DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - In the mid to late 1960s and ’70s, residents of Laurel Canyon needed only to open a window to be serenaded by the harmonies wafting from some of the most compelling musicians of the era. Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa and Jim Morrison lived there. So did members of The Mamas & The Papas, The Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash.
That neighborhood above the Sunset Strip, and that scene, complete with its hippie fashion, a penchant for earthy consciousness and, for many, a fondness for mind-altering drugs, is chronicled in California Dreamin’: The Sounds of Laurel Canyon 1965-1977. The exhibit, built around dozens of intimate portraits and candid shots from photographer Henry Diltz, opened at the Grammy Museum this month. It runs though Nov. 30.
Brimming with four dozen artifacts and two walls of Diltz’s photos, California Dreamin’ begins with a wooden, hand-painted rocking chair encased in glass. It is the chair that “Mama Cass” Elliot rocked in on her front porch, which served as the gateway to the Laurel Canyon music scene, said Grammy Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli.
Cass, said Santelli, was the “Earth Mother” of Laurel Canyon, and whenever someone new arrived, she always opened her home and introduced the person around. Next to her chair is a jewelry box filled with the chunky bracelets and oversized rings Cass wore in any number of Diltz’s photographs.
Interestingly, it’s not the only chair in the exhibit. Also on display is the late Jim Morrison’s writing seat. Upholstered in purple velvet, the high-backed wooden armchair followed The Doors’ frontman to Paris. After his death in 1971, Morrison’s publicist brought it back to the United States and put it in storage. As Santelli began assembling pieces for California Dreamin’, a museum staffer mentioned that her husband is related to Morrison’s publicist and suggested showing the chair, which is in near perfect condition.
“It was meant to be,” Santelli said.
As visitors meander through the exhibit, named for The Mamas & The Papas song, they hear era favorites including “For What Its Worth” by Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Listening stations offer up other songs, among them The Doors’ “Love Street.” There are also several short video clips, including one in which Gail Zappa, Frank’s widow, explains how they met (at LAX), what he first said to her (“You’re cute”) and how he smelled (like peanut butter).
Another video shows Diltz explaining one of his most recognized photographs: The Doors behind the front window of the Morrison Hotel, which was located at 1246 S. Hope St. in Downtown Los Angeles. Keyboard player Ray Manzarek discovered the building one day with his wife and thought it’d make a great shot. The man behind the hotel desk wouldn’t let them shoot inside, but as soon as he stepped into the elevator, Diltz recalls, the band members ran in and he snapped the image. It became the cover of The Doors’ fifth album.
It was one of many high-profile shots for the man who, among other things, was the official Woodstock photographer. Still, Diltz snapped his way into posterity almost by accident: In an interview, he said was shooting a mural when a group of guys walked out of the building. Diltz asked them to pose, for perspective. It turned out to be the members of Buffalo Springfield.
“I just wanted to take pictures of my friends so we could have slideshows to watch,” he said, noting that two of those friends were Stephen Stills and David Crosby. “Those were magic times.”
Looking back on those years, Diltz is filled with nostalgia for a time when peoples’ consciousness was raised. The ideals for many during that era, he said, were focused on appreciating each other and the planet. In hindsight, he said, Laurel Canyon was almost a mythical place.
“There was a bit of a feeling of how wonderful life was, and a focus on peace and love. It all happened as Laurel Canyon blossomed,” he said.
Removed Yet Central
In the mid-1960s, Santelli said, the musicians were drawn to Laurel Canyon’s cheap rent and bucolic, mountainous atmosphere. While it seemed removed from the bustle of Los Angeles, it was also close to the Sunset Strip and the famed clubs the Whisky a Go-Go, The Roxy and The Troubadour.
“You could be in a rural area right in the middle of a big city. No other place offered that,” Santelli said. “If you were in Greenwich Village in New York you had to drive [many] miles to get away. Here you went over the hill.”
Most of the musicians were transplants from other cities, Santelli noted. The arrivals to Laurel Canyon included Carole King, who relocated from New York, and Linda Ronstadt, who left Tucson. Future Eagles Don Henley and Glenn Frey arrived on the scene from Texas and Michigan, respectively. Graham Nash came from England.
Santelli assembled the exhibit, one of five musical scene showcases the Grammy Museum will feature over the next few years, from pieces loaned either by the artists or their family members and friends. Gail Zappa provided handwritten, unfinished lyrics to an unpublished song by her late husband. Gram Parsons’ lyrics-filled notebook, complete with swirling penmanship and blotted with several scratch outs, is on display. So is a banjo that belonged to The Monkees’ Peter Tork, a cape from Crosby and even the original music contract between all the members of The Byrds and their management company. There’s also a wooden stash box with a cocaine bindle and marijuana “roach holder” on loan from “Anonymous.”
There’s an interactive element as well. Visitors can record a message about where they were or which Laurel Canyon bands they saw back in the day. Santelli smiles widely at one of his memories from 1969: He’d just graduated from high school in New Jersey, he played guitar, and had tried to attend the Woodstock Music Festival in New York, but he couldn’t get through the traffic-choked highway. So he and his buddies headed back home to the Jersey Shore and went surfing.
The museum will keep the visitors’ recordings as part of its archives.
California Dreamin’: The Sounds of Laurel Canyon 1965-1977 runs through Nov. 30 at the Grammy Museum, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., (213) 765-6800 or grammymuseum.org
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014