Inside The LC: The Strange but Mostly True Story of Laurel Canyon and the Birth of the Hippie Generation
May 8, 2008
"There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear"
Join me now, if you have the time, as we take a stroll down memory lane to a time nearly four-and-a-half decades ago – a time when America last had uniformed ground troops fighting a sustained and bloody battle to impose, uhmm, ‘democracy’ on a sovereign nation.
It is the first week of August, 1964, and U.S. warships under the command of U.S. Navy Admiral George Stephen Morrison have allegedly come under attack while patrolling Vietnam’s Tonkin Gulf. This event, subsequently dubbed the ‘Tonkin Gulf Incident,’ will result in the immediate passing by the U.S. Congress of the obviously pre-drafted Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which will, in turn, quickly lead to America’s deep immersion into the bloody Vietnam quagmire. Before it is over, well over fifty thousand American bodies – along with literally millions of Southeast Asian bodies – will litter the battlefields of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
For the record, the Tonkin Gulf Incident appears to differ somewhat from other alleged provocations that have driven this country to war. This was not, as we have seen so many times before, a ‘false flag’ operation (which is to say, an operation that involves Uncle Sam attacking himself and then pointing an accusatory finger at someone else). It was also not, as we have also seen on more than one occasion, an attack that was quite deliberately provoked. No, what the Tonkin Gulf incident actually was, as it turns out, is an ‘attack’ that never took place at all. The entire incident, as has been all but officially acknowledged, was spun from whole cloth. (It is quite possible, however, that the intent was to provoke a defensive response, which could then be cast as an unprovoked attack on U.S ships. The ships in question were on an intelligence mission and were operating in a decidedly provocative manner. It is quite possible that when Vietnamese forces failed to respond as anticipated, Uncle Sam decided to just pretend as though they had.)
Nevertheless, by early February 1965, the U.S. will – without a declaration of war and with no valid reason to wage one – begin indiscriminately bombing North Vietnam. By March of that same year, the infamous “Operation Rolling Thunder” will have commenced. Over the course of the next three-and-a-half years, millions of tons of bombs, missiles, rockets, incendiary devices and chemical warfare agents will be dumped on the people of Vietnam in what can only be described as one of the worst crimes against humanity ever perpetrated on this planet.
Also in March of 1965, the first uniformed U.S. soldier will officially set foot on Vietnamese soil (although Special Forces units masquerading as ‘advisers’ and ‘trainers’ had been there for at least four years, and likely much longer). By April 1965, fully 25,000 uniformed American kids, most still teenagers barely out of high school, will be slogging through the rice paddies of Vietnam. By the end of the year, U.S. troop strength will have surged to 200,000.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world in those early months of 1965, a new ‘scene’ is just beginning to take shape in the city of Los Angeles. In a geographically and socially isolated community known as Laurel Canyon – a heavily wooded, rustic, serene, yet vaguely ominous slice of LA nestled in the hills that separate the Los Angeles basin from the San Fernando Valley – musicians, singers and songwriters suddenly begin to gather as though summoned there by some unseen Pied Piper. Within months, the ‘hippie/flower child’ movement will be given birth there, along with the new style of music that will provide the soundtrack for the tumultuous second half of the 1960s.
An uncanny number of rock music superstars will emerge from Laurel Canyon beginning in the mid-1960s and carrying through the decade of the 1970s. The first to drop an album will be The Byrds, whose biggest star will prove to be David Crosby. The band’s debut effort, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” will be released on the Summer Solstice of 1965. It will quickly be followed by releases from the John Phillips-led Mamas and the Papas (“If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears,” January 1966), Love with Arthur Lee (“Love,” May 1966), Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention (“Freak Out,” June 1966), Buffalo Springfield, featuring Stephen Stills and Neil Young (“Buffalo Springfield,” October 1966), and The Doors (“The Doors,” January 1967).
One of the earliest on the Laurel Canyon/Sunset Strip scene is Jim Morrison, the enigmatic lead singer of The Doors. Jim will quickly become one of the most iconic, controversial, critically acclaimed, and influential figures to take up residence in Laurel Canyon. Curiously enough though, the self-proclaimed “Lizard King” has another claim to fame as well, albeit one that none of his numerous chroniclers will feel is of much relevance to his career and possible untimely death: he is the son, as it turns out, of the aforementioned Admiral George Stephen Morrison.
And so it is that, even while the father is actively conspiring to fabricate an incident that will be used to massively accelerate an illegal war, the son is positioning himself to become an icon of the ‘hippie’/anti-war crowd. Nothing unusual about that, I suppose. It is, you know, a small world and all that. And it is not as if Jim Morrison’s story is in any way unique.
During the early years of its heyday, Laurel Canyon’s father figure is the rather eccentric personality known as Frank Zappa. Though he and his various Mothers of Invention line-ups will never attain the commercial success of the band headed by the admiral’s son, Frank will be a hugely influential figure among his contemporaries. Ensconced in an abode dubbed the ‘Log Cabin’ – which sat right in the heart of Laurel Canyon, at the crossroads of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Lookout Mountain Avenue – Zappa will play host to virtually every musician who passes through the canyon in the mid- to late-1960s. He will also discover and sign numerous acts to his various Laurel Canyon-based record labels. Many of these acts will be rather bizarre and somewhat obscure characters (think Captain Beefheart and Larry “Wild Man” Fischer), but some of them, such as psychedelic rocker cum shock-rocker Alice Cooper, will go on to superstardom.
Zappa, along with certain members of his sizable entourage (the ‘Log Cabin’ was run as an early commune, with numerous hangers-on occupying various rooms in the main house and the guest house, as well as in the peculiar caves and tunnels lacing the grounds of the home; far from the quaint homestead the name seems to imply, by the way, the ‘Log Cabin’ was a cavernous five-level home that featured a 2,000+ square-foot living room with three massive chandeliers and an enormous floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace), will also be instrumental in introducing the look and attitude that will define the ‘hippie’ counterculture (although the Zappa crew preferred the label ‘Freak’). Nevertheless, Zappa (born, curiously enough, on the Winter Solstice of 1940) never really made a secret of the fact that he had nothing but contempt for the ‘hippie’ culture that he helped create and that he surrounded himself with.
Given that Zappa was, by numerous accounts, a rigidly authoritarian control-freak and a supporter of U.S. military actions in Southeast Asia, it is perhaps not surprising that he would not feel a kinship with the youth movement that he helped nurture. And it is probably safe to say that Frank’s dad also had little regard for the youth culture of the 1960s, given that Francis Zappa was, in case you were wondering, a chemical warfare specialist assigned to – where else? – the Edgewood Arsenal. Edgewood is, of course, the longtime home of America’s chemical warfare program, as well as a facility frequently cited as being deeply enmeshed in MK-ULTRA operations. Curiously enough, Frank Zappa literally grew up at the Edgewood Arsenal, having lived the first seven years of his life in military housing on the grounds of the facility. The family later moved to Lancaster, California, near Edwards Air Force Base, where Francis Zappa continued to busy himself with doing classified work for the military/intelligence complex. His son, meanwhile, prepped himself to become an icon of the peace & love crowd. Again, nothing unusual about that, I suppose.
Zappa’s manager, by the way, is a shadowy character by the name of Herb Cohen, who had come out to L.A. from the Bronx with his brother Mutt just before the music and club scene began heating up. Cohen, a former U.S. Marine, had spent a few years traveling the world before his arrival on the Laurel Canyon scene. Those travels, curiously, had taken him to the Congo in 1961, at the very time that leftist Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was being tortured and killed by our very own CIA. Not to worry though; according to one of Zappa’s biographers, Cohen wasn’t in the Congo on some kind of nefarious intelligence mission. No, he was there, believe it or not, to supply arms to Lumumba “in defiance of the CIA.” Because, you know, that is the kind of thing that globetrotting ex-Marines did in those days (as we’ll see soon enough when we take a look at another Laurel Canyon luminary).
Making up the other half of Laurel Canyon’s First Family is Frank’s wife, Gail Zappa, known formerly as Adelaide Sloatman. Gail hails from a long line of career Naval officers, including her father, who spent his life working on classified nuclear weapons research for the U.S. Navy. Gail herself had once worked as a secretary for the Office of Naval Research and Development (she also once told an interviewer that she had “heard voices all [her] life”). Many years before their nearly simultaneous arrival in Laurel Canyon, Gail had attended a Naval kindergarten with “Mr. Mojo Risin’” himself, Jim Morrison (it is claimed that, as children, Gail once hit Jim over the head with a hammer). The very same Jim Morrison had later attended the same Alexandria, Virginia high school as two other future Laurel Canyon luminaries – John Phillips and Cass Elliott.
“Papa” John Phillips, more so than probably any of the other illustrious residents of Laurel Canyon, will play a major role in spreading the emerging youth ‘counterculture’ across America. His contribution will be twofold: first, he will co-organize (along with Manson associate Terry Melcher) the famed Monterrey Pop Festival, which, through unprecedented media exposure, will give mainstream America its first real look at the music and fashions of the nascent ‘hippie’ movement. Second, Phillips will pen an insipid song known as “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” which will quickly rise to the top of the charts. Along with the Monterrey Pop Festival, the song will be instrumental in luring the disenfranchised (a preponderance of whom are underage runaways) to San Francisco to create the Haight-Asbury phenomenon and the famed 1967 “Summer of Love.”
Before arriving in Laurel Canyon and opening the doors of his home to the soon-to-be famous, the already famous, and the infamous (such as the aforementioned Charlie Manson, whose ‘Family’ also spent time at the Log Cabin and at the Laurel Canyon home of “Mama” Cass Elliot, which, in case you didn’t know, sat right across the street from the Laurel Canyon home of Abigail Folger and Voytek Frykowski, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here), John Edmund Andrew Phillips was, shockingly enough, yet another child of the military/intelligence complex. The son of U.S. Marine Corp Captain Claude Andrew Phillips and a mother who claimed to have psychic and telekinetic powers, John attended a series of elite military prep schools in the Washington, D.C. area, culminating in an appointment to the prestigious U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis
After leaving Annapolis, John married Susie Adams, a direct descendant of ‘Founding Father’ John Adams. Susie’s father, James Adams, Jr., had been involved in what Susie described as “cloak-and-dagger stuff with the Air Force in Vienna,” or what we like to call covert intelligence operations. Susie herself would later find employment at the Pentagon, alongside John Phillip’s older sister, Rosie, who dutifully reported to work at the complex for nearly thirty years. John’s mother, ‘Dene’ Phillips, also worked for most of her life for the federal government in some unspecified capacity. And John’s older brother, Tommy, was a battle-scarred former U.S. Marine who found work as a cop on the Alexandria police force, albeit one with a disciplinary record for exhibiting a violent streak when dealing with people of color.
John Phillips, of course – though surrounded throughout his life by military/intelligence personnel – did not involve himself in such matters. Or so we are to believe. Before succeeding in his musical career, however, John did seem to find himself, quite innocently of course, in some rather unusual places. One such place was Havana, Cuba, where Phillips arrived at the very height of the Cuban Revolution. For the record, Phillips has claimed that he went to Havana as nothing more than a concerned private citizen, with the intention of – you’re going to love this one – “fighting for Castro.” Because, as I mentioned earlier, a lot of folks in those days traveled abroad to thwart CIA operations before taking up residence in Laurel Canyon and joining the ‘hippie’ generation. During the two weeks or so that the Cuban Missile Crisis played out, a few years after Castro took power, Phillips found himself cooling his heels in Jacksonville, Florida – alongside, coincidentally I’m sure, the Mayport Naval Station.
Anyway, let’s move on to yet another of Laurel Canyon’s earliest and brightest stars, Mr. Stephen Stills. Stills will have the distinction of being a founding member of two of Laurel Canyon’s most acclaimed and beloved bands: Buffalo Springfield, and, needless to say, Crosby, Stills & Nash. In addition, Stills will pen perhaps the first, and certainly one of the most enduring anthems of the 60s generation, “For What It’s Worth,” the opening lines of which appear at the top of this post (Stills’ follow-up single will be entitled “Bluebird,” which, coincidentally or not, happens to be the original codename assigned to the MK-ULTRA program).
Before his arrival in Laurel Canyon, Stephen Stills was (*yawn*) the product of yet another career military family. Raised partly in Texas, young Stephen spent large swaths of his childhood in El Salvador, Costa Rica, the Panama Canal Zone, and various other parts of Central America – alongside his father, who was, we can be fairly certain, helping to spread ‘democracy’ to the unwashed masses in that endearingly American way. As with the rest of our cast of characters, Stills was educated primarily at schools on military bases and at elite military academies. Among his contemporaries in Laurel Canyon, he was widely viewed as having an abrasive, authoritarian personality. Nothing unusual about any of that, of course, as we have already seen with the rest of our cast of characters.
There is, however, an even more curious aspect to the Stephen Stills story: Stephen will later tell anyone who will sit and listen that he had served time for Uncle Sam in the jungles of Vietnam. These tales will be universally dismissed by chroniclers of the era as nothing more than drug-induced delusions. Such a thing couldn’t possibly be true, it will be claimed, since Stills arrived on the Laurel Canyon scene at the very time that the first uniformed troops began shipping out and he remained in the public eye thereafter. And it will of course be quite true that Stephen Stills could not have served with uniformed ground troops in Vietnam, but what will be ignored is the undeniable fact that the U.S. had thousands of ‘advisers’ – which is to say, CIA/Special Forces operatives – operating in the country for a good many years before the arrival of the first official ground troops. What will also be ignored is that, given his background, his age, and the timeline of events, Stephen Stills not only could indeed have seen action in Vietnam, he would seem to have been a prime candidate for such an assignment. After which, of course, he could rather quickly become – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – an icon of the peace generation.
Another of those icons, and one of Laurel Canyon’s most flamboyant residents, is a young man by the name of David Crosby, founding member of the seminal Laurel Canyon band the Byrds, as well as, of course, Crosby, Stills & Nash. Crosby is, not surprisingly, the son of an Annapolis graduate and WWII military intelligence officer, Major Floyd Delafield Crosby. Like others in this story, Floyd Crosby spent much of his post-service time traveling the world. Those travels landed him in places like Haiti, where he paid a visit in 1927, when the country just happened to be, coincidentally of course, under military occupation by the U.S. Marines. One of the Marines doing that occupying was a guy that we met earlier by the name of Captain Claude Andrew Phillips.
But David Crosby is much more than just the son of Major Floyd Delafield Crosby. David Van Cortlandt Crosby, as it turns out, is a scion of the closely intertwined Van Cortlandt, Van Schuyler and Van Rensselaer families. And while you’re probably thinking, “the Van Who families?,” I can assure you that if you plug those names in over at Wikipedia, you can spend a pretty fair amount of time reading up on the power wielded by this clan for the last, oh, two-and-a-quarter centuries or so. Suffice it to say that the Crosby family tree includes a truly dizzying array of US senators and congressmen, state senators and assemblymen, governors, mayors, judges, Supreme Court justices, Revolutionary and Civil War generals, signers of the Declaration of Independence, and members of the Continental Congress. It also includes, I should hasten to add – for those of you with a taste for such things – more than a few high-ranking Masons. Stephen Van Rensselaer III, for example, reportedly served as Grand Master of Masons for New York. And if all that isn’t impressive enough, according to the New England Genealogical Society, David Van Cortlandt Crosby is also a direct descendant of ‘Founding Fathers’ and Federalist Papers’ authors Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.
If there is, as many believe, a network of elite families that has shaped national and world events for a very long time, then it is probably safe to say that David Crosby is a bloodline member of that clan (which may explain, come to think of it, why his semen seems to be in such demand in certain circles – because, if we’re being honest here, it certainly can’t be due to his looks or talent.) If America had royalty, then David Crosby would probably be a Duke, or a Prince, or something similar (I’m not really sure how that shit works). But other than that, he is just a normal, run-of-the-mill kind of guy who just happened to shine as one of Laurel Canyon’s brightest stars. And who, I guess I should add, has a real fondness for guns, especially handguns, which he has maintained a sizable collection of for his entire life. According to those closest to him, it is a rare occasion when Mr. Crosby is not packing heat (John Phillips also owned and sometimes carried handguns). And according to Crosby himself, he has, on at least one occasion, discharged a firearm in anger at another human being. All of which made him, of course, an obvious choice for the Flower Children to rally around.
Another shining star on the Laurel Canyon scene, just a few years later, will be singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, who is – are you getting as bored with this as I am? – the product of a career military family. Browne’s father was assigned to post-war ‘reconstruction’ work in Germany, which very likely means that he was in the employ of the OSS, precursor to the CIA. As readers of my “Understanding the F-Word” may recall, U.S. involvement in post-war reconstruction in Germany largely consisted of maintaining as much of the Nazi infrastructure as possible while shielding war criminals from capture and prosecution. Against that backdrop, Jackson Browne was born in a military hospital in Heidelberg, Germany. Some two decades later, he emerged as … oh, never mind.
Let’s talk instead about three other Laurel Canyon vocalists who will rise to dizzying heights of fame and fortune: Gerry Beckley, Dan Peek and Dewey Bunnell. Individually, these three names are probably unknown to virtually all readers; but collectively, as the band America, the three will score huge hits in the early ‘70s with such songs as “Ventura Highway,” “A Horse With No Name,” and the Wizard of Oz-themed “The Tin Man.” I guess I probably don’t need to add here that all three of these lads were products of the military/intelligence community. Beckley’s dad was the commander of the now-defunct West Ruislip USAF base near London, England, a facility deeply immersed in intelligence operations. Bunnell’s and Peek’s fathers were both career Air Force officers serving under Beckley’s dad at West Ruislip, which is where the three boys first met.
We could also, I suppose, discuss Mike Nesmith of the Monkees and Cory Wells of Three Dog Night (two more hugely successful Laurel Canyon bands), who both arrived in LA not long after serving time with the U.S. Air Force. Nesmith also inherited a family fortune estimated at $25 million. Gram Parsons, who would briefly replace David Crosby in The Byrds before fronting The Flying Burrito Brothers, was the son of Major Cecil Ingram “Coon Dog” Connor II, a decorated military officer and bomber pilot who reportedly flew over 50 combat missions. Parsons was also an heir, on his mother’s side, to the formidable Snively family fortune. Said to be the wealthiest family in the exclusive enclave of Winter Haven, Florida, the Snively family was the proud owner of Snively Groves, Inc., which reportedly owned as much as 1/3 of all the citrus groves in the state of Florida.
And so it goes as one scrolls through the roster of Laurel Canyon superstars. What one finds, far more often than not, are the sons and daughters of the military/intelligence complex and the sons and daughters of extreme wealth and privilege – and oftentimes, you’ll find both rolled into one convenient package. Every once in a while, you will also stumble across a former child actor, like the aforementioned Brandon DeWilde, or Monkee Mickey Dolenz, or eccentric prodigy Van Dyke Parks. You might also encounter some former mental patients, such as James Taylor, who spent time in two different mental institutions in Massachusetts before hitting the Laurel Canyon scene, or Larry “Wild Man” Fischer, who was institutionalized repeatedly during his teen years, once for attacking his mother with a knife (an act that was gleefully mocked by Zappa on the cover of Fischer’s first album). Finally, you might find the offspring of an organized crime figure, like Warren Zevon, the son of William “Stumpy” Zevon, a lieutenant for infamous LA crimelord Mickey Cohen.
All these folks gathered nearly simultaneously along the narrow, winding roads of Laurel Canyon. They came from across the country – although the Washington, DC area was noticeably over-represented – as well as from Canada and England. They came even though, at the time, there wasn't much of a pop music industry in Los Angeles. They came even though, at the time, there was no live pop music scene to speak of. They came even though, in retrospect, there was no discernable reason for them to do so.
It would, of course, make sense these days for an aspiring musician to venture out to Los Angeles. But in those days, the centers of the music universe were Nashville, Detroit and New York. It wasn’t the industry that drew the Laurel Canyon crowd, you see, but rather the Laurel Canyon crowd that transformed Los Angeles into the epicenter of the music industry. To what then do we attribute this unprecedented gathering of future musical superstars in the hills above Los Angeles? What was it that inspired them all to head out west? Perhaps Neil Young said it best when he told an interviewer that he couldn’t really say why he headed out to LA circa 1966; he and others “were just going like Lemmings.”
To Be Continued …
* * * * * * * * * *
Before signing off, I need to make a couple of quick announcements for those of you who find yourselves thinking, “You know, I really need a little more Dave in my life. Reading the posts and the books is fine, I suppose, but I wish I could have a little something more.” If you fall into that category (and can’t afford professional counseling), then I have great news for you: mere days from now, on May 20, the DVD release of “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” will be available at a video store near you. And better yet, I have been awarded a regular monthly spot on the Meria Heller (www.meria.net) radio program, the first installment of which aired on April 20 (she picked the date, by the way, though it did seem perversely appropriate). Stay tuned to Meria’s website for upcoming show schedules.
And that, fearless readers, is what they call in Hollywood a “wrap.”