The story of Laurel Canyon follows and often leads the state of California’s tale of transcendence. The once tribal home became a Spanish colony before it was the western frontier and then “the mountain home of the stars.” Then again it changed, most famously, into the muse of the 60’s and home to a creative generation. Today, the “haunted” but inspiring neighborhood is filled with music and personalities once again.
There’s a natural spring under Laurel Canyon. That’s rare in Southern California. When you look at a map of the region west of Angeles National Forest and south of the plush Malibu beaches, Laurel Canyon stands out. It’s one of only patches of green in a sea of yellow next to the ocean of blue. What is now part of the Hollywood Hills area of the Santa Monica Mountains sits high atop the city and has been prime living space since the earliest regional inhabitants, the Tongva. The Tongva were followed by the conquering Spanish and then by the American settlers to Los Angeles after the Mexican-American War.
By the turn of the century, the city of Los Angeles was growing fast and the richest of the residents wanted a mountain home close to their new beach home. A trolley was planned for the trail we now call Laurel Canyon Boulevard and construction began on the cabins that would be inhabited by the very first Hollywood stars.
Laurel Canyon’s earliest homeowners were some of the most creative people in the world. The community would rival those neighborhoods in New York, London and Paris, where the writers and artists of the day would commune. In fact, it became the geographic center to what became the movie industry in Los Angeles. Hollywood’s largest players built film studios close by and the mansions spread east into the Hollywood Hills.
Before long, Laurel Canyon was surrounded by Studio City to the north and a growing Hollywood to the south and west. Property values soared in what was now one of the elite neighborhoods in a wealthy city. The cabins of Laurel Canyon were now intermixed with mansions and gated entrances. The wealth was obvious, but the creative nature of the new residents, mostly from the Hollywood studios, set a tone of collaboration through much-fabled deal-making at parties.
Stars of the day, Wallace Reid, Tom Mix, Clara Bow, Richard Dix, Norman Kerry and Bessie Love called the lush new neighborhood home. Harry Houdini occupied a great mansion, although his ownership of that property is still in dispute. Errol Flynn lived in a huge mansion just north of Houdini’s estate. The celebrities built English Tudor and Spanish styled homes that are still part of the eclectic landscape today.
But over the decades, Bel Air became the neighborhood of choice for Hollywood’s A-list and the Laurel Canyon neighborhoods declined in stature and upkeep. The bungalows, cabins, and older mansions grew more dilapidated and more full of character every year. The latter did not go unnoticed by the next creative generation and beat poets began moving in during the early 60’s, followed by cool people generally, which naturally included some musicians.
The next 20 years would change the nation as it endured the civil rights battle in the south and the Viet Nam War and related protest. The music scene in California, much of which emanated from the porch-front guitar sessions in Laurel Canyon, led the “Free Love” generation that populated the protests and immortalized the fight in their music. Denny Doherty, Michelle Phillips, John Phillips and “Mama” Cass Elliot from the popular band “The Momas and the Popas” were the first accomplished musicians to lead the way to Laurel Canyon.
By 1968, Elliot was known to hold court with musicians like Joni Mitchell and David Crosby in a home once owned by Natalie Wood. Homes were littered with guitars and people just showed up at parties with a harmonica in their pocket or a Ukulele under arm. Mitchell and Elliot were almost matriarchal figures in the neighborhood despite their relatively young ages. Crosby invited Stephen Stills from Buffalo Springfield one night and Graham Nash of the popular English band The Hollies was there. They got along famously. They later met Neil Young in Laurel Canyon, perhaps at Jim Morrison’s house or a jam at Frank Zappa’s deteriorating mansion, once owned by cowboy star Tom Mix. Mitchell would write the “Ladies of the Canyon” album here while her boyfriend Nash plucked out the tune for the iconic “Our House” on an old acoustic guitar in their modest home in the canyon.
Once again, Laurel Canyon was rivaling the top creative communities in the world, including Bob Dylan’s Greenwich Village folk scene in New York and San Francisco’s psychedelic Haight-Ashbury District.
The Eagles wrote “Desperado” just down the street from where The Byrds wrote the music to Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and where Jim Morrison wrote “Love Street” about the street. A typical night might have had Jimi Hendrix fooling around on James Taylor’s acoustic-electric guitar while Mick Jagger belted out a few licks of “Hey Joe” at the Morrison mansion while Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris, and Gram Parsons looked on. Regular part attendees included music industry legends David Geffen (Asylum Records), Jac Holtzman (Elektra Records) and Elliot Roberts (William Morris Agency), who made their fortunes promoting and recording the artists of Laurel Canyon. Then Governor, Jerry Brown, lived down the street with his rock star girlfriend, Linda Ronstadt.
Present-day Laurel Canyon is home to one of the most famous recording studios in the world. “The Mansion” was the 1918 home of Errol Flynn and the current home of producer Rick Rubin even though Harry Houdini and others supposedly haunt it. There are numerous accounts of famous musicians being confronted or affected by the paranormal while staying or working in the mansion. But bands like The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Audioslave, The Mars Volta, Linkin Park, and Slipknot have recorded milestone albums there.
Recently, folk-rock musician Jonathan Wilson has been holding jam sessions like those of old with stars in attendance like Chris Robinson from the Black Crowes. The Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, the Entrance Band and the Whispertown 2000 are known to frequent the stage in the back yard as well. Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewi hosted jam sessions at her Laurel Canyon home as well.
Laurel Canyon neighborhoods like “The Bird Streets” now feature some of the most photographed architecture in the world, built into the mountain and overlooking the city where fantasy and opulence meet and the movies come alive. The geography, homes, music and story position Laurel Canyon as a unique and sought-after place to live. It has become, once again, a place for Los Angeles’ super rich and famous to find some shade and relaxation amidst the California sun and the lights of Hollywood.