With newspapers crowded with stories about the death of Susan Atkins, a follower of Charles Manson; the arrest of Roman Polanski; and the allegations that “Papa” John Phillips had a long-term sexual relationship with his daughter MacKenzie, it's clear that the mythology of Los Angeles in the 1960s still looms large. Of course it is hard to resist the city's swirl of sunshine and gloom. Just go to the new-releases section of any media store, where a four-CD box-set, a coffee-table book and reissued DVDs conspire to keep California on our minds.
Where The Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968, a music box-set from Rhino, chronicles the post-Beatles energising of American rock music. It makes a convincing case that the Sunset Strip was ground zero. Expect the usual suspects--the Doors, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Monkees, Love. But it's the one- and zero-hit wonders, such as the Odyssey (“Little Girl, Little Boy”), the Full Treatment (“Just Can’t Wait”) and the Moon (“Mothers and Fathers”), that are revelatory. Unexpected psychedelic dabblings come from Rick Nelson, Del Shannon and Peter Fonda (covering Gram Parsons), and there are terrific early rarities by Warren Zevon, Tim Buckley, Little Feat’s Lowell George and Randy Newman. A band named the Joint Effort delivers hilarious drug references from a song called “Hippie Elevator Operator” (“she’ll take you so high that you’ll never come down”).
The timeline for Where The Action Is ends with the shuttering of the Kaleidoscope and the Cheetah, two of the last clubs to hold out after the rash of closings precipitated by the November 1966 Sunset Strip riots. This coincided with the migration of musicians to Hollywood Hills, in particular Laurel Canyon. That's where Harvey Kubernik’s "Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon" (Sterling) steps in. “Most of the existing writing about Laurel Canyon inevitably runs toward a world of heedless sex, drugs, and great heaps of money,” Kubernik writes in his introduction. Yet this illustrated history of the area is not out to debunk popular mythology.
Kubernik, a lifelong resident and music journalist, mostly serves to further deify such folks as Jim Morrison, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Joni Mitchell and the Eagles, among others. His quote-heavy chapters are full of anecdotes and shaggy-dog stories from recent interviews with the scene's players. But while his narrative meanders like a drive through those canyon roads, Kubernik wisely includes stories from also-rans and hangers-on, painting a more panoramic picture of the place. The photographs, meanwhile, are the greatest advertisement for denim since the cover of Carole King’s Tapestry album.
The restless, romantic, listless feel of Los Angeles in the 1960s is also enjoying new life on DVD. Michelangelo Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point" was released earlier this year, and Jacques Demy's little-seen "Model Shop" has just become available (Sony). Shot in 1968, it captures the city on the cusp of transition.
Gary Lockwood ("2001: A Space Odyssey") plays a lonely, unemployed, architecture graduate who doesn’t know what he wants out of life. He eventually fixates on Anouk Aimee, a good choice. But "Model Shop" is far less interesting as a narrative than as a patient depiction of Los Angeles, full of atmospheric sequences and long takes--Lockwood drives his MG, picks up a hitchhiker, smokes a joint, signals, turns onto the Strip, listens to music, turns onto Bronson Avenue, etc.
There are burger joints, camera shops, parking lots and a great number of petrol stations. Lockwood watches his friends’ band rehearse (Demy cast Spirit, a band he'd seen at the Kaleidoscope; the Doors were his first choice). The absence of icons works; this is not a eulogy, and there’s hardly a hint of darkness. For once, it feels like we’re seeing Los Angeles as it really was in 1968, free of canonisation or forced symbolism.