By John Kendall Hawkins
Lots of people think the folk/rock era began when Dylan went electric at the 1965 NewBob Folk Festival. They couldn’t hear his voice over the amped-up instruments. Word is, some folkies went starkers. In the fictional film I’m Not There, sweet Pete Seeger tries to take an axe to the sound, and has to be wrestled to the ground. Some critics wondered whether Dylan’s do was attempted murder or career suicide. Plugged-in Alienation never jangled so many nerves.
Howeer, some others say that folk/rock actually began in the quiet hills of Laurel Canyon a month or so earlier. It still involved Dylan, but as an observer listening in on Roger McGuinn and The Byrds rehearsing “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Said band member David Crosby at the time, “He listened to us play it electric and you can hear the gears turning, you know. He knew he wanted to do that immediately.”
But the story of folk/rock’s beginnings is even more convoluted and intriguing than that. Andrew Slater’s Echo in the Canyon attempts to solve this riddle that nobody’s much given a poop about in decades. But, the thing is, he does it in such a way that the journey is joyous, invigorating and enlightening. He brings in an assortment of legends and their kin to tell the story of the greatest musical era of our times. Oh, what fun it is to see and hear Jakob Dylan, Tom Petty, Brian Wilson, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills, Roger McGuinn, Michelle Phillips, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Fiona Apple, Beck, Norah Jones, Regina Spektor, Cat Power, Jade Castrinos, John Sebastian, Lou Adler. It’s never dull.
Andrew Slater says that he was watching an old B-movie, Model Shop, from 1969, when it oddly occurred to him: “That movie looked like the sound of The Beach Boys and The Mamas & Papas.” Call it sensimilla synesthesia. The movie features Gary Lockwood lost in the space that unrequited love leaves you in when the rent-a-model you’re attracted to just isn’t in to you. This, coming a year after the homoerotic voice of HAL did shit in the cosmos when “his” love went unrequited and opened up wormholes we may not have recovered from. Pass the bong, please. I never would have seen an explanation for folk/rock coming from this. You mean that black plinthy beacon from outer space was another side of Dylan?
Anyway, Slater, Echo’s director and the former president of Capitol Records, was in a good position to bring together the aforementioned musicians from the early days of the folk/rock era. As the title suggests, Slater makes the place, Laurel Canyon, the hero of the story. This is where it happened, the place where songsmiths came together in a musical mélange that pushed pop music from doo-wop sentimentality to lyrical depth psychology. Or, as only David Crosby could put it, before folk/rock, “It was June, Moon, Spoon. Baby I love you Ooh, ooh. [It] wasn’t ‘Dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.’”
In the 60s, word was that California was the place to be and the place to bee. The Bay area had its attractions and its evils, its ghosts and its upheavals, and was distinct from the sound and the fury of the south, the Circe city, that LA Woman, that Hotel California you could check into but never leave. But Laurel Canyon, we’re told, was none of that. It was a place to malinger, get laid, or try out a new singer and smoke a new hashish grenade. A mind-blowing environment for creative types.
Michelle Philips of the Mamas and the Papas is the first to testify as to the vibe of the Canyon. It was “like a hangout for, ah, bohemians and actors,” she tells us, “It was full of charming little houses and it was a very joyful time.” And Graham Nash was instantly enthralled: “Just driving up those canyons and people pointing out houses of famous people that lived there, Houdini and Tom Mix and Zappa and, you know, it was a fabulous time.” Roger McGuinn adds, “We moved into Laurel Canyon and we just loved the scene there. And a lot of people, a lot of folk singers would come around and play and we’d, you know, get high and stuff. It was… a fun time.” Joyful, fabulous, fun. And that’s how the film plays to us.
We’re provided with a couple of amusing anecdotes of the free-expressionism that ruled Laurel Canyon back in the ‘zen’-then. One is the sight of the chin strip and ‘stached resident Frank Zappa emerging from his home, across the street from Stephen Stills. “Once [Zappa] stood in the middle of the street reading me the lyrics of ‘Who Are The Brain Police’, like Alan Ginsberg.” (Segue) And the other chucklesome moment came when Ringo Starr and George Harrison “drove up to wherever Micky Dolenz lived and Stephen Stills was there and several other people. And they were all being hippies in the nude. And when they saw it was George and I driving they all run in and got dressed!” Nuff seen, nuff said.
Folks were getting together in all kinds of ways, and the recollection of that togetherness is at the heart of Echo in the Canyon. The Byrds listened to the Beatles, and the Beatles listened to Beach Boys, and the Beach Boys listened to Bach, and they all listened to Dylan. The Byrds’ 12-string electric sound wowed the Beatles and Bob. Napoleon in Rags took the new sound to Newport, and George Harrison incorporated the 12-string vibe into the first “folk rock” album, Rubber Soul. The Beach Boys were blown away by Rubber Soul and it inspired Pet Sounds, which, in turn turn turn, inspired the Byrds and the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And so on. They called this process “cross-pollination.”
Tom Petty claims “the Beatles actually started the folk rock in California,” and he tells the story of how John Hall of the Rickenbacker Guitar flew to New York to give John Lennon, who played a Rickenbacker 6-string, a 12-string version, “But George had the flu, the other three had gone out for a photo session, and George nabbed the 12-string. Mm hmm. That changed pop music….” We can only imagine how John Lennon might have changed things had he been in that day.
The Beatles invited the Byrds over to England. During a gig at the Blaises Club “Chris was so nervous he broke a bass string,” says McGuinn. “And nobody ever breaks a bass string, but he did.” The adventure continued with drugs. Dylan had famously turned the Beatles on to marijuana. The night after the Blaises’ incident, McCartney took McGuinn for a ride in his Aston Martin DB5 and they ended up at the Rolling Stones’ house where “they showed us how they rolled joints. And they had a butler that rolled joints and put them on the stairs for them in the morning like the morning coffee!” The next time the Beatles were in California, the Byrds “introduced us to a hallucinogenic situation,” says Ringo.
Brian Wilson loved the Beatles. “I really liked them a lot,” he said, “… one of my buddies…kept playing [Rubber Soul]. and playing it, and I said wow! I couldn’t believe it. That made me write the Pet Sounds album.” Michelle Philips was there to witness how he took that zeal and churned it.
[Brian and Marilyn] lived right down the street from us… And one day I went over there and the whole living room was full of sand…[with] nothing in the living room but a Steinway and a piano bench and just all sand. And I looked at her and I said, what is going on? She said, I know it’s crazy, but he’s writing some great songs.
The ever-influential Pet Songs.
It wasn’t just instruments and harmonies that made the California sound different, but also the universally well-regarded studio engineering that helped bands put out conceptual albums. Brian Wilson discusses how “Good Vibrations” was pieced together through four studios:
Well, each studio is different, you know? Like you can’t… not any one studio’s the same. Western was good for the, ah, instrumentation, like the bass, the drums, guitars. Sunset Sound, I liked their tech piano. I used that on the bridge to “Good Vibrations.” Gold Star was good for just the echo. The echo of Gold Star was good. And RCA Victor, that’s where we did the vocal.
Such knowledge became crucial to bands like the Beatles, after they stopped touring because crowd noise was so loud, they said that they couldn’t hear themselves playing.
One of the other great features of Echo in the Canyon is Jakob Dylan’s covers of period songs, many of which include fantastic female vocal accompaniments. Jade Castrinos on “Go Where You Wanna Go” is as good as it gets. Norah Jones on “Never My Love” shows off her depth and smooth passionate articulation. Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor, Cat Power. The album would be worth purchasing for these voices alone, but you can hear them for free.
Speaking of Jakob Dylan. He does a marvelous job of attending to the stories of various musicians. He listens keenly and without much interruption. And it adds value. But his personality does shine forth once in awhile, as in this exchange regarding the “Mr. Tambourine Man” rehearsal:
Dylan showed up.
You have to be more specific. No, I’m kidding!
You mean there’s more than one?
Jakob Dylan (laughing)
Bob showed up.
It’s kind of a tender moment. You realize just how impossible it must have been to get out from under the shadow of his super-presence father. Like he knows the viewer’s just waiting for discussions to turn to Bob or a sudden cameo appearance changes the chemistry. Thank Christ it never happened. Jakob shone.
Andrew Slater said, “if Roger McGuinn had just played the opening notes to The Byrds’ debut album and dropped dead, he would have still exercised the most pronounced influence over the folk rock movement in 25 years. And he was right. Because in 1965 when those songs went on the radio, it was the first time a song of poetic depth and grace had become a hit song and it inspired a whole generation
of writers to write differently and to come to California, which gave birth to the Laurel Canyon scene.”
Echo in the Canyon was released last summer in America, but had a very limited distribution. It has recently won some industry awards, including one for best documentary and nods for its sound quality. However, not much marketing has gone into it and it seems destined to become one of those word-of-the-mouth cult favorites. Which is too bad, because it’s so upbeat and we all sure use a hot of that right about now. Never once does that other Dylan make an appearance, so you withdraw from the viewing un-jangled and keeping that sustained high.
It’s available on Netflix (overseas, I had to use a VPN to get a US IP address), but also at a number of other sites, including Vimeo, Apple, and Vudu.