Saturday Story Time: I Was a Lady of the Canyon, Reincarnated

The only reason I'm re-posting this entry from last August in an new incarnation is because I just finished readin a great book, Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Legendary Neighborhood, by Michael Walker. Not only has it filled in a few gaps, it has brought some memories to the surface that I thought were long forgotten. Also, I've gotten some new readers who might find this tale interesting. Hope so, anyway. It was an interesting time, not only in my life and not only in LA, but in rock history.

Instead of putting up the earlier post and then my updates as an addendum, I'll work the new points in to make a cohesive whole. Sorry, some of you will have to read it again to get the new stuff. I promise I won't do it again. I don't like repeating myself that much...

I spent a large part of 1971 in an exclusive commune in the Hollywood Hills, in a mansion that was owned by Peter Tork of the Monkees. This is a uniquely famous house in rock and roll history. It had been rented by Stephen Stills and was where Crosby Stills, Nash & Young rehearsed for their performance at Woodstock. In fact, there were two rooms off of the pool that had been converted into a rehearsal/recording studio. By the time I lived there the recording equipment had been removed and it was being used as bedrooms.

The house was originally built for band director Carmen Dragon (father of "Captain" Daryl Dragon of The Captain & Tennille), and was later bought by actor Wally Cox. Peter Tork then bought it from him. During my stint there, I met some of rock's greatest legends, for good or ill.

Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Greg Reeves, Dallas
Taylor and Graham Nash rehearsing in the
driveway and pissing off the neighbors.
Funny how this picture brings back so many memories in a truly visceral way. I can tell you what room every window opens into. I remember the scent of the jasmine and honeysuckle and how the bougainvillea cascaded from the bower bridge that led from the main house to the two-storey pool house, with a cabana below and a guest room above.
"CSNY rehearsed for this, their second official live Shady Oak, a house nestled in the hills on the Valley side of the canyon. Formerly owned by Wally Cox, it was purchased by Peter Tork at the height of his Monkees fame. Tork's tenure there was already legendary for marathon parties and the abundance of young women in states of undress in more or less permanent residence around the swimming pool. When Tork blew through his Monkees money, he rented the house to his old folkie pal Stephen Stills, whereupon the jam sessions in the downstairs music room and the Möbius strip of parties-cum-hangouts continued unabated.

"Stills added a special touch by rehearsing Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, complete with screaming amplifiers and pounding drums, on the patio. "One day Stephen says: 'It's a beautiful afternoon--I want to hear how this sounds in the outdoors. Let's just set up all the instruments outdoors and play for a while," says Nash. "And we did." When Crosby questioned the wisdom of openly provoking the neighbors, Stills accused him of betraying his freak-flag allegiance... It was typical of the band's heated infighting, in which one member would hurl another's lyrics at him as evidence of mendacity or the dreaded "cop-out." Dallas Taylor, the band's drummer, recalled one evening at Shady Oak "sitting there, taking a long hit off of one of Crosby's killer joints, vaguely aware that an argument was going on around me: 'Fuck you!' 'No, fuck
you!' 'That's a cop-out, man!'" The next thing Taylor knew, Stills had escorted him downstairs to the music room to jam with Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Miles. The refreshments, according to Taylor, included a large mound of cocaine sitting on a mirror on the Hammond organ." (Copyright © 2006 Michael Walker)
When I moved in the house was being rented by sci-fi screenwriter Rick Strauss and his wife Simone, who was a fashion designer with Patty Woodard. Neither Rick nor Simone were really famous, but they made enough to pay $1600 in rent in the day when my apartment in Santa Barbara, an exclusive resort beach town known for its high rents, cost me $125. It's about like paying $16,000 today. Rick also wrote for the L.A. Free Press and was known as an eccentric cross between an aging hipster and a guru.

One thing I remember is that there was a huge hole in the bar, like someone had kicked it in. I've always been curious about how it got there. Someone told me it was made by Jim Morrison during a drunken binge. Hell, it could have been anybody. I thought it was a shame because the house was so beautiful and otherwise serene. That gaping hole somehow shattered that serenity for me. Recently, when I asked Peter about it, he said he didn't even remember it. There were some pictures on the web of Jimi Hendrix and George Harrison by the pool, but I can't find them now.

I stayed for a short while with my manager, Jeff Levin, in a wing over the garage known as the Carriage House. It had a full view of the drive and patio below with Austrian crystals hanging on invisible fishing line in the windows, casting rainbow prisms onto the purple wall that the head of the bed sat against. Later, I discovered a door behind a mass of clothes in an upstairs closet that opened into an attic room that no one but Rick and Simone knew about. I immediately moved in there and made myself a private loft that looked out over the entire pool area. I hung the walls with Indian bedspreads and wrote music to my heart's content; even Jeff didn't know where I was, and no one could find me; I worked uninterrupted.

Opening for the Doobies.
We had a maid who came in once a week, but we were expected to pull our own weight. Bill Kaminski, a tall, good looking blond who worked at the Olde Worlde restaurant on the Strip did the cooking, Cathy Williams, who became my friend, cleaned the Strauss's private rooms upstairs while also acting as the nanny of their baby, Jonathan. Jeff, as I said, was a kind of overseer, and I took care of the kitchen and shopping. Diane Christy, a leggy dancer at The Whisky, and who was a friend and protégée of actress Stella Stevens (and who seemed oh, so glamorous to me), did a lot of sunbathing, and Jessie and two other guys did work that pertained to the concerts we held at Venice Beach and Griffith Park. That's me performing for 1500 people, warming up for the soon-to-be-renamed Doobie Brothers. In those days they were known as Pud.

Because it was less than two years after the Manson murders, L.A. was still paranoid about anything that looked like a hippie commune. Suddenly, hippies weren't just harmless, peace-loving sideshow freaks, and in the canyons of Hollywood and Studio City, little signs began sprouting up on lawns proclaiming that the properties were protected by electronic security systems and very large dogs. Rick had dubbed our group, which was actually an event production collective, The Shady Oak Family. Understandably, the word 'family' in this context made some people a bit skittish. We were always reassuring people in radio and television appearances, and in the newspapers, that we were safe, working, professional, and nothing like the Manson family.

To this end, the police were frequent guests, but not in the way you might think. They respected Rick because our events were well-known for being incident-free. The police chief shared bagels and lox with us on more than one occasion, laughing with us at the kitchen table and, amazingly, treating us with a curious camaraderie (maybe it was the naked girls who often lounged around the pool). He paid no attention to the pot and he knew that Rick never allowed anything harder in the house. (Someone brought in some angel dust one night, but I never saw anything harder than that, and it was only once.) The L.A. Times published a huge spread on us one Sunday, and when I get back to California, I intend to hunt it up in the library archives.

I became aware of this house/commune while visiting Jessie, a musician friend who lived in an apartment complex in the San Fernando Valley. I don't remember how I met him; I think I gave him a ride when he was hitching through Santa Barbara. Or maybe it was at the Agoura Renaissance Pleasure Faire, where I worked as a Tarot reader one year. I just don't remember. That was a lot of joints years ago. The apartment complex was a sort of commune, too. As many were in those days, the units were rented by like-minded Hollywood Hippies who met for meals in one apartment that served as the mess hall. This particular complex was owned by Rick and Simone.

One evening after dinner we all congregated in the living room of one of the apartments to drink wine, jam on guitars and rap (that was the term for talking, not a musical style). Jeff happened to be visiting that evening and he kept talking about "the house on the hill", but I didn't know what he was referring to, I just continued to pass the dutchie to the left-hand side between songs. After hearing me sing, however, he mentioned that I should make my way up there sometime. Thinking it was a come-on, I let it pass.

A month or so later, when I was staying at my brother and sister-in-law's place in the Santa Ynez Valley and warding off the Chumash dudes at the bar where my brother's biker blues band played every night, I received a phone call from Jessie who said that he'd been "moved up to the house on the hill" and that I should come down immediately. There were big breaks for me there, he said. Being all bout my career, I went.

Standing in a phone booth at the foot of the the Laurel Canyon freeway exit in Studio City, I told Jesse where I was and he said that they'd be down to get me in a few minutes. He and Jeff arrived in a red Ford Mustang convertible and, I, my backpack, and 12-string guitar climbed in. Driving up the canyon and even higher up on the curvy driveway to the house, I felt like I was about to see all my dreams of fame come true (this picture is of the entrance of the driveway). When I actually saw the house I about flipped. It was a bona fide Hollywood pad, with a glorious view of the Valley below. I met Rick and Simone at dinner, which we ate seated on the red-carpeted living room floor around a large, circular coffee table with a jug of Almaden. (Not liking wine in those days, I asked for a glass of milk... what a baby. Hey, I was only 19!) Afterward, I was asked to sing for everyone and I happily obliged.

Later that evening, Jeff came to where I sat with Jesse in the music studio and said that Rick wanted to see me. He led me through the large, curved living room into the foyer and up the Norma Desmond worthy circular staircase to a library on the second floor. I knocked on the door and I was told to come in. Rick, who looked quite a bit like Albert Einstein, sat behind an antique desk with a deck of Tarot cards before him, and invited me to sit down. As he shuffled and dealt the cards he casually asked, "What do you want?" I misunderstood, thinking that Jesse hadn't been cleared to invite me up to "the house on the hill".
"Well, Jessie invited me to spend the weekend," I said, the shy creature that I was in those days.
"No," he interrupted. "What do you want?"
"Nothing. I just came here"
"No," he laughed. "WHAT - DO - YOU - WANT?"
"I want to be a star," I said, understanding at las. "I want to be huge. A standard of comparison."
Looking at the cards he'd laid out, he nodded in thought and said, "I can do that for you. See this card? This is the Fool. That's you. You're the star I've been looking for. All these other people are just court jesters, but you're the real thing."

He went on to tell me that he wanted to make me the new generation's Mary Pickford, but I had no idea what he meant by that at the time. He asked if I could stay and be groomed for stardom. What else did I have to do? Was he kidding? Of course, I said yes and the work began. He gave me a hippie stage name, which I hated, and instructed me to come to him with every new song I wrote. His wife began designing stage clothes for me, Renaissance troubadour sort of a mime look without the white-face. Maybe a female version of Donovan, now that I think of it.

Soon, I was performing at the Venice Beach and Griffith Park concerts, on TV and radio, at showcases, and warming up for acts like Leon Russell and the Doobie Brothers (here's my entry about that). And whenever I had an engagement he made sure that a limo came up the hill to get me. I was considered for the female host on The New Zoo Review (link goes to a YouTube clip), but Emily Penden, one of the show's creators (and the wife of the male host) got it. It happens. Between you and me, I'm glad that gig's not on my resume.

Unfortunately, the Strauss's went bankrupt very quickly and when they moved to a smaller house in Studio City, they took only Jeff and me with them. Everyone else had to move on. Disillusioned within a month, I left too, although I still took gigs that Jeff got me for a while. You can read about my last gig and the fight I had with him here.

I often went into the actual canyon to go to parties held by some very famous musicians, but I've dropped enough names for one entry...

So that's my tale of my time in Laurel Canyon. I wrote a lot of good songs in that fabulous house; the musical vibes there were incredible! Oddly, if money were no object I'd probably buy it (despite the fact that it's in L.A.), not for the memories, but because it was so full of musical energy, and for the history as well.

The Rolling Stones by the pool at Shady Oak.
Yep, sat there naked a few times myself.
Mick Taylor, Keith Richards &
Mick Jagger 
in the solarium.
David Crosby takes a plunge into the pool.
Can't tell you how many times I sunbathed on that
board with Diane. Ah, the smell of Ban de Soliel!
The Stones lounging in the hammock that I used, too. 
Mick & Keith by the pool, just outside the studio.
(I used this house, and the guest cottage in the

background, in Book One of my Rock trilogy.)
Rick Strauss was not your typical commune patriarch. Sure, he taught us lessons about life (he was 60 years old and knew more than we did), and he used the popular spiritual texts of the era, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads, the Tao te Ching, the Teachings of the Buddha, Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, etc., but he saw himself mostly as a mentor, taking in talented young people and preparing them for fame, and life beyond that fame.
"You live up here on Mount Olympus. You eat what you want, drink what you want, ingest what you want, dress how you want, make love to whom you want. You are gods and goddesses and you will treat each other as such. But if you want to be treated the same way when you descend into the material world, you must continue to act like gods and goddesses. You are ambassadors for a new age. Conduct yourselves accordingly."
I've never forgotten that. Did any of us get famous? No, but wouldn't all this look good in a movie!