songwriter in his Laurel Canyon days. Browne began writing songs for established acts such as Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Nico, and the Eagles, before getting signed by David Geffen to Asylum Records and releasing his eponymous album in 1972.
“Rock Me On The Water” is from that album.
The road is filled with homeless souls
Every woman, child and man
Who have no idea where they will go
But they’ll help you if they can
Now everyone must have some thought
That’s going to pull them through somehow
Well the fires are raging hotter and hotter
But the sisters of the sun are going
To rock me on the water now
Carole King “You’ve Got A Friend”
One of the most successful female songwriters in the second half of the 20th century, Carole King made waves in the folk music world when she, with the help of friends Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, released her debut album Writer, and then later 1971’s Tapestry.
The cover of Tapestry, taken by photographer Jim McCrary, was taken at King’s Laurel Canyon home in 1971, which she had been living in for a few years by that point. Both albums included, of course, “You’ve Got A Friend”.
One of the most successful and prolific musicians of the era, and afterwards (he recorded 33 albums and about 430 songs), one-time Canyon resident Leon Russell had his start as a songwriter, and as a member of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends in 1969 and 1970, during which time he met a lot of influential characters who would help to grow his career. And yeah, I know this is all a huge understatement given the magnitude of this guy’s career, but for sake of brevity…
Fun fact, both Eric Clapton and Gram Parsons were also one-time musicians for Delaney & Bonnie and Friends.
A Laurel Canyon Reading List
So much of this article was drawn from my knowledge gained by reading many books on the subject.
Some of my favorites are: “I’m With The Band” by Pamela Des Barres, “Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood” by Michael Walker, “No One Here Gets Out Alive” by Jerry Jopkins and Danny Sugerman, “Freak Out! My Life With Frank Zappa” by Pauline Butcher, and “Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life” by Graham Nash.
Listen to the Full Playlist on Spotify
The Spotify playlist includes this full list, plus a lot of extras that I cut out of the article for fear of going on forever and my fingers falling off from typing.
What songs would you add to your Laurel Canyon Playlist?