Inside The LC: The Strange but Mostly True Story of Laurel Canyon and the Birth of the Hippie Generation
June 6, 2009
The Byrds were the very first folk-rock band to take flight, and the one that achieved the greatest fame, but to many discerning ears, Laurel Canyon’s other folk-rock powerhouse, the Buffalo Springfield, was the more talented band.
In the literature chronicling the 1960s music scene, few stories are repeated more frequently than the legend surrounding the formation of what would later be regarded as perhaps the first ‘supergroup.’ All such accounts unquestioningly retell the story as though it were the gospel truth, seemingly oblivious to the improbability of virtually every aspect of the legend. And curiously, virtually every version of the story contains some form of the word “serendipity,” as though everyone has been copying off the same kid’s homework.
As the story goes, Stephen Stills and Richie Furay, formerly of the Au Go-Go Singers, had recently transplanted themselves to Los Angeles after the breakup of the manufactured folkie group. Stills had been the first to relocate, in August of 1965. Furay flew out to join him in February 1966, after spending a little time working at defense giant Pratt & Whitney, and the two set their sights on putting together a folk-rock band.
Meanwhile, up in Toronto, Neil Young and Bruce Palmer were playing in a band known as the Mynah Birds – a band fronted by an AWOL Navy man known as Ricky James Matthews, who would later morph into funkmeister/torturer/rapist Rick James, but whose real name was James Ambrose Johnson, Jr.. The Mynah Birds broke up in March of 1965, just after authorities came calling on Matthews and tossed him in the Brooklyn Brig. Now in search of a new band, Young made the curious decision to head out to LA, for no better reason than that he had what Palmer described as “a hunch, a feeling that … Stephen Stills was in LA.”
Of course, Young had no clue if Stills was in fact there, nor did he know anyone else in LA. And you would think that he would have realized that, even if Stills was there, there was virtually no chance of finding some random person in a city of millions, especially when the person doing the searching had no idea how to get around the city. But no matter. Neil had a calling, so he jumped into an old hearse, of all things, recruited Palmer to ride shotgun, and the two set off on the lengthy trek to Los Angeles.
They arrived, the legend tells us, on April 1, 1966 – April Fool’s Day, appropriately enough – and began the search for Stills. Several days of searching yielded no results, however, and on the afternoon of April 6, the frustrated pair decided to head off to San Francisco in the hopes that maybe they would have better luck finding Stephen there. Perhaps they were going to go on a tour of all the big cities in America, in the hopes that somewhere along the way they might find Stephen Stills.
But as fate would have it, just as they were about to head out of town, Stephen Stills found them. As Barney Hoskyns tells the story in his Hotel California, “Early in April 1966, Stills and Richie Furay were stuck in a Sunset Strip traffic jam in Barry Friedman’s Bentley. As they sat in the car, Stephen spotted a 1953 Pontiac hearse with Ontario plates on the other side of the street. ‘I’ll be damned if that ain’t Neil Young,’ Stills said. Friedman executed an illegal U-turn and pulled up behind the hearse. One of rock’s great serendipities had just occurred. Young, a lanky Canadian, had just driven all the way from Detroit in the company of bassist Bruce Palmer. They’d caught the bug that was drawing hundreds of other pop wannabes to the West Coast.”
The pair had actually driven out from Toronto, not Detroit, and the hearse was a 1959 model by most accounts, and Stills and Furay were in a van rather than a Bentley, but such inconsistencies are typical of all Hollywood legends. In any event, John Einarson, in For What It’s Worth, supplies a somewhat longer, and more hyperbole-filled, version of the legend: “What transpired next is no longer considered simply a chance encounter. Transcending mere fact, the events of the next few minutes have taken on mythic proportions to become, in the annals of popular culture, legendary. More than pure luck, coincidence or serendipity, at that very moment the planets aligned, stars crossed, everyone’s karma turned positive, divine intervention interceded, the hand of fate revealed itself – whatever you subscribe to in order to explain the unexplained. Though each of the five participants in that moment in time tell it slightly differently, the fact remains that the occupants of the white van, individually or collectively, depending on who’s retelling it, noticed the black hearse with the foreign plate heading the other direction. Once the light of recognition came on, the van hastily pulled an illegal, and likely difficult in rush hour, U-turn, maneuvering its way through the line of northbound cars, horn honking frantically all the while, to pull up behind the hearse. One of the passengers leapt out, ran up and pounded on the driver’s side window of the strange vehicle, yelling to the startled travelers inside who had taken no notice of the blaring car horn directly behind them. ‘Hey Neil, it’s me, Steve Stills! Pull over, man!’ The drivers of the two vehicles managed to find curb space or a vacant store parking lot, again depending on whose version is being related, and the five piled out to embrace and introduce one another … On April 6, 1966, in that late afternoon line of traffic, the course of popular music was altered forever.”
Anyone who actually lives and drives in LA likely knows that “difficult” is not really the word to describe the feasibility of making an impromptu U-turn in rush hour traffic on the Sunset Strip; the correct word would be “impossible,” which is the same word that accurately describes the likelihood of that van “maneuvering its way through the line of northbound cars,” or of it finding “curb space” on Sunset Boulevard. But let’s just play along and assume that Neil Young and Stephen Stills, each of whom, for some reason, had been dreaming about forming a band with the other, had a random, chance encounter on Sunset Boulevard. In that brief moment in time, a band was formed – or at least 4/5 of a band.
Retiring to the home of Barry Friedman, who would later legally change his name to Frazier Mohawk, the quartet of musicians quickly decided that their newly-formed band would only perform original material. With no less than three singer/songwriter/guitarists on board (Furay, Young and Stills), along with a bass player (Bruce Palmer), all that was needed was a drummer. Three days later, on April 9, 1966, they acquired one, in the form of Dewey Martin, formerly with the Dillards.
The Dillards, as it turns out, had just decided to go back to their acoustic bluegrass roots, so they no longer needed a drummer. They also apparently had no further need for a whole bunch of new electric instruments and stacks of amplifiers, so Dewey, according to legend, brought all of that with him. Because the Dillards, you know, were just going to throw it all away anyway. So now, with the stars all properly aligned, the band was not only complete but they each had shiny new electric instruments to play – and it all had magically come together in just 72 hours.
There was still much work to be done, of course. For one thing, they all had to learn to play those shiny new electric instruments. And they all had to learn to play together as a band. And they had to build up a repertoire of original songs. And they had to rehearse and polish those songs. But not to worry; they had, as we’ll see, at least a couple of hours to work on each of those things.
Unlike, say, the Byrds, the members of the Buffalo Springfield were, by all accounts, talented musicians from the outset. Stills and Young were both skilled lead guitarists and songwriters, though Young’s vocals were, to be sure, an acquired taste. Furay was an accomplished rhythm guitarist and songwriter, as well as being the group’s best lead vocalist. Bruce Palmer was a respected bass player who, shockingly, actually had experience playing the instrument. And Dewey Martin, several years older than the rest of the crew, had drummed for such rock and country legends as the Everly Brothers, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline, and Carl Perkins.
None of that, however, explains the absurdly meteoric rise of the Buffalo Springfield. On April 11, 1966, just five days after the quartet had purportedly first met, and just two days after they had added a drummer and instruments, the band played its first club date at one of Hollywood’s most prestigious venues: the Troubadour. Four days later, on April 15, they played the first of six dates around the southland opening for the hottest band on the Strip: the Byrds. That mini-tour was followed almost immediately by a six-week stand at the hottest club on the Strip, the Whisky. That gig wrapped up on June 20, 1966.
A month later, on July 25, the band landed the opening slot on the most anticipated concert of the year – the Rolling Stones show at the Hollywood Bowl, sponsored by local radio station KHJ. The station, by the way, had just been launched the previous year, in May of 1965, just a few weeks after the Byrds had taken the world by storm with the release of Mr. Tambourine Man and sparked a folk-rock revolution. Just as new clubs had magically appeared along the Sunset Strip in anticipation of the about-to-explode music scene, so too did a radio station magically appear to promote those new clubs and the artists filling them. Such things tend to happen, as we know, rather, uhmm, serendipitously.
Three days after the Stones concert at the Bowl, Buffalo Springfield released its first single, the Neil Young-penned Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing, which failed to connect with the record-buying public. Several months later, the band would release what was to be its only hit single, and what would become the most recognizable ‘protest’ song of the 1960s. But before we get to that, let’s start back at the beginning … actually, let’s veer off on a tangent first, and then start back at the beginning.
As was duly noted in the last installment of this series, the law enforcement community had ample opportunity to silence the muses of the 1960s counterculture. That the state consistently chose not to utilize that power says much about the legitimacy of that counterculture. For if these iconic figures posed a demonstrable threat to the status quo, then why would they not have been silenced? Why, for example, were three members of the Buffalo Springfield – Neil Young, Richie Furay and Jim Messina, along with Eric Clapton, Furay’s wife, the band’s road manager, and nine others – arrested in a drug bust at a Topanga Canyon home, only to then walk away as if nothing had happened? Why was this case, and so many others like it, not aggressively prosecuted?
The state had other means to silence young critics, of course, one of the best being the military draft. As Richie Unterberger noted in Turn! Turn! Turn!, “Most folk rockers (if they were male), like their audience, were of draft age.” But curiously enough, “Very, very few had their careers interrupted by the draft.” Actually, Unterberger appears to just be playing it safe with the “very, very few” wording; after reading through both of Unterberger’s books and numerous other tomes covering similar ground, I have yet to read about any folk rocker whose career was affected by the draft in the 1960s.
What you will find in the literature are numerous mentions of various people receiving their draft notices, but those are invariably followed by amusing anecdotes about how said people beat the draft board by pretending to be gay or crazy. Of course, if it were really that easy to fool the draft board, then Uncle Sam probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with all those bodies to send over to Vietnam.
Hundreds of thousands of young men from all across the country were swept up and fed into the war machine, but not one of the musical icons of the Woodstock generation was among them. How could that be? Should we just consider that to be another one of those great serendipities? Was it mere luck that kept all the Laurel Canyon stars out of jail and out of the military during the turbulent decade that was the 1960s?
Not likely. The reality is that ‘The Establishment,’ as it was known in those days, had the power to prevent the musical icons of the 1960s from ever becoming the megastars that they became. The state, aka corporate America, could quite easily have prevented the entire countercultural movement from ever really getting off the ground – because then, as now, the state controlled the channels of communication.
A real grass-roots cultural revolution would probably have involved a bunch of starving musicians barely scratching out a living playing tiny coffee shops in the hopes of maybe someday landing a record deal with some tiny, local independent label and then, just maybe, if they got really lucky, getting a little airplay on some obscure college radio stations. But that’s not how the ‘60s folk-rock ‘revolution’ played out. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
As Unterberger duly notes in his expansive, two-volume review of the folk-rock movement, “much folk-rock was recorded and issued by huge corporations, and broadcast over radio and television stations owned for the most part by the same or similar pillars of the establishment.” Right from the start, in fact, it was the largest record labels leading the folk-rock charge. The very first of the folk-rock bands, the Byrds, signed with Columbia Records – whose name, in case you were wondering, is derived from a little place known as the District of Columbia, where the label was founded and headquartered some 120 years ago.
Laurel Canyon’s other folk-rock powerhouse, the Buffalo Springfield – the band that was supposed to be as big as the Byrds and the Beatles and the Beach Boys – signed with Atlantic Records. Atlantic had been founded in 1947 by Ahmet Ertegun and dentist/investor Herb Abramson. Born in Istanbul, Turkey in 1923, the year the Turk Republic was established, Ahmet was the son, and the grandson, of career diplomats/civil servants. His father was named the first Turkish representative to the League of Nations in 1925 and thereafter served as the Turk Republic’s ambassador to Switzerland, France, and England. In 1935, he was named the first Turkish ambassador to the United States and he promptly relocated the family to – where else? – Washington, DC.
From about the age of twelve, Ahmet grew up along DC’s Embassy Row, attending elite private schools with the sons and daughters of senators, congressmen, and spooks. In 1947, three years after his father died, Ertegun founded Atlantic Records. At first, the label was home to jazz and R&B artists, including Ray Charles, the company’s first big star. In the late 1950s, Ertegun took on his first assistant: a guy by the name of Phil Spector, who, rumor has it, was recently convicted of blowing a hole in Lana Clarkson’s head. Atlantic soon shifted focus and rock luminaries like Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones would later join the label’s stable of talent.
It would appear then that the two record labels that signed and launched Laurel Canyon’s first two folk-rock bands were not only major record labels, they also just happened to be corporate entities that had deep ties to the nation’s capitol and power center.
It was the major record labels, not upstart independents, that signed Laurel Canyon’s newly-formed bands. It was the major labels that provided them with instruments and amplifiers. It was the major labels that provided them with studio time and session musicians. It was the major labels that recorded, mixed and arranged their albums. It was the major labels that released and then heavily promoted those albums. And so as not to be left out, the corporate titans of all three branches of the mainstream media – print, radio and television – did their part to help out the titans of the record industry.
Unterberger notes that “AM radio (and sometimes prime-time network television) would act as a primary conduit for this countercultural expression.” Conservative, corporate-controlled AM stations across the country almost immediately began giving serious airplay to the new sounds coming out of Southern California, and network television gave the rising stars unprecedented coverage and exposure: “prime-time variety hours were much more likely to showcase rock acts than they would be in subsequent decades. New releases by the Byrds were often accompanied by large ads in trade magazines that simultaneously plugged the records and upcoming TV appearances.”
The boys in the Buffalo Springfield, for example, managed to find themselves appearing as guests on an impressive array of network television shows, including American Bandstand, The Smothers Brothers Show, Shebang, the Della Reese Show, the Go Show, the Andy Williams Show, Hollywood Palace, Where the Action Is, Joey Bishop’s late night show, and a local program known as Boss City. They also made guest appearances, curiously enough, on primetime hits like Mannix and The Girl From Uncle.
The print media did its part as well to raise awareness of the new music/countercultural scene. In September 1965, the nation’s premier newsweeklies, Time and Newsweek, “ran virtually simultaneous stories on the folk-rock craze,” just months after the first folk-rock release, the Byrd’s Mr. Tambourine Man, had climbed to the top of the charts. The country’s biggest daily newspapers chimed in as well, providing an inordinate amount of coverage of the emerging scene. By the end of 1967, the movement had its very own publication, Rolling Stone magazine. Initially designed to look as though it were a product of the underground press, it was, without question, very much a corporate mouthpiece.
Another avenue of the print media provided the scene with considerable exposure as well; as Einarson notes, many of the Laurel Canyon stars, particularly members of the Buffalo Springfield and the Monkees, were “the darlings of the California teen magazines,” including Teenset, Teen Screen, and Tiger Beat.
As the story is usually told, the 1960s countercultural movement posed a rather serious threat to the status quo. But if that were truly the case, then why was it the “pillars of the establishment,” to use Unterberger’s words, that launched the movement to begin with? Why was it ‘the man’ that signed and recorded these artists? And that heavily promoted them on the radio, on television, and in print? And that set them up with their very own radio station and their very own publication? And insured that new clubs sprung up like mushrooms along Sunset Boulevard so that all the new bands would have venues to play?
There are some readers, no doubt, who will say that this was simply a case of corporate America doing what it does so well: making a profit, off of anything and everything. Blinded by greed, the naysayers will claim, the corporate titans inadvertently created a monster. “Move along now folks, there’s nothing more to see here …”
The question that is begged by that explanation, however, is why, after it had become abundantly clear that a monster had allegedly been created, was nothing done to stop the growth of that monster? Why did the state not utilize its law enforcement and criminal justice powers to silence some of the most prominent countercultural voices? And why did the draft board – in every known case, without exception – allow those same voices to skip out on their military service?
It’s not as if the state would have had to resort to heavy-handed measures to silence these allegedly troublesome voices. Being that the vast majority of them were draft-age males who were openly using and/or advocating the use of illegal substances, they were practically begging for the powers-that-be to take action. And yet that never happened.
And now, while you ponder all of that, I’ll circle back around and tell the Buffalo Springfield story from the beginning, starting in 1945 when Stephen Arthur Stills was born to William and Talitha Stills. As John Einarson recounts in For What It’s Worth, Stephen’s “roots are firmly planted in Southern soil. His family traces its history back to the plantations of the rural antebellum South. After the Union armies laid waste to much of the Southern farm economy, the family relocated to Illinois.”
Einarson describes William Stills as “somewhat of a soldier of fortune, an engineer, builder, and dreamer who frequently uprooted the family to follow his dreams and schemes.” That is, I suppose, as good a definition as any for what he actually appears to have been: a military intelligence operative who was frequently on assignment in Central America. Stephen’s childhood was spent in Illinois, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and various parts of Central America, including Costa Rica, El Salvador and the Panama Canal Zone.
At a fairly young age, he attended the Admiral Farragut Military Academy in St. Petersburg, Florida. In later years, his authoritarian manner and military bearing would earn him the nickname “The Sarge.” He joined his first band, the Radars, as a drummer. In his next band, the Continentals, he played the guitar, alongside another young guitarist named Don Felder, who would later turn up in Laurel Canyon as a member of the Eagles, but we’ll get to that later.
According to Einarson, “An unfortunate incident with the administration at his Tampa Bay high school resulted in Stephen’s dismissal in 1961, after which he joined his wayward family then settled in Costa Rica.” What that “unfortunate incident” may have been has been left to the reader’s imagination. In any event, Stephen’s next few years are rather murky. Some reports have him graduating from a high school in the Panama Canal Zone. Others have him shuffling back and forth between Florida and Central America. Stills himself has at times claimed that he served a stint in Vietnam. Whatever the case, in March of 1964 he surfaced in New Orleans with his sights set on a career in music.
By the summer of 1964, he had drifted to New York’s Greenwich Village, where he became fast friends with folkie Peter Torkelson, who was, like so many others in this story, a child of Washington, DC. The two played together briefly as a duo before Torkelson “migrated to Connecticut then Venezuela.” Nothing unusual about that, I suppose. Torkelson would soon show up in Laurel Canyon, as Monkee Peter Tork. Stills would also audition for the show, but his bad teeth and thinning hair would render him unfit for a leading role on prime-time TV.
In July 1964, Stills found work as one of the nine members of the Au Go-Go Singers, the newly-formed house band for New York’s famed Café Au Go-Go. Singing alongside of Stills was a young Richie Furay, the son of a pharmacist who had run a family drugstore in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Furay’s father died when Richie was just thirteen, as tends to happen from time to time in this story.
By November 1964, the Au Go-Go Singers already had an album out. But trouble soon arose, due primarily to the fact that the band was under contract to Morris Levy, a known organized-crime figure who would soon be indicted on an array of criminal charges. The band soon broke up and Furay headed off to Connecticut where a cousin got him a job at Pratt & Whitney. While working there, he took a little time off to audition for a slot in the Chad Mitchell Trio, but he was beat out by a military brat from Roswell named John Deutschendorf, later to become John Denver.
Stephen Stills, meanwhile, hung out in New York for a while longer before heeding the call of the Pied Piper and heading out to LA in August of 1965. That was the summer, according to Einarson, that “the epicenter of American rock’n’roll shifted coasts, Los Angeles replacing New York as the power base of the music industry.”
Richie Furay apparently soon found himself missing Stills but didn’t know how to reach his former bandmate, so he sent a letter to Stills’ dad in El Salvador, according to legend, and William Stills forwarded the message to Stephen. And what exactly, you may be wondering, was the elder Stills doing in El Salvador circa 1965/66? Details aren’t readily available, but as William Blum has duly noted in Killing Hope, “Throughout the 1960s, multifarious American experts occupied themselves in El Salvador by enlarging and refining the state’s security and counter-insurgency apparatus: the police, the National Guard, the military, the communications and intelligence networks, the coordination with their counterparts in other Central American countries … as matters turned out, these were the forces and resources which were brought into action to impose widespread repression and wage war.”
Meanwhile, up in Canada, Neil Young and Bruce Palmer were handling guitar and bass duties for the Mynah Birds. Neil Percival Kenneth Ragland Young was born on November 12, 1945 in Toronto to Scott Young, a sportswriter and novelist, and Edna “Rassy” Ragland, a Canadian television personality. Scott Young had spent a considerable amount of time abroad during World War II, first as a journalist and then as a member of the Royal Canadian Navy. Scott’s father (Neil’s grandfather), like Richie Furay’s, had been a pharmacist/drug store owner.
As Einarson recounts, “Neil Young and Stephen Stills had more in common than music. Both had grown up in transient families, Neil’s journalist father Scott uprooting his mother Edna ‘Rassy,’ Neil, and older brother Bob several times during Neil’s first 15 years.” Novelists, I’m guessing, need to move around a lot.
Just after his seventeenth birthday, Neil formed his first band, the Squires, and began playing local gigs. It was during those early years, according to legend, that Young and Stills first briefly crossed paths up in Canada. That meeting would, a couple years later, allegedly send Young and Palmer – also born in Toronto, to a violinist father and artist mother – off on a cross-country quest to find Stephen Stills.
The Mynah Birds, by the way, also at one time featured Nick St. Nicholas and Goldie McJohn, both of whom defected to a rival local band known as the Sparrows. The Sparrows, after a lead singer replacement, would morph into Steppenwolf. And Steppenwolf, like the other band spawned by the Mynah Birds, would migrate to – guess where? – Laurel Canyon.