One LA Community Where Folk And Rock Converged

May 22, 2019
Originally published on May 22, 2019 6:03 pm

Some music is so ingrained in our collective minds that it's easy to forget how game-changing it was. In the late 1960s, a marriage of rock and folk took place and much of the popular music from that union was being made in a single place — Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles.

From The Beach Boys to The Mamas & The Papas, artists were writing new classics from their homes in the Canyon. A new documentary called Echo in the Canyon tells the story of the place and the people and brings in contemporary musicians influenced by the music of Laurel Canyon.

"We were putting good poetry on the radio. There wasn't any of that before it was June-moon-spoon," David Crosby says in the film.

Artists like Crosby, Ringo Starr, Tom Petty, Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor, Beck and Cat Power all appear in the film. Directed by Andrew Slater, Jakob Dylan, son of Bob Dylan, interviews the musicians and also performs in the film.

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Slater says the pivotal moment for the fusion of folk and rock was in 1964 when the group The Byrds came on the scene. "That moment when those songs from the first Byrds record go on the radio, it's the first time songs of poetic depth and grace become pop songs," he explains. "That paves the way for people to write differently."

The geography of Laurel Canyon itself is what helped it feel like an artist colony. As Slater explains, the houses being in close proximity to one other made it easy for artists to collaborate.

"The main thing about LA is that you're always on the edge of the wilderness, you know?" Slater says. "You're there's a coyote in your backyard and then being so close to the Sunset Strip where clubs were where people could perform created this kind of synchronicity in Los Angeles for making that music."

While Slater provided the historical context, Dylan assembled musicians for the film who he felt were musical descendants of this time.

"The main connection is songwriting," Dylan says. "The music that we're talking about in the film, that's what we're doing, it's splintered off in many different directions, but at the core of it that's what we're all doing."

Dylan also covers songs from the time in doc like The Beach Boys' "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" and The Mamas and The Papas' "Go Where You Wanna Go."

"We chose songs that, you know, I could explore with believability," Dylan says of singing covers in the film alongside their creators.

Slater says the legacy of that magic time in Laurel Canyon will be "the spirit of partnership."

"I hope that that kindness and the idea of Laurel Canyon will last. I think it exists in many pockets in America and many creative communities,"

Echo in the Canyon will open in select theaters in LA on May 24 and New York City on May 31.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Some music is so ingrained in our collective minds that it's easy to forget how game changing it was.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALIFORNIA DREAMIN'")

THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS: (Singing) All the leaves are brown...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD VIBRATIONS")

THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) I'm pickin' up good vibrations...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BELLS OF RHYMNEY")

THE BYRDS: (Singing) Oh, what will you give me? Say the sad bells of Rhymney...

CORNISH: In the late '60s, a marriage of two musical genres took place, rock and folk, and a lot of the most popular music from that union was being made in a single place - Laurel Canyon in the hills above Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ECHO IN THE CANYON")

MICHELLE PHILLIPS: They lived right down the street from us, Brian and Marilyn.

CORNISH: That's Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas. When she says Brian, she's talking about Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ECHO IN THE CANYON")

PHILLIPS: And one day I went over there, and the whole living room was full of sand. And there was nothing in the living room but a Steinway and piano bench and just all sand. And I looked at her, and I said, what is going on? She said, I know it's crazy, but he's writing some great songs.

CORNISH: These artists were writing new classics from their homes in the canyon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN MY ROOM")

THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) There's a world where I can go and tell my secrets...

CORNISH: A new documentary called "Echo In The Canyon" tells the story of the place and the people and brings in contemporary musicians influenced by the music of Laurel Canyon, musicians like Fiona Apple...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN MY ROOM")

FIONA APPLE: (Singing) In my room, in my room.

CORNISH: Regina Spektor, Beck, Cat Power all appear in the film. Jakob Dylan, son of Bob Dylan, interviews the musicians and also performs. And the director of "Echo In The Canyon" is Andrew Slater. When I spoke with Dylan and Slater, it was Slater who pinpointed the pivotal moment for the fusion of folk and rock. It was 1964 when the group The Byrds came on the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURN TURN TURN")

THE BYRDS: (Singing) To everything, turn, turn, turn...

ANDREW SLATER: That moment when those songs from the first Byrds record go on the radio, it's the first time songs of poetic depth and grace become pop songs. And that paves the way for people to write differently and then to come to California chasing the dream that The Byrds have, with success being more or less the American Beatles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURN TURN TURN")

THE BYRDS: (Singing) To everything, turn, turn, turn.

CORNISH: Can we kind of talk about Laurel Canyon itself? What does it look like? And how did it become, in a way, this kind of artist colony?

SLATER: You know, in the mid-'60s, the way the canyon is set and the way the houses are very close to each other, if a group of musicians or artists resided there, it would be fairly easy to walk down the street and visit each other. But, really, the main thing about LA is that you're always on the edge of wilderness, you know? You're - there's a coyote in your backyard. And then being so close to the Sunset Strip where clubs were where people could perform created this kind of synchronicity in Los Angeles for making that music.

CORNISH: We hear from many artists present day talking about what it was like. And I want to start with one from David Crosby.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ECHO IN THE CANYON")

DAVID CROSBY: We were putting good poetry on the radio. There wasn't any of that before. It was "June, Moon, Spoon," (singing) baby, I love you (vocalizing). It wasn't dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.

CORNISH: Jakob Dylan, you bring together this group of artists from today to talk about how they were influenced by this music. I have to admit, I didn't immediately see the connection until I saw them sitting on a couch together (laughter) and I thought like, oh, I can hear some of the influence here. How did you think about who were the descendants, so to speak, of this sound or approach?

JAKOB DYLAN: The main connection is songwriting. The music that we're talking about in the film, that's what we're doing really does come from. It's splintered off in many different directions, but at the core of it, that's what we're all doing, which is the same thing, which is melody and finding words to go with that that we find compelling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEVER MY LOVE")

NORAH JONES: (Singing) You wonder if this heart of mine will lose its desire for you, never my love, never my love.

DYLAN: We chose songs that, you know, that I could explore with believability. Just you like a song doesn't mean you can do a convincing job of singing it or playing it, you know. And there were some that my instincts would steer me away from and some that I found more challenging than others, like Brian Wilson's The Beach Boys "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times." Instinctually, it didn't follow much of what I - you know, I've sung it along with the radio like anybody else has a lot. But once you actually break it down and you start performing it yourself, it provided a lot of challenges.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I JUST WASN'T MADE FOR THESE TIMES")

DYLAN: (Singing) Each time things start to happen again, I think I got something good going for myself but what goes wrong? Now, sometimes I feel very sad. Sometimes I feel very sad.

His instincts and melody, where they go, I know he's complex, but you want things to sound easy even if they are complex. And that's a good example of that. But when you start playing it, you realize it's a lot more complicated than I first imagined.

CORNISH: So you did a Beach Boys cover. You also - a moment of The Mamas & The Papas' music, and Michelle Phillips is right there while you guys are doing this, which seems intimidating.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO WHERE YOU WANNA GO")

JADE CASTRINOS AND JAKOB DYLAN: (Singing) Go where you want. Do what you want. Go where you want.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ECHO IN THE CANYON")

PHILLIPS: It's so touching.

DYLAN: Oh, good, you like it.

PHILLIPS: I love it.

DYLAN: Oh, cool.

PHILLIPS: I love it. I love it. Wow, what a great song that was.

DYLAN: Yeah, right?

CORNISH: These are songs that people know so well. How did you think about what you wanted to reveal? You know, what would feel kind of fresh to people?

SLATER: Well, we didn't want to make - this is Andrew. We didn't want to make a tracing paper version or a historical document of these songs and this period. The approach to the songs was really to take songs that had been sung by a bunch of men singularly or together and turn them into a conversation between a man and a woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONDAY MONDAY")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Monday Monday it was all that I hoped it would be. Oh, Monday morning, Monday morning couldn't guarantee that Monday evening you would still be here with me.

CORNISH: What do you think is the legacy of Laurel Canyon?

SLATER: The legacy was about the spirit of partnership and togetherness. And I hope that that kindness and the idea of Laurel Canyon will last. I think it exists in many pockets in America and many creative communities.

CORNISH: Andrew Slater, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SLATER: Thank you.

CORNISH: And, Jakob Dylan, thank you for speaking with us.

DYLAN: Well, thank you.

CORNISH: The film is "Echo In The Canyon." It's scheduled to open tomorrow in Los Angeles and next Friday in New York. And the songs from the movie come out tomorrow as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONDAY MONDAY")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) What was to be. Oh, Monday Monday, how could you leave and not take me? Every other day, every other day, every other day, every other day... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.