How Rockers rocked the '70s

science | Oct 22, 2008 | By Kirk Bane

Hoskyns, Barney. Hotel California: The True Life Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, the Eagles, and Their Many Friends (Wiley&Sons, New Jersey, 2006).

In Hotel California: The True Life Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, the Eagles, and Their Many Friends (Wiley, 2006), esteemed music historian Barney Hoskyns provides an intelligent, engaging chronicle of the “singer-songwriters and cocaine cowboys” of the Los Angeles canyons, circa 1967-76. “This is an epic tale,” Hoskyns declares, “of songs and sunshine, drugs and denim, genius and greed…It’s about the myriad relationships, professional and personal, between these artists and the songs they wrote…(and) it’s a narrative of rise and fall…from the hootenanny innocence of boys and girls with acoustic guitars to the coked-out stadium-rock superstardom of the mid-1970s.”

In addition to examining the private lives of the canyon artists, Hoskyns explores the financial side of the story. He shows how such tough, savvy businessmen as David Geffen, Elliot Roberts, and Irving Azoff guided the careers of the L.A. musicians. Hoskyns also discusses the vibrant club scene where much of the action took place: the Whisky a Go Go, the Roxy, and Doug Weston’s Troubadour.

Hoskyns paints vivid pictures of his subjects. Consider, for instance, his colorful rendering of Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and Linda Ronstadt. “A tenacious Texan with thinning blond hair, Stills had spent time in a military academy and brought the discipline of the place to bear on his musical career.” Young, Stills’s partner in Buffalo Springfield and CSNY, “was skinny and quiet and more than a little freaked out by the bright automotive sprawl of Los Angeles. His intense dark eyes in a face framed by long sideburns mesmerized women…The unearthly fragility of his voice paradoxically gave it strength and intensity. His guitar playing, too, was unique: instinctual, primitive, spat-out.” And Ronstadt “had deep, soulful eyes and a big, gutsy voice. She’d grown up in Arizona dreaming of freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.”

Hoskyns graphically chronicles the damage caused by alcohol and drug abuse. “Cocaine was ubiquitous in the L.A. music scene by mid-1973,” he maintains. “The perfect drug for the unbridled rock ego, it gave musicians…a temporary sense of omnipotence. It also deadened much of the emotional rapport that music requires.” Joni Mitchell admitted that she “wrote some songs on cocaine because initially it can be a creative catalyst.” However, Mitchell observed, “in the end it’ll fry you, kill the heart. It kills the soul and gives you delusions of grandeur as it shuts down your emotional center. Perfect drug for a hit man but not so good for a musician.”

Drugs claimed the lives of musicians and scenesters, including Gram Parsons, Brian Cole, Danny Whitten, Judee Sill, and Miss Christine. Hoskyns, in unsparing detail, recounts Parsons’s miserable demise at the Joshua Tree Inn in 1973. “On the night of September 18,” he relates, “Gram injected a heroin-and-cocaine speedball in Room 8…As he began turning a fateful shade of blue, two girlfriends…tried to keep him from slipping away. Frightened, they resorted to an old OD standby: inserting ice cubes into the rectum. For a brief moment it seemed to work. Gram’s eyes blinked back to life...(but) it didn’t last long.” The former Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother, the creator of two brilliant country rock albums, GP and Grievous Angel, was dead at the age of 26.

Hoskyns also considers the history of the Manson Family and its close connection to the L.A. music world prior to the chilling Helter Skelter murders. Charles Manson, a struggling singer-songwriter who had spent most of his life behind bars, resided in Topanga Canyon with a loyal hippie harem. Hoskyns avers that Manson “excelled in the art of controlling damaged minds. The girls he collected on his travels turned their lives and wills over to his care.” Manson knew Neil Young, Byrds producer Terry Melcher, and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, who dubbed him “The Wizard.” The “intense, unhinged ex-con” penned such tunes as “Sick City,” “Look at Your Game, Girl,” and “Cease to Exist.” (The Beach Boys “adapted” the latter song, renamed it “Never Learn Not to Love,” and included it on their 20/20 album.) Of course, the August, 1969, Cielo Drive massacre “changed the L.A. music scene forever, casting a macabre pall over what architectural historian Reyner Banham termed ‘the fat life of the delectable canyons.’ Never again would anyone be able to trust a person on the basis that they looked groovy and wore their hair long.”

Hoskyns discusses the loss of Sixties idealism by the canyon musicians, who, by the middle of the Seventies, principally sought power, prestige, and material gain. “Where once the Sunset Strip and Laurel Canyon had represented the movement for change and social justice,” Hoskyns states, “now they were merely part of the entertainment vortex of money and celebrity.” According to Eagle Don Henley, the “dream was unfulfilled. We turned from a society that was concerned with our brothers and our fellow man into a society that was very self-centered, self-concerned, about money and power.”

Hoskyns offers insightful sketches of many of the period’s landmark records. For example, Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty was the “most trenchant account of the hollowness at the heart of late 1970s rock…the album was about being a rock star—about sex, drugs, and tour buses, and the intermittent feeling that rock and roll had become an empty ritual.” And the Eagles’ Hotel California album “became a state of mind,” Hoskyns asserts, “the land of blue jeans and cocaine, mirror shades reflecting palm trees, blond hair flowing from convertibles on freeways that led to the ocean.”

A prolific scholar and pop critic, Hoskyns has authored such studies as Led Zeppelin IV, James Dean: Shooting Star, Montgomery Clift: Beautiful Loser, Ragged Glories: City Lights, Country Funk, American Music, and the ace Waiting for the Sun: Strange Days, Weird Scenes, and the Sound of Los Angeles. Hotel California perfectly complements Michael Walker’s recently published Laurel Canyon; both volumes are impressively researched, skillfully written histories of the L.A. music scene. Pop culture students, particularly those interested in the Southern California musicians of the Sixties and Seventies, should check out both books.

Kirk Bane writes for The Cutting Edge News and the History News Network.




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