Hotel California The True-Life Adventure of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, The Eagles, and Their Many Friends
By Barney Hoskyns
John Wiley & Sons ISBN: 0-471-73273-7
Chapter One Expecting to Fly
The businessmen crowded around They came to hear the golden sound -Neil Young
For decades Los Angeles was synonymous with Hollywood-the silver screen and its attendant deities. L.A. meant palm trees and the Pacific Ocean, despotic directors and casting couches, a factory of illusion. L.A. was "the coast," cut off by hundreds of miles of desert and mountain ranges. In those years Los Angeles wasn't acknowledged as a music town, despite producing some of the best jazz and rhythm and blues of the '40s and '50s. In 1960 the music business was still centered in New York, whose denizens regarded L.A. as kooky and provincial at best.
Between the years 1960 and 1965 a remarkable shift occurred. The sound and image of Southern California began to take over, replacing Manhattan as the hub of American pop music. Producer Phil Spector took the hit-factory ethos of New York's Brill Building songwriting stable to L.A. and blew up the teen-pop sound to epic proportions. Entranced by Spector, local suburban misfit Brian Wilson wrote honeyed hymns to beach and car culture that reinvented the Golden State as a teenage paradise. Other L.A. producers followed suit. In 1965, singlesrecorded in Los Angeles occupied the No. 1 spot for an impressive twenty weeks, compared to just one for New York.
On and around Sunset, west of old Hollywood before one reached the manicured pomp of Beverly Hills, clubs and coffeehouses began to proliferate. Although L.A. had always been geared to the automobile, the Strip now became a living neighborhood-and a mecca for dissident youth. Epicenter for L.A.'s dawning folk scene was Doug Weston's Troubadour club, south of the Strip at 9081 Santa Monica Boulevard. Weston had opened his original Troubadour on nearby La Cienega Boulevard, but had jumped across to Santa Monica east of Doheny Drive in 1961. The more commercial-minded members of the folkie crowd went with him. Typical of the tribe was a cocky kid from Santa Barbara called David Crosby. A lecherous teddy bear with a playful brain, David warbled plangent protest songs in emulation of Woody Guthrie.
For all the lip service it paid to folk protest, the Troubadour always had one beady eye on success. The clubhouse for the more commercial folk music epitomized by the Kingston Trio, it rapidly became a hootenanny (small gathering of folk singers) hotbed of vaunting ambition. Pointedly different was Ed Pearl's club, the Ash Grove, which had opened at 8162 Melrose Avenue in July 1958. L.A.'s self-appointed bastion of tradition, the Ash Grove held fast to notions of not selling out. It was where you went to hear Doc Watson and Sleepy John Estes-blues and bluegrass veterans rescued from oblivion by earnest revivalists. "The Ash Grove was where you heard the roots, traditional stuff," says Jackson Browne, then an Orange County teenager. "Lots of people went to both clubs, but you didn't stand much of a chance of getting hired at the Ash Grove."
Another Ash Grove regular was Linda Ronstadt, who had deep, soulful eyes and a big, gutsy voice. She'd grown up in Arizona dreaming of freewheelin' Bob Dylan. During the Easter break of 1964 Linda followed Tucson beatnik Bob Kimmel out to the coast, moving into a small Victorian house on the beach at Santa Monica. "The whole scene was still very sweet and innocent," Ronstadt recalls. "It was all about sitting around in little embroidered dresses and listening to Elizabethan folk ballads, and that's how I thought it was always going to be." Among Ronstadt's contemporaries were obsessive young folk-blues apprentices: kids such as Ryland Cooder, John Fahey, Al Wilson. Some of them got so good that they were even allowed to play at the club. Cooder, sixteen years old in 1963, backed folk-pop singers Pamela Polland and Jackie DeShannon. The nascent Canned Heat-a blues band formed by Wilson after Fahey had introduced him to man-mountain singer Bob Hite-played at the club.
"The scene was just tiny," Ry Cooder reflects. "It was by and for people who were players, not for the general public. Ed Pearl was some sort of socialist, whereas Doug Weston was just an opportunist clubowner. We'd go down in the evening, mostly on the weekends. At that point Ed must have had a supply line, because he had Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and he had Lightnin' Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt and then Skip James. Sleepy John Estes was the one I was waiting to see. He seemed the most remote and peculiar-and I'd assumed dead."
It was no coincidence, perhaps, that record companies in New York were waking up to what snobs called the "Left Coast." Paul Rothchild, a hip Artists and Repertoire (A&R) man with Jac Holzman's classy and eclectic Elektra label, flew out to L.A. to scout the 1964 Folk Festival at UCLA. Smitten with what he found, Rothchild began to commute regularly between the East and West coasts. "L.A. was less the promised land than the untilled field," says Holzman, himself entranced by Southern California. "We'd picked over the East Coast pretty well."
Columbia Records, a far bigger entity than Elektra, was also casting a wider net from its Manhattan headquarters. If its meatand- potatoes income came from such pop and middle-of-the-road (MOR) acts as Patti Page and Andy Williams, the label also was home to Bob Dylan and Miles Davis. On New Year's Day 1964, Columbia publicist Billy James flew to Los Angeles to begin work as the company's Manager of Information Services on the West Coast. Already in his late twenties, Billy was pure beat generation, his sensibility shaped by Kerouac and Ginsberg. Thrilled at the way pop music was becoming a vibrant force in American culture, he plunged into the scene at the Troubadour and the Ash Grove. "Billy was a wonderful guy," says record producer Barry Friedman. "He was a charming, well-read, interesting fellow. In some ways I think he played the corporate game very well."
James also felt the seismic impact of the Beatles' first visit to America. The Liverpool group had done something no Americans were able to do: legitimize pop stardom for hipsters who despised idols such as Fabian and Frankie Avalon. All of a sudden young folkies such as David Crosby saw that you could write your own songs, draw on rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and country music and still be stampeded by girls. "The Beatles validated rock and roll," says Lou Adler, then an L.A. producer and label owner. "People could listen to them knowing that these guys were really writing their songs."
"What started happening was that these young, talented kids would band together," says Henry (Tad) Diltz of the Modern Folk Quartet (MFQ). "It was like double or triple the excitement." At the Troubadour and the Unicorn coffeehouse, opened by local promoter Herb Cohen in 1957 on Sunset Boulevard, David Crosby hung around the MFQ, envious of their ganglike camaraderie. Soon he was fraternizing with other folkies who'd gravitated to California in search of something they couldn't find elsewhere. Jim McGuinn, a slim and cerebral graduate of Chad Mitchell's Trio-and of a stint in the employ of Bobby Darin-was slipping Beatles songs into his hoot sets at the Troubadour. Gene Clark, a handsome, hauntedlooking balladeer from Missouri, finished up his apprenticeship in the L.A.-based New Christy Minstrels. Shy and slightly bewildered, Clark approached McGuinn after one of his Beatle-friendly sets and told him he dug what he was trying to do. "You wanna start a duo?" Clark asked.
McGuinn had crossed David Crosby's path before and was wary of him. Clark, however, figured Crosby's velvety tenor was just the additional harmonic element they needed. One night at the Troubadour, Crosby took Tad Diltz over to meet McGuinn and Clark. With a smug grin Crosby announced they were going to form a group. "Crosby and McGuinn and Clark were in the lobby of the Troub every night in 1964," says folk singer Jerry Yester. "They'd sit there with a twelve-string guitar, just writing songs." Taken up by manager Jim Dickson, a worldly and well-connected veteran of the folk and jazz scene in Hollywood, Crosby, Clark, and McGuinn rounded out the lineup with drummer Michael Clarke and bluegrass-bred bassist Chris Hillman. From the outset the band was conceived as an electric rock and roll group. "At some point the groups started plugging in their instruments," says Henry Diltz. "Doug Weston saw the MFQ rehearsing at the Troub with amps and was horrified."
"It was kinda like a tadpole growing legs," says Jerry Yester, briefly a member of the Lovin' Spoonful. "We just got closer and closer to being a rock band. Everybody else was doing the same thing-raiding the pawnshops for electric guitars. Inside of a year, the whole face of West L.A. changed." Secretly, Chris Hillman was horrified by the electrification of folk. "Chris told me he'd joined this rock and roll band," says bassist David Jackson. "He said it with this real sheepish look on his face, like he was betraying the cause."
After one single on Elektra as the Beefeaters, the group became the Byrds, complete with quaint Olde English spelling. Signed to Columbia, the band cut Bob Dylan's druggy "Mr. Tambourine Man" with producer Terry Melcher and a bunch of sessionmen. Released in April 1965, after the group had established themselves at gone-to-seed Sunset Strip club Ciro's, the single went to No. 1 in June and instantly enshrined the new electric folk sound. "You mainly just went to parties and to hear people play," says Jackson Browne. "But then the Byrds happened, and you heard them on the radio and they had a huge pop hit."
"We all came over and went, 'Ahhh! They got record contracts!'" said Linda Ronstadt. "I mean, as far as we were concerned they had made it, just because they had a record contract. David Crosby had a new suede jacket; that was affluence beyond description."
Pop life in L.A. would never be the same again.
Claims to Fame
Paying close attention to the Byrds' ascent were local industry figures, many of them caught off-guard. Lou Adler, the canny and highly focused L.A. entrepreneur who'd turned nightclub guitarist Johnny Rivers into a million-selling star, watched as "folk-rock" caught fire in California.
"The influx of the Greenwich Village folkies in 1964 and 1965 was very important," Adler reflects. "Music changed drastically. When Dylan plugged in his guitar he took a lot of people from the folk field to the rock and roll field. Folk-rock swept out the teen idols, and it gave pop a hip political edge." With his new Dunhill label, Adler homed in on folk-rock. Former surf-pop tunesmith P. F. Sloan was given a hat, a pair of Chelsea boots, and a copy of Bringing It All Back Home and instructed to write some protest songs. He returned a few days later with "Eve of Destruction," duly recorded by ex-New Christy Minstrel Barry McGuire. "Folk + Rock + Protest = Dollars," noted Billboard after the song topped the charts.
One afternoon, Barry McGuire brought a new folk group along to an Adler recording session at Hollywood's Western Recorders studio. John Phillips, their leader, had tried his luck in L.A. some years before, but his timing hadn't been right. He'd even married Michelle Gilliam, a beautiful California blonde who sang with him alongside Denny Doherty and Cass Elliott, former members of Greenwich Village group the Mugwumps. Now here they were in L.A., chancing everything on a move to the new promised land. The Mamas and the Papas' moment eventually came. Breaking into the pealing harmonies of Phillips's "Monday, Monday," they followed up with "I've Got a Feeling," "Once Was a Time," and "Go Where You Wanna Go." Shrewdly, they left the best for last: the soaring anthem "California Dreamin'." Adler was duly blown away. Released late in 1965, "Dreamin'" summed up what the rest of the nation was already feeling about the Golden State, except that this time it wasn't the cliched California of surfing and blondes and hot rods that was being hymned-it was the blossoming hippie milieu of the Sunset Strip and its bucolic annex Laurel Canyon.
After "California Dreamin'," John and Michelle Phillips did what all self-respecting musicians were doing in Los Angeles: they moved from a decaying dump in the West Hollywood flatlands to a funky pad on Lookout Mountain Avenue, up in the canyon, high above it all. Cass Elliott, born Naomi Cohen in Baltimore, followed in their wake. A rotund earth mama, she began to hold court in the canyon in what was a kind of folk-pop salon. Among her close friends was David Crosby, with whom she'd bonded on a folk tour two years before.
Observing the success of both the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas were the savvy executives at Warner-Reprise Records in Burbank, north of Hollywood. It was a testament to their acumen that the conjoined labels were still in business at all. Warner Brothers Records, launched merely because the rancorous Jack Warner thought his movie studio should have a music division, had nearly gone under just three years earlier. Nor had Reprise, bought from Frank Sinatra in a deal that was laughably generous to the singer, launched promisingly. But Morris "Mo" Ostin, who'd come into the Warner fold as Sinatra's accountant, turned out to have instincts and ears. "The company had learned some good lessons coming out of the Dean Martin era," says Stan Cornyn, who became head of creative services at the company. Warner-Reprise had missed the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas but was swift to sign the Kinks and Petula Clark to North America. "We got on the London express, because we weren't getting fed artists here," says Joe Smith, who joined Warner in 1961. "We had to go dig out our own and sign them for North America."
Mo and Joe were determined not to let the next Byrds pass them by. Helping them was a young A&R man named Lenny Waronker. "It's amazing how little I paid attention to the Byrds," Lenny says today. "I'm embarrassed to even talk about it, but we were so focused in our own world." Waronker was the son of Si Waronker, founder of L.A. label Liberty Records. He'd got his grounding at Metric Music, Liberty's publishing arm, overseeing a stable of songwriting talent that was the closest California came to New York's Brill Building. Among Metric's writers-Jackie DeShannon, David Gates, P. J. Proby, Glen Campbell-was Lenny's boyhood friend Randy, nephew of movie composers Alfred and Lionel Newman. "We were a kind of poor man's Carole King and Barry Mann and Neil Sedaka," Newman recalls of his Metric days. "I was trying to do the same things as Carole and I knew I wasn't doing them as well."
"We used to crank out songs for singers like Dean Martin," says David Gates, who packed his wife and kids into a battered Cadillac in 1962 and drove from Oklahoma to California. "Seeing some nice songs go down the drain, you started to think, maybe I ought to do them myself."
"Dylan exploded the universe of folk songwriting," says Jackson Browne. "Suddenly there was a whole wealth of ideas out there, and you could discuss anything in a song. You also had Jackie DeShannon on pop TV shows talking about songs she'd written herself. Normally you wouldn't even wonder where the songs had come from, so it was really something to learn that Jackie had written them."
When an opening at Warner Brothers came in April 1966, Waronker jumped on it, exploiting the fact that Joe Smith had done business with his father. Ostin and Smith became a formidable duo: Mo the reclusive mastermind, Joe the more gregarious public face of the company. Lenny, shy like Mo, fitted in perfectly behind the scenes.
Excerpted from Hotel California by Barney Hoskyns Excerpted by permission.
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