Laurel Canyon in the late 1960s was where everything came together and everything fell apart: bands, relationships, the Earth’s crust, you name it—everything was coalescing, and that led to fractures. The fractures, in truth, were inevitable, considering everyone was playing music, taking drugs and having sex with each other in a creative, liberated frenzy. How very Californian.
Across the other side of America, the original Greenwich Village folk scene had started to fade into new forms. Bob Dylan turned away from societal issues, and the artfulness of Andy Warhol’s Factory infused music began capturing the zeitgeist rather than changing it. Thus, the new epicentre for artists delving into society in a traditional sense had to spring up somewhere. What better place than in the sunny hills of a liberal suburbia in reach of America’s supposed great engine of cultural change: Hollywood.
It made perfect sense really, as Joni Mitchell once claimed to have read in a dogeared book: “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 I bought a house on Lookout Mountain.” And frankly, if you ask anyone outside of the States where the craziest people live, they’ll tell you America—so we’re dealing the craziest in the world here.
And what a place to house them. The Canyon was then as it is now, a lot of nothing but hills and houses and overly windy roads for hippies to be trusted on. Basked in the sunshine, adorned with flowering shrubberies and endless lookout vistas over the sprawling City of Angels. This utopian swathe of suburbia is where a zenith of cultural history quietly exploded like a party popper around Neil Young’s place on a thirsty Thursday.
It was loved by artists during that reverberating boom for the same reason it is loved by artists now: “To be that close to the Sunset Strip and yet you had a feel that you were in the country was beautiful.” That might be so, but it’s not all that often when you’re out hiking in the rolling hills that you bump into Jim Morrison, Brian Wilson and Michelle Phillips within five minutes of each other. That was the reality in Laurel Canyon. Anyone who was anyone was flocking there.
In some ways, this reflects the necessity of the day. After all, it wasn’t until 1963 that you could even direct-dial Paris from London. The international community we now have via the internet, and constant means of connectivity was not really a thing. If you wanted to be part of the happening scene, then you had to go there. This created a hive of hippies with a feeling that they were on the cusp of something deep in the far western outpost of the rock ‘n’ roll world.
As Graham Nash said, “This was an incredible environment for a musician to be in,” and as Tom Petty adds, “It was a nice circle of really good artists thinking alike – ‘How can I make a record as that one?’” Those records included If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, Buffalo Springfield Again, Pet Sounds and about a hundred other classics. Now, the hills remain imbued with that sound. How could it not? This music represented a truly ground-breaking cultural moment. And it seemingly happened so seamlessly, as Nash recalls: “People would just knock on your door and go, ‘Hey listen to this!’”.
The scene may well have fizzled out, plenty of artists still live in Laurel Canyon, but the cross-pollinating community is a far-off memory seemingly too sentimental to ever have been real. Nevertheless, with the right car and radio station, the magic of that indelible era still cackles. As Regina Spektor said, “This music shaped the second half of the 20th Century.” When all that poured out from one single neighbourhood, there is no way that at least a smidgen of the zeitgeist isn’t lingering in the sun trapped corners of the weaving streets.
However, if it is merely a feeling that you’re fishing for, then how exactly do you find it, and where do you go? Well, it’s not all that hard, but if you’re struggling to convince your travel partner that driving around with a playlist on (which we have provided at the bottom of the piece, you’re welcome, although most of the artists recently boycotted Spotify) then there’s also a handful of places worth stopping in at.
The remaining haunts of Laurel Canyon:
Lookout Mountain Avenue
Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash are almost a totemic symbol of Laurel Canyon, and it was on Lookout Mountain Avenue that they shared a roof. They met at a party, they shacked up together, they fell in love and wrote songs about each other, they fell out of love, they wrote songs about each other and so on. In fact, just about the only song they didn’t come up with during their time here is something truly encapsulating like ‘Love and loss on Lookout Mountain’.
There isn’t a great deal to see and there is even less to do, but sometimes that is a beautiful thing when you’re treading in the heavy footsteps of cultural history because it hasn’t changed much either. And in place of plaques, monuments, and crappy gift shops is a genuine transportive sense to a time when these hills were heaving with acoustics and mandarins, and that flowery dress you just spied billowing around the corner could well have been Mitchell’s.
Laurel Canyon County Store
Even rock stars need groceries and the Laurel Canyon County Store was the sobering space that kept the groggy faces of the community together. With Jim Morrison’s wild house as a backyard neighbour, this was no regular Walmart and it still joyously embraces its Americana past.
In fact, it still has a feel of the past. Testimony to that is Father John Misty’s 2015 track ‘I Went to the Store One Day’ about how he was hungover one morning with just enough drink left in him to approach Emma Tillman in the parking lot. The two are now happily married and it was the same unchanged store that brought a hundred relationships together that they have to thank for that.
The store is like some silent guardian of the neighbourhood, ensuring that the hip folks of the hills have everything they need.
Mulholland Scenic Overlook
The beauty of Laurel Canyon for most of its denizens is that it was part of the heaving city of Los Angeles and apart from it. Nowhere do you get more of a sense of that window to the world feel than at the Mulholland scenic outlook just off the main boulevard.
There is a mystique to Los Angeles as Phil Ochs said: “The final story, the final chapter of western man, I believe, lies in Los Angeles.” This is the sort of thing that Jim Morrison might have thought as he gazed out over the cityscape and hills and desert beyond under the dusky pink sky that you don’t get anywhere else in the world, and he dreamed up his songs that paired the moment with some primordial past.
There is something grand about Laurel Canyon, and that does not just reside in the story of its past and the way that sound seems to sit in the hills like a sonic glass slipper. It’s a dreamy place where big dreamers flocked.