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.

Autumn, “California Dreaming” and The Mamas & the Papas

Having totally accepted now that autumn is well and truly with us, it’s possible to start enjoying all the things it brings. It was interesting this week to discover that the Pagan name for the autumnal equinox is actually “Mabon”, and that it really is a celebration of the fact the harvests are in and we can count our proverbial blessings for another year. Not that I’ve suddenly gone all new-age or anything but I decided to head out for a walk on Thursday (the day of the equinox) to gather some of nature’s riches in a basket. Hubby decided to humour me and tagged along. Living right on the edge of a forest we didn’t have to go far to find all sorts of interesting bits and pieces. The basket idea was ditched however in favour of a bag (too Little Red Riding Hood-like otherwise) but when I asked hubby to retrieve the bag from his pocket it turned out he’d taken a giant plastic one from a well-known sporting goods store. This was not the rustic, rural idyll I was trying to recreate so he very kindly headed back for something in cloth or hessian.

IMG_0181.jpg
Celebrating Mabon!

It was a beautiful afternoon and the walk in itself would have been enough but I was really pleased to be able to gather so many interesting berries, leaves and seedpods. Once back home, my items were placed in a bowl on the hearth but when darling daughter arrived home and questioned why there was indeed a bowl of “stuff” in the living room, I explained we were celebrating the start of autumn and the fact the harvests were in for another year. “But we go to the supermarket” she said, seemingly nonplussed – Missing the point there I think!

Anyway, having done my bit of new-age celebrating (with a candle no less) it occurred to me that one of my favourite autumnal songs is California Dreamin’ by The Mamas & the Papas. Now this is a really great song (not least because of the harmonies) but can cause real seasonal confusion. It shouldn’t really as the lyrics are quite straightforward – The narrator is basically longing for the warmth of his home in LA during a cold winter’s day in New York. But what with the reference to the autumn leaves, the winter’s day, and the sunshine of California, it kind of encapsulates three seasons in one song.

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:

This autumn/winter song was written by John and Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas. Because it is so closely associated with The Mamas & the Papas however, it confusingly comes under the sub-genre sunshine pop. They, along with other mid-sixties artists such as The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean, were part of a musical aesthetic called The California Sound. To be a teenager in southern California in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it must have felt as if you’d died and gone to heaven, and the songs identified with that culture were full of wide-eyed, sunny optimism. They were all about surfin’, riding around in hotrods and partying at the beach. The California Sound however gradually evolved to reflect a more mature world view, becoming less to do with surfing and cars and more about social consciousness and political awareness. Between 1964 and 1969, it inspired artists to tackle meatier themes such as sexual freedom, black pride, drugs, politics and war.

But for now I will just enjoy the song, whatever musical sub-genre it belongs to. I was too young to enjoy The California Sound first time around but it is a sound we are all familiar with. The offspring of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, and Mama and Papa John and Michelle Phillips, went on to form the late ’80s band Wilson Phillips so one of those second generation things going on there – Sadly I was a bit too old for their kind of sunshine pop by this time so yet again missed the boat. I will however leave you with their biggest hit, Hold On from 1990 (which incidentally had a bit of a starring role in the very funny Kristen Wiig film, Bridesmaids). Enjoy.

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.