The Laurel Canyon scene was a cesspool of hedonism, self-absorption and nihilism
They were supposed to be the sensitive rock and rollers; hell, they were as feral as any other kind
One of my gigs in life is serving as an adjunct lecturer in rock history and jazz history at the local campus of our largest state university.
I recently wrote about it in a piece for Ordinary Times titled “Confessions of a Rock and Roll History Teacher.”
I really did some confessing in the last few paragraphs:
Last week, my current class reached the point in the semester at which I talk about the San Francisco Bay Area scene of the mid-to-late 1960s. I played the class some Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Sons of Champlin and Santana. I got misty-eyed and a bit choked up. The old feelings of solidarity with all that that stood for, how it validated by desire to get away from the whole worldview of my square old parents, came rushing back.
But I realize it wasn’t just nostalgia. It was a deep inner conflict.
We’ve lost something as a culture. We’ve cut ourselves off from an artistic and philosophical lineage that had been our birthright as heirs of Western civilization.
It shows. It’s no secret that we’re not very happy and we’re extremely polarized. Schools now routinely employ mental health counselors. (They also routinely have armed law enforcement personnel – “school resource officers” – on hand.) Divorce rates have stabilized, but that’s because the marriage rate has declined.
So I blow hot and cold on whether rock and roll has been, on balance, a force for good or bad. It’s powerful; there’s no denying that. But I think The Who may have made an assessment beyond what they realized when, in 1965, they sang that “things they do look awful cold.” Six years later, after all, they’d determined that they wouldn’t get fooled again.
Yeah, this has taken me decades to even start to unwind. I was so heavily emotionally invested in feeling solidarity with the whole notion of a counterculture that to this day I resonate with the fervor of the rock vibe, from “Deacon’s Hop” by Big Jay McNeely to “Summertime Blues” by Eddie Cochran to “Beck’s Bolero” to “Rock the Casbah” by the Clash. It never fails to set my soul ablaze, if now for ever-shorter durations.
I think that, along with the commonly traced etymology of the term “rock and roll” back to its use as a synonym for the sex act in 1920s blues songs, it must also have found such universal application due to the implication that it rocked society, jarred the foundations of our culture.
A few weeks ago, in the present semester, we got to the evening during which I devote a fair portion of the lecture to the Laurel Canyon scene.
The previous week, I have the students watch a five-part BBC documentary on it.
The subtitle of the documentary is “From The Byrds to the Eagles,” and I think that nicely puts bookends on the era. It starts in 1965, with the folk-rock era, continues throughout the country-fication of rock via the Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, and on into the wave of singer-songwriters such as Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and John David Souther, and certainly act-management types and record company executives such as David Geffen, Elliot Roberts, and Lenny Waronker.
The documentary, while thorough, is rather a soft-pedal when it comes to the damage the people involved did to each other. There is a discussion by David Crosby about how when the drugs of choice shifted from psychedelics to cocaine, people’s egos and libido spoiled a lot of the hippie-ish vibe that the scene projected.
The Laurel Canyon scene was supposed to represent rock’s sensitive side. The songs were by turns introspective, romantic, and idealistic. The general message was that the world was progressing toward a more mellow day in which people would, by breaking the chains of convention, liberate themselves to be more in touch with themselves and each other.
To a great degree, the whole thing was just another show-business hype. The scene was, from the beginning, rife with hedonism and disregard for the consequences of casually breezing in and out of one another’s lives.
One of the most emblematic of the sensitive guys was Graham Nash. Originally a founding member of the British Invasion band The Hollies, he left that group and came across the pond in 1968 to form a trio with David Crosby, who’d just been kicked out of The Byrds, and Stephen Stills, fresh from the Buffalo Springfield’s breakup.
A quick note about Crosby. In 1968, he produced the first album by Joni Mitchell, who’d come out of Canada’s folk scene and was already making a name for herself as a songwriter. She and Crosby took up residence together for the better part of a year. Then Nash came along, was smitten with her, and she moved quite seamlessly into a relationship with him. Crosby didn’t mind. He always had a hot tub full of naked women with which to amuse himself, along with a stash of the best weed in the Canyon.
Nash was the sensitive guy’s sensitive guy, as indicated by such songs as “Lady of the Island” and “Our House.”
At least that was the image.
Let’s start with the kind of “spiritual” insight he gained from dropping acid:
Did acid also have a positive impact? “It did. I took less than a dozen trips in my life but I realised with the first one that here we are, this ball of mud whizzing at 67,000 miles an hour through space, on one of trillions of planets. I understood when I took acid that everything is meaningless. And because of that everything is completely deeply meaningful.”
A bit reminiscent of the line in “Imagine,” far and away the most awful song John Lennon ever wrote: “No hell below us, above us only sky,” isn’t it?
Graham echoes what Crosby had to say about the role of cocaine:
The early days were fabulous, he says. “We were in heaven.” But it didn’t last long. They were soon undone by rivalry, egos, excess and drugs. The band that harmonised so sublimely could not have been more discordant. “When we first started there were no egos. I think that came from all the cocaine we snorted. That’s what brought egos into it. There were an enormous amount of drugs being taken.” He runs through a typical day. “I’d get high in the morning and snort in the afternoon and I’d keep going till 3-4am.” Without drugs would the music have been different? “I don’t know, but we may have been able to make more music if we’d not been quite so stoned.”
Nash remembers the date he last took cocaine. “10 December 1984. We had finished a tour and there is the tour-end party. I walk into this room and see all these people smiling, and the smiles never made it to their eyes. It was only a mouth. And I realised I must look like all these people because we were all snorting coke. I stopped instantly and never went back.”
How about his motivation for wanting to meet The Mamas and the Papas?
Nash wrote such sensitive songs about women and relationships, but at times in the memoir he sounds like a priapic boor. I ask whether Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and Papas got in touch after the book was published. “No,” he says sheepishly. He mentions her once, saying that the only reason he went to meet the band was because he “wanted to fuck Michelle”. I wonder how she felt about that single reference, I say. “Well, I didn’t want to fuck John, I didn’t want to fuck Denny, and I didn’t want to fuck Cass. I wanted to fuck Michelle.” He pauses. “Now this was pure toxic masculinity. Completely.”
There were other relationships, but eventually he settled down into a 38-year marriage that produced three children. But, alas, he found a better lay a few years ago, so that ended. The offspring from the marriage don’t speak to him anymore:
Nash left Susan Sennett, his wife of 38 years and the mother of his three adult children, for Grantham in 2016. (In his memoir, he referred to Sennett as the love of his life, and wrote dotingly of his children and grandchildren.) Now he says he feels as if he has been born again. In 2018, he told Event magazine: “My sex life is insane. It’s better than it’s ever been.” Today, he describes their relationship in different terms. “My life has changed because she won’t stand for any of my bullshit. You tell stories or you do something, and she says: ‘No, that’s not the way it is; this is the way I see it.’ And invariably she’s correct. So I’ve got someone in my life who will love me in spite of my weaknesses.”
What are those weaknesses? “Oh, I don’t know.” For younger women? “Not necessarily. I’m trying to live the best life I can, and I want to do that until they close the coffin.”
But even here the story is complex. I read that his children fell out with him after he separated from Sennett. What happened? “They didn’t realise that I had divorced their mother, not them. So they don’t want me in their lives, and …” He trails off.
All three of the children? “My daughter is a little friendlier than my boys.” That must be tough, to be cut off from them, I say. “It’s terrible. So I’m doing remarkably well considering everything.” Does he think they were so angry with him because of the separation or the age difference? “I don’t know. People have to live their lives. People become who they are, and I realise my kids are not the people I thought they were, that my fatherly eyes glossed over their shortcomings.”
Does he hope there will be a reconciliation? “Actually I don’t. And that might seem awfully strange as a father, but it’s too painful. I can’t live my life in pain. If they don’t want me in their lives, that’s their choice. I don’t agree with it, but I will honour their choice.”
Suddenly the mood has changed. I stare at him, trying to work out what he is thinking. I seem to be looking at a man with the implacable resolve to follow his heart and live his rock’n’roll life to the last. But I also seem to be witnessing the desperate melancholy of an elderly man aware of all he has lost.
What a charmer.
What the Laurel Canyon scene demonstrates is that the counterculture, which has strived, though its Beat beginnings, the hippie ethos, and the causy movements it’s spawned, such as feminism and environmentalism, to usher in an irreversible egalitarianism, has had its own beautiful-people stratum just like any other narcissism-based reason for human beings to come together.
It made for some great music, but the cost was pretty damn high.