Ron Onesti: Tumultuous time repeats 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 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 to some of the biggest names of the rock/pop/folk culture of the 1960s 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 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, inconspicuous 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 musicians 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 back then!
The routine for all was about the same — sleep much of the day, grab something quick at the Laurel Canyon Country Store (where behind it Jim Morrison lived), 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 work with when they performed here! It was a humbling and exciting revelation as I reminisced about some 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 10 years of Dweezil’s life there. Did you know 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 with us, including three times in an eight-week period in 2019! Davy Jones would also frequent the Canyon because bandmates 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. He also performed at 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. Their sometimes collaborator Neil Young has never appeared on our stage, but David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash all have, though 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 Graham 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 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 that included 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 into exactly who Jim Morrison was after hearing Krieger share memories with us. Morrison would ride a bicycle around The Canyon, stopping to see 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, which included a couple guys named Glenn Frey and Don Henley. They were so good playing behind her that they formed their own group with Randy Meisner, Bernie Leadon and Don Felder, calling themselves 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 “Laurel Canyon” background footage 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 over desegregation, the assassinations of MLK and RFK, economic turmoil, cultural breakdowns, loss of faith in government — it all happened 50 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. I hope to God THAT doesn’t change!
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.