Laurel Canyon has the musical history that books and movies are made of. Writer, Harvey Kubernic, has written a wonderful book titled “Canyon” which talks about the musical heritage of Laurel Canyon, nestled in the Hollywood hills.
However, in a city as large as Los Angeles there was another canyon that too is enriched with musical history. That being Topanga Cyn. The canyon boasts of yearly art and musical festivals to this day. A famous site in the canyon for many years was the Elysium Institute, also known as Elysium Fields, a nudist club for 30 years. After surviving extended battles with L.A. County officials the property was sold in 2002 by its founder’s and eventually closed.
On a darker side, Charles Manson had previously been living in Topanga, where he had briefly befriended both Neil Young and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. Members of the “Manson Family” began their campaign of murder on July 31, 1969 with the murder of Topanga resident Gary Hinman, a music teacher who had opened his home to the Manson family as an act of kindness.
Topanga was also the residence of early Hollywood actors, Humphrey Bogart, PetereLorre, Shirley Temple and Johnny Weissmuller (Original Tarzan), Dennis Hopper and Viggo Mortensen to name a few.
The Topanga Corral, a nightclub nestled deep in the canyon featured an eclectic mix of performers, including then Topanga locals like Canned Heat, Spirit, Little Feat, Taj Mahal, Emmy Lou Harris, the late Etta James and Neil Young (rehearsed songs from “After the Goldrush”), amongst others. It is rumored that Jim Morrison of the Doors was inspired to write “Roadhouse Blues” while driving up Topanga Cyn to hang out at The Corral nightclub.
Interestingly, Charles Manson’s had a band, “Milky Way”. They did a weekend gig there and later fired because he didn’t draw “a beer drinking crowd”. Astonishing the Beatles had signed him to a record deal on Apple records. No record was ever released. I found an outtake of “Helter Skelter”.
The club burned down in the late 70’s then it was rebuilt and burned down a second time in 1986 and the property still lays vacant.
My favorite band while going to high school was Spirit. The band featured Randy California on guitar, Mark Andes, bass, Jay Ferguson, vocals, John Locke and Ed Cassidy on drums, who was Randy California’s stepfather. California,
was considered a tremendous guitarist amongst his peers. Yet was under rated by critics and music reviewers. It was Jimi Hendrix who gave him that name (Whose real name was Randy Wolfe) and invited him to England to play backup guitar in his band The Experience, but the Wolfe family forbidden it.
Their debut album titled “Spirit” became a musical metaphor for psychedelic music of the mid sixties; it reached #31 on the Billboard album chart in 1968. The lead track, “Fresh Garbage” was sampled by Pink on the track “Feel Good Time” in 2006, which was featured in the film “Charlie’s Angels”.
Astonishingly, Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit on their 1968 tour. Interestingly the Spirit track “Taurus” sounds in part like “Stairway to Heaven”. Listen to it and you definitely hear some similarities.
Spirit’s biggest pop hit was “I’ve Got a Line on You” which peaked at #25 and appeared on their second album “The Family That Stays Together Plays Together”. The video is a bit “cheesy” but the song is that strong.
Their best album released in 1970 unquestionably was “ Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus” with the classic hit “Natures Way” which opened up the band to a wider audience. Spirit bounced to other record labels but was never able to duplicate their earlier successes. The band went their separate ways; Jay Ferguson along with Marc Andes formed their own band Jo Jo Gunne that yielded the hit “ Run Run Run”.
California had moved to Hawaii with his family to retire from the music business.
In January of 1997, off the coast of the Hawaiian island Molokai, while surfing with his son in heavy surf got caught in a riptide. He managed to push his son to safety, but ended up losing his own life by drowning.
The band that really reflected the “Topanga attitude” in addition to indoctrinating the hippie culture to boogie and blues was of course Caned Heat. Bob Hite, known as “The Bear because he was a mammoth of a man weighing well over 300lbs” and Allen Wilson known as “Blind Owl” for he was practically blind, formed in 1965. Since both Hite and Wilson were blues purest, they acquired the name Canned Heat from an old blues song written in 1928 by the blues man Tommy Johnson; which was about an alcoholic who was so hungry for booze and down on his luck he’d drink sterno, also referred to as “Canned Heat”, to get high or more accurately said get “lit up! Canned Heats boogie/blues style won them praises from their performances at Monterey and Woodstock music festivals.
Canned Heat enjoyed moderate success but they kept their promise as far as being blues purest. They recorded an incredible blues masterpiece with blues god John Lee Hooker. The pairing created a major ground swell of young kids listening to the early blues masters. I attended their concert together in 1978 live at the Fox theatre in Santa Monica where they literally had to turn the electricity off until people would leave which was close to 2am.
“Blind Owl” Wilson suffered from major depression issues and many times attempted suicide when finally in Sept. of 1970 at age 27 he succumbed to an overdose of barbiturates in Bob Hite’s backyard. Every suicide attempt he made was always in the outdoors where he would often prefer to sleep under the stars. His death came weeks before Janis Joplin’s and Jimi Hendrix’s death yet never received that much notoriety.
The band has replaced its members since but still tour and they performed a free concert at the foothills of Topanga to celebrate the anniversary of Woodstock just this last summer.
The great thing about Topanga is that in spite it’s 2012 you still got the sense it’s 1969.