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Music

Why Joni Mitchell hated living next to Frank Zappa

Despite its idyllic and hippie-adjacent reputation, there was actually a wide-ranging swath of individuals who called Laurel Canyon home in the late 1960s and early ’70s. For every Carole King or Graham Nash, there was also alcohol-swilling Jim Morrison or a coked-out Harry Nilsson. The area began to attract more dangerous drug-focused enterprises in the late ’70s, eventually culminating in the Wonderland murders in 1981. What started as a musical utopia quickly devolved into hedonistic and violent reality.

But beyond the darker edges of the Canyon, some residential pairings were just plain weird. Governor Jerry Brown was rubbing elbows with the gang of drug dealers who lived next door. The centre of the early party scene was Cass Elliot’s house, with neighbours including James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and a pre-ranch Neil Young. But if there was a single figure who made Laurel Canyon seem like the best place in Los Angeles to be, it was Joni Mitchell.

Whether directly or indirectly, Mitchell inspired and created some of the most indelible images and best-remembered artifacts of Laurel Canyon at its height: the house she shared with Graham Nash and the walking path down to the local stores were preserved in the lyrics of ‘Our House’, while an infamous night of being stood up by Browne was chronicled on ‘Car on a Hill’. But the piece of art that best captures the early romanticism of the area came from the title of Mitchell’s third album, Ladies of the Canyon.

To many listeners over the years, hearing Ladies of the Canyon brought to mind a paradise of sun, poetry, and love. The hippie dream, in other words. But the reality of the matter was that Mitchell was living right next door to a notorious hippie-hater: Frank Zappa.

Zappa had his own vision the ideal lifestyle: free love, but without the drugs. Poetry, but with additional potty humour. Heady guitar solos, but with jazz chord changes. In other words, Zappa was just different from most of the musicians and residents who made up the tight-knit community. Zappa had a wife and family, which was one reason why he infrequently visited his famous neighbours, but he was also notoriously mercurial and could be quite acerbic. It didn’t endear him to most of the more hippie-like residents, but Mitchell could be plenty acerbic in her own right. Her problems with Zappa had more to do with distance.

“My dining room looked out over Frank Zappa’s duck pond, and once when my mother was visiting, three naked girls were floating around on a raft in the pond,” Mitchell told Vanity Fair in 2015. “My mother was horrified by my neighborhood”. 

It was bizarre instances like this that made Mitchell and Zappa occasionally combative neighbours, but luckily both were frequently either on the road or in the studio, giving them the appropriate amount of space when called for. Still, it’s hard not laugh at the image of Joni Mitchell having a garden party an Frank Zappa bringing over some jello or something.

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