California Dreamin’: Laurel Canyon, A Special Place In Time

Like many others I’ve not had a holiday this year, but I did spend much of last week in Laurel Canyon, that hotbed of creativity that became the epicentre of the late ’60s folk rock scene. First of all I watched the two-part series Laurel Canyon, A Place In Time and then I revisited Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, where much of the action takes place in the same location, at the same point in time. (Both can be found on Amazon Prime.)

I’ve watched many documentaries over the years about the music and lifestyles of those who resided in Laurel Canyon, but this was a particularly good one, as the only two ‘talking heads’ were photographers from those days (Henry Diltz and Nurit Wilde) who shared many of their candid shots. We saw Joni Mitchell looking all loved up with Graham Nash, Peter Tork larking around in Frank Zappa’s back garden, Jim Morrison on his bicycle and David Crosby hanging out with future sidekick Stephen Stills.

During my first year of blogging, as some regulars might remember, I kept returning to the year 1967, as for some reason there is a special place in my heart for the music from that era. Perhaps it’s because I was just a little too young to remember it from first time around, so still have many new discoveries to make, or maybe I’m just a bit of a hippie at heart and if I could hire an honest-to-goodness time machine for a day, I think I would head back to Laurel Canyon. In the early ’60s the music industry was still very much centred in New York, but by 1967 many Greenwich Village folk artists were moving west to California and setting up home in the houses and cabins which littered the hillsides of the West Hollywood district of Los Angeles. Doors were left unlocked, residents hung out and partied, but best of all, they made great music.

Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills, a district of Los Angeles

As for choosing a featured song for this post, there are literally too many to choose from. I took notes whilst watching the first episode of the documentary and they stretched to six pages. The names of some of the people who lived in Laurel Canyon in the late ’60s are as follows:

The Byrds, ‘Crosby, Stills and Nash’, Love, Joni Mitchell, Brian Wilson, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Buffalo Springfield, Jim Morrison, Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper, Peter Tork, Mickey Dolenz and The Mamas & the Papas.

Considering Mama Cass used to have an open house policy, and seems to have been one of the main figures of Canyon life, maybe this song would be a good choice. It was written when the Mamas & the Papas were still based in cold and wet New York, but were contemplating a move to California, which just like many others before them is exactly what they did.

All the leaves are brown and the sky is grey.
I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day.
I’d be safe and warm if I was in L.A.;
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.

California Dreamin’ by the Mamas & the Papas:


But of course all good things come to an end and that’s kind of what happened to this free-loving, drug-fuelled community a few years later. Doors could no longer be left open after The Manson Family killings, and a couple of the key players died way before their time (Jim Morrison and Mama Cass). As we headed into the 1970s bands like the Eagles entered the frame, and the music became more about making money, which was a new direction for Canyon residents. One by one they started to head down to more salubrious residences in more upmarket districts such as Beverley Hills.

The film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is set in 1969, and is a tribute to the final moments of Hollywood’s golden age. The main character is Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a star who fears his career is fading, and his stunt double Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt) who now acts as his gofer. As ever with Tarantino, the plot follows multiple storylines all coming together at the end. Rick’s house on Cielo Drive is right next to the one rented by Sharon Tate (a Manson Family victim) and her husband Roman Polanski. I won’t spoil the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, but suffice to say it was vintage Tarantino. Cielo Drive is not in Laurel Canyon but a bit further west, however it’s still located in the Hollywood Hills. With winter now approaching here in Scotland, I know where I’d rather be (without the murders of course).

I’ve long known about the community who took up residence in these hills, just a stone’s throw from downtown Los Angeles, but I never took the time to work out where on the map Laurel Canyon is actually located. Now I’ve got that sorted it’s time to revisit the good times, before it started to go wrong, and enjoy the music that was inspired by the place.

There was a lovely story in the documentary about how the song Our House by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young came about. Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell, both young and in love, had gone down into Los Angeles for some breakfast. On the way they’d stopped at an antique shop where Joni bought a simple, blue vase. When they got home, Graham suggested she stroll through the woods to pick flowers for the vase. Rather than build the fire he had promised, he sat down at her piano and began writing a song about their shared domestic bliss: “I’ll light the fire, you put the flowers in the vase that you bought today”. I’m an old romantic so really loved that story but find it hard to believe that by the time the song was released, they were no longer a couple. Makes me sad.

This one by Buffalo Springfield always sends shivers down my spine, and it has appeared in many a Vietnam War film. Although often considered an anti-war song, Stephen Stills was inspired to write it because of the Sunset Strip curfew riots in November 1966, a series of early counterculture-era clashes that took place between police and young people.

Of course we can’t forget about Joni Mitchell, that Lady of the Canyon.

Finally, something from Jim Morrison and The Doors, one of the most iconic and influential frontmen in rock history, who sadly died at the age of 27 in 1971. Jim was a true bohemian and poet who struggled to cope with his fame. Perhaps his brooding good looks were a hindrance to him, but he remains on many a deep-thinker’s bedroom wall to this day.

Until next time….

California Dreamin’ Lyrics
(Song by John Phillips/Michelle Phillips)

All the leaves are brown and the sky is grey.
I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day.
I’d be safe and warm if I was in L.A.;
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.

Stopped in to a church I passed along the way.
Well I got down on my knees and I pretend to pray.
You know the preacher liked the cold;
He knows I’m gonna stay.
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.

All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray.
I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day.
If I didn’t tell her I could leave today;
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.

Author: Alyson

Whenever I hear an old song on the radio, I am immediately transported back to those days - I know I'm not alone here and want to record those memories for myself and for the people in them. 50 years ago the song "Alfie" was written by my favourite songwriting team Bacharach and David - The opening line to that song was "What's it all about?" and I'm hoping that by writing this blog, I might find the answer to that question.

15 thoughts on “California Dreamin’: Laurel Canyon, A Special Place In Time”

  1. I was 16 in 1967, so it’s a special year for me. That year I saw shows by Pink Floyd, Cream and The Who at Aberdeen’s Beach Ballroom and I doubt if there’s been such an amazing trio of gigs in Aberdeen since then. My musical tastes were heavily influenced by the musicians in Laurel Canyon, especially Buffalo Springfield whose members went on to fame with other bands and as solo acts. My favourite was Neil Young, who always seemed more tortured than the rest of the Laurel Canyon tribe.
    Jim Morrison was another who showed up society’s dark side – “Killer on the Road” – but Neil was even darker when he sang “Revolution Blues” with the disturbing closing lines:
    “I see bloody fountains
    And ten million dune buggies comin’ down the mountains
    Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars”
    I think Neil was influenced by a book by the poet Ed Sanders (author and founder member of the American band The Fugs”) – title “The Family: The Story of Charles Manson’s Dune Buggy Attack Battalion” – released the same year as Manson and The Family stood trial for the Tate-La Bianca murders. It’s ironic that Manson tried to make it big as a musician and was connected with the Beach Boys.
    The Summer of Love was special but the likes of Manson always seem to be waiting in the wings to ruin the good times. Thankfully we have some great music to enjoy decades later.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gosh thanks for this lengthy comment Lynchie – Almost like a guest post in itself!

      I was only 7 in 1967 so too young for much of the music back then and only truly appreciating it now all these years later. I love watching these documentaries about life in the Canyon (when it was good) but as you say, always someone or something waiting in the wings to spoil the good times – Just how life is I suppose. If you haven’t yet seen the film, it really helped me understand the whole Manson Family thing as I just hadn’t taken the time until then. In typical Tarantino style there are of course loads of twists, turns and flashbacks but excellent I thought, especially as I’m a fan of any Hollywood related histories.

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      1. Alyson – I’ve seen the Laurel Canyon documentary and the Tarantino film (which I need to watch again).
        Over the years I’ve read a couple of books about Manson and his “Family” and been amazed how Manson managed to influence so many people and get some of them to commit murder. Don’t know if you’ve seen “Aquarius”, a crime drama series which features Manson & his family and stars David “The X Files” Duchovny. I didn’t think it was that good but it does give some insight into the time of hippies, “black power” the music scene in Los Angeles and the Manson family “life” on the Spahn ranch.

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    1. I thought it was excellent and loved how they only used voiceovers for the key players and loads of original photos and film from the times – Kept us in the moment really and I am a fan of nostalgia.

      No that was news to me too about Mama Cass – She was obviously one of the most gregarious and party-loving characters amongst the bunch. She also appears in the film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, dancing with Michelle Phillips and Sharon Tate at Playboy Mansion poolside party – Such times!

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  2. That Laurel Canyon documentary is new to me and sounds like a good companion piece to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Will try and give it watch some time. Tarantino’s soundtracks are like an event as much as the films are.
    Also, now that we are talking locations, I enjoyed the Scotland guest post at Rol’s. A great idea, especially at the moment when we can’t travel much!
    All the best, Chris

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    1. Hi Chris – I meant to mention the film’s soundtrack as it was as usual a key element of the film and there was an excellent version of California Dreamin’ by Jose Feliciano.

      Glad you enjoyed my little tour of Scotland – As you say, none of us are travelling much this year so sadly it has to be virtual.

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  3. While you’re a on a West Coast kick Alyson, you might also be interested in ‘Echo In The Canyon’, a film released in 2018 narrated by Jakob (son of Bob) Dylan, which traces the music and its influence up to the current day. The film features plenty of big names including Tom Petty’s last filmed interview.

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    1. Ironically that’s what I’m in the middle of watching this week! A natural follow up to last week’s viewing. Jakob looks and sounds so like Bob at times and really enjoying the other artists like Fiona Apple whom I only discovered last week via a TV drama soundtrack. Funnily enough I thought of you when I saw Tom Petty being interviewed as I remembered how shocked and upset you were when he passed away. We remarked on how well he looked and how sharp and funny he was, so very sad indeed.

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  4. Hi Alyson -oh your post didn’t appear in my feed so I don’t know what’s going on there and a bit of blog catching up for me to do generally all round! The Laurel Canyon documentary sounds right up my street – a fascinating scene. It must have been such a thriving, creative, free place in its musical prime – I too would like a time machine trip back to ’67 to spend some of it there (and the rest in London!) On a slightly different tack but still California-based, I’m currently reading Grace Slick’s autobiography ‘Somebody To Love’ – very engaging, I think you’d like it if you haven’t already read it.

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    1. Maybe another foible of New Blogger but you all seem to be transitioning nicely with no-one having thrown in the towel yet, Long may it continue.

      Since that first documentary I’ve also watched Jakob Dylan’s one called Echo in the Canyon so fully immersed in the late ’60s this week too. Having now worked out exactly where it is on the map, it seems amazing that you have this vast sprawl of grid patterned streets that constitutes most of Los Angeles/the San Fernando Valley but right in the middle of it all there is this range of mountains with north-south canyons where people set up home in little houses and cabins – A real rural idyll with the sound of birds, cayotes at night. Would love a trip back in time to that place (without the murders and the drug overdoses).

      Not read Grace Slick’s book but sounds as if I’d like it – She wasn’t a Laurel Canyon person but was very much of the same era.

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  5. Big fan of the Laurel Canyon sound, and I loved Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. The last half hour or so is vintage Tarantino, but I could happily just watch the rest of it on loop, particularly the scenes with Brad driving round town listening to the radio. I could be a passenger in that car forever.

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    1. As I’m thoroughly sick of the real world, I’ve been very happily ensconced in late 1960s Laurel Canyon for the last week. I saw Once Upon A Time In Hollywood when it came out at the cinema but Tarantino movies are so clever and multi-layered it was good to be able to watch it again at home and rewind the really good bits (most of it). Thought Brad was excellent in the film and I would most certainly enjoy riding around town with him listening to the radio. That Jose Feliciano version of California Dreamin’ is a great stress-buster.

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