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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Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

Now that Rami Malek has won a Golden Globe Award for his portrayal of legendary rock b8773b7e-d2f0-4a29-855d-c9b090a2283a_16x9_788x442vocalist Freddie Mercury in the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and the movie itself won for Best Drama, it’s high time I address this film and the mixed reaction to it among the press and the public.

First, though, I want to make a point about biopics and how they differ from documentaries.

A biopic, by definition, is a biographical movie.  It offers a director’s subjective retelling of a real person’s life story using actors and a screenplay to produce a finished work of cinematic entertainment.

In a documentary, on the other hand, the director uses actual film clips of the subject, interviews of those who knew the subject, and some sort of narration, assembling all these pieces to tell the person’s life story more like a news feature.

The most important difference between the two is that a biopic’s primary purpose is to entertain, while a documentary is meant to inform.  Biopics sometimes tell only a portion of the story, glossing over or even omitting certain elements in order to focus on what the director feels are the most dramatic or crowd-pleasing aspects of the subject’s life.  Because of this, biopics have sometimes been (fairly or unfairly) dismissed as Hollywood fabrications that fail to tell the “warts and all” characteristics that producers fear will alienate mainstream audiences.  If you want all the unpleasantness, they say, go 51b5jap34zl._sy445_find a dreary documentary on the subject.

But if you take a look at the history of biopics of popular music artists, you’ll find that many of the best films hold back nothing, giving us the good and the bad in an attempt to tell the whole story.  In recent years especially, there have been many fine examples of biopics that avoid sugarcoating the subject’s life in favor of a more truthful exploration:

Ray” (2004), starring Jamie Foxx as the troubled legend Ray Charles

Walk the Line” (2005), starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as the volatile Johnny Cash and June Carter

Straight Outta Compton” (2015), a brutally frank look at the story of hip hop pioneers N.W.A.

unknown-33Get On Up” (2014), with Chadwick Boseman’s riveting performance as The Godfather of Soul, James Brown

Love and Mercy” (2014), a unique biopic featuring Paul Dano and John Cusack each playing Beach Boys maestro Brian Wilson in two different chapters of his problematic life

Going back even further, consider 1980’s “The Coal Miner’s Daughter,” with Sissy Spacek as country star Tammy Wynette, 1979’s “The Buddy Holly Story,” with Gary Busey as the pioneering rockabilly star, and 1976’s “Bound for Glory,” starring David Carradine as hardscrabble folk hero Woody Guthrie.

All of these films offer unflinching views of their subjects’ difficult stories, and all of them were nominated for, or won, Oscars or Golden Globes.

So this brings us to director Bryan Singer’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  It’s beautifully shot, it’s well acted by a top-notch cast, and it includes a dazzling in-concert sequence at film’s end.  Many people I know, including family members and music-loving friends, have raved about it, and they were consequently puzzled to learn a classic rock music fan like me had only a lukewarm response to it.

Indeed, at first I wrestled with this, trying to put my finger on what it was about the movie that didn’t quite sit right.  Then I took a look at some of the film critics’ reviews, and I happened upon an especially perceptive one in Variety, written by Owen Gleiberman.  It was like he was channeling me and putting into words exactly what I liked and didn’t like about the movie.

In a nutshell, it’s this:  Malek delivers a truly astonishing performance as Mercury, but freddie-mercurydirector Singer missed a golden opportunity to give us a truly authentic, penetrative look at what made Queen, and Mercury, tick.  As Glieberman put it:  “The movie, despite its electrifying subject, is a conventional, middle-of-the-road, cut-and-dried, play-it-safe, rather fuddy-duddy old-school biopic, a movie that skitters through events instead of sinking into them.”

Even more to the point is Glieberman’s view (and mine) that,  “It treats Freddie’s personal life — his sexual-romantic identity, his loneliness, his reckless adventures in gay leather clubs — with kid-glove reticence, so that even if the film isn’t telling major lies, you don’t feel you’re fully touching the real story either.”

It’s fairly remarkable that “Bohemian Rhapsody” took the Golden Globe for best drama, because it received the lowest score on the Rotten Tomatoes review-aggregate website (62% approval rating out of 335 reviews) of any film winner in nearly 40 years.  The majority of critics found Malek’s acting performance extraordinary but the film no better than average.  They described it as “sanitized,” “self-indulgent revisionist history,” and “a bit of a mess.”  The British film mag Empire said the flick was “a safe, competent, decidedly non-scandalous biopic.  It treats the life of Freddie Mercury with cautious affection, happy to play within the rules while depicting a man who did anything but.”

I’ve even read some comments from hard-core Queen fans who concede that, though they enjoyed the film, they felt it wasn’t entirely honest in the way it told us (or, more accurately, didn’t tell us) about Mercury’s conflicted sexual identity, which he kept hidden from the public and that ultimately led to his illness and premature death.

The movie takes artistic license by showing Mercury informing the band of his debilitating disease just prior to their monumental appearance at Live Aid, which makes his triumphant performance there seem more dramatic to the moviegoer.  In fact, Mercury wasn’t even officially diagnosed with AIDS until several years later, in 1988, and 17948373the audience learns nothing of Mercury’s slow, private demise in his final years because Singer chose to end the film following the Live Aid sequence.

That’s too bad, because Singer had an opportunity to show how incredibly heroic Mercury was as he soldiered on in the studio even while he was suffering mightily, producing some amazing vocal recordings on latter-day Queen tracks like “These Are the Days of Our Lives” and “The Show Must Go On.”

Brian May has said Mercury was increasingly ill and could barely walk during the 1990 sessions for the “Innuendo” LP.  “I was concerned whether he was physically capable of singing his parts, but he went in and killed it.  He completely lacerated the vocal.  He would come in for maybe an hour at a time, and he kept saying, ‘Write me more stuff.  I want to just sing this and do it, and when I’m gone, you can finish it off.’  He had no fear, really.”

Wow, what powerful, poignant scenes these would have been in the movie, but for reasons unknown, Singer neglected Mercury’s last chapter and how he withheld official announcement that he was suffering from AIDS until November 23, 1991.  He died the next day.

This is probably a good place to point out that there are at least a half-dozen documentaries about Queen and Mercury that delve far more deeply into the particulars of the singer’s quasi-mysterious private life and tragic end.  You might want to check out “Freddie Mercury:  The King of Queen” (2018), “Queen: Mercury Rising” (2011),  “Queen:  Days of Our Lives” (2011) or “Freddie Mercury:  The Great Pretender” (2012).

As a student of rock music and how great bands have made great recordings, I was disappointed that “Bohemian Rhapsody” didn’t spend more time showing us just how Mercury and Queen worked unknown-32together in the ’70s to create their unique heavy metal/pop echo chamber wall of sound.  Together with producer Roy Thomas Baker, they were sonic experimentalists when they came up with the vocal acrobatics in “Killer Queen,” their 1974 breakthrough hit, and then took it all to stratospheric heights the following year with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by all accounts a monumental, game-changing recording.

But no, this biopic offers almost nothing about any of that.  As Glieberman put it, “The merging of Mercury’s vaudeville jauntiness with Brian May’s guitar-god power, backed by the insane multi-tracking of the group’s voices into an infinitely mirrored chorus — that’s the invention of Queen’s singular sound, but it’s barely an afterthought in the movie.”

It rightly lavishes attention on the title track, but focuses more on the arguments with record executives regarding its length and suitability as a single than in how it came to be written and created in the first place.  The songwriting contributions from May, drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon are also given short shrift, an unforgivable omission given the key role their songs have played in Queen’s success (“You’re My Best Friend,” “’39,” “Keep Yourself Alive,” “Fat Bottomed Girls”).

“Bohemian Rhapsody” also fails to spend any time discussing Queen’s huge role as pioneers in the art and commerce of music videos.  Their “short film” released to coincide with the release of the “Bohemian Rhapsody” single in 1975 came out years before the birth of MTV or VH-1.  “It’s not an overstatement to say that video revolutionized the way music would be consumed in the 1980s and beyond,” said music journalist Paul Gambaccini.  “Every band suddenly started looking at how they could p06ppfsfmake a video of their new single.”

Quite frankly, I’m not sure “Bohemian Rhapsody” might even be worthy of an entry in my blog if it weren’t for Malek’s jaw-dropping depiction of Mercury.  Queen’s surviving members May and Taylor insisted on approving the selection of actors who would play the key roles, and they were enthusiastic in their green-lighting of Malek as Mercury. From the stage strutting to the prosthetic overbite to the very convincing singing, Malek does a superlative job of channeling Mercury’s flamboyant, rock-god bravura.  As Peter Travers in Rolling Stone put it, “Malek digs so deep into the role that we can’t believe we’re not watching the real thing.”

Speaking of the real thing, Queen was indeed a mega-popular band from roughly 1975 to 1990 or so, particularly in their native UK, where 15 of their 17 LPs reached #1 or #2.  In the US, their five albums in the 1975-1980 period went multi-platinum before their popularity waned somewhat in the Eighties.  Even after (and perhaps because of) queen1974_gruen_webuseonlyMercury’s death in 1991, Queen’s popularity surged, and seems to be stronger than ever today.  The use of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the hit 1992 comedy “Wayne’s World” certainly didn’t hurt.

But I must confess that I was never much of a fan during their heyday.  I thought individual songs were compelling (the hard rock of “Keep Yourself Alive,” the rock-guitar-meets-cabaret of “Killer Queen,” the haunting, lovely “You Take My Breath Away,” the way-cool collaboration with David Bowie on “Under Pressure”), and I was drawn in by the broad appeal of their best LP, 1975’s “A Night at the Opera.”  As the band’s popularity grew, though, I found their material grew more pretentious and annoying.

I would be a very happy man if I never again have to hear “We Will Rock You,” “Bicycle Race” or “Another One Bites the Dust.”  Singles as irritating as those kept me from exploring their albums any further, which, in retrospect, was perhaps foolish on my part, because I could have discovered bonafide jewels like “Spread Your Wings,” the blues shuffle “Sleeping On the Sidewalk,” “It’s Late,” “Don’t Stop Me Now,” “Dragon Attack,” “Life is Real (Song for Lennon)” and “Man on the Prowl.”

I have come to respect the successful manner in which Queen dabbled in multiple genres, from progressive rock and glam rock to baroque pop and rockabilly.  It’s not every rock band that can pull off convincing forays into opera, gospel, ragtime and disco, and do so with professional theatricality.

The shy young man with bad teeth who was born in 1946 on the African island of freddie-mercury-ne1mkn0oz6w9duhlftslobtk7engdbh96w68jpl7uoZanzibar had ambitious dreams and a ton of musical talent.  He developed uncommon confidence that he might one day be a larger-than-life singer in a rock band, and he knew he wasn’t going to get there with a name like Farrokh Bulsara.  He adopted the name Freddie while still in high school, and then when he joined the group that would become Queen, he completed his personal re-invention by choosing the last name Mercury (“the messenger of the Gods”).  He took to wearing a red robe and crown, projecting a decidedly regal authority on stage.

So, actually, from the very beginning of Queen’s career, this wasn’t his real life.  It was just fantasy.