An unsparing look at when rock lost its soul

Review Music

July 02, 2006|By ERIK HIMMELSBACH

Hotel California

The True-Life Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, the Eagles, and Their Many Friends

Barney Hoskyns

Wiley / 324 pages / $25.95

Coming down hard off the Technicolor freakout of Vietnam, the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and the divisive election of President Richard Nixon, musicians began ditching didactic rock in favor of a mellow brand of acoustic alchemy. It was nothing so much as the sound of surrender, and though the message rang at lower volume, it was still unquestionably clear: OK, we can't change the world, so instead let's dig our pain.

By the early 1970s, post-hippie angst was paying off quite handsomely, with Los Angeles serving as rock's leading exporter of introspection. The era's artists became superstars (the Eagles; Crosby, Stills & Nash), the string-pullers became obscenely rich and powerful (David Geffen, Irving Azoff) and those who chased the dream and stumbled (Gram Parsons, Gene Clark) crashed that much harder. They formed a remarkably insular community - artists worked together, played together and slept together, with Los Angeles' Laurel Canyon serving as a kind of Melrose Place.

It was a critical moment in rock history - a time when innocence and ambition collided. The fallout was a musical climate so perversely corrupt that punk rock had to be invented. You had drug-filled hedonism, corporatization of pop music and the unwelcome emergence of an oxymoronic genre of music dubbed "soft rock." L.A.'s maestros of mellow had spawned a monster.

In Hotel California, Barney Hoskyns explains where it all went wrong - how so many groovy, hyper-literate songwriters turned into pretentious, backstabbing, coke-sniffing lunatics. A British journalist and editor of Rock's Backpages - an online library of music writing from the last 40 years (to which I have contributed) - Hoskyns is well-versed in the lay of La-La land. Among his previous books is 1998's Waiting for the Sun, a broad history of pop music in Los Angeles.

Here, the focus is much narrower. As the book's subtitle suggests, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, David Geffen and the Eagles are the divas in this sonic soap opera, but Hoskyns grounds the sensation with the stories of the scene's supporting cast - Randy Newman, Judee Sill, Jimmy Webb, the staff at Warner Bros., the folks who never lost their vision, even when blinded by the spotlight's seductive allure.

Hoskyns methodically chips away at the era's artifice and ego-driven mythologizing, revealing a creative landscape that was less stardust and golden than it was green with greed and white with cocaine residue.

The genesis of what became known as country rock serves as the book's point of departure, with ex-Byrds singer Clark, Buffalo Springfield and the Flying Burrito Brothers mining a mythic past for inspiration, circa 1967. At first, they were united in a barefooted struggle for a musical utopia, converging at Hollywood's Troubadour, North Hollywood's Palomino or in the backyards of Mitchell or canyon queen bee Mama Cass Elliot. Such artists as Newman and Van Dyke Parks could thrive without the burden of commercial expectations.

Everything changed in the summer of 1968, writes Hoskyns, when "a loose triad of alpha males in denim jeans" began jamming in the canyon. Together, they were a super-group: David Crosby (ex-Byrds), Stephen Stills (ex-Springfield) and Graham Nash (ex-Hollies), three prickly personalities who created heavenly harmonies that touched millions. No one figured it would last - music producer Jerry Wexler joked at the time that CSN's 1969 debut should be called Music From Big Ego.

Something was happening here, and it was left to an opportunistic Geffen to market mellow into moolah. The New York native was the shrewdest new-school manager in the rock world. He was ruthless, but his artists trusted him.

With Geffen calling the shots, CSN added a Y - Stills' former Buffalo Springfield sparring partner, Neil Young - and turned into the American Beatles. Their success sent Crosby's already high profile to the edge of overkill. For better or worse, the walrus-mustachioed singer was nothing less than the L.A. scene's face, its bon vivant, the model for Dennis Hopper's giggling, drug-munching sidekick in Easy Rider. Already insufferable, Crosby turned the scene into a personal fiefdom. Hoskyns' recounting of his antics pegs him as the embodiment of an encroaching self-absorption.

"David was obnoxious, demanding, thoughtless, full of himself," Geffen said. Mitchell stepped into this star-crossed universe by virtue of a well-publicized relationship with Nash (after her tryst with Crosby but before bedding Stills and James Taylor). The partnership spurred the wispy blond from Canada into a period of powerfully introspective songwriting. "The Nash/Mitchell cohabitation was the Laurel Canyon dream incarnate," Hoskyns writes.

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