Echo in the Canyon
The Myrna Loy
In the ‘70s, I once hitchhiked my way from Houston to Hudson’s Bay Canada -- because it was there. I’m a baby boomer.
I mention this because if I were on a lonely road in L.A. looking for a ride and Jakob Dylan pulled over and offered me a lift in his silver 1967 Pontiac Firebird, I’d jump right in.
Jakob is the son of Bob Dylan, and in the new documentary “Echo in the Canyon” he drives his Firebird up to Laurel Canyon while telling stories about the great bands who lived there – groups such as the Mamas and the Papas, The Byrds, The Beach Boys and Buffalo Springfield.
Many of those legendary bands have lost members over time, so Dylan seeks out living survivors. Michelle Phillips, the siren from the Mamas and the Papas, talks of those glory years, including her sexual flings.
Others interviewed include David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Brian Wilson, Eric Clapton and the late Tom Petty. Dylan also chats with Ringo Starr, a drummer.
Although Dylan-the-younger lacks the reclusive charisma of his dad, he does have a last name that will open doors and get people talking: “Spend time blowing in the wind with the son of Bob Dylan? Sure, come on over.”
The story revolves around a geographic place, Laurel Canyon, located about 40 miles southeast of L.A. This picaresque area of rolling hills, became a hotbed of music in the ‘60s.
The film selectively focuses on some of those bands, with a number of notable omissions such as Joni Mitchell, who lived there and released an album called “Ladies of the Canyon.”
The word in the title that matters, however, is not “Canyon,” but “echo.” Dylan’s point is that great bands of that era studied each other, cross-pollinated each other, visited each other – and echoed each other. None thought of this sharing as “theft,” but instead were honored to see bands they admired build off their work.
We learn how the Beatles influenced the Byrds – and how the Beach Boys album “Pet Sounds” inspired “Sgt. Pepper.”
Johann Sebastian Bach finds his way into Laurel Canyon, too, as band members talk of Bach’s chords forming the basis for some of their work. The Beach Boys have openly acknowledged that Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring” was the foundation for “Lady Lynda.”
Such conversations about chords, rhythm and riffs reminds us that contemporary artists form a community. T.S. Eliot observed that art builds on traditions, while simultaneously extending the art form into new horizons through the individual talent.
The Beatles and the Beach Boys could make girls scream, but they could also impress music scholars with their intricate harmonies and rhythms. They were gifted poets, too.
The best moments of this documentary are when band members express gratitude to others who inspired them – and gossip.
Ringo describes visiting Laurel Canyon as walking into “a hallucinogenic situation. We had a really good time.”
David Crosby confesses that he was not fired from The Byrds because of creative differences, but because “I was a jerk.”
Brian Wilson once filled his living room with eight truckloads of sand, set his grand piano in the middle and then composed beach songs. His piano tuner complained.
Michelle Phillips admitted that the Mamas and Papas song “Go Where you Wanna Go” was inspired by her infidelity. “I was a very busy girl,” she says with a smirk.
The film is framed as a conversation among contemporary musicians such as Beck and Dylan. They talk a lot and then sing covers of hits by those bands. Most of the time, my thought was “Beach Boys did this so much better. Shut up and let’s hear ‘Good Vibrations’!”
But when Fiona Apple sang “In My Room” I was properly transported back to my childhood room on Oak Street in Port Angeles, Washington, where I listened to rock music from CFUN (“See Fun Vancouver!”) through the night on my earphones. My early teen era was Elvis, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and the Shirelles, but the Beatles came to Seattle during my high school years. (And I stupidly declined to go to the concert, because I figured they were just a fad.)
The documentary is at its best when legendary musicians talk about their work, and when we see old film clips of great bands. I applauded when the Mamas and Papas sang “All the leaves are brown.” Cass Elliot’s voice was simply sublime!
“California Dreamin” captures the heart of this documentary: that great musicians enjoyed sharing time with each other in Laurel Canyon, where they’d always be safe and warm on such a winter’s day.