Diamond in the back, sunroof top
Diggin' the scene with a gangsta lean (William DeVaughn)
There have been numerous art, literary, and musical scenes down through the years. They are important because they often spawn deep cultural, political, and sociological shifts in the society at large. Sometimes it takes decades to realize the full impact of what actually took place and the influence they had wrought. Some scenes pick up steam and become a movement such as the early 20th century Modernist Movement in American poetry. About the same time the Algonquin Round Table in New York boasted such literary and theatrical figures such as Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Robert Benchley, Harpo Marx, Harold Ross, and Tallulah Bankhead. In Paris, literary heavyweights Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce gathered for drink and literary endeavors. Greenwich Village was the home to two important scenes in the 1950's and 60's – The Beats and the folk music scene. Who wouldn't want to be part of those scenes?
In my lifetime, there have also been some noteworthy scenes. The Seattle Grunge scene spawned bands such as Nirvana and Soundgarden. Their music was coined alternative rock. But that scene was never for me. The caterwauling of Kurt Cobain and the twenty something existential angst turned me off. The grunge fashion consisting of the faux lumberjack look wasn't for me either.
What was for me however was the Austin, Texas indie film scene of the 1990's. It gave birth to innovative film makers like Richard Linklater, Mike Judge, and Robert Rodriguez. In fact, Linklater's 1991 film Slacker probably defines that era. In 2012, the film was selected by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". It portrayed a subculture of Austin society who seemingly shirked responsibility characterized by aimlessness and lack of ambition. But on a deeper level, it caused folks like me to examine the status quo of working soul sucking 8-5 jobs. It did help create a vibrant film scene in Austin which created a lot of jobs for hungry actors like me at the time.
But the scene I wish I could have been a part of more than any other would be the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter scene of the 1960's. It was a scene so significant that no less than three major books have been written about it in the last 10 years. Why Laurel Canyon? Well, first and foremost would be the physical landscape itself. The jasmine, the eucalyptus, the wooded lots, the caves, the long and winding roads, the breathtaking view from Lookout Mountain, and the quaint country charm of the Canyon Country Store all calls out to the outdoorsman in me. When you add the who's who of American 1960's pop music and cheap rent (at that time)…well it doesn't get any better than that. Some of the illustrious residents of the Canyon back in those days included Crosby, Stills, Nash…and Young (when he wasn't living in nearby Topanga Canyon), members of The Mamas and The Papas, all the animal groups: The Turtles, The Monkees, and The Byrds, Joni Mitchell, Barry McGuire, Frank Zappa, Jim Morrison, Jimmy Webb, Jackson Browne, Judy Collins, and Carole King. Harvey Kubernik in Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon describes the scene as "…the place where you ran away from your parents, hid from authorities, wrote music, books, screenplays, and hung with bands, chart-toppers, and pretenders. It was an area where you created by retreating, and did not flash your cash". It was a zip code with its own play list where creative souls mingled and collaborated. As a young child, I remember watching Mama Cass Elliot in various television appearances. She was someone who left an indelible impression on me. It wasn't her obvious girth, but her charm, self assurance, and charisma she exuded that I remember best. She had a knack for bringing people together. Her house in the Canyon was a popular place to hang out. It was she who brought Crosby, Stills and Nash together. When my mom told me that Elliot had died by chocking on a ham sandwich (a false rumor still perpetuated to this day) I was saddened.
What was the quintessential Laurel Canyon song? Perhaps it was Our House – a Graham Nash tune inspired by domestic bliss with Joni Mitchell. Mitchell would go on to record her own song which defined her time there- Ladies of the Canyon. At that time, a complete unknown singer songwriter could hitch hike to the Canyon, play his or her songs in front of some of those celebrated artists and be treated as an equal. They might even be able to secure a gig at neighboring LA clubs like the Whiskey and the Troubadour. The scene was that welcoming and that open. It was all one extended jam session. In Haight-Asbury they may have wore flowers in their hair, but in Laurel Canyon hippie idealism turned into practical music making.
Like all good things, these "scenes" come to an end as well. There is no official ending, but its participants know when the gig is up. In 1932, Edna Ferber realized the scene at the Algonquin was over when she showed up for lunch one day and a family from Kansas occupied the group's regular table. Although writer Michael Walker describes the Canyon scene in his book Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Legendary Neighborhood extending well into the 70's, the scene had already turned progressively darker as that decade dawned. The downturn actually started with the murderous acts of the Manson Family in 1969. That sent a chill and paranoia down through the Canyon. Manson and his followers were frequently seen there pitching songs to whoever would listen. As the 70's wore on, cocaine snowed heavy on the Canyon replacing marijuana and LSD as the drug of choice. The hippies moved out and the cocaine cowboys moved in turning the scene meaner, more decadent, and harder edged. Even the groupies of that era made the ones ensconced at the Zappa's house back in the 60's seem matronly by contrast. Frank and Gail Zappa had a clear eyed view of all this because they insisted on remaining drug free. For one thing Zappa was a control freak and was aware that drugs could distort reality and make a person more susceptible to parasitic relationships. The singer songwriters of the Canyon also had to deal with the onslaught of punk, glam, and disco during this period.
Laurel Canyon still survives but the 60's singer songwriter scene can never be recreated, just as you can't step into the same river twice. It's a nice neighborhood but more congested and not as intimate as it used to be. The neighborhood association website boasts its proud history and pays homage to its most famous residents. Think of a naturalistic western Chelsea Hotel and you have the semi-official view of those writing its history. Barry McGuire the legendary folk star who rode the P.F. Sloan penned Eve Of Destruction to the top of the charts in 1965 and was instrumental in getting the Mamas and the Papas signed and recorded lived in Laurel Canyon from 1961-1971. I recently asked him to sum up his time living there. He replied by telling me "The only way I can describe it would be to pour a bucket of warm water on a water colored painting, whip the painting around your head a half a dozen times, and then what you see would be my memories of that ten year period. What more can I say".