My love for Laurel Canyon started even before I knew what or where Laurel Canyon was, let alone that it even existed.
It all began when I was 9 years old and spent my pocket money to buy my first cassette. I chose The Beach Boys Greatest Hits. The following year, my sister brought home a copy of The Eagles Greatest Hits. Not only was the album cover so mesmerising (it’s the one of Monument Valley) but the songs stayed with me, probably due to the fact that we listened to the tape on repeat. I bought myself a copy. Aged 12 years, I bought Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon album. It was a totally random purchase; I had heard the name Joni Mitchell but knew nothing about her and this cassette was one of two that I could afford to buy with the money I had on me. I instantly fell in love with the album’s opener “Morning Morgantown” and therefore also with Joni Mitchell and this classic album. The following year, I watched a movie called “Running on Empty”, starring River Phoenix. At one point in the film, there is a touching scene where River Phoenix and his family and girlfriend are dancing in the kitchen to James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”. I knew instantly that I had to have a copy of that song. I found it on a James Taylor Greatest Hits tape. Then I came across the name Crosby Stills and Nash and it intrigued me. Again, I had no idea who they were or what kind of music they made and played. I just loved the name. So I bought a copy of the Crosby Stills and Nash album.
I listened to these five records over and over again and loved them more with each listening. And even at this point I still had no idea that they were all connected to each other by a secluded neighbourhood tucked away in the Hollywood Hills, that not many people even knew about.
It was only in December 2009, nearly 20 years after these purchases, which were to become the foundation of my musical influences and taste, that it all made sense. We were going on holiday to California and I bought a book to read on the plane. Like many things that I buy, it was a speculative choice driven by instinct, a captivating title and a groovy cover. This book was “Laurel Canyon: The inside story of rock and roll’s legendary neighborhood” by Michael Walker. I don’t exactly know when the aha moment was: was it when I realised that all these artists that I had been listening to pretty much all my life had lived in the same neighbourhood at the same time? Or that they were all friends and hung out with each other? Or that they played on each other’s records? Or that some of them had been in relationships with each other? I don’t know. But what I do know is that I couldn’t put this book down because with each page it revealed to me the meaning of my musical life; by that I mean that everything to do with music in my life since I was a child now made sense. It hadn’t been a coincidence that I loved the music of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, CSN, The Eagles and, by association of era and the wider location of Los Angeles, The Beach Boys. Their links to each other ran further and older than the fact that their cassettes shared the space next to my tape recorder. And I had only discovered this 20 years later.
So obviously we made the pilgrimage to Laurel Canyon on our first day in LA in 2009. There is something reverent about visiting a place where ALL your musical heroes, idolised since your childhood, had lived. And in a context not personal, and to quote Joni Mitchell: “When I first came out to L.A. [in 1968], 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. 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.”
We went back again and stayed there last summer during our roadtrip. We saw Carole King’s house where she sat next to the window for the album cover of Tapestry. We were staying up the road from Joni’s house on Lookout Mountain Avenue where Henry Diltz took that well known photograph of her leaning out of the window. It’s most likely to be the very same window from which Joni painted the view for the album cover of Ladies of the Canyon. And of course we had lunch at Art’s on Ventura Boulevard on the other side of the canyon where Joni and Graham Nash had breakfast, then bought a vase, before they went home to her house, where he then wrote “Our House” thereby immortalising the rest of that day and the blissful time that they were together.
Even today, not everyone knows about Laurel Canyon and its legacy. Michael Walker’s book changed my life and I would recommend that anyone who loves music read “Laurel Canyon: The inside story of rock and roll’s legendary neighborhood” and listen to the music of that time. One word of warning. The music that came out from Laurel Canyon during this time is infectious and gets under your skin. For the past 30 years it has been in my blood.