"What is up in Laurel Canyon/ The seat of the beat," sang Van Dyke Parks on his "Song Cycle" album in 1968.
By then, the rustic, windy thoroughfare that runs through the Hollywood Hills connecting Sunset Boulevard to the San Fernando Valley had already become the place where musicians from Los Angeles' exploding rock scene would retreat.
Close enough to the clubs on the Sunset Strip or the recording studios in Hollywood, the canyon offered a country getaway where the artists could work on their music or chill out. Drive Laurel Canyon today and there is still little more than the Canyon Country Store in terms of commerce.
Once the home to silent-movie cowboy Tom Mix, magician Harry Houdini and leading man Errol Flynn, in the mid-'60s the area also became a gathering place for the likes of the Mamas & the Papas, Joni Mitchell, the Eagles, the Doors, Poco, Jackson Browne, the Byrds, and even a musical renegade like Frank Zappa.
"There was no Laurel Canyon sound per se," observes Bob Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum in Downtown Los Angeles, where the exhibit "California Dreamin': The Sounds of Laurel Canyon 1965-1977" will run through November.
The name of the exhibit is no accident. The 1965 hit by the Mamas & the Papas had a lot of people in the cold climes of the East Coast or Canada thinking, "I could take that walk if I was in L.A.," including many of the rockers who would end up in Laurel Canyon. One of whom was the Mamas & the Papas' singer Cass Elliot.
"She was basically the earth mother of Laurel Canyon," says Santelli. "She brought everybody together. She made people feel welcome."
Three guys who came together at her house were Stephen Stills, David Crosby and Graham Nash. They all had been in other bands - Buffalo Springfield, the Bryds and the Hollies, respectively. After informally singing together, they formed what was one of the first supergroups, using their own names for the band rather than coming up with a new one. A year later they were a headliner at Woodstock.
The iconic photo on their first album of the three sitting on a porch of a house on Laurel Canyon was taken by Henry Diltz, a former folk musician. A selection of his photos from the era - many of them well-known like the Doors' album cover for "Morrison Hotel" - are a fascinating part of the exhibit, as are some pictures from Nash, who has been a photographer for years.
A couple of chairs are highlighted in the exhibit. The first is a colorful hand-painted one that used to belong to Mama Cass. The other was the writing chair of Jim Morrison of the Doors. The larger-than-life rock star had taken it from Laurel Canyon to Paris when he died in 1971. His publicist later put it into storage. When the Grammy Museum heard about it, they tracked it down for the exhibit.
Of course, one of the musicians most identified with Laurel Canyon was Joni Mitchell, whose 1970 album "Ladies of the Canyon" refers to Laurel Canyon. It included the songs "Big Yellow Taxi," "The Circle Game" and "Woodstock." The latter became a hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Neil Young, who had joined the band at that point. They turned the meditative number into a rocker. Young, like Mitchell, had come from Canada. "The Circle Game" is said to have been written in response to Young's "Sugar Mountain." Another of Mitchell's songs from "Ladies" was called "Willie," the nickname for Nash, whom the singer-songwriter was involved with romantically.
Those who are fans of the music from the era can spend hours in the exhibit making connections between the artists. While much of "California Dreamin' " is photos, videos, scrawled song lyrics and artifacts like the 1970s "Nudie" suit of Poco's Richie Furay, visitors will get a chance to make some music of their own. One of the first things to greet visitors is a Russ Kunkel drum set, where you can learn to play along with Jackson Browne's "Doctor My Eyes." Throughout his career, the famed session drummer has played with many rock greats, including Mitchell on "Ladies."
Santelli says that after being open for five years, it was high time for the Grammy Museum to do something on California music, particularly L.A., and he says it won't be the last. The museum is looking to do more on the state's music scene, including Chet Baker and the West Coast jazz scene; the country music of Bakersfield; L.A.'s music in the late '70s and early '80s; and in 2017, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love.
A number of programs and classes related to "California Dreamin' " also will take place between now and November.
"We want to create as many oral histories as possible," says Santelli. To that end, there is a booth in the exhibit where people can record their memories of the Laurel Canyon scene.
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