January 04, 2007

Laurel Canyon

Michael Walker's Laurel Canyon sets itself the task of telling the story of the canyon's rise to prominence courtesy of some very famous residents. Walker is not one for structural dogmatism; he notes in the introduction that his chapters are more thematic than chronological and that he reserves the right to jump backwards and forwards in pursuit of the anecdote. And you get a feel for what sort of book this is when he justifies the decision by saying that it's in the spirit of the canyon itself.

Readers of LA's social geography have been spoiled by Mike Davis, whose City of Quartz is a truly wide-ranging analysis of the city's physical, cultural and psychological dimensions. Anyone hoping for a rock geography version of that book in Laurel Canyon are going to be disappointed. It's clear from the outset that Walker's main interests are in the personalities, not in the psycho-geography of the place. It's not to say that he doesn't attempt any contextualisation, it's just that his heart is in the interviews, not the data. What contextualisation there is frequently awkwardly placed. There's a truly baffling history of the development and distribution of cocaine as a preface to the "drugs ruined the canyon" riff. It's a case of two lines being better than four pages, and I'd like some words with the editor who thought a detailed explanation of the effects of coke were useful to a rock audience.

But if the book's main concern is with The Stars and Their Music, there are some nicely offset interviews with the canyon's lesser lights. Gail Zappa's interviews in particular add some much-needed and under-recognised perspective, as do the interviews with various of the GTOs. Kim Fowler, a not very well recognised producer/manager, is quoted to great and gleeful effect.

On the whole though, Laurel Canyon is too captive to the very thing it tries to demystify - the sixties-to-seventies LA rock boom. Walker's reverence for the music is clear and he writes well about the creative process. He is, however, irritatingly historically myopic and politically naive. One would think mass distribution of records didn't occur until 1965 and that everything else is pre-history. Likewise, and almost incredibly given how frequently it has been done, he feels obliged to offer a post-script to the book which offers a commentary on the state of music in general since Laurel Canyon's salad days. It's an irksome rock journalist habit and one that has nothing to do with the book's ostensible subject.

Summary: some good original source material, some nicely rendered historical reconstruction, and not entirely hagiographical, but too dazzled by the stars and narrow in its scope to be much more than diverting.

posted on January 04, 2007 at 04:25 PM by darren.