October 11 2021 – Steve Franks
It was seen as the central nervous system for the California Sound of 1960s and 1970s music. A counterculture hub. A mountain-neighborhood artist residency. It was one of the West Coast’s answers to Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Laurel Canyon, stowed away behind the Hollywood Hills, magnetized some of the greatest musicians and artists that ever lived.
Before developers came in, Laurel Canyon was a desolate valley dedicated to supplying water to nearby farms. Once we hit the 20th century, that’s when the lights went on — starting with Hollywood’s first It girl.
Clara Bow, a silent film actress, defined the term that still lives on. Her roles changed the industry for women, strong female characters that overcame adversity from a male-dominated world. Bow claimed Laurel Canyon as her home.
Then came the magician. There’s not much out there about Harry Houdini’s time in Laurel Canyon, but he moved to California investing his money and efforts into the booming film industry. The canyon was the home of his last estate, and reportedly his wife conducted seances there after her husband's passing.
Before fast-forwarding to the era that made Laurel Canyon famous, think about that. Seances over a magician. This place inherently had (or has) a spirit. With it being the location of the indigenous Tongva tribe it makes the wonder seem more real. This is one of those places that really puts it out there — and maybe that’s why they come.
The music of the 60s ushered in an era counterculture and Laurel Canyon became the Mecca for the musicians. A sort of creative commune. The neighbor roster is unbelievable. Let’s go down a bit of the list:
And there’s more. These artists lived amongst each other. Not all at the same, but sometimes, and sometimes it would be just the place to head for a party or to jam. To make music, legendary music. Joni Mitchell wrote "Ladies Of The Canyons" and "Clouds”. Graham Nash wrote "Our House". Jim Morrison wrote “Love Street”. And many other songs were literally inspired by life in the canyon or birthed out of this neighborhood.
It’s where Hollywood went to party, some never left, some just rented cabins to be there (Jimi Hendrix).
This place is filled with legends, some nearing the edge of myth. Here is one story that truly hits the magic of this place.
"My dining room looked out over Frank Zappa’s duck pond, and once when my mother was visiting, three naked girls were floating around on a raft in the pond. My mother was horrified by my neighborhood. In the upper hills the Buffalo Springfield were playing, and in the afternoon there was just a cacophony of young bands rehearsing. At night it was quiet except for cats and mockingbirds. It had a smell of eucalyptus, and in the spring, which was the rainy season then, a lot of wildflowers would spring up. Laurel Canyon had a wonderful distinctive smell to it."
- Vanity Fair
Epicenters of genuine creativity may only appear on the radar a few times in a person's life. A snapshot of a place where all the pieces align in a perfect way and for a brief moment there is something truly going on. If you’re so lucky to stumble upon one, maybe consider putting down some roots. And if happen to be in one now, email the coordinates to: firstname.lastname@example.org ;)
Christopher Balogh’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, VICE, Sport Fishing, and other outlets. chrisbaloghfoto.com | @chrisbaloghfoto