Laurel Canyon is a mountainous Los Angeles neighborhood with a snaking boulevard that connects West Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley. Just five minutes from the clubs down the hill on Sunset Strip, where countless musicians of yore have honed their craft, it has served as an escape into a bucolic idyll for decades. Back in the 30s, Errol Flynn had a huge pile up here before Sonny and Cher, Frank Zappa and Jim Morrison made Laurel Canyon their home in the 60s and 70s. This is where Joni Mitchell was living when she wrote “Ladies of the Canyons” and “Clouds”.
Back then you lived in Laurel Canyon if you were too poor to live in Benedict, Coldwater or Nichols Canyon. There was a time, 1965 to 1969, when you could hitchhike up and down it. And then the Manson Family thing happened a few canyons over and the hallucinatory joyride was dead: beauty had turned to brutality. People started rolling up their windows, locking doors, putting fences around their property—and taking coke. All things must pass.
Architecturally speaking, it is about as schizophrenic and precarious as you could wish for. Laurel Canyon was the Bel Air of its day, and many of the English Tudor and Spanish style homes can still be seen in the canyon today, while several modernist Case Study houses were built here between the mid 40s and mid 60s. The cabin-style homes teetering on stilts, cantilevered atop perilous hilltop bluffs, may or may not be still standing after El Nino hits. In fact, residents of this woodsy utopia are being told to stock up and hunker down, with previous El Nino storms causing cars to be washed away by the apocalyptic deluge. If this year’s “Godzilla” turns out to be the monster it has been predicted to be, some of the rickety old canyon abodes may just float away. And if the floods don’t get you, the earthquake will, or there are always the coyotes to contend with. Let your pooch get loose at night and it’s sayonara to Pickles. But that’s the price you pay for living in Neverland, right?
When I first came out to L.A. [in 1968], my friend Joel Bernstein found an old book in a flea market that said, ‘Ask anyone in America where the craziest people live and they’ll tell you California. Ask anyone in California where the craziest people live and they’ll say Los Angeles. Ask anyone in Los Angeles where the craziest people live and they’ll tell you Hollywood. Ask anyone in Hollywood where the craziest people live and they’ll say Laurel Canyon. And ask anyone in Laurel Canyon where the craziest people live and they’ll say Lookout Mountain.’ So I bought a house on Lookout Mountain.” —Joni Mitchell