Ron Onesti: The Birth of Folk-Rock and History Repeating itself
Have you by chance been watching the television special about “Laurel Canyon” lately? It is a wonderful Rock-u-mentary about a small neighborhood located in the Hollywood Hills region of the Santa Monica Mountains just outside of Los Angeles. For only a few short years, this area was the home of some of the biggest names of the Rock-Pop-Folk culture of the 60s and 70s.
Frank Zappa and his “Mother of Invention” band was one of the first major groups to inhabit the wooded area just five minutes from the Sunset Strip. But after six months of experiencing that free-love, drug-driven, party culture, Zappa moved to a more secluded house still in the Canyon. He lived there during the years when he produced most of his classic work until his death in 1993.
The secluded secret neighborhood became home base for many legends-to-be including David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Jim Morrison, Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell, John and Michelle Philips of The Mamas and the Papas, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork of The Monkees, The Eagles, Carole King, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt. Many more moved in down the street, next door or in the same house together. And the list of iconic visitors is astonishing-The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Alice Cooper, to name just a few.
The television special told the story in the words of those present at that tumultuous time who pretty much could only agree on one fact-they were all too high too often to really remember what actually happened then!
The routine for all was about the same, sleep much of the day, grab something quick at the Laurel Canyon Country Store (where Jim Morrison lived behind), watch buddies perform at the Whisky-A-Go-Go or The Troubadour Club on the Sunset Strip, then grab a bite at Nate ‘n Al’s Deli. After that, they would wander into friends’ houses (nobody locked their doors) to jam and get high all night. That was their “Day at the office”.
But as I continued to watch the show, I began to realize just how many of those icons I have been fortunate enough to do shows with! It was a humbling and exciting revelation as I reminisced about some of those memorable nights with those “Historic Hippies” at The Arcada.
I never worked with Frank Zappa, but I have done several shows with his son Dweezil, who was born “In the Canyon” in 1969. Many of the stories he shared about his dad happened within the first ten years of Dweezil’s life there. Did you know that Frank offered Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees an opportunity to join Zappa’s band but his record company wouldn’t let him?
Dolenz was a big part of the scene as The Monkees were just exploding. Micky has appeared many times by us, including three times in an eight-week period in 2019! Davy Jones would also frequent the Canyon since Micky AND Peter Tork lived there. Peter was known for his nudist-parties, often just hanging out or swimming in his pool, totally naked!
Davy was one of my most favorite rocker-friends, also coming to the Arcada on many occasions. Although we never really talked about the Laurel Canyon experience, his numerous references to the “Psychedelic Years” really make sense to me now that I have seen the LC Story!
I have had Crosby, Stills & Nash at The Arcada-sort of. Neil Young never appeared by us, but David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash all did, separately!
Graham Nash was always generous with his time with me. Story after story, my favorite being how the CSN&Y song, “Our House” came to be:
“Our house is a very, very, very fine house with two cats in the yard. Life used to be so hard. Now everything is easy ’cause of you.” These lyrics were written in about 15 minutes in the house that Graham Nash shared with Joni Mitchell. But it almost didn’t come to be, because there were two songwriters in the house and only one piano. He said that they were both working on album projects at the time, but Joni had dibs on the piano”.
Stephen Stills appeared at The Arcada with another Laurel Canyon regular folk icon, Judy Collins, for whom, the CSN&Y song, “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” was penned. Stills is a true genius who was behind so much of that early pop-culture success of bands including Buffalo Springfield. The musical stroll down their Rock ‘N Roll Memory Lane was almost too much to handle all at once!
Robby Krieger of The Doors is also a friend of ours who has shared hours of stories with us. I feel I have a true insight of exactly who Jim Morrison was from the insight Krieger gave us. Morrison would ride a bicycle around “The Canyon” stopping by friends and writing poetry under many a tree.
When the “Next Generation”of “Canyonites” moved in, the folk-footprint in pop-culture also widened. Linda Ronstadt was part of that inner circle, and so was her band with a couple guys named Glenn Frey and Don Henley playing behind her. They were so good they formed their own thing with Randy Meisner, Bernie Leadon and Don Felder, and they called it “The Eagles”.
Don Felder appears at The Arcada on a regular basis, packed with stories, some good, and some reflecting his unwarranted departure from the band. A story for another day.
Just being in the presence of these icons whose “California Sound” helped define a generation has been an amazing thing for me. But after watching how they were all incestuously joined at the hip (and I MEAN at the hip…and below) during their humble beginnings, I realize how lucky I am to have them perform at our humble house.
And watching background footage on the show from that era was also kind of a reality check. Student protests resulting in four unarmed students being killed at Kent State University, graffiti about ending police brutality, riots about desegregation, assassinations of MLK and RFK, economic turmoil, cultural breakdowns, loss of faith in government; all happened fifty years ago and a bit too real to us today.
Unfortunately, some things don’t change. But fortunately, the strength of that music has remained alive and I hope to God, THAT doesn’t change!