In his landmark book Laurel Canyon The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood (2006 Faber and Faber), Michael Walker delivers a smash hit showing us how the L.A. Sound was established in the magical and iconic canyon. From the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Frank Zappa, The Turtles, The Mamas and the Papas, to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Joni Mitchell, J.D. Souther, Eagles and Jackson Browne, here was the epicenter of a creative, musical confluence of talent and hit songs, unparalleled in history and unlikely to ever be matched again.
This renaissance of artistry, already firmly established by early 1970, begins with “Our House,” Graham Nash’s Top 30 snapshot of his home life with then-girlfriend Joni Mitchell, easily the most cheerful and wide-eyed picture of the times. From the poetic CSN & Y masterpiece Déjà Vu (1970), Nash’s imagery captures a moment between Joni and him, frozen in time: “While I listen to you play your love songs all night long / For me, only for me” and “Life used to be so hard / Now everything is easy cuz of you” – his version of pure in-the-moment early 1970s bliss.
However, as the decade progressed, everyday life and stardom would become more difficult for these minstrels, once so steeped in the hippie movement, now many so naïve or cavalier about the “star maker machinery behind the popular song.” In the spirit of the Santa Ana winds, the post-Charlie Manson crimes, trading in VW Bugs for Porsches and limos, the Troubadour’s meteoric rise and fall, arena rock and the inundation of cocaine and how it ruined lives, Linda Ronstadt’s voicing of J. D. Souther’s lyric (see below), “The city is no place to hide in/Everybody knows your number” weaved an entirely new tapestry. And yes, I chose the last word in that sentence intentionally.
The Doors were riding an incredible wave of success beginning with their smash debut single “Light My Fire” from 1967. By the time L.A. Woman was recorded in 1971, Jim Morrison soon took his extended leave from the band where just months later he died of heart failure in Paris. Its title track, with its high-powered pulsating energy throughout, captures the wide-open allure of the city and all that it offered – good and bad.
Conversely, Canadian Neil Young brought his north-of-the-49th-Parallel perspective on the glittery southland:
Everybody seems to wonder what it’s like down here / Gotta get away from this day-to-day running around / Everybody knows this is nowhere
Court and Spark (1974) is the very definition of the L.A. Sound. A significant aspect of the writing was that it was highly confessional. For an excellent in-depth examination of this masterpiece I recommend Sean Nelson’s publication in the 33 1/3 series (Continuum 2007) and more info at 333sound.com. Nelson asserts: “It’s the point at which Mitchell stepped outside herself just enough to communicate the breadth of the lonely time she felt herself living in, and by doing so, revealed more of herself than she had ever done so before.” Though “Help Me,” “Same Situation,” “Free Man in Paris” and “Down to You” are my favorite songs on the album, the one that cries out L.A. Sound to me most is “Trouble Child.” And not just for the line “Breaking like the waves at Malibu.” But because of “They open and close you / They talk like they know you / They don’t know you / They’re friends and they’re foes too.”
Some four years removed from Laurel Canyon joy with Graham Nash, Joni was seeing through the many facades of L.A. Nelson sums it up perfectly: “The schizophrenia of this picture – the awful angst of a woman breaking down combined with the soothing constancy of waves crashing on a beach – are why this is an LA breakdown, every bit as much as the fact that the beach is Malibu, with its intrinsic associations of both privilege and peril.”
As the album finishes off with the surprising cover of “Twisted” Joni has done a 180 from her title track opening number “I couldn’t let go of L.A. / City of the fallen angels,” clearly letting go of much of the demands of the Pop music business, where she would soon embrace Jazz and alienate many of her loyal fans for years to come (see Post 4). The line in “Trouble Child” speaks directly to this: “It’s really hard to talk sense to you.”
In many ways, as cynicism was beginning to proliferate, I can point to this album as one of the last hallmarks of the singer-songwriter era.
What was to follow foreshadowed a new path, one where it was easy to lose one’s way.
The title track of Linda Ronstadt’s Prisoner in Disguise (1975) carries Mitchell’s edgy insights one step further. The simply orchestrated arrangement is majestic. Souther’s lyrics are sheer poetry and capture everything about Los Angeles in 1975. Their harmonies melt me like ice cream I would scarf down in Westwood on the weekends during the summer. Like Joni capturing the loneliness in her “Trouble Child,” here we have J. D. and Linda basically in a duet – though it’s definitely Linda’s song – yet, they almost present like a couple trying to reclaim their love that is slowly eroding away. J.D.’s choices of phrases like “Is it love or lies” and “a fool on a holiday” and “everybody knows your number” and my absolute favorite lyric of the decade other than the Eagles you can check out any time you like but you can never leave is “You just run like a man with no reason to run / And no place to ever arrive.” No words embody the complex feelings of the mercurial decade and better exclaimed, “L.A.!” They encompassed love, avarice, solitude, failure, fear and loss. In Linda’s autobiography, Simple Dreams A Musical Memoir (Simon & Schuster 2013), she recalls their days and nights of collaboration in the North Beachwood apartment under the HOLLYWOOD sign where he actually wrote “Prisoner in Disguise” and many others. When J.D. moved down the block and their lives became more complex, she lamented: “He was writing a lot, and I was traveling nonstop. We’ve always had feelings of affection and sympathy for each other. I still want to know about the songs he’s just written.” In a time of unencumbered physical expression of love, Linda and J.D. rank right there with James Taylor and Carole King as deeply connected, yet platonic male/female songwriting teams. One wonders if that tension added to the dynamic, producing an elevated quality of sonic mastery.
Eagles. “Hotel California.” Need I say more?
Jackson Browne (raised in Orange County) is the male Joni Mitchell. A poet to the core, Jackson minces no words with the title track from The Pretender (1976):
I’m going to be a happy idiot / And struggle for the legal tender / Where the ads take aim / To the heart and the soul of the spender / And believe in whatever may lie / In those things that money can buy / Though true love could have been a contender / Are you there? / Say a prayer for the pretender / Who started out so young and strong / Only to surrender
At the time, Jackson was grieving the loss of his wife Phyllis who had committed suicide, leaving behind Jackson and their son. In this song, we can see him tackling the money versus love conundrum – a theme of many of his songs – but none rendered better than here. We see Jackson wanting to move on from the pain: “You’ll get up and do it again.” Who could blame him for his soul-searching L.A. style:
“Ah the laughter of the lovers / As they run through the night / Leaving nothing for the others / But to choose off and fight / And tear at the world with all their might / While the ships bearing their dreams / Sail out of sight.”
[I should note here that in 1981 I had the surprising pleasure of standing next to and chatting with Jackson while stuffing envelopes with flyers in an organized attempt to halt the completion of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant near San Luis Obispo, California. Memorable!]
I choose James Taylor’s absolutely delightful and somewhat out-of-left field track from his JT (1977) LP, “Traffic Jam.” For those of you like me who grew up and/or live in The City of Angels (you can add the SF Bay Area to that list now!), avoiding highway traffic was a daily feat, with rare success measured in arriving to your destination on time, or at least within 30 minutes! “Now when I die / I don’t want no coffin / I thought about it all too often / Just strap me in behind the wheel / And bury me with my automobile.” Priceless!
Also in 1977, Michael McDonald had infused the Doobie Brothers with a killer sound when he joined the boys in 1975. Livin’ on the Fault Line’s California-themed LP cover rocks (literally), featuring San Francisco’s Transamerica Building in the ocean a la the Statue of Liberty in the closing scene to Planet of the Apes. Yes, I know, it has a bit of a Northern California bias here, but there are also fault lines all over L.A. The title track hints of fusion with the vibes solo and Steely Dan-like changes.
L.A.’s distinct sound was taking that left turn at Albuquerque.
Fleetwood Mac was an integral part of defining the very “Landslide” approaching. (Dare I say the “D” word? See Post 5.)
Well, I’ve been afraid of changing / ‘Cause I’ve built my life around you / But time made you bolder / Even children get older / And I’m getting older, too
For me, their Top 10 hit “Sara” from Tusk (1979) felt like a closing of a portal – a transition to the ’80s. Those of you who know this album well know that it is teeming with Lindsey Buckingham’s composing forays into New Wave. Stevie and Christine were always pulling him back to Pop grooves – certainly mildly annoying to the adventurous Buckingham.
“Drowning in the sea of love / Where everyone would love to drown / But now it’s gone / They say it doesn’t matter anymore / When you build your house then please call me home” smacks of a farewell to an era, to a way of life . . . to the L. A. sound.
Soon, big hair, synthesizers, drum machines and MTV; an early harbinger of the Reagan Years to come. Someone please pour me a Long Island Ice Tea.
Stevie, in the L. A. Sound, I would love to drown. However, agreed, now it’s gone . . . it doesn’t matter anymore.
I suppose, to some it does.