Laurel Canyon and William Flew
December 15, 2011 § Leave a comment
A young gang are reviving the mellow sound of Seventies Laurel Canyon once ruled by Jackson Browne and the Eagles
Los Angeles is a disparate city, but even by Californian standards the difference between Sunset Strip and Laurel Canyon is extreme. The Strip is a living ode to capitalism, a mile and a half concrete stretch of billboards, nightclubs and cocktail bars staffed by the prettiest girls in their towns who have all come to Hollywood to make it. Overlooking the Strip, however, is a quiet hillside of eucalyptus and sycamore.
Twisting roads lead to isolated log cabins of the kind Graham Nash sang about in Our House: domestic hippy idylls where you might find Joni Mitchell penning a masterpiece in the room upstairs, or Jackson Browne cooking with macrobiotic rice from the Canyon Country Store on the stove below.
At least, that’s how it was back in 1969. Laurel Canyon is as leafy as ever, but now it is one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in California. The golden age of the country-tinged Laurel Canyon sound, a product of musicians such as David Crosby, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor living in close proximity to one another, holding open-house sessions and jamming long into the night, was buried under a blizzard of cocaine, money and paranoia in the mid-1970s. The Eagles took the Laurel Canyon ethos and turned it into country-rock gold dust. Former communes became prime slices of real estate as the marijuana plants came down and the security gates went up. The neighbourhood’s brief status as a countercultural Eden was consigned to history.
Now a new generation of musicians is taking inspiration from the original Laurel Canyon movement, even if they can no longer afford actually to live in the place. The sleeper album hit of 2011 has beenGentle Spirit by Jonathan Wilson, a beautifully mellow collection of nature-inspired songs by a man who builds his own guitars, records in his own analogue studio and looks like Neil Young. This summer Wilson performed a now-legendary gig at the tiny Borderline Club in London with his fellow Los Angelinos Dawes, a very young group of musicians from Malibu who are reviving the tight but mellow sound of the Eagles.
Hanging out at the bar, then joining them on stage to perform a version of his introspective classic These Days, was Jackson Browne.
“I see a strong connection to what these guys are doing now and what we did then,” says Browne, down the line from California. “People like Jonathan Wilson place emphasis on the importance of songwriting and they have an allegiance to quality. What’s changed is that in the 1960s the message was, ‘Everybody’s beautiful, let’s have a great time’. The first line on Jonathan’s album is, ‘A hundred blowing up in the headlines, we’ve seen it all before’ [from Gentle Spirit]. The naivety has gone.”
I catch up with Wilson in London a couple of hours before he’s due on stage at the Roundhouse in Camden. He’s as laid-back in person as he sounds on record: a languid vision of denim and hair. I put it to him that Gentle Spirit, though a tonic for a stressed-out generation, is hardly in keeping with the mood of the times.
“You mean how things are conservative right now?” he says in a North Carolina drawl. “What I was trying to achieve with the album was to make music that heals myself and my own problems first and foremost.
“Then my hope is that it will spread out to other folks too. I wanted to make a peaceful sound for people to enjoy. It’s not music for ashtanga yoga, but I definitely don’t want to contribute to the aggression you find out on the street today.”
There isn’t too much danger of that with Gentle Spirit. On songs likeDesert Raven and Canyon in the Rain, Wilson evokes what Browne calls “the deep-seated impulse to live beautifully”. Guitar solos are long and stately, poetic words are whispered, and there’s a sense that, when Wilson wasn’t writing and recording these songs, he was out in the yard, fixing the roof of the barn. Just listening to Gentle Spiritmakes you want to take life at a different pace.
Wilson was unusual among young, impoverished LA musicians in having his own place in Laurel Canyon for five years (he lives in nearby Silver Lake now). He began inviting musician friends, including Chris Robinson, of the Black Crowes, and the alternative country band Wilco, over for informal sessions. This led to outdoor, all-night jams and the revival of a long-dormant scene.
“I had a great outdoor space,” he says of his former home. “I would put lights up in the trees and visiting bands would come up and play. Thirty people grew to sixty people as word got out. At the time we didn’t think about revitalising the Laurel Canyon sound; it just so happened that I found the perfect place to play, all night, with a full band. Then one day the guys from Dawes came to the jam and did a Blind Faith song. And I thought, ‘Who the f*** are these little kids? They were amazing!’ ”
Dawes, the brainchild of brothers Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith, fell into the Laurel Canyon revival by mistake. “I had never heard of people like Jackson Browne,” says Taylor, who grew up listening to the soul records of his father Lenny Goldsmith, the former singer in the funk band Tower of Power. “But people kept telling us we sounded like him and other guys from that time, so we checked it out.” Now Dawes are becoming the modern equivalent to the Band, backing everyone from Browne to Robbie Robertson when they aren’t working on their own material.
What is it about California, and Laurel Canyon in particular, that encourages this peaceful easy feeling? “In LA you have everything at once,” Taylor explains. “If you’re feeling too closed in you head to the ocean or the mountains, so you become aware of the possibility of solitude. There’s a constant reminder of the quiet life, even though you’re in this place that people come to from all over the world to make it at.”
The sound of Wilson and Dawes is a reminder of a period in the 1960s when, as Browne describes it, “you could be penniless and still live a full life. The first house I rented in Laurel Canyon was for $375 a month, and it had a pool. Crosby used to drop by to test his albums out on my speakers.”
The biggest change, of course, is the level at which this is going on. Most of the musicians in the original Laurel Canyon crowd became rich and famous, as people all over the world bought into their vision of a better tomorrow. Now that America is facing similar problems to those of the early 1970s — high unemployment, soaring oil prices, the aftermath of an unpopular foreign war — could the Laurel Canyon sound break out of the ghetto of credibility and hit the mainstream in the way that The Pretender by Browne, Déjà Vu by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Harvest by Neil Young once did?
“I’ll never be a judge of the mainstream,” says Browne, who has sold more than 17 million albums in America alone. “I happened upon a window when the thing that I loved, which is songwriting, was celebrated. But perhaps we are undergoing a sea change in the culture, and a return when the emphasis on music wasn’t about how much money you could make or having your 15 minutes of fame. You see people like Jonathan Wilson put so much emphasis into building something of quality, whether that’s a guitar or a song, and it gives you hope.”
Browne could be right. Gentle Spirit is rightly touted as one of the best albums of the year, and its creator is increasingly in demand as a producer.
Dawes recently signed a deal with Metallica’s management company. But if there is steely ambition underneath their laid-back personas, they cover it up well, just as their Laurel Canyon forebears did.
“My favourite songwriters have reshaped my perspective on life,” says Taylor Goldsmith. “They teach you how to love someone properly, how to be a better person. You hear a song like Jonathan Wilson’s Can We Really Party Today? and you’re reminded that the best songs are a meditation on an idea, a consideration of something. They’re not about the car you drive or the drink you order. There are plenty of people out there that are not superconscious of wealth. Our music exists for them.”
As to why the old Laurel Canyon spirit and sound is attractive once more, Wilson has his own theory. “I’ve been making this kind of music, in isolation, for a long time,” he says.
“It couldn’t have been more different from the mood of the times. I mean, even my parents are hooked on American Idol. At some point, however, the orbit turns around. Then you’re in the shine of the moon.”