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Life Arts    H4'ed 9/24/20

The Byrds and the Beatles and the Bees in the Canyon

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John Hawkins
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By John Kendall Hawkins

cross"--pollina"-tion (n.) - stimulating influence among diverse elements

- TheFreeDictionary.com

kraws-pol-uh-ney-sh uh"-n (n.) - a sharing or interchange of knowledge, ideas, etc., as for mutual enrichment; cross-fertilization.

- Dictionary.com

Lots of people think the folk/rock era began when Dylan went electric at the 1965 NewBob Folk Festival. They couldn't hear his voice over the amped-up instruments. Word is, some folkies went starkers. In the fictional film I'm Not There, sweet Pete Seeger tries to take an axe to the sound, and has to be wrestled to the ground. Some critics wondered whether Dylan's do was attempted murder or career suicide. Alienation In-plugged never jangled so many nerves.

However, some others say that folk/rock actually began in the quiet hills of Laurel Canyon a month or so earlier. It still involved Dylan, but as an observer listening in on Roger McGuinn and The Byrds rehearsing "Mr. Tambourine Man". Said band member David Crosby at the time, "He listened to us play it electric and you can hear the gears turning, you know. He knew he wanted to do that immediately."

But the story of folk/rock's beginnings is even more convoluted and intriguing than that. Andrew Slater's Echo in the Canyon attempts to solve this riddle that nobody's much given a poop about in decades. But, the thing is, he does it in such a way that the journey is joyous, invigorating and enlightening. He brings in an assortment of legends and their kin to tell the story of the greatest musical era of our times. Oh, what fun it is to see and hear Jakob Dylan, Tom Petty, Brian Wilson, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills, Roger McGuinn, Michelle Phillips, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Fiona Apple, Beck, Norah Jones, Regina Spektor, Cat Power, Jade Castrinos, John Sebastian, Lou Adler. It's never dull.

Andrew Slater says that he was watching an old B-movie, Model Shop, from 1969, when it oddly occurred to him: "That movie looked like the sound of The Beach Boys and The Mamas & Papas." Call it sensamilla synesthesia. The movie features Gary Lockwood lost in the space that unrequited love leaves you in when the rent-a-model you're attracted to just isn't into you. This, coming a year after the homoerotic voice of HAL did sh*t in the cosmos when "his" love went unrequited and opened up wormholes we may not have recovered from. Pass the bong, please. I never would have seen an explanation for folk/rock coming from this. You mean that black plinthy beacon from outer space was another side of Dylan?

Anyway, Slater, Echo's director and the former president of Capitol Records, was in a good position to bring together the aforementioned musicians from the early days of the folk/rock era. As the title suggests, Slater makes the place, Laurel Canyon, the hero of the story. This is where it happened, the place where songsmiths came together in a musical me'lange that pushed pop music from doo-wop sentimentality to lyrical depth psychology. Or, as only David Crosby could put it, "It was June, Moon, Spoon. Baby I love you Ooh, ooh. [It] wasn't 'Dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.'"

In the '60s, word was that California was the place to be and the place to bee. The Bay area had its attractions and its evils, its ghosts and its upheavals, and was distinct from the sound and the fury of the south, the Circe city, that LA Woman, that Hotel California you could check into but never leave. But Laurel Canyon, we're told, was none of that. It was a place to malinger, get laid, or try out a new singer and smoke a new hashish grenade. A mind-blowing environment for creative types.

Michelle Philips of the Mamas and the Papas is the first to testify as to the vibe of the Canyon. It was "like a hangout for, ah, bohemians and actors," she tells us. "It was full of charming little houses and it was a very joyful time." And Graham Nash was instantly enthralled: "Just driving up those canyons and people pointing out houses of famous people that lived there, Houdini and Tom Mix and Zappa and, you know, it was a fabulous time." Roger McGuinn adds, "We moved into Laurel Canyon and we just loved the scene there. And a lot of people, a lot of folk singers would come around and play and we'd, you know, get high and stuff. It was... a fun time." Joyful, fabulous, fun. And that's how the film plays to us.

We're provided with a couple of amusing anecdotes of the free-expressionism that ruled Laurel Canyon back in the 'zen'-then. One is the sight of the chin strip and 'stached resident Frank Zappa emerging from his home, across the street from Stephen Stills. "Once [Zappa] stood in the middle of the street reading me the lyrics of 'Who Are The Brain Police', like Alan Ginsberg." (Segue) And the other chucklesome moment came when Ringo Starr and George Harrison "drove up to wherever Micky Dolenz lived and Stephen Stills was there and several other people. And they were all being hippies in the nude. And when they saw it was George and I driving they all run in and got dressed!" Nuff seen, nuff said.

Folks were getting together in all kinds of ways, and the recollection of that togetherness is at the heart of Echo in the Canyon. The Byrds listened to the Beatles, and the Beatles listened to Beach Boys, and the Beach Boys listened to Bach, and they all listened to Dylan. The Byrds' 12-string electric sound wowed the Beatles and Bob. Napoleon in Rags took the new sound to Newport, and George Harrison incorporated the 12-string vibe into the first "folk rock" album, Rubber Soul. The Beach Boys were blown away by Rubber Soul and it inspired Pet Sounds, which, in turn turn turn, inspired the Byrds and the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. And so on. They called this process "cross-pollination."

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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