Laurel Canyon: The Classic California Urban Ecosystem
The most arresting image, among many, in the documentary Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time, directed by Alison Ellwood, is a black-and-white photograph of Eric Clapton visiting Los Angeles for the first time on tour with Cream. He sits a few feet from Joni Mitchell, who is playing guitar, with a visibly stoned David Crosby in the background on the backyard lawn of Cass Elliot’s house. Clapton observes Mitchell with such a smoldering intensity you think he’s going to blow an amp. He is transfixed by Mitchell not because she was striking—and she was—but because of her musicianship.
As Crosby explains in present-day narration, Mitchell used an unusual combination of tuning scheme and chords. Clapton had never seen anything like it. In that moment, you can see the careers of both Clapton and Mitchell on the rise, like the morning sun over the San Gabriel Mountains.
Clapton, of course, went back to England and grew into a rock god. Mitchell settled near Mama Cass and released Ladies of the Canyon, among others, in 1970. In the mid-1960s, the first wave of musicians—including members of The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Doors, Frank Zappa and his menagerie, and Elliott and the three other Mamas and Papas—discovered the canyon. By the early 1970s they were joined by Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, the guys of The Eagles, and various further incarnations of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, among others. (Conspicuously absent from the documentary: The Beach Boys, the band that traded on their connection to Los Angeles more than any other.)
These voices that anchored the American rock scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s and today remain the bedrock of “classic rock” not only recorded in Los Angeles but also came from Los Angeles. Laurel Canyon makes clear that the music that defined American culture was itself defined by a specific place in a specific city—a city that previously had been famous for its supposed lack of culture.
Multiple interviews over Laurel Canyon’s four-hour span refer to parties, jam sessions, and spontaneous dropping in. Many of the musicians of Laurel Canyon did not seek stardom. They sought to collaborate, to hang out. Music was their medium for doing both. Friends and strangers alike knocked on doors, guitar in one hand and a bag of grass in the other, and invited themselves in to jam, co-write, and collaborate. This was, of course, before cellphones made distance OK and Spotify made albums irrelevant. The artists of Laurel Canyon lived in splendid proximity.
For all the spine-tingling footage of musical geniuses and surprisingly candid interviews with many of the survivors of that era, the canyon itself steals the show. At the least, the focus on the neighborhood, the energy, and the relationships humanizes superstars in ways that are unthinkable today. It’s nearly impossible to imagine Taylor Swift hanging out on the back porch with Deadmaus.
Design and urban planning would seem to have nothing to do with hippie-era folk rock. But hippie-era folk rock had everything to do with a certain place in a certain city.
Design and urban planning would seem to have nothing to do with hippie-era folk rock. But hippie-era folk rock had everything to do with a certain place in a certain city: the oak-studded rustic canyon that swayed to its own rhythm, producing some of the greatest musicians in the American songbook, while the rest of Los Angeles was busy sprawling outward in every direction.
On face, a documentary about rock stars getting groovy has almost nothing to do with design planning. Architects and planners could not create the topographical or cultural community of Laurel Canyon if they tried. And yet, that’s sort of the point. Laurel Canyon reminds them of the extraordinary things that humans can accomplish in the right environment, be it planned or unplanned. For lack of a better word, let’s call it “magic.”
Younger designers and planners should watch it for its extraordinary account of pop culture history, told with an intimacy and level of storytelling instinct and musical sophistication. Anyone old enough to remember Freedom Rock commercials on MTV will experience a powerful nostalgia.
Both can appreciate the places. The Troubadour. The Whisky. Mel’s Diner. The whole Sunset Strip, and Laurel Canyon itself, with its winding streets (which would give fire marshals fits), mature oak trees, and cobbled-together cottages and cabins, still exist. Los Angeles does not have the history of Philadelphia, Boston, or even San Francisco. But what history it has is loud and palpable and rooted directly in the place, city, and people that Los Angeles was and, just maybe, still is.
In Laurel Canyon, music was in the foreground, birdsongs in the background, and the fever, fret, and cacophony of the city were just far enough down the hill to be unheard.
Laurel Canyon, in that moment, was the best of Los Angeles: a suburban-style neighborhood where people could spread out and, importantly, throw parties and play music in privacy that was 10 minutes from a city full of venues, fans, and the entertainment industry itself. It is a microbiome unto itself—one of the deeper fissures in the only mountain range to bisect a major city—and a social and creative ecosystem unlike any other. Creativity has often thrived on proximity and density—just look at Renaissance Florence. Other obvious analogues include Paris in the 1920s and Greenwich Village/SoHo in the 1960s and 1970s. But those were fully urban environments. In Laurel Canyon, music was in the foreground, birdsongs in the background, and the fever, fret, and cacophony of the city were just far enough down the hill to be unheard.
Some of the noise came from more than just traffic. Laurel Canyon touches on some crucial national history, including the Vietnam War and the massacre at Kent State. But, just down the hill, young adults demonstrated against a city-imposed curfew and hurled accusations of police brutality at the Los Angeles Police Department in 1967. The police’s insensitive and violent response—eerily similar to those taking place right now across the country—inspired Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” thus connecting the canyon’s troubadours to urban realities. Laurel Canyon briefly recalls the 1965 Watts Riots but, disappointingly, does not address the predominant whiteness of the canyon scene nor the profound segregation of the city above which it hovered.
The artists of Laurel Canyon seem, for the most part, blissfully ignorant of the city. To them, Laurel Canyon was Los Angeles and Los Angeles was Laurel Canyon. And though that attitude may seem anti-urban and dismissive of the city’s many other neighborhoods and socioeconomic groups, its spirit remains a defining feature of Los Angeles’s culture. The suburbs, though some may still be affordable, are the anti–Laurel Canyon. They may have moments of creativity, but they were never designed to reach that particular level of Maslow’s hierarchy.
Here’s why this matters: designers and planners could never create Laurel Canyon, either in form or spirit. They could never envision ramshackle cabins, the Oedipal fury of Morrison, the extraterrestrial weirdness of Zappa, the thoughtfulness of Browne, or the bemusement of Crosby. They just cannot. But as they go about their important work, be it bureaucratic minutiae or large-scale envisioning, they should remember that places can be special—sometimes, very special.
This is not to distract from or discount the dire issues that face designers and planners, especially those of inequity, systemic racism, and the housing and homelessness crisis. They deserve to be at the top of planners’ agendas. But sometimes we all need a little lift. Laurel Canyon gave rise to something wonderful. Indeed, some of the music of Laurel Canyon and many of its artists served those greater causes in their lyrics and activism.
Some of the magic of Laurel Canyon was rooted in economics. There was space in Laurel Canyon, and the space was inexpensive. The house that Mama Cass bought for a song in the mid-’60s now goes for over $5 million.
You wonder if any place like it will ever emerge again. On the one hand, maybe music doesn’t need places anymore. Classic rock was about analog instruments, the communal vibe, and the booze and weed. I’m sure there’s still plenty of that, but there are also keyboards, computers, and software that make contemporary music—for better and worse. What we lose in placefulness, we’ve arguably gained in accessibility.
I can’t help thinking, though, that a creative community like the one in Laurel Canyon won’t happen again—certainly not in Los Angeles, where residents at every socioeconomic level work like mad just to make their rents or mortgages. Those little mountain cottages aren’t just scarce; they’re also exorbitant. The city’s housing affordability crisis is not just a crisis of shelter—though that is its most dire component. It is also a crisis of creativity, freedom, self-expression, and self-actualization.
That’s true whether self-actualization means wailing into a microphone in front of 5,000 fans, strumming away under an oak tree, or reading a bedtime story to your kids. Any of those are pretty good urban dreams, if you ask me.
Featured image via Amblin Entertainment.