Our House (CSNY) is a very, very, very fine house
I’m Chris Price. My friend Joe and I go by the name of Missing Parsons. We blog about our experiences on the road in search of the roots of our favourite American songs – a coast-to-coast road trip searching for the spirit of rock and roll America. It was kind of a sixtieth birthday present to Gram Parsons.
The blogs have become a book – Live Fast, Die Young: Misadventures in Rock & Roll America – and a band, also called Missing Parsons. This one’s by Chris, about a guided tour of Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles.
I’ll light the fire
You place the flowers in the vase
That you bought today
You might recognise that lyric from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s 1970 album Déjà Vu. They’re the opening lines of Our House, a jaunty little portrait of domestic bliss which serves as a homely interlude in an album which is otherwise paranoid, lonely and helpless. It’s a very pretty song.
Or you might know them from a 1990’s advert for the Halifax Building Society in the UK – the one with a house made out of people – who used the song to get a little extra help flogging mortgages. Either way, as you hear the song in your head it probably conjures up a picture of conjugal harmony:
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 …
Purty, ain’t it? The house in question, a ramshackle wooden bungalow set into the hillside on Lookout Mountain Avenue, belonged to Joni Mitchell during the late nineteen sixties. It sat in a quiet district of Los Angeles called Laurel Canyon, a craggy mountain pass which connects, or rather separates, West Hollywood to the south and the San Fernando Valley to the north. Look at a map of the city and you’ll notice that just north of West Sunset Boulevard the neat crosshatch of the LA grid system suddenly twists into a knot of elbows as steep, winding lanes tuck themselves into the folds of the Santa Monica Mountains. Cabins, cottages and chalets clamber over one another on dizzying bluffs to sneer at the frenzied affairs of La-La Land beneath them. This quiet and occasionally inaccessible haven was to become one of the most creatively prolific and commercially successful enclaves in rock music.
Mitchell’s canyon home had stained glass windows, a grandfather clock given to her by Leonard Cohen, a stuffed elk’s head hanging on the wall and all manner of hippie accoutrements besides. She shared this haven of countercultural domesticity with the N of CSNY, Graham Nash, a British singer–songwriter and founder member of the Hollies now relocated to LA and comprising one quarter of the folk–rock supergroup. Mitchell, one time lover of the C from the same band, David Crosby, had swapped one member for another and moved Nash in with her. (In case you’re wondering, I have it on good authority that she managed the S but never the Y. Still time.)
And so it was that Nash came to immortalise this idyllic California setting in song, rhapsodising on his new life and love in the canyon and, without knowing it at the time, selling a few thousand mortgages into the bargain. Laurel Canyon was a tranquil, creative retreat that for a time during the late sixties and early seventies attracted musicians and their coterie almost without number. It was the type of place where you could pop out for some home furnishings in the morning, nip home and pen a song about it in the afternoon, and then release a multi–million selling album off the back of it weeks later. Minutes from the screaming neon cyclone of Sunset Boulevard, LA’s playground of debauchery and vice, the canyon was a rambling, shambling collection of houses tucked quietly and inconspicuously into the hills just north of West Hollywood. It was country living, of a type, bang in the middle of Los Angeles, less than a stone’s throw away from all the action. If the Troubadour was where this new breed of thrift–shop millionaires went out to play, Laurel Canyon was where they retired afterwards for a nice cup of tea and a sit down.
It was in Laurel Canyon that David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash reputedly first sang together. Exactly where depends on whose account you believe. Some, Nash included, have it that it took place in the front room of Our House, Joni’s tumbledown cottage on Lookout Mountain Avenue, while others maintain it was at the home of ‘Mama’ Cass Elliott of The Mamas & The Papas who, along with Mitchell, reigned as de facto ‘queen of the canyon’, keeping a motherly eye on all the drug–addled goings–on in this curious little neighbourhood.
The fact that nobody can quite remember was all part of the appeal. Probably it was swept away in the blizzard of cocaine that blew threw the canyon most days during its heyday, but I prefer to think that this quietly momentous occasion just got lost in the everyday like hundreds of other hum–drum happenings in countless cosy areas like it. That was what I loved – the homeliness of it all. The idea that there was a place like Laurel Canyon, packed to the gills with such prodigious music talent, where life just went on like it did for everybody else. A place where Roger McGuinn would pop round to David Crosby’s house to borrow a cup of sugar and stop to plot the rise of country rock over a cup of coffee and a chat. Where Jim Morrison could wander over the road to the Canyon Country Store, score a pint of milk and a few tabs of acid, and pay his newspaper delivery bill while he was there. On the way out he might bump into Graham Nash, who would ask him to feed his and Joni’s cats while they went on tour. It all seemed so gloriously, thrillingly mundane.
But the reality of life in the canyon was a good deal more industrious than in my romantic imaginings. Its hungry, over–achieving inhabitants didn’t just switch off their ambition when they walked through the front gate, and their lives were anything but mundane. Laurel Canyon was a squall of activity, much of it creative, a lot of it business. David Geffen famously announced to four of his artists, whilst sitting in the hot tub at his Laurel Canyon home, that he would keep the Asylum label to which they were all signed very small and intimate, declaring: ‘I’ll never have more artists than I can fit in this sauna.’ Two of them, Glenn Frey and Don Henley, would go on to release the biggest–selling album of all time – Their Greatest Hits by The Eagles. Laurel Canyon may have started out as a cottage industry in every sense of the term, but it was one which had much loftier aspirations than the home–spun apparel adorning its hippie inhabitants would suggest. It was where the countercultural ideal met commerce head–on, and the output from both over ten or so prolific years changed the American music landscape forever.
Other famous residents included Frank Zappa, Jackson Browne, Arthur Lee, Carole King, Jimmy Webb, Alice Cooper, Orson Welles, Errol Flynn and Robert Mitchum. More recently, Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Meg Ryan, Jennifer Aniston, Marilyn Manson and Justin Timberlake had moved in.
And we were about to take a trip through the canyon with one of LA’s newest and most ambitious young stars, Terra Naomi, and her producer Paul Fox. There was an aptness to our unintentional selection of tour guide. Terra knew virtually nothing about the Laurel Canyon era we were so keen to explore (beyond what she had been able to deduce from the pissed, rambling account the night before), but showed all the drive and hunger of a young David Crosby trying to make a name for himself on the LA folk scene. Though still without a record deal at this point, Terra had all the manner and accessories of a celebrity in waiting; an entourage in the shape of a camera crew, a small, fluffy, yapping dog and the kind of self belief that is a prerequisite for anyone wishing get ahead in the music business in LA.
Paul was older and wiser, having apparently worked in music long enough to have seen his fair share of talent through the mill. He was also tuned into the Laurel Canyon vibe, knew exactly the kind of muso–tourists he was dealing with and what kind of sights to show us. It helped that he knew virtually all the houses we were interested in by road name and number.
We followed in convoy into the canyon, the wide roads sharply giving way to narrow, dusty lanes as we gained height. The first stop was the Laurel Canyon Country Store, the epicentre and focal point of the neighbourhood, and the same place Jim Morrison et al had popped out for their morning papers. The sign above the door was more Grateful Dead tour t–shirt than village corner shop, and to the left was mounted a circular mirror, decorated around its circumference with brightly coloured, psychedelic lettering announcing confidently – and quite beyond argument – that ‘You Are Here’.
The purpose of coming to the store had been to set up the trip in a short piece for Terra’s You Tube channel, in which Joe and I would be filmed buying supplies for our journey. After all, we had a long trip ahead of us and where better to stock up for it than the place where so many musical trailblazers had done the same. We wandered through the aisles with Terra acting as personal shopping assistant while Joe and I played the role of wide–eyed Brits lost in a bounteous wonderland of unbridled retail opportunity.
We jumped in the car and headed higher into the canyon, Paul pointing out the attractions from behind the wheel. We passed the Houdini mansion, eliciting a small whoop from Joe, on through Lookout Mountain Avenue past the cottage that Joni Mitchell had shared with Graham Nash (just ‘very fine’) and – this was an unexpected treat – pulled up outside a garage where Boston had rehearsed before hitting the big time. Further up we came upon the house from where ‘Mama’ Cass Elliott had ruled the canyon roost, cruised past Jimi Hendrix’s temporary home and, last, stopped outside the reason why Paul knew so much about the area in the first place – the house he himself had occupied during the seventies and early eighties. Joe inquired as to precisely what had attracted so many musicians and actors to this part of LA.
‘Well I think part of it was that it was like living in the country right in the middle of the city. It was very free – hey, up this driveway was where Paul Rothschild lived – and because people could walk around doing whatever they wanted, nobody came up here unless they were part of that whole community, which was really just a bunch of hippies. It was just bands playing in their backyards, everybody was like, high on one thing or another, just walking from one house to the next. People didn’t lock their doors. It was just a very communal kind of a feeling. Each one of these houses has its own unique character, and because they were designed not to be year–round residences they were fairly affordable too. I took Dave Gregory from XTC up here and he said ‘this was the centre of the universe’. And in a way it really was.’
Cameraman Matthew asked us to say a few words for the camera about how we were feeling. I clammed up at first – ‘You mean you actually want me to actually say something? Off the top of my head?’ – before stuttering out something about this being the ‘real’ start of the trip.
It was true. This magical mystery tour had really kickstarted the journey. Our quest was, after all, about making connections between music and places, and this we most assuredly had done. Joe had snatched a glimpse of the Houdini mansion and I had been able to peer into the front yard of Our House. My only disappointment was the absence from it of two cats.
Watch a short video about our Laurel Canyon trip here. Excerpted from Live Fast, Die Young: Misadventures in Rock & Roll America by Chris Price and Joe Harland. If you’d like to find out more, please visit the Missing Parsons website. You can join the Missing Parsons community on Facebook here.