Inside The LC: The Strange but Mostly True Story of Laurel Canyon and the Birth of the Hippie Generation
May 13, 2008
“I mean, fuck, he auditioned for Neil [Young] for fuck’s sake.”
Graham Nash, explaining to author Michael Walker how close Charlie Manson was to the Laurel Canyon scene.
During the ten-year period during which Bruce, Novarro, Mineo, Linkletter, Stevens, Tate, Sebring, Frykowski and Folger all turned up dead, a whole lot of other people connected to Laurel Canyon did as well, often under very questionable circumstances. The list includes, but is certainly not limited to, all of the following names:
Marina Elizabeth Habe, whose body was carved up and tossed into the heavy brush along Mulholland Drive, just west of Bowmont Drive, on December 30, 1968. Habe, just seventeen at the time of her death, was the daughter of Hans Habe, who emigrated to the U.S. from fascist Austria circa 1940. Shortly thereafter, he married a General Foods heiress and began studying psychological warfare at the Military Intelligence Training Center. After completing his training, he put his psychological warfare skills to use by creating 18 newspapers in occupied Germany – under the direction, no doubt, of the OSS.
Christine Hinton, who was killed in a head-on collision on September 30, 1969. At the time, Hinton was a girlfriend of David Crosby and the founder and head of The Byrd’s fan club. She was also the daughter of a career Army officer stationed at the notorious Presidio military base in San Francisco. Another of Crosby’s girlfriends from that same era was Shelley Roecker, who grew up on the Hamilton Air Force Base in Marin County.
Jane Doe #59, found dumped into the heavy undergrowth of Laurel Canyon in November 1969, within sight of where Habe had been dumped less than a year earlier. The teenage girl, who was never identified, had been stabbed 157 times in the chest and throat.
Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson, singer, songwriter and guitarist for the Laurel Canyon blues-rock band, Canned Heat, was found dead in his Topanga Canyon home on September 3, 1970. His death was written off as a suicide/OD. Wilson had moved to Topanga Canyon after the band’s Laurel Canyon home – on Lookout Mountain Avenue, next door to Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash’s home – burned to the ground. “Blind Owl” was just twenty-seven years old at the time of his death. A little more than a decade later, Wilson’s former bandmate, Bob “The Bear” Hite, who had once acknowledged in an interview that he had partied in the canyons with various members of the Manson Family, died of a heart attack at the ripe old age of 36.
Jimi Hendrix, who reportedly briefly occupied the sprawling mansion just north of the Log Cabin after he moved to LA in 1968, died in London under seriously questionable circumstances on September 18, 1970. Though he rarely spoke of it, Jimi had served a stint in the U.S. Army with the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell. His official records indicate that he was forced into the service by the courts and then released after just one year when he purportedly proved to be a poor soldier. One wonders though why he was assigned to such an elite division if he was indeed such a failure. One also wonders why he wasn’t subjected to disciplinary measures rather than being handed a free pass out of his ostensibly court-ordered service. In any event, Jimi himself once told reporters that he was given a medical discharge after breaking an ankle during a parachute jump. And one biographer has claimed that Jimi faked being gay to earn an early release. The truth, alas, remains rather elusive. At the time of Jimi’s death, the first person called by his girlfriend – Monika Danneman, who was the last to see Hendrix alive – was Eric Burden of the Animals. Two years earlier, Burden had relocated to LA and taken over ringmaster duties from Frank Zappa after Zappa had vacated the Log Cabin and moved into a less high-profile Laurel Canyon home. Within a year of Jimi’s death, an underage prostitute named Devon Wilson who had been with Jimi the day before his death, plunged from an eighth-floor window of New York’s Chelsea Hotel. On March 5, 1973, a shadowy character named Michael Jeffery, who had managed both Hendrix and Burden, was killed in a mid-air plane collision. Jeffery was known to openly boast of having organized crime connections and of working for the CIA. After Jimi’s death, it was discovered that Jeffery had been funneling most of Hendrix’s gross earnings into offshore accounts in the Bahamas linked to international drug trafficking. Years later, on April 5, 1996, Danneman, the daughter of a wealthy German industrialist, was found dead near her home in a fume-filled Mercedes.
Jim Morrison, who for a time lived in a home on Rothdell Trail, behind the Laurel Canyon Country Store, may or may not have died in Paris on July 3, 1971. The events of that day remain shrouded in mystery and rumor, and the details of the story, such as they are, have changed over the years. What is known is that, on that very same day, Admiral George Stephen Morrison delivered the keynote speech at a decommissioning ceremony for the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard, from where, seven years earlier, he had helped choreograph the Tonkin Gulf Incident. A few years after Jim’s death, his common-law wife, Pamela Courson, dropped dead as well, officially of a heroin overdose. Like Hendrix, Morrison had been an avid student of the occult, with a particular fondness for the work of Aleister Crowley. According to super-groupie Pamela DesBarres, he had also “read all he could about incest and sadism.” Also like Hendrix, Morrison was just twenty-seven at the time of his (possible) death.
Brandon DeWilde, a good friend of David Crosby and Gram Parsons, was killed in a freak accident in Colorado on July 6, 1972, when his van plowed under a flatbed truck. In the 1950s, DeWilde had been an in-demand child actor since the age of eight. He had appeared on screen with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Alan Ladd, Lee Marvin, Paul Newman, John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda. Around 1965, DeWilde fell in with Hollywood’s ‘Young Turks,’ through whom he met and befriended Crosby, Parsons, and various other members of the Laurel Canyon Club. DeWilde was just thirty at the time of his death.
Christine Frka, a former governess for Moon Unit Zappa and the Zappa family’s former housekeeper at the Log Cabin, died on November 5, 1972 of an alleged drug overdose, though friends suspected foul play. As “Miss Christine,” Frka had been a member of the Zappa-created GTOs, a musical act, of sorts, composed entirely of very young groupies. She was also the inspiration for the song, “Christine’s Tune: Devil in Disguise” by Gram Parson’s Flying Burrito Brothers. Frka was probably in her early twenties when she died, possibly even younger.
Danny Whitten, a guitarist/vocalist/songwriter with Neil Young’s sometime band, Crazy Horse, died of an overdose on November 18, 1972. According to rock ‘n’ roll legend, Whitten had been fired by Young earlier that day during rehearsals in San Francisco. Young and Jack Nietzsche, Phil Spector’s former top assistant, had given Whitten $50 and put him on a plane back to LA. Within hours, he was dead. Whitten was just twenty-nine.
Bruce Berry, a roadie for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, died of a heroin overdose in June 1973. Berry had just flown out to Maui to deliver a shipment of cocaine to Stephen Stills, and was promptly sent back to LA by Crosby and Nash. Berry was a brother of Jan Berry, of Jan and Dean. (Dean Torrence, the “Dean” of Jan and Dean, had played a part in the fake kidnapping of Frank Sinatra, Jr., just after the JFK assassination. The staged event was a particularly lame effort to divert attention away from the questions that were cropping up, after the initial shock had passed, about the events in Dealey Plaza.)
Clarence White, a guitarist who had played with The Byrds, was run over by a drunk driver and killed on July 14, 1973. White had grown up near Lancaster, not far from where Frank Zappa spent his teen years. At least one member of White’s immediate family was employed at Edwards Air Force Base. The driver who killed young Clarence, just twenty-nine years old at the time of his death, was given a one-year suspended sentence and served no time.
Gram Parsons, formerly with the International Submarine Band, The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, allegedly overdosed on a speedball at the Joshua Tree Inn on September 19, 1973. Just two months before his death, Parson’s Topanga Canyon home had burnt to the ground. After his death, his body was stolen from LAX by the Burrito’s road manager, Phil Kaufman, and then taken back out to Joshua Tree and ritually burned on the autumnal equinox (Kaufman had been a prison buddy of Charlie Manson’s at Terminal Island; when Phil was released from Terminal Island in March of 1968, he quickly reunited with his old pal, who had been released a year earlier.) By the time of Gram’s death, his family had already experienced its share of questionable deaths. Just before Christmas, 1958, Parson’s father had sent Gram, along with his mother and sister, off to stay with family in Florida. The next day, just after the winter solstice, “Coon Dog” caught a bullet to the head. His death was recorded as a suicide and it was claimed that he had sent his family away to spare them as much pain as possible. It seems just as likely, however, that “Coon Dog” knew his days were numbered and wanted to get his family out of the line of fire. The next year, 1959, Gram’s mother married again, to Robert Ellis Parsons, who adopted Gram and his sister Avis. Six years later, in June of 1965, Gram’s mother died the day after a sudden illness landed her in the hospital. According to witnesses, she died “almost immediately” after a visit from her husband, Robert Parsons. Many of those close to the situation believed that Parsons had a hand in her death (very shortly thereafter, Robert Parsons married his stepdaughter’s teenage babysitter). Following his mother’s death, Parsons briefly attended Harvard University, and then launched his music career with the formation of the International Submarine Band, which quickly found its way to – where else? – Laurel Canyon. Gram’s death in 1973 at the age of 26 left his younger sister Avis as the sole surviving member of the family. She was killed in 1993, reportedly in a boating accident, at the age of 43.
“Mama” Cass Elliot, the “Earth Mother” of Laurel Canyon whose circle of friends included musicians, Mansonites, young Hollywood stars, the wealthy son of a State Department official, singer/songwriters, assorted drug dealers, and some particularly unsavory characters the LAPD once described as “some kind of hit squad,” died in the London home of Harry Nilsson on July 29, 1974 (Nilsson had been a frequent drinking buddy of John Lennon in Laurel Canyon and on the Sunset Strip). At thirty-two, Cass had lived a long and productive life, by Laurel Canyon standards. Four years later, in the very same room of the very same London flat, still owned by Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon of The Who also died at thirty-two (on September 7, 1978). Though initial press reports held that Cass had choked to death on a ham sandwich, the official cause of death was listed as heart failure. Her actual cause of death could likely be filed under “knowing where too many of the bodies were buried.” Moon reportedly died from a massive overdose of a drug used to treat alcohol withdrawal. Like Cass, Moon had at one time been a resident of Laurel Canyon.
Amy Gossage, Graham Nash’s girlfriend at the time, was murdered in her San Francisco home on February 13, 1975. Just twenty years old at the time, she had been stabbed nearly fifty times and was bludgeoned beyond recognition. Amy’s father, a famed advertising/PR executive, had died of leukemia in 1969. Not long after, her half-sister had been killed in a car crash. In May of 1974, her mother, the daughter of a wealthy banking family, died as well, reportedly of cirrhosis of the liver. That left just Amy, age 19, and her brother Eben, age 20, both of whom reportedly had serious drug dependencies. Amy’s brutal murder, cleverly enough, was pinned on Eben. Police had conveniently found bloodstained clothes, along with a hammer and scissors, sitting on the porch of Eben’s apartment, looking very much as though it had been planted. A friend of Eben’s would later remark, perhaps quite tellingly, “If Eben did kill her, I’m convinced he doesn’t know he did it.”
Tim Buckley, a singer/songwriter signed to Frank Zappa’s record label and managed by Herb Cohen, died of a reported overdose on June 29, 1975. Buckley had once appeared on an episode of The Monkees, and, like Monkee Peter Tork (and so many others in this story), he hailed from Washington, DC. Buckley was just twenty-eight at the time of his death. His son, Jeff Buckley, also an accomplished musician, managed to remain on this planet two years longer than his dad did; he was thirty when he died in a bizarre drowning incident on May 29, 1997.
Phyllis Major Browne, wife of singer/songwriter Jackson Browne, reportedly overdosed on barbiturates on March 25, 1976. Her death was – you all should know the words to this song by now – ruled a suicide. She was just thirty years old.
There are a few other curious deaths we could add here as well, though they were only indirectly related to the Laurel Canyon scene. Nevertheless, they deserve an honorable mention, especially the Bobby Fuller and Phil Ochs entries; the former because it is a rather extraordinary example of the exemplary work done by the LAPD, and the latter because it just may contain a key to understanding the Laurel Canyon phenomenon:
Bobby Fuller, singer/songwriter/guitarist for the Bobby Fuller Four, was found dead in his car near Grauman’s Chinese Theater on July 18, 1966, after being lured away from his home by a mysterious 2:00-3:00 AM phone call of unknown origin. Fuller is best known for penning the hit song “I Fought the Law,” which had just hit the charts when he supposedly committed suicide at the age of twenty-three. There were multiple cuts and bruises on his face, chest and shoulders, dried blood around his mouth, and a hairline fracture to his right hand. He had been thoroughly doused with gasoline, including in his mouth and throat. The inside of the car was doused as well, and an open book of matches lay on the seat. It was perfectly obvious that Fuller’s killer (or killers) had planned to torch the car, destroying all evidence, but likely got scared away. The LAPD, nevertheless, ruled Fuller’s death a suicide – despite the coroner’s conclusion that the gas had been poured after Bobby’s death. Police later decided that it wasn’t a suicide after all, but rather an accident. They didn’t bother to explain how Fuller had accidentally doused himself with gasoline after accidentally killing himself. At the time of his death, one of Fuller’s closest confidants was a prostitute named Melody who worked at PJ’s nightclub, where Bobby frequently played. The club was co-owned by Eddie Nash, who would, many years later, orchestrate the Wonderland massacre. A few years after Bobby’s death, his brother and bass player, Randy Fuller, teamed up with drummer Dewey Martin, formerly of Buffalo Springfield.
Gary Hinman, a musician, music teacher, and part-time chemist, was brutally murdered in his Topanga Canyon home on July 27, 1969. Convicted of his murder was Mansonite Bobby Beausoleil, who had played rhythm guitar in a local band known as the Grass Roots. To avoid confusion with the more famous band already using that name, the Laurel Canyon band changed its name to Love. Beausoleil would claim that the band’s new name was inspired by his own nickname, Cupid.
Janis Joplin, vocalist extraordinaire, was found dead of a heroin overdose on October 4, 1970 at the Landmark Hotel, about a mile east of the mouth of Laurel Canyon, where she occasionally visited. Indications were that she had taken or been given a “hot shot,” many times stronger than standard street heroin. Joplin’s father, by the way, was a petroleum engineer for Texaco. And though it might normally seem an odd coupling, it somehow seems perfectly natural, in the context of this story, that Janis once dated that great crusader in the war on all things immoral, William Bennett. Like Morrison and Hendrix, Joplin died at the age of twenty-seven.
Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, lead guitarist and bass player for the Allman Brothers, were killed in freakishly similar motorcycle crashes on October 29, 1971 and November 11, 1972. Allman was the son of Willis Allman, a US Army Sergeant who had been murdered by another soldier near Norfolk, Virginia (home of the world’s largest naval installation) on December 26, 1949. In 1967, Duane and his younger brother, Gregg, then billing themselves as The Allman Joys, ventured out to Los Angeles. While there, Gregg auditioned for and was almost signed by the Laurel Canyon band Poco, which featured Buffalo Springfield alumni Richie Furay and Jim Messina, as well as future Eagle Randy Meisner. Duane was killed when a truck turned in front of his motorcycle at an intersection and inexplicably stopped. Just over a year later, Oakley had a similar run-in with a bus, just three blocks from where Allman had been killed. Following the crash, Berry had dusted himself off and declined medical attention, insisting that he was okay. Three hours later, he was rushed to the hospital, where he died. Both Oakley and Allman were just twenty-four years old.
Phil Ochs, folk singer/songwriter and political activist, was found hanged in his sister’s home in Far Rockaway, New York on April 9, 1976. Throughout his life, Ochs was one of the most overtly political of the 1960s rock and folk music stars. A regular attendee at anti-war, civil rights, and labor rallies, Ochs appeared to be, at all times, an unwavering political leftist (he named his first band The Singing Socialists). That all changed, however, and rather dramatically, in the months before his death. Born in El Paso, Texas on December 19, 1940, Phil and his family moved frequently during the first few years of his life. His father, Dr. Jacob Ochs, had been drafted by the US Army and assigned to various military hospitals in New York, New Mexico and Texas. In 1943, Dr. Ochs was shipped overseas, returning two years later with a medical discharge. Upon his return, he was immediately institutionalized and didn’t return to his family for another two years. During that time, he was subjected to every ‘treatment’ imaginable, including electroshock ‘therapy.’ When he finally returned to his family, in 1947, he was but a shell of his former self, described by Phil’s sister as “almost like a phantom.” Beginning in the fall of 1956, Phil Ochs began attending Staunton Military Academy, the very same institution that future ‘serial killer’/cult leader Gary Heidnik would attend just one year after Ochs graduated. During Phil’s two years there, a friend and fellow band member was found swinging from the end of a rope (I probably don’t need to add here that the death was ruled a suicide). Following graduation, Phil enrolled at Ohio State University, but not before, oddly enough, having a little plastic surgery done to alter his appearance (doing such things, needless to say, was rather uncommon in 1958). In early 1962, just months before his scheduled graduation, Ochs dropped out of college to pursue a career in music. By 1966, he had released three albums. In 1967, under the management of his brother, Michael Ochs, Phil moved out to Los Angeles. Michael had begun working the previous year as an assistant to Barry James, who maintained a party house at 8504 Ridpath in Laurel Canyon. In the early 1970s, with his career beginning to fade, Phil Ochs began to travel internationally, usually accompanied by vast quantities of booze and pills. Those travels included a visit to Chile, not long before the US-sponsored coup that toppled Salvador Allende. In early summer of 1975, Phil Ochs’ public persona abruptly changed. Using the name John Butler Train, Ochs proclaimed himself to be a CIA operative and presented himself as a belligerent, right-wing thug. He told an interviewer that, “on the first day of summer 1975, Phil Ochs was murdered in the Chelsea Hotel by John Train … For the good of societies, public and secret, he needed to be gotten rid of.” That symbolic assassination, on the summer solstice, took place at the same hotel that Devon Wilson had flown out of a few years earlier. One of Ochs’ biographers would later write that Phil/John “actually believed he was a member of the CIA.” Also in those final months of his life, Ochs began compiling curious lists, with entries that clearly were references to US biological warfare research: “shellfish toxin, Fort Dietrich, cobra venom, Chantilly Race Track, hollow silver dollars, New York Cornell Hospital …” Many years before Ochs’ metamorphosis, in an interesting bit of foreshadowing, psychological warfare operative George Estabrooks explained how US intelligence agencies could create the perfect spy: “We start with an excellent subject … we need a man or woman who is highly intelligent and physically tough. Then we start to develop a case of multiple personality through hypnotism. In his normal waking state, which we will call Personality A, or PA, this individual will become a rabid communist. He will join the party, follow the party line and make himself as objectionable as possible to the authorities. Note that he will be acting in good faith. He is a communist, or rather his PA is a communist and will behave as such. Then we develop Personality B (PB), the secondary personality, the unconscious personality, if you wish, although this is somewhat of a contradiction in terms. This personality is rabidly American and anti-communist. It has all the information possessed by PA, the normal personality, whereas PA does not have this advantage … My super spy plays his role as a communist in his waking state, aggressively, consistently, fearlessly. But his PB is a loyal American, and PB has all the memories of PA. As a loyal American, he will not hesitate to divulge those memories.” Estabrooks never explained what would happen if the programming were to go haywire and Personality B were to become the conscious personality, but my guess is that such a person would be considered a severe liability and would be treated accordingly. They might even be find themselves swinging from the end of a rope. Phil Ochs was thirty-five at the time of his death.
And with that, I think we can move on now from the Laurel Canyon Death List. The list is not yet complete, mind you, since we have only covered the years 1966-1976. Rest assured then that we will continue to add names as we follow the various threads of this story. Some of those names will be quite familiar, while others will be significantly less so. One of the names from that era that has been all but forgotten is Judee Lynn Sill, who was once favorably compared to such other Laurel Canyon singer/songwriters as Joni Mitchell, Judi Collins and Carole King. By the time of her death on November 23, 1979, however, she had been all but forgotten, and not a single obituary was published to note her passing.
Judee was born in Studio City, California, not far from the northern entrance to Laurel Canyon, on October 7, 1944. Her father, Milford “Bud” Sill, was reportedly a cameraman for Paramount Studios with numerous Hollywood connections. When Judee was quite young, however, Bud moved the family to Oakland and opened a bar known as “Bud’s Bar.” He also operated a side business as an importer of rare animals, which required him to spend a considerable amount of time traveling in Central and South America. Such a business, it should be noted, would provide an ideal cover for covert intelligence work. In any event, Bud Sill was dead by 1952, when Judee was just seven or eight years old. Depending on who is telling the story, Bud died either from pneumonia or a heart attack.
Following Bud’s death, the family relocated back to Southern California and Judee’s older brother Dennis, still in his teens, took over the family importing business. That didn’t last long though as Dennis soon turned up dead down in Central America, either from a liver infection or a car accident. The animal importing business, I guess, is a rather dangerous one.
Judee’s mother, Oneta, met and married Ken Muse, an Academy Award winning animator for Hanna-Barbera who was described by Judee as an abusive, violent alcoholic. At fifteen, Judee fled her violent home life and lived with an older man with whom she pulled off a series of armed robberies in the San Fernando Valley. Those activities landed her in reform school, which did little to curb her appetite for drugs, crime and alcohol. She spent the next few years with a serious heroin addiction, which she financed by dealing drugs and turning tricks in some of LA’s seedier neighborhoods.
By 1963, Judee had cleaned herself up enough to enroll in junior college. In the early winter of 1965, however, Judee’s mom, her last surviving family member, died either of cancer or of complications arising from her chronic alcoholism (take your pick; the details of this story will likely remain forever elusive). Barely an adult, Judee was left all alone in the world, and thus began another downward spiral into drugs and crime, which culminated in her being arrested and possibly serving time on forgery and drug charges.
In the late 1960s, with her addictions apparently temporarily curbed, Sill joined the Laurel Canyon scene, where she attempted to forge a career as a singer/songwriter. Her first big break came when she sold the song “Lady O” to The Turtles (yet another Laurel Canyon band to hit it big in the mid-1960s; best known for the hit single “Happy Together,” The Turtles were led by lead vocalist/songwriter Howard Kaylan, who happened to be, small world that it is, a cousin of Frank Zappa’s manager and business partner, Herb Cohen). The band released the song, which featured Judee’s guitar work, in 1969. The next year, Sill became the first artist signed to David Geffen’s fledgling Asylum record label. The year after that, her self-titled debut album became Asylum’s first official release. The first single from the album, “Jesus Was a Crossmaker,” was produced by Graham Nash, whom she opened for on tour following the album’s release.
Though critically well-received, the album’s sales were disappointing, in part because the record was overshadowed by the debut albums of Jackson Browne and The Eagles, both released by Asylum shortly after the release of Judee’s album. Sill’s second album, 1973’s “Heart Food,” was even more of a commercial disappointment. Nevertheless, in 1974 she began work on a third album in Monkee Mike Nesmith’s recording studio. Prior to completion, however, she abandoned the project and promptly disappeared without a trace. What became of her between that time and her death some five years later remains largely a mystery. It is assumed that she once again descended into a life of drugs and prostitution, but no one seems to know for sure.
It is alleged that she was seriously injured when her car was rear-ended by actor Danny Kaye, causing her to suffer from chronic back pain thereafter, thus contributing to her drug addictions. According to a friend of hers, she lived in a home that featured an enormous photo of Bela Lugosi above the fireplace, a large ebony cross above her bed, and racks of candles. She is said to have read extensively from Rosicrucian manuscripts and from the writings of Aleister Crowley, to have possessed a complete collection of the work of Helena Blavatsky, and to have been a gifted tarot card reader.
What is known for sure is that, on the day after Thanksgiving, 1979, Judee Sill, the last surviving member of her family, was found dead in a North Hollywood apartment. The cause of death was listed as “acute cocaine and codeine intoxication.” It was claimed that a suicide note was found, but friends insisted that the supposed note was either a portion of a diary entry or an unfinished song. One of her friends would later note that, at some point in her life, Judee began to realize that “there was a part of her that wasn’t under her conscious control.” I’m guessing that Phil Ochs, and quite a few other characters in this story, could relate to that.
To Be Continued …
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It has occurred to me, as I have been working on these first posts of this new series, that a lot of this information will probably make more sense to those of you out there in Readerland who have successfully waded through my last book, Programmed to Kill. Those of you who haven’t done so may find yourselves pondering the significance of some of the references contained herein. Much of this material is tied in, to varying degrees, with material that is covered in the book, which last time I checked could be had in the E-version from www.IUniverse.com for the low, low price of just $6. And what else are you going to do with $6 – buy a gallon of gas?