I loved the Epix docu-series “Laurel Canyon,” even though it didn’t say a lot that’s new. The strength of the two-parter, directed by Alison Ellwood, is the way it pulls together so many clips, photos, and vignettes featuring the musical artists who worked out of the LA neighborhood from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. Now, our music stars are filmed to within an inch of their lives; then, shooting casual moments was fairly rare. Some of the stories in the docu-series are charming, many of them within six degrees of Mama Cass Elliot, “the Gertrude Stein of Laurel Canyon.” Peter Tork was into nudism, Graham Nash wrote “Our House” one day to honor his sweet life with Joni Mitchell, and Alice Cooper accidentally went to audition for Frank Zappa at 7 a.m. instead of p.m. And some of them are tragic, notably the arc of Jim Morrison’s drug use.
The long list of performers who come and go in “Laurel Canyon” includes Mitchell, Zappa, the Byrds, the Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Mamas and the Papas, Jackson Browne, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Linda Ronstadt, the Turtles, and the Flying Burrito Brothers. They all released a lot of good material, some of which — like Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon,” Crosby, Stills and Nash’s first album, and all the singles by the Mamas and the Papas and the Byrds — has been famously representative of the time and place. Here are five other goodies that overlap with the Laurel Canyon scene.
“Forever Changes,” Love
What a transporting, original album, with just enough psychedelic augmentation to smack of its moment, 1967. It’s an ambitious blending of styles and genres, including classical and folk, but it holds together perfectly (most of it was written by Arthur Lee, with two tracks by Bryan MacLean). The themes are dark and brooding, with songs about war, race, death, and, overall, the vainness of the Summer of Love; but it’s also tinged with tenderness and harmony, with gorgeously layered guitars and orchestration. Rather than a series of songs with choruses and verses, the album feels like an extended piece, a journey out of idealism with intense self-questioning.
“Warren Zevon,” Warren Zevon
The trademark melody and irony are here on Zevon’s second album, which brought together a lot of Laurel Canyon-identified musicians, including J.D. Souther, Bonnie Raitt, and Jackson Browne, who produced. The 1976 album is harder-edged than those of his more sensitive contemporaries, as he took on sexual politics, drugs, and the existential blahs, but the rapier wit and the intimacy were endearing and amusing. The songwriting is spectacular throughout, culminating in what is one of his masterpieces, “Desperadoes Under the Eaves,” a song about Los Angeles that, fittingly, ends with an evocative coda that is intensely cinematic.
“For Everyman,” Jackson Browne
I’ve gone back and forth on Browne over the years, but his second album continues to impress me as one of the best of the many folk-rock records of the time. If you can get through “Take It Easy,” you’ll find a string of romantic songs about the strains of idealism and the costs of regret. With many of his Laurel Canyon-identified friends of the time, including Mitchell, Don Henley, and David Crosby (adding the same extraordinary harmonies he brought to Browne’s first album), Browne came up with a bittersweet gem.
“Judee Sill,” Judee Sill
It’s quite possible you’ve never heard of Sill, who’d been arrested, had a bad drug habit, and died in 1979 at age 35. She was not the typical Laurel Canyon hippie. Her first album was the first album released by David Geffen’s Asylum Records, in 1971, and it’s the kind of blend of pop, folk, and country that was breaking through at the time. Her songs are top-notch, her performances, with her Texas accent intact, are poignant, and her arrangements are delicate and yet strong. Crosby and Nash are on the album, too.
“Takin’ My Time,” Bonnie Raitt
Raitt’s early albums are consistently fine, but this one from 1973 is one of the best. The mix of songs is just right for Raitt, opening with the rousing “You’ve Been in Love Too Long” and touching base with definitive interpretations of Chris Smither’s “I Feel the Same” and Randy Newman’s “Guilty.” Her voice is clear and filled with expressiveness, and the music is perfectly raw.