Wild Rock Doc Laurel Canyon Travels Back to L.A.'s Stellar '60s Scene

In the winding hills above Hollywood, musical history was made.


Laurel Canyon. Epix. Sunday, May 31, 10 p.m.

Right out of Tucson, Arizona, where they were biggest band around, the members of Alice Cooper were getting a rough reception as they tried to break into the L.A. scene.  Record companies wouldn't even see them, and the music clubs along the Sunset Strip would soon regret if they did. "This one night, the music we played was just white noise," recalls Alice himself. "Within four minutes we had cleared the place. Only one person was left standing there. And it was Frank Zappa." Who asked: "What was that?"

Zappa invited the band over to his home studio, located in the city's hilly Laurel Canyon neighborhood in a log cabin that used to belong silent-movie actor Tom Mix. (He said to drop by at 7, meaning p.m., but they assumed it was a.m., and Zappa blearily listened to the audition in a bathrobe while sucking on a cup of coffee.) At that hour, the music sounded even louder and more incomprehensible, but Zappa signed them to his Bizarre Records label anyway. "Invariably, when they would play, people would leave the room," he explained later. "And I knew they had something."

That's just one of the many delicious, hilarious, fascinating, and sometimes poignant anecdotes in Epix's two-part Laurel Canyon, one of the great rock 'n' roll documentaries of all time. Debuting Sunday and concluding on June 7, Laurel Canyon is a warm remembrance of things past for anybody who was part of the 1960s, and an instructive text about why we loved it so much for anybody who wasn't. It's history, it's gossip, it's a love letter, and you can dance to it.

The two-and-a-half hour documentary recounts the story of the Los Angeles rock scene that sprang to life in the mid-'60s and lasted a loopy, throbbing decade before breaking up on the shoals of disco and New Wave. Its capital was the rustic, woodsy enclave of Laurel Canyon, tucked away in the hills above the Sunset Strip, where scores of the band members lived, loved, rehearsed, ingested a bodacious amount of drugs, and generally flew their freak flag out of sight of the straight society below.

Laurel Canyon weaves the history of the music and its enchanted cavern together in a tale that twists and turns like the canyon's narrow roads, but never loses its way. It's got sex: How an affair between between Mamas and Papas members Denny Doherty and Michelle Phillips poisoned and eventually killed the band. At the opposite end of the promiscuity spectrum, comedian Steve Martin recounts a conversation with Linda Ronstadt after they'd been dating for two weeks. "Steve," she asked curiously, "do you often date women and not try to sleep with them?"

It's got drugs: Omnipresent rock photographer Henry Diltz, who shot hundreds of album covers and thousands of candid photos that made their way into magazines and books, emerged from his Laurel Canyon home and thought he heard Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young rehearsing in a backyard down the block, a common occurrence. Wandering over to snap some pictures, he discovered it wasn't exactly a jam session. "I didn't realize their little meeting was to have a little bumper dust," Diltz says, using one of the early names for the new drug, cocaine, that was starting to sweep through Laurel Canyon. No matter; the band obligingly posed with the coke, blithely heedless of where the photo might turn up.

And of course it's got rock 'n' roll: Members of what would become the Byrds, then a scuffling acoustic folk group, were enthralled when they heard the jangling electric guitars of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. At their next gig at the Troubador, a hootenanny-style club on the Strip, they plugged in their own guitars, horrifying the owner but wowing the fans. The band added a couple of members (Drums! A 12-string electric guitar!) and set about adapting a discarded demo record by Bob Dylan their new manager had gotten hold of. They were perplexed by the cryptic and out-of-tune song, but the manager was right: In early 1965, "Mr. Tambourine Man" was a smash hit. Dylan, catching a preview at one of the clubs, was surprised: "Wow, man you can dance to it."

"Mr. Tambourine Man" was like a musical cue ball streaking across a pool table, sending chaotic ricochets in every direction, except they all seemed to bounce eventually to Laurel Canyon. With their proceeds from the record, Byrds Chris Hillman, David Crosby, and Roger McGuinn left their crowded crash pads for houses in the canyon. In Ohio, folkie Richie Furay heard it and packed for Los Angeles, where he founded a new band called the Buffalo Springfield, which got a gig as the house band at the riotous Whisky A Go Go, and most of its members got digs in Laurel Canyon.

Another new electrified band that hooked up at the Whisky (and, of course, Laurel Canyon) was the Doors and its lunatic front man, Jim Morrison. The inevitably drunken Morrison screamed, shouted, and flung himself around the stage like the servant of a berserk puppetmaster, and his lyrics suggested that underneath all the peace and love lay something much darker. To his critics, Morrison offered the back of his hand: "They hate because we're so good," he says in an early interview included in the documentary. (Of course, it's just barely possible there were other reasons.)

The Morrison interview is just one bit of a remarkable archive cache hunted down by director Lisa Ellwood (whose previous work includes films on Ken Kesey and Hunter S. Thompson, as well as the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room). It includes not only a host of old American Bandstands, but unseen home movies in which Morrison bicycles around Los Angeles in nothing but a pair of shorts, Michelle Phillips dances goofily in her back yard, and Zappa melodramatically drops to the ground dead during a gunfight with toy six-shooters. Best of all is Peter Tork's audition for The Monkees. (He got it when his pal Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield was turned down for having a snaggletooth.) "Why do you want to be a Monkee?" asks an off-screen producer. "Well, it's my natural inheritance," replies the deapans Tork.

The Monkees, too, wound up in Laurel Canyon, where drummer Micky Dolenz's house became the site for regular pingpong tournaments. Oddly, though Laurel Canyon had been the home to many stars in the 1940s and 1950s, including Mix, Harry Houdini and Natalie Wood, its popularity had lapsed and it wasn't expensive at all when the Byrds started the migration there. As the rock 'n' roll world settled in, it became not exactly a commune but something more like a really cool college dorm, where there was always something to eat at Mama Cass Elliot's place and many of the doors remained unlocked even when the bands were out on tour.

It was that practice that provided the first harbinger that the karma of the 1960s was sliding south. Johnny Echols of the group Love came home from tour to find his long-time-no-see folksinger buddy Bobby Beausoleil hanging out in the living room. Surprised but unperturbed, Echols chatted with Beausoleil for a while before hearing a sound from inside the bedroom. "Is there somebody in there?" he asked. "Yeah, Sadie," Beausoleil replied. That would be Susan "Sadie" Atkins, the future Manson Family murderess, who emerged, bedraggled and malodorous, a few minutes later. Beausoleil may have looked more respectable, but he, too, would kill for Manson.

The Manson murders took place several miles from Laurel Canyon, but they seemed much closer. The house where Sharon Tate and her friends were killed had until recently been rented by record producer Terry Melcher, a Laurel Canyon regular, and several members of the canyon crowd had been regular visitors. Two of the Manson girls had gone to high school with Mark Volman of the Turtles, another canyon resident. Everybody quit picking up hitchhikers; David Crosby promptly bought a shotgun. "Hippies were not harmless anymore," remembers Alice Cooper.

Over the next 18 months, the vibes only turned worse. Drugs were taking an increasing toll: The drunken and delirious Morrison died on a dry-out trip to Paris. Several Laurel Canyon bands played at the murderous Altamont rock concert in Northern California, where Hell's Angels "security guards" stabbed one fan to death and beat others with pool cues. (The manager of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, of the bands that played, refused to go. "The Hell's Angels were gonna be doing all the security," he shudders in the documentary, "and people applauded, like that that was a cool thing.") Not only did the canyon's favorite loving couple, Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash, break up, but Mitchell pulled the trigger in a telegram.

Laurel Canyon did not end with the 1960s, at least not the the calendar years. The Eagles and the real glory years of Linda Ronstadt still lay ahead. But little by little, the feeling slipped away. "It became edgy, colder, less truthful," recalls Crosby. Nobody can pinpoint the date the music died, but it was certainly gone by the time a quadruple drug murder took place in Laurel Canyon in 1981. As somebody once said, turn, turn, turn.

NEXT: The FDA Is Stunting the Growth of America's Nascent Legal Hemp Industry

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  1. I don’t mean to shit on this article detailing the rise of the worst fucking music ever from the heyday of the worst generation ever, but I seemed to detect a bit of pullback from the gun nuts in the article about Black gun ownership. I mean, shouldn’t the ability to stockpile assault rifles be an affair limited to neo-Nazis, religious cults, and deadbeats who won’t pay for their cows on federal land that you and I pay taxes for.

    What would be wrong, for example, if Mexican immigrants started firing back at ICE agents. They are subject to a terrible injustice at the hands of jack-booted thugs. Shouldn’t they be firing back?

    1. What would be wrong, for example, if Mexican immigrants started firing back at ICE agents.

      If ICE agents were firing at them, nothing. If ICE agents were threatening them with arrest, then it would be justified if the ICE agents were threatened with force in return as well.

      But here’s the thing. Whenever you start to literally fight back against an aggressive state, you need to be prepared for total war and to die in that war. Most people are not prepared to die in a war they have very little chance of winning. The state is perpetually waging that war, at least in the form of an occupation. They’re constantly building their offensive capabilities and restricting the defensive capabilities of those who may want to fight back. So, those who may want to fight back have to pick their moment very carefully and that moment usually depends a lot on general public sentiment at the time.

      1. Hmm… that seems like a lot of work. What if I just go back and vote for politicians that have a record of opposing police and military power and leave my guns at home? I’ll leave the shootouts and the federal building bombings to you guys.

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        2. I was merely trying to explain why you don’t see too many people shooting at government agents very often. It looks like a 99% chance of failure and a pretty high chance of death on top of that. You would at least need a plurality of the population supporting your cause somehow to even have a chance of effecting any change.

          How about voting? How’s that working for you? That sure has a wonderful track record of reducing the power of the government, right?

      2. So, if you are very unlikely to win a people’s war against an government that has tanks and missiles and bombers why do gun nuts perpetually bring up the argument that people need to have an individual right to gun ownership to protect themselves against an oppressive government? Since you are very likely to die in a campaign where you take your AR-15 assault rifle and deploy it against a military base equipped with missiles and howitzers isn’t it stupid to argue that one needs a gun to oppose the government— that is, unless you have a death wish.

        1. It’s better than nothing and you don’t want to make it to easy for them. There might be a situation where you’re essentially forced to defend yourself or your loved ones. Government goons would much rather attack you if you’re unarmed and defenseless.

        2. Because only the federal government can be an oppressor? Idiot.

    2. “I don’t mean to shit on this article…”

      Yet, you did.

    3. You’re an asshole and shitfaced fucktard, but since you asked:

      You probably noticed that neither Mexican immigrants nor left wing protestors are using firearms. That is because the response, whether from government or individual gun owners, would be a bloodbath. Far left wing anarchists and socialists know the drill because they’ll been doing it for decades. The goal for them is not to generate an overwhelming response of firepower, unless they can topple the regime (which I might add they have failed to do in decades). Mexicans except drug traffickers are less likely to own capable firearms anyway, but attacking a country’s borders would also generate a larger military response.

      You seem to think these people are stupid. They are not. There are few who go up against the military power arrayed against them and come back thinking it was a good idea.

      You can always tell when riots and looting are started by the far left – there’s no firearms and they always wear masks and run away.

      Anyway, you’re a fucking dumbshit and you have shitstained yourself and this forum.

      1. Looting is started by thieving dickbags. That’s all.

        1. So is socialism.

          1. Well, leftists are thieving dickbags

    4. What would be wrong, for example, if Mexican immigrants started firing back at ICE agents.

      It’s revealing left wingers can’t tell a difference between having a gun and shooting people. This explains much about their policy confusion.

    5. Sure you’re not trying to shut on the article? Not just a little?

    6. Haha. Yeah, old, dirty hippies and their shitty folk music are pretty pathetic. So, maybe we can agree on one thing.

      “Worst fucking music ever”? Only if you don’t think of hip hop as music. So maybe we agree on two things.

      Haha. Asshole.

  2. And yet, as the wise words of Shel Silverstein had it:

    Well, we’re big rock singers, we got golden fingers and we’re loved everywhere we go. We sing about beauty and we sing about truth – at ten thousand dollars a show.

    The laid-back free-and-easy hippy life is so much more carefree when you’ve got more money than you know what to do with, just as I’m sure it’s easier for Bruce Springsteen to sing about the life of quiet desperation down at the steel mill when he’s made millions of dollars by not having to work down at the steel mill. At least Bruce was wise enough not to spend his money committing suicide the way too many of these rock stars seem to do.

    1. Dr. Hook and the Medicine show. I remember them well….

    2. Silverstein wrote that?! Did not know that. Makes sense.

      1. He wrote a LOT of songs, for people like Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Tompall Glaser, Bobby Bare, Judy Collins, New Christy Minstrels, and others.

        1. Silverstein also wrote “A Boy Named Sue” ….a song that would go on to be a BIG hit for Johnny Cash….

  3. What is Epix? This documentary sounds interesting, but do I have to subscribe to yet another streaming service to see it?

    1. I don’t know if it is available on a steaming service.

      I have Epix as a cable channel on Comcast. Actually 4 hi-def, no commercial cable channels under the Epix brand. Epix has some decent original programming but most of the content is movies.

  4. Sounds interesting, and Am Soc hates it, which means it probably is.

    Btw, The Troubadour isn’t really “on the Strip.” It’s on Santa Monica.

  5. That looks like Joni Mitchell in the photo.

    Always liked her. She had this independent streak in her.

    We are stardust
    Billion year old carbon
    We are golden
    Caught in the devil’s bargain
    And we’ve got to get ourselves
    Back to the garden

    Nice piece of poetry there.

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