There are many different neighborhoods that have defined various facets of the music world throughout time. There are neighborhoods known for being places where creativity would thrive. There are those that introduced musicians to one another, became known for their venues, their parties, and their nightlife. There are neighborhoods that inspired their inhabitants get out and do better. And, generally, those are all neighborhoods where various countercultures have thrived. LA's Laurel Canyon is probably among the most famous of them.
Having taken over where San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury left off, Laurel Canyon became home to some of the top musicians of the 1970's such as The Byrds, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and The Mamas and the Papas. Current resident Michael Walker explores its history, its residents, and its importance in his book Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock n' Roll's Legendary Neighborhood. It features many first hand accounts from several of Laurel Canyon's most famous neighbors as well as various lesser-known hangers-on. But, what begins as a testament to a very famous neighborhood becomes a history lesson on the city itself, the music industry of the 60's and 70's and its very diverse cast of characters.
There's so much in these pages that make for a fascinating read. Interesting facts about the personal lives of Cass Elliot, Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, Jim Morrison and many others who colored the scene make this book more than worth picking up. But the inside look at the workings of the music industry during it's biggest transformation is an intriguing perspective as well. Walker doesn't, however, leave a stone unturned. He more than touches on the area's intense drug culture, the history of its bars and live music venues and the past of many of the homes in the neighborhood as well. There's a lot here.
It is, as he explains in the books' preface, not in chronological order. In fact, it kind of bounces around but that does not mean it becomes unfocused or hard to follow. Walker somehow always found his way back to the neighborhood at the book's center (although I sometimes wondered how he was going to do it).
At times, his writing becomes greatly embellished and, in turn, Walker romanticizes the neighborhood to a fantastical degree. There are moments in the book where he compares Laurel Canyon to Sodom and Gomorrah (referring to the fire of 1979) and even Fitzgerald's Jazz Age. The amount of flair at times becomes so indulgent that I wasn't sure I was still reading non-fiction.
There are also several minor characters that Walker spent unusual amounts of time giving voice to. Because of that, there would be a number of consecutive pages that just felt unnecessary and…kind of weird. "Well-connected" groupie Morgana Welch (just 16 when she started cavorting with Led Zeppelin) is given an outrageous amount of space to recount her memories and encounters, accentuating her position in the groupie food chain of the time. It just becomes nearly nauseating.
Minor flaws do not, however, constitute a failure. There are so many interesting facts and stories that make Walker's book worth picking up. Laurel Canyon itself is a topic interesting enough to create a basis for a music history lesson. From the Canyon's whimsical days of free love and experimentation to its "dark ages" of the Wonderland Murders and raging fires, Walker presents a portrait of a neighborhood that deserves a place in rock history alongside The Beatles, Haight-Ashbury, and CBGB's heyday. Good read, most of the time.
- Stephanie Haselman | 2006-07-06