Young girls are coming to the canyon

“At first so strange to feel so friendly, to say ‘good morning’ and really mean it, to feel these changes happening in me, but not to notice ’til I feel it, young girls are coming to the canyon, and in the mornings, I can see them walking…”  “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon),” The Mamas and The Papas, 1967

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When I moved to Los Angeles in August 2011, I got in my car and started exploring the streets, the beaches, the tourist attractions and the famous landmarks that are mentioned in so many songs I listened to as a kid growing up in far-away Ohio.

The Pacific Coast Highway.  Venice Beach.  Sunset Strip.  The Santa Monica Pier.  Topanga Canyon.  Hollywood Boulevard.  The Troubadour.

tMV6BuuOne afternoon, I found myself on Sunset Boulevard, heading toward one of the nation’s meccas for every music lover and album buyer, Amoeba Records.  Sitting at a light, I looked at the street sign and realized I was at the base of Laurel Canyon Boulevard.  Wow, I thought, Laurel Canyon.  So much rock history there!

The main thing I recall reading about Laurel Canyon was how Joni Mitchell lived in a rustic cottage there in 1969, and shared the place for a while with Graham Nash.  They wrote many of their wonderful early songs there, including Nash’s “Our House,” specifically about the idyllic home life they nurtured there as one of counterculture’s better-known couples.

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Stephen Stills and Peter Tork

I turned left and headed up the winding road in hopes of getting a taste for what the Laurel Canyon community was all about.  I pictured some sort of woodsy Shangri-La where hippie types strummed guitars on front porches, waving and welcoming passersby in for tea and a hit off the hash pipe.

How silly of me to expect that more than 40 years later.  That was then, this is now.

Laurel Canyon Boulevard today is a very busy, overtaxed roadway that brings way too much traffic up and down the canyon connecting the San Fernando Valley with West Hollywood.   Like other canyon roads that snake through the Santa Monica Mountain range and the Hollywood Hills, Laurel Canyon can be a peaceful exception to the hustle-bustle of the rest of “El Lay,” especially if you turn onto the dead-end side streets that delve even deeper into the lush greenery.  But on the main thoroughfare, the long slow line of cars driven by impatient residents and valley commuters have little patience for swivel-headed tourists who dawdle and gawk, wondering where the peace-and-love musicians have gone.

From the mid-’60s into the early ’70s, an inordinate number of game-changing musicians

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The Mamas and The Papas

whose songs represented “the California sound” called Laurel Canyon home, even if only briefly.  The Byrds (Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman and David Crosby) ruled the roost for a spell, as did John & Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and The Papas.  John Densmore and Jim Morrison of The Doors lived there, as did Buffalo Springfield (Stephen Stills, Richie Furay and Neil Young).  Bands like Canned Heat and Love were residents, as were Peter Tok and Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees.  Even iconoclast Frank Zappa of The Mothers of Invention made his home in the Canyon for a while.

Carole King, who had first gained fame as a Brill Building songwriter in New York with husband/partner Gerry Goffin, moved to Laurel Canyon in 1970, where she wrote the songs that would end up on her exceptional “Tapestry” album, a defining record of the ’70s and, for a while, the best selling record in history.

John Mayall, pioneer of the British blues movement, moved to L.A. in 1968 in the wake of the breakup of his band The Bluesbreakers, and recorded and released “Blues From Blues-From-Laurel-CanyonLaurel Canyon” that year.  One track, a gentle blues number called “Laurel Canyon Home,” painted this simple picture: “Each and every morning, when the sun is high, I hunt around the canyon until I find a place to lie, it’s so beautiful to be alone, got the sun and trees and silence, I’m in my Laurel Canyon home/ Looking back a century, I look at where I stand, it must have looked the same as when Apaches roamed the land, it’s so beautiful to be alone, got the sun and trees and silence, I’m in my Laurel Canyon home…”

Perhaps most famous of the Laurel Canyon crowd was Mitchell, the Canadian singer-songwriter whose third LP, “Ladies of the Canyon,” was written there in 1969-1970.  The title song describes the innocent waifs and sturdy Earth mothers who inhabited the community at the time:  “Vine and leaf are filagree, and her coat’s a second-hand one, trimmed in antique luxury, she is a lady of the canyon…  For her home, she gathers flowers, and Estrella, dear companion, colors up the sunshine hours, pouring music down the canyon…”

The Doors’ 1968 tune “Love Street” (from their #1 LP “Waiting For the Sun”) is Morrison’s nickname for Laurel Canyon Boulevard.  He also references the Laurel Canyon Store, a images-46general-store hangout that still exists today:  “She lives on Love Street, lingers long on Love Street, she has a house and garden, I would like to see what happens…  I see you live on Love Street, there’s this store where the creatures meet, I wonder what they do in there…”

Long before this group of musicians descended on the area, Laurel Canyon had been an escapist place, a magical-forest part of Los Angeles where the noise and smog didn’t seem to penetrate.  Hollywood actors in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s found privacy there, a safe haven in which to conduct private trysts and experiment with drugs, away from the prying eyes of the paparazzi’s cameras.

In “Canyon of Dreams:  The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon,” an exhaustive history and exploration published in 2009, author Harvey Kubernik offers this 51ZqLeLTBEL._SX378_BO1,204,203,200_description:  “It was the place where you ran away from your parents, hid from authorities, wrote music, books, screenplays, hung out with bands, chart-toppers and pretenders.  The music it gave birth to — before swollen egos and swollen nostrils brought a heavy rain down — somehow still informs the soundtrack of our lives.”

In the book’s foreword, Ray Manzarek, keyboardist of The Doors, said, “There was always some kind of magic afoot in that Canyon.  The light and the sun infused that zone with a sense of joy.  There was always something spiritual about that slice through the green earth, but never more so than in the ’60s.  We had become the new tribe, and it felt as if we were spreading the message of (dare I say it today) love to a new world.”

Danny Hutton of Three Dog Night arrived in Laurel Canyon back in 1964 and never left,  raising a family, tending a garden, and becoming a stalwart of the community.  Today, he boasts the unofficial title of ambassador of the canyon.  “Everyone has this thing about Laurel Canyon.  It’s a mythical place for most people.”

The Wallflowers’ Jakob Dylan, son of legendary tunesmith Bob Dylan, has always been intrigued by the aura of Laurel Canyon’s rock ‘n roll heyday.  In 2015, he staged a concert with Beck, Fiona Apple and other musicians to pay tribute to the music of that place and Echo-in-the-Canyon-movietime.  He then collaborated with producer Andrew Slater to conduct interviews with some of the key players of that era — David Crosby, Michelle Phillips, Brian Wilson, Stephen Stills, Jackson Browne, Roger McGuinn, Eric Clapton, Graham Nash, even Ringo Starr and producer Lou Adler.  He also spoke at length with Tom Petty (his final interview before his death) about how the songs and sounds born in Laurel Canyon had a profound influence on him and other contemporaries.

The result is a documentary of sorts called “Echo in the Canyon,” which is currently making a splash in cinema houses around the country.  It’s kind of disjointed, woefully incomplete and flawed, in my opinion, but for people of my generation, “Echo in the Canyon” is a fun and invigorating 82 minutes well spent.  For younger generations, or those who aren’t hip to the influences and inspirations of the Laurel Canyon story, it will no doubt be an eye-opening experience.

A side note:  I thought my readers might like to know there’s a 2002 film called “Laurel MV5BNWNiYzg1ZTktOTBmOC00YWIxLWJmNzUtZDRhYjEwZjA0YmIxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc1NTQxODI@._V1_Canyon” starring Frances McDormand, Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale that is well worth your time as well.  Said director Lisa Cholodenko:  “My film editor and I were listening to music one day, and had brought in that Joni Mitchell album, ‘Ladies of the Canyon.’  I used to love that record. We listened to it, and started talking about what the Laurel Canyon scene must have been like in the late ’60s-early ’70s.  I thought it would be fun to set a movie in that scene but changed to a modern context. And I just took it from there.”  It’s a quirky piece of fiction set in the Canyon that focuses on the evolving relationship between a hippie-type mother and her more conventional son and daughter-in-law as they explore sexual tensions and generational differences.

Photographer Henry Diltz, one of rock photography’s most respected figures, has captured hundreds of photos of Laurel Canyon and its most celebrated musical practitioners.  One such photo appears on the iconic album cover for the debut LP “Crosby, Stills and Nash,” which was taken in West Hollywood, only a stone’s throw from Laurel Canyon.  Another is the wonderful shot (below) of Joni Mitchell leaning out the D6949H_UIAA0ru6window of her Laurel Canyon cottage.  “I really admired these people and their amazing music, and I felt honored to photograph them in their milieu.  We are still close friends to this day.”

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The Spotify play list below includes songs referred to in this essay as well as recordings from the “Echo in the Canyon” film soundtrack.

 

 

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If I really say it, the radio won’t play it

Boldly creative art has been facing censorship for centuries, and attempts to stifle provocative popular music lyrics have been going on since the Top 40 Hit Parade debuted way back in the 1930s.  Over the years and still true today (although to a far lesser extent), song words have been occasionally bleeped, masked and even outright banned to keep lyrics deemed inappropriate or objectionable from being heard on the public airwaves.

musiccensorshipMuch as films were heavily censored in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s to remove any scenes or dialog considered by industry watchdogs to be immoral, popular music in the first decades of the rock and roll era often came under the same sort of scrutiny by record company executives and radio programmers.

Instances of censorship involved different types of objections — profanity, politics, sacrilege, sexual content, drug abuse, even commercial product mentions.  Radio programmers typically said they were worried of running afoul of decency laws or offending powerful interests, but more often than not, they were just as concerned about losing revenues from advertisers or local retailers who refused to be associated with a song’s edgy lyrical content.

But what, exactly, is edgy?  How do we define it?  Standards regarding what is objectionable have changed significantly over 80+ years.  This is particularly true when it comes to lyrics about sex.  In 1943, for example, a British singer named George Formby found out that his recording of a song called “When I’m Cleaning Windows” was going to be banned from airplay because the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) decided the lyric was “too racy.”  Here’s how it went:  “The blushing bride she looks divine, the bridegroom he is doing fine, I’d rather have his job than mine, when I’m cleaning windows…”  Wow.  This innocuous song was banned, evidently, because someone determined we shouldn’t hear lyrics that they thought described a voyeur spying on newlyweds from his perch on the window washing scaffold.

db6cb9329f23e7191be3a3643587b5f8Van Morrison’s beloved 1967 classic “Brown-Eyed Girl” raised eyebrows at the time because of the obvious sexual lyric “making love in the green grass behind the stadium with you” in the third verse.  Most stations were reluctant to ban the whole song, so they simply removed that line and replaced it by repeating “laughing and a-running, hey hey” from the first verse, despite Morrison’s heated protestations.

(It’s interesting to note that Morrison had originally written the song about a Caribbean woman and had entitled it “Brown-Skinned Girl,” but the record company refused to release a song that seemed to endorse a mixed-race relationship, so he grudgingly agreed to change it to “Brown-Eyed Girl.”)

By 1987, the George Michael hit “I Want Your Sex” managed to reach #1 that year, but it met enough resistance in a few conservative areas to create the alternate version “I Want Your Love.”  And through the years, there has been no shortage of rather graphic sex-oriented lyrics hidden deep on rock albums (check out Frank Zappa’s “Dinah-Moe Humm” from 1973), but they usually slid under the radar because they didn’t get radio play except on the most maverick FM stations.

87bcc222ebdcd223a8f847c44971567cMany songs with references to drug use started in the freewheeling ’60s with tracks like Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” which tied the story of “Alice in Wonderland” to hallucinogens.   And while John Lennon always maintained the “LSD” initials of The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” was purely coincidental, the song was clearly awash in psychedelic imagery.

And there are much earlier examples:  Some versions of the 1940s-era Cole Porter standard “I Get a Kick Out of You” were rewritten to remove the second verse — “Some, they may go for cocaine, I’m sure that if I took even one sniff, it would bore me terrifically too, yet I get a kick out of you” — because censors feared it would glamourize drug use (even though it’s clear the singer didn’t even try the stuff!).

While drug-oriented lyrics abound on many album tracks of rock LPs, if they show up in the hit singles, they’re usually subject to some sort of censorship.  Tom Petty’s 1994 song “You Don’t Know How It Feels” includes the line, “Let’s get to the point, let’s roll another joint,” a blatant marijuana reference that was intentionally garbled by many radio stations.

13000745_f520Sometimes the censors were totally off-base, interpreting an innocent children’s fairy tale like Peter, Paul & Mary’s “Puff the Magic Dragon” as a veiled reference to smoking weed.   “Oh, for crying out loud,” said Peter Yarrow in 1963 when the song was released.  “It’s just a children’s song, a story about a boy and a dragon.”  But some stations in conservative areas blackballed it anyway, at least for a while.

Overt political views were sometimes deemed too controversial for radio play.  Barry McGuire’s antiwar song “Eve of Destruction” (1965) made waves because of the line ‘they’re old enough to kill but not for votin’.”  The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” (1976) and Paul wingsadMcCartney’s “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” (1972) were banned from the BBC for their perceived anti-government opinions.

Stations squeamish about offending religious groups took issue with The Beatles’ “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (1969), which was bleeped in most Bible Belt markets each time Lennon sang, “Christ!  You know it ain’t easy…”  Producers of the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” had to battle mightily for a while to get the title track played in some communities that assumed it was blasphemous.  The Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (1979) met resistance too — not because of Satan (who loses the fiddle duel, after all), but with the line “I told you once, you son of a bitch,” which was changed to “son of a gun” in some markets.

The Who’s “My Generation” (1965), with its stuttering vocals, was thought by some to be offensive to those with speech impediments.  Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” (1985) faced a fight regarding what many considered a defamatory remark against gays in the second verse — “that little faggot is a millionaire” — even though composer Mark Knopfler pointed out he was belittling the small-minded thinking of the character who spoke the line.  In these cases, the bans didn’t last more than a week or so, but it’s interesting to note that objections were raised at all.

5601251768_e298d3a946_bThe BBC even had a firm rule against any commercial product placement in song lyrics, which caused problems for Paul Simon’s hit “Kodachrome” (1973).  The Kinks’ singer Ray Davies had to return to a London studio to re-record a vocal part for the 1970 hit “Lola,” revising the lyric from Coca-Cola to cherry cola.

For years, “The Ed Sullivan Show” ruled supreme as the arbiter of which rock ‘n roll groups were worthy of nationwide TV exposure, beginning with Elvis in 1956 and up through the game-changing Beatles performances in early 1964.  But Sullivan reserved the right to approve all material, and in 1967, he rolled the dice twice by inviting two ed-sullivan-mick-jaggeredgier acts to appear.  First he booked those bad British brats, The Rolling Stones, and demanded that their brash young singer, Mick Jagger, change the words of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together.”  Jagger went along, but rolled his eyes at the camera each time he sang it.

Then a month later came Jim Morrison and The Doors, who were forced to alter their #1 hit “Light My Fire” by changing “girl, we couldn’t get much higher” to “girl, we couldn’t get much better” (even though it didn’t rhyme with “liar” and “fire”).  Morrison played along during rehearsals, but when the show was taped, he looked defiantly into the camera and sang the real lyric, and Sullivan went through the roof, canceling all future appearances by the group.

The main problem with censorship, though, has alway been that it’s arbitrary and uneven in enforcement.  Who gets to say what is objectionable?  How do we determine the standards?  When and where are they enforced?  Why do some songs face an embargo or tampering while others skate by without any challenges?

R-5879313-1423648758-5310.jpegA couple of Gary Puckett songs in the late ’60s — “Young Girl,” “This Girl is a Woman Now” — focused on a creepy infatuation of a young girl by an older guy that, looking at it now, clearly bordered on pedophilia, but they somehow escaped the censors’ attention at the time.  Even more curious was the case of The Buoys, a one-hit wonder group who had the sheer chutzpah to release a single in 1971 called “Timothy” that told the disturbing tale of three poor souls who were trapped in a caved-in mine, and two of the boys ate the third boy in order to survive!

The hypocrisy and randomness of the censors’ actions was puzzling, to say the least.  Having sex in the grass?  No way, Jose.  Cannibalism?  Hey, no problem.  Share a little weed?  Not on your life.  Interest in underage girls?  Oh, that’s okay.

XOASMmwPerhaps the most extreme response to a supposedly objectionable lyric came in 1963 when a team of agents from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI spent months investigating whether the words to The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” were obscene.  Teens had furtively talked about how the lyrics were allegedly about a sexual liaison, but in fact, the song (written in 1957) was a rather bland ode from a sailor to his girl back home.  Thanks to a marble-mouthed vocalist and less-than-optimum recording techniques, the words were pretty much impossible to decipher, even when studied at different speeds under headphones, and the FBI eventually threw up their hands.

R-2508766-1287871057.jpegBut that was then, this is now.  In 2010, R&B artist CeeLo Green had an enormous hit with a song called, believe it or not, “F–k You.”  They released a cleaned-up version called “Forget You” to satisfy radio programmers, but most listeners, to no one’s surprise, preferred the original.

The times they are a-changin’, indeed…