By Barney Hoskyns
A Book Review by Michael Witthaus
Barney Hoskyns’ “Hotel California” is an immensely readable account of the savants, moguls, and craven opportunists who shaped the Southern California music scene from the early Sixties to the late Seventies.
Coalescing around the Troubadour, a Santa Monica nightclub known for its open mike night, and the bungalows of ramshackle Laurel Canyon, the period produced a lot of unforgettable music. The warm weather was a magnet for winter-weary Greenwich Village folkies like Joni Mitchell, Brill Building refugee Carole King, and Detroit native Glenn Frey, among others.
For a while, there was a magical glow to it all. The seminal Buffalo Springfield was born when Stephen Stills and Richie Furay spotted Neil Young and bassist Bruce Palmer riding together in a 1953 Pontiac hearse during a Sunset Strip traffic jam.
The Byrds, the first act with a hit record, came about after a sheepish Gene Clark introduced himself to Roger McGuinn after a Troubadour hoot: “You want to start a duo?”
Graham Nash likened it to “Paris in the 1930s … there was a freedom in the air, a sense we could do anything.”
The response to the Byrds’ success embodied the “music first” sensibilities of the scene’s early days. Says Linda Ronstadt, “David Crosby had a suede jacket; that was affluence beyond description. “
With the arrival of more business-minded characters like Mo Ostin and Joe Smith, such quaint views began to change. Barry Friedman, the Springfield’s first manager, was squeezed out by “a pair of Hollywood hustlers named Charlie Greene and Brian Stone” when the duo menaced him with a pistol during a harrowing limousine ride.
Benevolent artist and repertoire, or “A&R” guys like Reprise Records “house hippie” Andy Wickham, who “worked Laurel Canyon’s narrow-laned hills, had long hair and did not keep office hours” were more typical. Relationship-savvy manager Eliot Roberts teamed with William Morris wunderkind David Geffen to form a friendlier version of Greene and Stone, “with credibility and Levi’s,” ushering in an era of “great rock executives, maverick facilitators of talent.”
“That was the time before bean counters came in to run things,” said Little Feat’s Paul Barrere. “A&R people actually had ears.”
Reprise President Lenny Waronker defined success as “… coming out, getting rave reviews, and selling fifty or sixty thousand albums. And that’ll allow us to go to the next one and the next one. And somewhere in there it’s gonna blow up.”
It was this attitude that allowed Little Feat, Randy Newman, Van Morrison and even Joni Mitchell to continue working when their first records didn’t sell well. That viewpoint is almost completely absent in today’s music business, a fact that has more to do with its decline than a dearth of quality artists.
Sadly, the open door euphoria of the Laurel Canyon scene came undone, partly because of the ever-present and rampant drug culture and the parasites it attracted. It was also undone by a sense of VIP entitlement where, says light show artist Joshua White, “we were applauding the presence of the artist rather than the performance.” Much of “Hotel California” chronicles the decadence, decay and death in the wake of that loss of innocence.
Says Phil Kaufman, who lost friend and client Gram Parsons to an overdose, “Los Angeles was a dangerous environment at that time. It was blatant drugs.”
When David Geffen started Asylum Records, he famously promised to never sign more artists than would fit into a sauna. Such high-mindedness evaporated with the arrival of the Eagles, a band that “set about success with the pragmatism of a Tin Pan Alley partnership.” By the end of 1972, the year the first Eagles album was released, Geffen had sold the company to Warner Brothers and became a millionaire – an act many viewed as a betrayal.
“When he first started out, David dealt almost completely from the heart,” says songwriter Jimmy Webb. “Once money has accumulated to a certain amount, people have a tendency to go into alternate realities.”
“Corporate rock became the name of the game,” laments Lenny Waronker. “The business became very sexy – a cash-cow business. And when you become a good business, look out.” With the mega-success of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, along with talents like Boston and REO Speedwagon, rock became a commodity.
Hoskyns’ account of this era works because he managed to engage many of the key players in the scene. As Tom Waits observes in the book’s preface, “the problem with history is that the people who really know what happened aren’t talking and the people who don’t … well, you can’t shut ‘em up.”
Fortunately, “Hotel California” isn’t so burdened; it’s a rich and instructive tale of a formative phase in American music.