Echo in the canyon

Just getting around to talking up this documentary, which was released last year but is available—as of this moment—on Netflix, Apple TV, and Amazon Prime.

As a ‘60s rock exceptionalist, I’m a sucker for a flick like this. I’ve always believed the songs of that era are unequaled in rock/pop history. Yes, I swooned over the rock & roll of the 50s. (I stayed home "sick" for months of elementary school to make sure I didn't miss the first 30 minutes of American Bandstand.) But R&R suffered a quick demise in 1959 (“The Day the Music Died”). Fortunately, five years later The Beatles reinvented rock, and I became a born-again believer. 18 months later the folk-rockers made a lyrical upgrade, and I became a lifer.

In the summer of 1965—thanks to Dylan and The Byrds (“Like a Rolling Stone” and “Mr. Tambourine Man”)—this primitive musical form was becoming a vehicle for art and poetry. Many fans shifted from consumers to analysts—deconstructing their favorite singles and albums like exegetes interpreting sacred texts. Such was the power and poetry of that music, especially what was coming out of Los Angeles.

Echo in the Canyon is an 82-minute rock doc that traces the music of this period—1965 to 1967 mostly—through the songs of The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Beach Boys, and Mamas and Papas. These pop pioneers lived, hung out, and swapped songs (and occasionally lovers) in the Hollywood Hills, in the woodsy neighborhoods of Laurel Canyon. This quickly became an innovation nexus that changed music forever.

To broaden the demographic reach of the movie, Jakob (son of Bob) Dylan appeared as screen host and led duets of the classic hits with younger pop luminaries such as Beck, Fiona Apple, Jade, Regina Spektor, Cat Power, and Norah Jones.

Dylan also conducted short interviews with the original artists, as well as music celebs who had close contact with the canyon scene: Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Jackson Browne, John Sebastian, Brian Wilson, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Michelle Phillips, Graham Nash, and record producer Lou Adler.

I confess I was hooked from the start, beginning with the opening chords of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” through “Bells of Rhymney” and “Wild Mountain Thyme.” These Byrds’ classics played well against the sweeping aerial visuals of Laurel Canyon.

Though I would have preferred to hear more of the original tracks, much of the footage of Dylan & Co’s performances worked for me—both the snippets of the live concert they put on at LA’s Orpheum Theater and the studio recordings they did for the soundtrack. One highlight for me was Fiona Apple joining Dylan to sing “It Won’t Be Wrong” (a Byrds’ B-side) and “In My Room” (a Beach Boys’ hit). The blatantly seductive looks that Apple gave Dylan on stage are worth multiple replays.

I’ve read some unflattering reviews of the "Dylanettes'" performances, yet I felt they approached the old songs with the respect they deserved while giving them fresh interpretations.

And some of Dylan’s interviews with the original rockers were pretty interesting:

David Crosby: “We were putting good poetry on the radio—AM radio, pop radio—for the first time. There wasn’t any of that before. It was ‘June, moon, spoon, baby I love you, ooh ooh.’ It wasn’t ‘dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.’ It changed everything for everybody.”

Eric Clapton: “I loved it because I’ve always loved eccentricity. I’m attracted to eccentrics...they were all there [in the Canyon].

Michelle Phillips: “It was all very romantic...[Affairs are] going to happen. The dynamics in a group when there are men and there are women. You see something in a band member—their talent, their sexiness, and there’s a spark...I was raised in a very free atmosphere...I was a busy girl and I was having a lot of fun.”

Graham Nash (comparing the Canyon creativity to Vienna at the turn of the century and to Paris in the 30s): “This era in time is going to be treated exactly the same way in a couple hundred years by the historians. The power of music is undeniable. I truly believe it can change the world.”

It was only later that I realized who was missing from the movie: Joni Mitchell. (Perhaps she refused to participate?) There was also little mention of other Laurel Canyon notables such as Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Carole King. Or, ahem, Charles Manson. But I won’t quibble. A much longer documentary, Laurel Canyon, has recently come out—not yet available on Netflix—which covers more artists and a longer period.

As a long footnote to the above: at the tail end of this period, the folk-rock band I dropped out of college with—The Morning—arrived in LA and took up quasi-residence at the prestigious Troubadour coffeehouse. Its eccentric owner, Doug Weston, managed us for a time and regularly showcased us there. This gave us an up-close look at the Hollywood/Laurel Canyon scene. Within a few months we had opened shows for The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tom Rush, The Smother Brothers, Frank Zappa, The Grateful Dead, Taj Mahal, and Alice Cooper—and had recorded with Gary Usher, the Byrds' producer.

Our band didn’t stay together, but I chased the dream for another six years in LA. I got to do things that were “bucket list" quality in retrospect: jamming with Roger McGuinn and The Byrds; sharing open mic stages with the early Eagles, Jackson Browne, and Linda Ronstadt; performing on The Midnight Special with Wolfman Jack and Dr. Hook; and getting sound business advice from Doug Weston, Johnny Rivers, Peter Tork, Tim Rose, and Del Shannon (who encouraged me to be a songwriter above all else). Years well spent.

Yup, the Canyon—and Hollywood itself—was a magical place. Sometimes I can still hear the echo.

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  1. As a classic rock consumer I would have preferred Bob over son Jakob. And why not some CS&N songs? And where was Neil Young? A shadowy figure in the background vamping out over the credits.

    1. I heard that the producer wanted to narrow the timeframe to 1965-1967, which cut out CS&N. Neil Young can be heard singing with Jakob Dylan the beautiful Brian Wilson song from Pet Sounds, "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times"—a highlight of the movie for me. (What an aching confession from Brian!) But, per usual, the enigmatic Young was not visible during that take or anywhere else in the film except playing guitar in the background at the end. The same diva who refused to be filmed at Woodstook playing with CS&N and who didn't always make it to his own Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young concerts.

  2. I thought Dylan junior did an awesome job. He sang great and didn't upstage anyone -- either the ladies he performed with or the original artists he interviewed.

    1. Jakob Dylan is a great vocalist. And his very presence is a reminder that there would have been no folk-rock and no Laurel Canyon scene if it weren't for his father. (And if it weren't for The Beatles of course.)

      1. The Laurel Canyon video on Epix gave us a longer and wider view of the Canyon scene than Echo, finally putting Joni Mitchell back into the picture, where she belongs—along with many other LA artists who blossomed after 1967. But Echo was excellent. I'd recommend both.

        1. I loved both videos, along with David Crosby: Remember My Name. The three of them are a terrific triad (pun intended) to give you a feel for that time and place. If you're a Joni Mitchell fan, you've got to see that last one, given Crosby's close personal and professional relationship with her. I came away from that movie with a heightened appreciation for DC. He was genuinely penitent for how he had treated his colleagues. At the time of the filming, he said none of his former bandmates would even speak to him.

          One thing there's no getting away from: those artists—especially Crosby, Mitchell, Neil Young, and Jackson Browne—are exceptionally brilliant and articulate folks. I could listen to them all night, even before they pick up their guitars and sing.

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