As my birthday approaches (Monday), I'm reminded of some special gifts that David [Munk] has given me. He's always been incredibly creative when it comes to gifts, and after 28 years of birthdays, I've been lucky enough to be the recipient of some amazing items...and gestures. For my 43rd birthday, his gift to me was a visit to his cousin's house in Laurel Canyon, which he had been renting from Joni Mitchell. David knew of my decades-long obsession with her and decided it was the perfect gift. It was.
Joni bought the little house at 8217 Lookout Mountain in the Spring of 1968 with the royalties from her first album, SONG TO A SEAGULL. She met Graham Nash, who was visiting from the UK with his band, The Hollies, shortly after she purchased it, and by July they were living there together. Joni's house soon became THE place where Laurel Canyon-dwelling musicians hung out (when David Crosby and Stephen Stills dropped by one night, Crosby, Stills and Nash was born.)
When I "cashed in" my birthday gift and went there with my friend Debra on July 11, 2009, we immediately became enveloped in the history of the house. Although Joni hadn't lived there since the 70s, she had a very deep connection to the house and held on to it for sentimental reasons. One of the things that drew musicians like Joni to Laurel Canyon was (and continues to be) its sense of isolation. Even though geographically it's right in the middle of Los Angeles, the houses are completely hidden from the road, surrounded by indigenous foliage, quiet and private. Yet five minutes after we drove down the canyon, we were battling rush-hour traffic on Sunset Blvd.
Joni and Graham lived an idyllic 60s lifestyle: they sat around writing songs, bouncing ideas around, painting, reveling in each others' presence and indulging in the creative atmosphere of Laurel Canyon. Graham wrote, Our House one morning after they returned from food shopping at the farmer's market:
I'll light the fire
You put the flowers in the vase
That you bought today
Staring at the fire
For hours and hours
While I listen to you
Play your love songs
All night long for me
Only for me
Come to me now
And rest your head for just five minutes
Everything is good
Such a cozy room
The windows are illuminated
By the sunshine through them
Fiery gems for you
Only for you
Our house is a very, very fine house
With two cats in the yard
Life used to be so hard
Now everything is easy
'Cause of you
Hearing Our House for the first time as an adolescent was a revelation for me. I still think it's one of the most beautiful love songs ever written, a poignant snapshot of domestic bliss. Being in the actual house, that cozy room, seeing the fireplace, the illuminated windows, and imagining the beauty of the moment when Graham was inspired to write it transported me back in time.
Joni created her best work in that house, including all the songs for BLUE, FOR THE ROSES and LADIES OF THE CANYON, which included, Willy (Graham's nickname, and one of my favorite Joni Mitchell songs, written when Joni started to have doubts about the future of their relationship):
Willy is my child, he is my father
I would be his lady all my life
He says he'd love to live with me
But for an ancient injury
That has not healed
He said I feel once again
Like I gave my heart too soon
He stood looking through the lace
At the face on the conquered moon
And counting all the cars going up the hill
And the stars on my window sill
There are still more reasons why I love him
Willy is my joy, he is my sorrow
Now he wants to run away and hide
He says our love cannot be real
He cannot hear the chapel's pealing silver bells
But you know it's hard to tell
When you're in the spell if it's wrong or if it's real
But you're bound to lose
If you let the blues get you scared to feel
And I feel like I'm just being born
Like a shiny light breaking in a storm
There are so many reasons why I love him.
Canned Heat lived next door to Joni and Graham in a house that burned to the ground in 1969. Joni was deeply affected by the fire and felt that divine intervention had spared her home. 40 years later, when David's cousin moved in, she gave him explicit instructions not to clean the front door which still held soot from the fire in its crevices. Joni felt that door had prevented the fire from spreading to her house, and she treated it like an altar.
Debra and I spent a long time at the house, enjoying the late-day sunshine and the familiar surprises around every corner (like the view out the window that Joni painted for the LADIES OF THE CANYON album cover.) We took lots of photos and remarked how little the neighborhood and the house had changed since Joni had bought it forty years previously. A new generation of musicians has moved in (Rick Rubin's "mansion" is next door to Joni's house) but the hippie vibe remains.
Joni was fearful that marriage would stifle her creativity. Although she and Graham were deeply in love, she wasn't willing to commit to marriage. But in the year that they were together in her house, they both created some of the best music of their careers. She remained fiercely independent throughout her life, staying true to herself even when the critics disagreed with her musical choices.
Thank you, David, for a once-in-a-lifetime gift I will never forget! —ELISA