Saturday Reading Room is still open
(OK, so it's Sunday morning; we forgot to turn off the lights last night)
The trouble with paradise
*Hotel California The True-Life Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, the Eagles, and Their Many Friends Barney Hoskyns Wiley: 324 pp., $25.95
By Erik Himmelsbach, Erik Himmelsbach, a writer and television producer, is at work on a book about the history of Los Angeles radio station KROQ-FM and the alternative-culture revolution.
COMING down hard off the Technicolor freakout of Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and the divisive election of President Nixon, musicians began ditching didactic rock in favor of a mellow brand of acoustic alchemy. It was nothing so much as the sound of surrender, and though the message rang at lower volume, it was still unquestionably clear: OK, we can't change the world, so instead let's dig our pain.
By the early 1970s, post-hippie angst was paying off quite handsomely, with Los Angeles serving as rock's leading exporter of introspection. The era's artists became superstars (The Eagles; Crosby, Stills & Nash), the string-pullers became obscenely rich and powerful (David Geffen, Irving Azoff) and those who chased the dream and stumbled (Gram Parsons, Gene Clark) crashed that much harder. They formed a remarkably insular community — artists worked together, played together and slept together, with Laurel Canyon serving as a kind of "Melrose Place."
It was a critical moment in rock history — a time when innocence and ambition collided. Not surprisingly, innocence got the fuzzy end of the lollipop. The fallout was a musical climate so perversely corrupt that punk rock had to be invented. You had drug-filled hedonism, corporatization of pop music and the unwelcome emergence of an oxymoronic genre of music dubbed "soft rock." L.A.'s maestros of mellow had spawned a monster.
How did they do it? In "Hotel California," Barney Hoskyns explains where it all went wrong — how so many groovy hyper-literate songwriters turned into pretentious, backstabbing, coke-sniffing lunatics. A British journalist and editor of "Rock's Back Pages" — an online library of music writing from the last 40 years (to which I have contributed) — Hoskyns is well-versed in the lay of LaLa land. Among his previous books is 1998's "Waiting for the Sun," a broad history of pop music in Los Angeles.
Here, the focus is much narrower. As the book's subtitle suggests, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, David Geffen and the Eagles are the divas in this sonic soap opera, but Hoskyns grounds the sensation with the stories of the scene's supporting cast — Randy Newman, Judee Sill, Jimmy Webb, the staff at Warner Bros., the folks who never lost their vision, even when blinded by the spotlight's seductive allure.
Through hundreds of interviews conducted over the last dozen years, Hoskyns methodically chips away at the era's artifice and ego-driven mythologizing, revealing a creative landscape that was less stardust and golden than it was green with greed and white with cocaine residue.
The genesis of what became known as country rock serves as the book's point of departure, with ex-Byrds singer Clark, Buffalo Springfield and the Flying Burrito Brothers mining a mythic past for inspiration, circa 1967. At first, they were united in a barefooted struggle for a musical utopia, converging at Hollywood's Troubadour, North Hollywood's Palomino or in the backyards of Mitchell or canyon queen bee Mama Cass Elliot. Such artists as Newman and Van Dyke Parks could thrive without the burden of commercial expectations.
Everything changed in the summer of 1968, writes Hoskyns, when "a loose triad of alpha males in denim jeans" began jamming in the canyon. Together, they were a super-group: David Crosby (ex-Byrds), Stephen Stills (ex-Springfield) and Graham Nash (ex-Hollies), three prickly personalities who created heavenly harmonies that touched millions. No one figured it would last (they were right) — music producer Jerry Wexler joked at the time that CSN's 1969 debut should be called "Music From Big Ego."
Something was happening here, and it was left to an opportunistic David Geffen to market mellow into moola. The New York native, who'd earned his music business chops guiding the career of jazzy songbird Laura Nyro, was the shrewdest new-school manager in the rock world. (Wexler once told Geffen: "You'd jump into a pool of pus to come up with a nickel between your teeth.") He was ruthless, but his artists trusted him — many worked without a contract.
With Geffen calling the shots, CSN added a Y — Stills' former Buffalo Springfield sparring partner Neil Young — and turned into the American Beatles. Their success sent Crosby's already high profile to the edge of overkill. For better or worse, the walrus-mustachioed singer was nothing less than the L.A. scene's face, its bon vivant, the model for Dennis Hopper's giggling, drug-munching sidekick in "Easy Rider."
Already insufferable, Crosby turned the scene into a personal fiefdom. Hoskyns' recounting of his antics pegs him as the embodiment of an encroaching self-absorption: He slept with Mitchell, did smack with Elliot, appointed himself spokesman for a generation. "David was obnoxious, demanding, thoughtless, full of himself," Geffen said.
Mitchell stepped into this star-crossed universe by virtue of a well-publicized relationship with Nash (after her tryst with Crosby but before bedding Stills and James Taylor). The partnership spurred the wispy blond from Canada into a period of powerfully introspective songwriting. "The Nash/Mitchell cohabitation was the Laurel Canyon dream incarnate," Hoskyns writes. "For the first time in pop, there was a direct, almost diaristic correlation between songs and relationships."
In 1971, just as Mitchell's true confessions began making noise on the pop charts, Geffen formed Asylum Records, a label devoted to woe-is-me genre artists such as Jackson Browne. Geffen also helped hatch an ambitious band called the Eagles, who joined his label that August. The Eagles cherry-picked sounds from the cream of the recent L.A. scene — a bit of Burritos, a splash of Browne — as the basis for its baldly commercial sound, and Geffen aggressively hyped the group as the embodiment of the laid-back California lifestyle. It worked: America quickly embraced the hirsute country-rock boy band, whose easy-going-down anthems were tailor-made for AM, FM and country radio.
"We wanted it all," Glenn Frey told Hoskyns. "Peer respect. AM and FM success. No. 1 singles and albums, great music, and a lot of money." Guitarist Frey was the good-time guy, the author notes. His partner, Don Henley, was the solemn, serious one. But Henley's righteous-dude persona was a pose. He got two years' probation for drug possession and was fined for contributing to the delinquency of a 16-year-old girl who was treated for drug intoxication at his house in 1980.
Hoskyns says Henley's troubles were symptomatic of a scene running its course, of pop music's Camelot losing its grip. People had gotten rich and left the canyon for Malibu. They developed serious drug habits. They stopped selling records. They became a bloated joke to a new generation of musicians, who mocked the hippie excess. When the Eagles imploded in late 1980, it was a coffin nail to the whole bloody mess, save the inevitable rehab bills.
Of course, before the Eagles finally flew their ego-torn coop, they had left America with "Hotel California," a doomsday hit ("you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave") that served as a hummable epitaph to the once-harmonious canyon era (and an appropriate title for this book).
Hoskyns tells a cautionary tale (what rock 'n' roll story isn't?). But "Hotel California" is also a lesson in cultural anthropology: Its heroes and villains were among the first rock stars to become rock gods, creating a regal distance from their audience. "We were now applauding the presence of the artist rather than the performance," light-show artist Joshua White tells Hoskyns.
When the applause died down, there were a lot of casualties. Parsons and Sill were dead, Clark was immersed in the bottle. Young got weird. Mitchell got jazzy. Crosby went to jail. And Geffen became king of the universe, even doing his part to put the hippie dream out of its misery in 1985, when he sued Geffen Records artist Young for making uncommercial records. There was nothing left, save an echo of the message Peter Fonda offered to Hopper in "Easy Rider": "We blew it, man."