For a period of about six months, from mid-summer to Christmas, I spent time in LA. Quite a lot of it, more than my usual quickie trek to see a show and then head home. It was lovely, much of it, in some massively appealing and magnetic ways. And then it wasn’t. Which is all well and fine and good.
This post concerns nothing personal. Regarding the pepper-and-salt mix of great and feh we face head-on when knowing someone, beloved or not, I’m saying nothing here. We have all seen fuschia fade to rose.
While in L.A. I saw a ton of music. A profound gift I won’t soon forget. Plus I explored a city I knew mainly from novels: Bruce Wagner, Robert Stone’s Children of Light, Nathanael West of course. I am glad that I was there. The music factor was unique, and that is what I want to write about now.
I’m not a music writer. Neither a journalist nor a critic be; that’s me. My Angeleno was just that: a seasoned pro whose Maria McKee liner notes I admired ten years ago, a country specialist, whose torrential output of concert and album reviews amazed me with its ease and speed. Oh, what fun it was. Unimaginable events. Graham Parker and the Rumour? There they were. And so was I: stage side at the Roxy, pogoing and sweaty, 30-year-old album lyrics pouring from my mouth so fluent and easy, like my Angeleno’s prolific copy streaming toward a deadline.
Traversing L.A. involves Bargello-like maneuvers. I have no sense of direction and could never handle the mathematical, patterned execution of freeway and surface street practiced so adroitly there. (Then again, I never thought I’d drive on a freeway, either, and look at me now.) No matter the stress and density of traffic, the time constraints and need to arrive on time, or very-late-night tiredness, or desire to eat my takeout falafel from the place near the Cinefamily, I always loved one route: Laurel Canyon.
This usually packed and undulant thoroughfare through California rock ‘n roll history made me smile. How could it be, that a musical pantheon’s headquarters comprised such a schlep? The small complex of commercial buildings, the hippie-haven Country Store and haute organic Italian eatery, the weathered homes near street level reminded me of the similarly ramshackle Knott’s Berry Farm. Except in Laurel Canyon, Neil Young acts the Snoopy-style mascot, Jim Morrison wields WD40 as ride engineer, and so many center-parted ladies of the canyon sell tickets.
So that is what I thought, in traffic, in Laurel Canyon. And I loved being there. And when I’m there next, which will be at some point, I will remember all those times en route to and from music. A road which, being Laurel Canyon, meant driving through music as well.
Now I’m in my living room, in a falafel mood, listening to an album recorded in Laurel Canyon. Vagabonds (Rykodisc, 2008) is a very California solo album by my favorite Midwest singer-songwriter, Gary Louris, of my favorite Midwest band, the Jayhawks, whose third and fourth albums can get me through virtually anything. Gary Louris, the Shaun Cassidy of my alt-country dreams.
Vagabonds pays homage in a way I rather like, with nubbins of Tim Hardin and Supertramp scattered in the satiny pedal steel. Gary’s voice is beautiful. That Gary’s voice is beautiful is a fact as incontrovertible as the existence of pores on skin. Jenny Lewis does choir duty, unfurling harmonic lessons learned two years prior in her own solo-debut gem, Rabbit Fur Coat. Chris Robinson produces, we have Susannah Hoffs and Farmer Dave and wonderful musicianship suffusing words and sound that are pure Gary Louris. The whole thing balances, so gracefully, a sense of soaring grandness with warm-mug-in-your-hand, simple comfort. Like wearing slippers at the Cloisters. Like Laurel Canyon itself.
California Seventies sound makes me think of Seventies California, and that makes me think of Joan Didion.
If Joan Didion bought a silk macrame vest for her Play It as It Lays book tour in ’70, and wore that vest to a Laurel Canyon dinner party, and then stored it in tissue, to be revived and refreshed years later, and worn in new light, its hippie-haberdasher’s knots intact, it would look much like Vagabonds. An expert yet natural structure of acoustic and electric, earthiness and grace, it’s a living thing, new and old and versatile as ever. In its own place and time, it is absolutely perfect.