Separating the greater Los Angeles area from the San Fernando Valley are the Hollywood Hills, and running through them are various canyons, steep with homes built precariously into them. The most famous of these canyons is Laurel Canyon. Here the likes of Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Jim Morrison, Chris Hillman, Gram Parsons, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, and more, lived, worked, and jammed, and at the center of it all, the Canyon Country Store, which is where I decided to spend part of my birthday. And, look, I had a few weird blurs occur on some shots, and I’m not going to rule out that they are the ghost of Mama Cass, okay?
Located at the intersection of Kirkwood Drive And Laurel Canyon Boulevard sits the Canyon Country Store. With its colorful hand painted signs outside, the Canyon Country Store welcomes locals and visitors alike under its green awning. A small stand on the porch offers hot cups of coffee and tea and inside a wide variety of items are crammed inside the small store. The aisles feature hand painted signs detailing the items on the shelves, a tiny deli case offers tasty items to nosh on, and the walls are lined with photographs of residents both past and present, including icons of Laurel Canyon.
Part deli, part mini mart, part coffee house, the Canyon Country Store’s origins begin in the 1900s. Wild with coyotes, rattlesnakes, deer, and rabbits, the area became a prime hunting spot, and Charles Spencer Mann began developing the area with small cabins catering to hunters and dubbing it Bungalow Land. In the early 1900s (some sources say 1919) the Bungalow Lodge opened at Kirkwood and Laurel Canyon, serving mostly the hunters visiting the area. In 1929 the lodge burned, and the following year it was rebuilt using brick and stones from the old riverbed and turned into the market we see today.
As Hollywood began making movies, the film stars found their way into the steep drives of Laurel Canyon. Actors such as Orson Welles, Clara Bow and Errol Flynn all lived here. In fact the house Frank Zappa would eventually move in to once belonged to western star, Tom Mix. In 1948 canyon resident and iconic actor Robert Mitchum was arrested for pot, and the cops said the canyon was “ideally situated to be a ‘reefer resort.'” Little did they know what lay ahead.
By the 1960s, a new wave of canyon residents arrived, with their guitars, pot, and free love attitudes. A short drive to the Sunset Strip, Laurel Canyon became a haven for the musicians of the time. Jim Morrison of The Doors was among them, living behind the Canyon Country Store on Rothdell Trail with his girlfriend Pamela Courson. It’s said that a fight broke out and those at the store could see Morrison’s belongings such as books and clothes being tossed from the windows. Morrison also wrote the song “Love Street” about Laurel Canyon, and the Canyon Country Store is the “store where the creatures meet” as the store became a place for impromptu jam sessions with the various artists. Taking a left off of Laurel Canyon onto Kirkwood would take you to a variety of musician’s homes, and “they’d all come down to gather around the Canyon Store,” rock ‘n roll photographer Henry Diltz said of the area.
In some ways it could be said that the Canyon Country Store created the now iconic sound of Laurel Canyon. Mama Cass, of the Mamas and the Papas lived in the basement of the Canyon Country Store for a period of time, the space is now home to Pace, an Italian restaurant. Mama Cass would later go on to introduce Graham Nash to David Crosby and Stephen Stills…maybe. Thanks to a near constant party atmosphere and lots of drugs, everyone remembers things differently. Stills said it happened at Mama Cass’, Nash is unsure, and Crosby, along with Elliot Roberts, Joni Mitchell’s manager, said it happened at Mitchell’s. But regardless of exactly whose house, it did happen in the canyon. The Mamas and the Papas would also contribute the song “Twelve Thirty” which is about the canyon and the groupies who would walk through. “John [Philipps] began that song in New York but he didn’t know what to do with it. When we moved out here, the canyon fit the bill perfectly. Everybody was up there, and all the young girls were looking for the rock stars. They’d wander the hills calling out their names,” Denny Doherty of the Mamas the Papas recalled. Some groupies were in fact very bold. Iconic, queen of the groupies, Pamala Des Barnes admitted she would sleep in Chris Hillman’s (of The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers) porch hammock.
Hillman wasn’t the only Byrd living in the canyon, David Crosby did and Gram Parsons later moved there as well, only to have his home burn down eventually, the cause unknown. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Mickey Dolenz and Peter Tork of The Monkees live there too, and cross-over country female vocalists such as Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt resided there as well. The canyon was a melting pot of people from all over, who came together and created a unique sound for a very specific time and place, but is also incredibly timeless.
Not only did the canyon provide a certain sound, it also provided literal lyrics, and sometimes whole albums. As mentioned, The Doors’ “Love Street” and the Mamas and the Papas song “Twelve Thirty” are both in reference to Laurel Canyon, but they aren’t the only ones. Crosby, Stills, & Nash wrote “Our House” about their home in the canyon. Joni Mitchell dubbed one of her albums, Lades of the Canyon, after the area and John Mayall also had an entire album inspired by the canyon called Blues from Laurel Canyon, and it included the track “Laurel Canyon Home.”
Many of the musicians who lived there had an open door policy, with people crashing on couches, jam sessions, and parties. However nearly of that would change as the 1960s came to a close. The end of the era is often blamed on the drugs, success, burn out, the disaster of Altamont, and the Manson murders. Michelle Philipps of the Mamas and the Papas later fully blamed Manson.
“Before 1969, my memories were nothing but fun and excitement and shooting to the top of the chars and loving every minute of it. The Mansion murders ruined the L.A. music scene. That was the nail in the coffin of the freewheeling, let’s get high, everybody’s welcome, come on it, sit right down. Everyone was terrified. I carried a gun in my purse. And I never invited anybody over to my house again.”
As the author of the book Hotel California, which regales much of the Laurel Canyon lore, put it “[w]here once the Sunset Strip and Laurel Canyon had once represented the movement for change and social justice, now they were merely part of the entertainment vortex of money and celebrity.” And money there was, Stan Cornyn of Reprise called Laurel Canyon the “Reprise lode of gold.”
When the 80s arrived the canyon became known for its cocaine, with it being as easy to obtain as asking someone in the parking lot of the Canyon Country Store for some. In 1981 Zappa’s home that had once belonged to Tom Mix had burned, and the Wonderland Murders of cocaine dealers further tainted the once hippie haven. But the mythos of Laurel Canyon’s heyday lives on in the sounds that originated here.
While many of the pioneering musicians have left, a drive through the winding eucalyptus lined roads with their tunes playing will still give you the same feeling as if they are still there. Stop in at the Canyon Country Store for a sandwich, cup of coffee, or maybe just laundry detergent at 2108 Laurel Canyon Boulevard in Los Angeles.