It was summer 1968 in Laurel Canyon. “Mama” Cass Elliot, the big-hearted den mother of the LA music scene, was having a picnic at her rambling estate on Woodrow Wilson Drive, a not uncommon occurrence. “My house is a very free house,” Elliot told Rolling Stone. “It’s not a crash pad and people don’t come without calling. But on an afternoon, especially on weekends, I always get a lot of delicatessen food in because I know David [Crosby] is going to come over for a swim and things are going to happen.”
That afternoon, Crosby had indeed come calling, bringing with him his newest find, Joni Mitchell. The ethereal Canadian singer-songwriter played song after song on Elliot’s lawn, as picnic-goers, including Elliot’s neighbor Micky Dolenz (The Monkees), frolicked on the grass. One guest, a virtuoso British guitarist named Eric Clapton, simply sat transfixed by Mitchell’s musicianship. “Music happens in my house, and that pleases me,” Elliot explained.
During the ’60s and ’70s, music happened with frequency throughout Laurel Canyon, once described by director and writer Lisa Cholodenko as “kind of lazy and kind of dirty and kind of earthy and sort of reckless.”
Countless famous musicians of the era would live or crash in the canyon. They included Neil Young, Carole King, J.D. Souther, Leon Russell, Chris Hillman, Alice Cooper, Stephen Stills, John Mayall, Nico, Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, Peter Tork, Pamela Des Barres and her band Girls Together Outrageously, John and Michelle Phillips, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Jimmy Webb, and members of The Animals, and The Turtles.
“There was amazing tribal life,” recalled Jackson Browne, who lived in the laundry room of the house of talent scout Billy James.
These young, wild artists were drawn to the canyon’s winding roads, country-like setting, and its plethora of secluded homes with mysterious, bohemian histories that stretched back decades. The musicians found what generations of Laurel Canyon residents have also found—a refuge, where they had the space to form their own counterculture family, and create their own kind of music.
Laurel Canyon was “a place in the middle of this big city that people escaped to,” As the artist Gary Burden explained to Michael Walker, author of Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood. “Many of these people didn’t really have family scenes of their own... I think people found in those early days the family they always wanted.”
According to Michael Walker, in the nineteen-teens an eccentric developer named Charles Spencer Mann began to shape the neighborhood into the rustic oasis that would draw rock’s hippie gods to it. Walker writes:
Mann christened his subdivision Bungalow Land…To lure desirables to a canyon largely populated by coyotes and rattlesnakes, Mann commissioned a trolley from Sunset Boulevard whose cars ran on roads instead of rails. The nation’s first “trackless trolley” was soon depositing prospective Babbitts at the intersection of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and a rugged trail that leaped up a cut in the canyon’s west wall to the top of Lookout Mountain, a twelve-hundred-foot peak with comely views to the Pacific Ocean and the nascent downtown Los Angeles.
A cluster of rustic bungalows and hunting cabins were built. The original Canyon Country Store opened in 1919 (though it burned in 1929). By the 1930s, it was rumored that Mann’s aging bungalows were home to popular brothels and speakeasies. Wild movie stars like Mary Astor, Orson Welles, Clara Bow, and Errol Flynn lived in rambling estates in the secluded canyon, which always had a whiff of danger about it.
When movie star Robert Mitchum was busted for possession of pot in 1948, it was at a home in Laurel Canyon, which the LAPD told the Los Angeles Times was “ideally situated to be a ‘reefer resort.’ It is perched on a hillside, with no near neighbors, and well-screened by shrubbery.”
Soon the whole canyon would be a “reefer resort” of sorts. Beatniks and artists were drawn to the canyon throughout the ’40s and ’50s. According to Walker, one of the first boomer musicians to move to the canyon was The Byrd’s Chris Hillman, a 19-year-old guitarist in the first bloom of success. In 1964, he went to Laurel Canyon, looking for a place to live. He told Walker:
This guy drives up and he says, ‘You looking for a place to rent? I said yeah, and he said, ‘Well, follow me up.’ It was this young guy who was a dentist. It was his parents’ house, a beautiful old wood house down a dirt road—and he lived on the top, and he was renting out the bottom part. I just went, ‘Wow, perfect.’
Others soon joined Hillman, including an effervescent Valley teenager, Pamela Des Barres, who was just beginning her career as a legendary groupie. She would often go up to his home on Magnolia Lane.
“I used to go there even when he was on the road and just hang out,” she told Walker. “He had a hammock on the porch, so when he was on the road, I would sleep there at night. I was psycho.”
As the folk, psychedelic and country rock scene exploded, more and more newly famous and soon-to-be-famous musicians moved into Laurel Canyon homes both big and small, bringing their egalitarian lifestyle of peace, drugs, and counter-culture abandon with them.
“All the California rock stars lived up there, and you could hear music from every window,” Des Barres wrote in her memoir, I’m with the Band. “Parties everywhere. You just never knew what was going to happen.”
Cass Elliot, flush with cash from her band, The Mamas and the Papas, reigned as the “Gertrude Stein of Laurel Canyon.”
She most famously introduced Graham Nash to David Crosby and Stephen Stills, correctly convinced that their voices would blend magically together. On her living room wall, she had her guests write whatever they liked, and soon it was filled with the witty words of her famous friends.
Joni Mitchell moved into a tiny house on Lookout Mountain.
“My friend [photographer] Joel Bernstein found an old book in a flea market that said: Ask anyone in America where the craziest people live and they’ll tell you California,” she recalled to Vanity Fair. “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, I bought a house on Lookout Mountain.”
Laurel Canyon did not disappoint. “That was hippie heaven, with a little rustic fireplace and a good feeling,” Mitchell told Vanity Fair. “There would be nights when everybody sat up and played acoustic music and swapped songs.”
She recalled hearing a cacophony of young bands rehearsing in the afternoon. “At night it was quiet except for cats and mockingbirds,” she remembered. “It had a smell of eucalyptus, and in the spring, which was the rainy season then, a lot of wildflowers would spring up. Laurel Canyon had a wonderful distinctive smell to it.”
Mitchell began a relationship with Graham Nash, who soon moved into the cluttered little house. “It was a small house,” Nash recalled to Walker, “and it was a thing of, who got to the piano first? She was in the middle of a record and was writing daily; and I was in the middle of a record with David and Stephen and I was writing daily. It just got to be crazy, y’know. Okay, she’s playing, and then: ‘Shall we have some lunch?’ And then we’d have lunch. And then maybe I’d get to the piano.”
One day, the couple went for a long walk, buying a flower vase along the way. When the got back to the house, filled with knickknacks and cats, Nash went to the piano. “I thought, I love this woman, and this moment is a very grounded moment in our relationship,” he remembered. “And I sat down at the piano and an hour later ‘Our House’ was done. It was kind of amazing.”
This ode to “countercultural domestic bliss” would become a hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in 1970. Numerous feel good songs, inspired by the friendly familial feeling the canyon inspired in once rootless artists and musicians, dotted the charts in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
John Phillips, who lived with his young wife Michelle in a house near their bandmate Mama Cass, wrote the 1967 hit “Twelve Thirty” (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon) about the young groupies, like Des Barres, who flooded the canyon every day:
Young girls are coming to the canyon
And in the mornings I can see them walking
I can no longer keep my blinds drawn
And I can’t keep myself from talking
At first so strange to feel so friendly
To say good morning and really mean it.
The heart of the community was at the rustic Canyon Country Store, where groupies and wannabe musicians would hang out, drinking apple wine, smoking weed, and waving to the “squares” driving their daily commute from the Valley to Beverly Hills.
Jim Morrison, not quiet yet the iconic “Lizard King” front man of The Doors, lived behind the store in a rundown house with his girlfriend Pamela Courson. The couple would often watch as the hippies hung out in front of the store, inspiring The Doors 1968 song “Love Street,” which includes the line:
I see you live on Love Street. There’s this store where the creatures meet.
In the egalitarian spirit of the late 1960s, not only wannabes hung out at the Canyon Store.
“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,” Glenn Frey, future Laurel Canyon resident and Eagles front man, told Vanity Fair. “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.”
But a kind of cynicism was forming in canyon residents and visitors alike. As Walker notes, even Mitchell, on her seminal 1970 album “Ladies of the Canyon,” sang of her fellow affected hippies with something approaching eagle-eyed satire:
Trina wears her wampum beads
She fills her drawing book with line
Sewing lace on widows’ weeds
And filigree on leaf and vine…
Trimmed with antique luxury
She is a lady of the canyon.
“Laurel Canyon was kind of a refuge for people who were incapable of eyeball-to-eyeball hustling on Sunset Boulevard,” music producer Kim Fowley told Walker. “You’d look out the window and write songs in a flannel shirt about timber and chrome… you retreated to the country charm of your little ticky-tack place.”
“If you took away their tumbleweeds and eucalyptus, they [the residents of Laurel Canyon] were fucking boring,” he concluded.
For those looking for a more hardcore scene, there was the home, studio, and commune of counter-culture rock impresario Frank Zappa.
For a few months in 1968, he lived in the sprawling Lookout Mountain log cabin once owned by the cowboy star Tom Mix. Already inhabited by a group of transient “hippies” and “freaks,” the cabin became a non-stop party scene.
“The place was huge and vault-like and cavernous—the living room was like seventy feet long and thirty feet across,” Gail Zappa remembered. “It was so dark. I think the oldest eucalyptus tree in Southern California overshadowed the whole property. There was no floor in the kitchen, just this sort of platform in one corner that had the stove sitting on it. It was infested constantly with bus groups of rock-and-roll bands looking for a place to crash.”
The Zappas soon moved to a more secluded part of the Canyon, where Frank would make music in his sprawling studio known as “Zappa’s Grubby Chamber” until his death.
As the 1970s dawned, many of Laurel Canyon’s most celebrated residents became more and more famous and begin to leave the canyon in droves for more expensive, exclusive homes.
The Manson murders in nearby Benedict Canyon in August of 1969 had put an end to the open-door, free love policy that had allowed the magical intermingling of the mid-to-late ’60s. In 1970, long-term residents of Laurel Canyon complained about the “skippies” they claimed were ruining their property values in the Los Angeles Times:
Shoddy, makeshift dwellings dot the hillside landscape…Many of the buildings are occupied by youths the hillsiders call “skippies” because they skip out on everything- rent, jobs, education…they say they are a harder, tougher hippie element than the flower children who flocked to the hills before them. Property owners link the nomadic youths with the downward trend in the canyon and with the rash of brush fires and burglaries that swept the hillside last summer. Many residents who once boasted they never locked their doors now say they are fearful.
“You can’t sell or get financing for lower Laurel Canyon” realtor Bob Crane told the Times. “I haven’t been able to get a loan there for a year and a half. It’s even hard to get a buyer past the Country Canyon Store.”
Many of the problems in Laurel Canyon and other hippie communities were made infinitely worse by the soaring popularity of cocaine, which became the go-to drug in the music industry and therefore the neighborhood.
“You could always go to the Canyon Store and just stand in the parking lot for a while, say to somebody: ‘Hey, I’m looking for some blow, you know anybody?’” a former resident told Walker. “But nobody had to do that. It was just rampant; it was everywhere.”
The whole scene got edgier and more masculine, as alpha-male corporate rock stars like Glenn Frey and Don Henley moved into the canyon, hosting legendary poker and football nights attended by the likes of their neighbor and boss David Geffen, founder of Asylum Records.
By the late 1970s, Laurel Canyon was “where drug dealers had valet parking,” remembered musician Michael Des Barres. Seedy coke dens were everywhere, and fire repeatedly decimated the area.
Tom Mix’s famed log cabin burned in 1981. That same year, the infamous drug-infused murders at 8763 Wonderland Avenue seemed to signal an end to the decadence left over from Laurel Canyon’s heyday.
Today, Laurel Canyon is still a rustic if high-end community that embraces its legendary rock roots. But as the Los Angeles Times noted in 2007, it’s difficult to find the exact homes the rock gods lived in decades ago. Fires, remolding, landslides and landscaping have changed the canyons geography, but not its home grown, friendly feel.
“Laurel Canyon today is a tight-knit collection of neighborhoods, colorful characters…protecting and preserving the Canyon’s character and traditions,” says resident Kristen Stavola, executive director of the nonprofit We Are Laurel Canyon.
Every year, Canyon residents gather together to take a picture in front of the Canyon Country Store, a stone’s throw away from the historical marker that now commemorates Jim Morrison’s “Love Street.”
“We Are Laurel Canyon is pulling together a story teller series, ‘Loaded in Laurel Canyon,’” Stavola says. “It will feature stories told by colorful people who have lived in the area through the decades. I’d love to track down Keith Richards and ask him about the night he burned my next-door neighbor’s house to the ground. Does he even remember it?”