The year 1964 really began on November 22nd, 1963, with the tragedy of the assassination of a president. That singular event led to the 60s, as we know it. The letting loose of everything. It would be the year when change was inescapable, the moment that fundamentally altered the kind of nation America would become. 1964 was the year that changed American politics, absolutely.
In early January 1964, the nation’s press assembled on the lawn of a hilltop house in Phoenix. Arizona’s two-term Senator, Barry Goldwater, was about to make a dramatic announcement, one that would not only reshape the politics of 1964, but transform the American political landscape for generations to come. Goldwater told us as conservatives we could take this party over. Before that, we didn’t have a voice; we didn’t have anybody speaking for us. We believed that we had the right ideas. You know, limited government, individual freedom, free enterprise, traditional American values, a strong national defense. These were not only conservative ideas, but were American ideas. We would organize ourselves into some kind of youth group, a political action group; and coming out of that was Young Americans for Freedom. And really, from the beginning, we looked to Barry Goldwater. He believed in a balanced budget, he believed in limited government, he believed in increasing liberty and freedom for the individuals. Finally somebody was saying what we’d been thinking about.
At 1:20 pm on February 7th, Pan Am Flight 101 touched down at New York's recently renamed John F. Kennedy Airport, and the Beatles arrived in America. Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles! They did scare a lot of parents. These kids, they were the first generation who had been brought up in the well-ordered, comfortable life of suburbia and, therefore, many of them were quite bored. And so they were beginning to rebel in sort of harmless ways. You know? Boys stopped cutting their hair. And there were fights in households. You have to get a haircut. I won’t get a haircut. And that became kind of almost a public issue.
In 1964, we were literally beside ourselves. Pop psychologists and sociologists were trying to figure it out. What did it mean that young women were willing to violate police barricades, ignore police authority completely so that they could try to touch Ringo’s hair? What adults were seeing was a new youthful energy just being released by thousands and thousands of girls. It was kind of a collective jailbreak. On March 15th, 1964, the work of a magazine writer and student of psychology named Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, hit the bestseller lists. It would become one of the most popular paperbacks of the year, and one of the most influential books of the century. In its pages, Friedan defined something that afflicted millions of American women; she called it "the problem that has no name."
On May 22nd, 1964, the largest class in the history of the University of Michigan gathered to hear its commencement address delivered by the president of the United States. You had this long, pent up fight with civil rights reaching a crescendo the summer before. President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed: “In your time, we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society. The Great Society demands an end to poverty and racial injustice... So will you join in the battle to give every citizen the full equality which God enjoins and the law requires? Whatever his belief, or race, or the color of his skin." It had this kind of aching utopian energy of the sort that you can’t even imagine a presidential candidate speaking about now.
The problem for Johnson in pushing through the Civil Rights Bill was the same problem it had been for Kennedy and for anyone who wanted to promote civil rights: it had this solid Deep South core of Senators solidly opposed to any federal action on civil rights, and a handful of other conservative Republicans, outside the region, which made it impossible to move forward. To defeat the South’s filibuster and break their stranglehold on the measure, Johnson needed 67 votes in the Senate. That meant 23 Republicans had to cross the aisle and support the bill. What Lyndon Johnson had that John F. Kennedy didn't was an unbelievable power to sway legislators. There was this thing called the Johnson treatment. He’d kind of plant his shoes next to you, he'd tower over you, he'd literally grab your lapels, his hot breath would be six inches in front of your face. If the senator said, “You know, that’s gonna kill me with my constituency,” he would refute, he would cajole you, threaten you, or bribe you. Anything he had to do to get your vote. Richard Russell, the leader of the South, said, flatly: "We could’ve beaten Kennedy on civil rights, we could’ve stopped ‘em in the Senate, but Lyndon Johnson, he says, will beat us. He’ll tear your arm off at the shoulder and beat you over the head with it. But he will get this passed. We’re going to lose."
The Civil Rights Bill laid out all of these divisions in American society. Whether it is social divisions, culture divisions, racial divisions. Suddenly you couldn’t escape from them anymore.
All during the summer of 1964, new forms of rebellion were taking shape. Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello’s sexy, skin-filled beach movies raised eyebrows and packed summer movie theaters; pop artist Andy Warhol thumbed his nose at the art establishment, with silk screens of Campbell’s soup cans that would appear in a gallery made to look like an American supermarket; and novelist Ken Kesey, and his band of Merry Pranksters, hopped on their brightly painted Magic Bus, setting off from California on an LSD-infused road trip across the country.
In the summer of ’64, young people were proposing that an entrenched way of life be dismantled and superseded. Young vs. old, and the new vs. the old. "It was about that. You know, because we were young, and we knew better than anybody else. And it was about our youthful ideals and our youthful beliefs and what we wanted society to be."
Malcolm X made a very famous speech, a break in the civil rights movement that happened right there in the summer of '64. Riots erupted. By the end of July, the Freedom Summer project had nearly 900 volunteers at work on voter registration in Mississippi. But hanging over everything was the disappearance of the three civil rights workers, who had been missing for almost six weeks. Freedom Summer stirred the beast. All of a sudden, these Freedom Schools and houses were popping up all over Mississippi. And with them came burnings and explosions.
As the November election approached, Lyndon Johnson could look back on his first months in office with "justifiable pride." He had steadied the nation in the wake of President Kennedy’s death, passed historic civil rights legislation, and launched ambitious plans for the Great Society. On the campaign trail, the President was leading Barry Goldwater in the polls, running on a platform of prosperity at home and peace overseas.
Then, on the morning of August 4th, events on the other side of the globe threatened to derail Johnson’s plans: North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked United States naval vessels patrolling in international waters. Johnson was running for election as a peace candidate, and all of a sudden there’s this incandescent war moment. There’s a hysteria about our ships being fired upon, and suddenly we were involved in a shootout. Although there was considerable doubt about whether the second attack against American destroyers had even happened, Johnson took decisive action -- ordering airstrikes in retaliation and asking Congress for increased authority to prosecute the war. Johnson availed himself of the moment to cash in on the avalanche of support. He went to Congress with what became known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Johnson wanted a free hand. And it was relatively easy for him to get it, because people didn’t realize, the Congress didn’t realize, the Senate did not realize what we were getting into.
In the autumn of 1964, after months marked by racial violence and echoes of war overseas, Americans revisited the event that had so shaken the national confidence: “The final verdict on the fateful tragedy that engulfed the nation 10 months ago.” On September 27th, the Warren Commission announced that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole gunman responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy.
In November 1964, Johnson received 61 percent of the popular vote, winning every state except for a few in the South and Arizona, which Barry Goldwater barely won; and the mandate for liberalism and the Great Society and civil rights had been achieved. Not only was Johnson’s presidential victory unprecedented, he had carried with him huge new majorities in both houses of Congress. Now the astonishing ambition of the Great Society seemed possible. Bill after bill -- for Medicare, federal aid to education, voting rights, environmental protection -- were all within reach, and the conservative opposition had been vanquished.
Notice the 50th anniversary of the British invasion in the drum set and guitar on the lower left of The Economist's cover above (click on the image for the high-resolution image). It could represent the 50th anniversary of the elites total takeover of music and a reshaping of Western civilization through music and drugs (1965 is when new-Rock, Beatles, Stones, Laurel Canyon bands really took off). In the drum's reflection you can see 20 f μ. The the symbol μ (Greek: mu) is used to denote the arithmetic mean of an entire population. The magazine cover, dubbed “The World in 2015,” contained several strange and sinister images appearing to announce a violent year. Considering the facts that The Economist is partly owned by the Rothschild banking family of England and its editor-in-chief, John Micklethwait, attends Bilderberg Conferences, one should take heed of warnings issued by those who can make them a reality. [Source]
"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." - Ephesians 6:12 KJV
Inside The LC: The Strange but Mostly True Story of Laurel Canyon and the Birth of the Hippie GenerationBy DAVID MCGOWAN
May 8, 2008
PART 1Join me now, if you have the time, as we take a stroll down memory lane to a time nearly four-and-a-half decades ago - a time when America last had uniformed ground troops fighting a sustained and bloody battle to impose, uhmm, 'democracy,' on a sovereign nation.
It is the first week of August, 1964, and U.S. warships under the command of U.S. Navy Admiral George Stephen Morrison have allegedly come under attack while patrolling Vietnam's Tonkin Gulf. This event, subsequently dubbed the 'Tonkin Gulf Incident,' will result in the immediate passing by the U.S. Congress of the obviously pre-drafted Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which will, in turn, quickly lead to America's deep immersion into the bloody Vietnam quagmire. Before it is over, well over fifty thousand American bodies - along with literally millions of Southeast Asian bodies - will litter the battlefields of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
For the record, the Tonkin Gulf Incident appears to differ somewhat from other alleged provocations that have driven this country to war. This was not, as we have seen so many times before, a 'false flag' operation (which is to say, an operation that involves Uncle Sam attacking himself and then pointing an accusatory finger at someone else). It was also not, as we have also seen on more than one occasion, an attack that was quite deliberately provoked.
No, what the Tonkin Gulf incident actually was, as it turns out, is an 'attack' that never took place at all. The entire incident, as has been all but officially acknowledged, was spun from whole cloth. (It is quite possible, however, that the intent was to provoke a defensive response, which could then be cast as an unprovoked attack on U.S ships. The ships in question were on an intelligence mission and were operating in a decidedly provocative manner. It is quite possible that when Vietnamese forces failed to respond as anticipated, Uncle Sam decided to just pretend as though they had.)
Nevertheless, by early February 1965, the U.S. will - without a declaration of war and with no valid reason to wage one - begin indiscriminately bombing North Vietnam. By March of that same year, the infamous "Operation Rolling Thunder" will have commenced. Over the course of the next three-and-a-half years, millions of tons of bombs, missiles, rockets, incendiary devices and chemical warfare agents will be dumped on the people of Vietnam in what can only be described as one of the worst crimes against humanity ever perpetrated on this planet. [War generates huge profits for the military industrial complex; war is the biggest U.S. industry.]
Also in March of 1965, the first uniformed U.S. soldier will officially set foot on Vietnamese soil (although Special Forces units, masquerading as 'advisers' and 'trainers', had been there for at least four years and likely much longer). By April 1965, fully 25,000 uniformed American kids, most still teenagers barely out of high school, will be slogging through the rice paddies of Vietnam. By the end of the year, U.S. troop strength will have surged to 200,000.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world in those early months of 1965, a new 'scene' is just beginning to take shape in the city of Los Angeles. In a geographically and socially isolated community known as Laurel Canyon - a heavily wooded, rustic, serene, yet vaguely ominous slice of LA nestled in the hills that separate the Los Angeles basin from the San Fernando Valley - musicians, singers and songwriters suddenly begin to gather as though summoned there by some unseen Pied Piper. Within months, the 'hippie/flower child' movement will be given birth there, along with the new style of music that will provide the soundtrack for the tumultuous second half of the 1960s.
An uncanny number of rock music superstars will emerge from Laurel Canyon beginning in the mid-1960s and carrying through the decade of the 1970s. The first to drop an album will be The Byrds, whose biggest star will prove to be David Crosby. The band's debut effort, "Mr. Tambourine Man," will be released on the Summer Solstice of 1965. It will quickly be followed by releases from:
- the John Phillips-led Mamas and the Papas (If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, January 1966)
- Love with Arthur Lee (Love, May 1966)
- Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention (Freak Out, June 1966)
- Buffalo Springfield, featuring Stephen Stills and Neil Young (Buffalo Springfield, October 1966)
- The Doors (The Doors, January 1967)
Curiously enough though, the self-proclaimed "Lizard King" has another claim to fame as well, albeit one that none of his numerous chroniclers will feel is of much relevance to his career and possible untimely death: he is the son, as it turns out, of the aforementioned Admiral George Stephen Morrison.
And so it is that, even while the father is actively conspiring to fabricate an incident that will be used to massively accelerate an illegal war, the son is positioning himself to become an icon of the 'hippie'/anti-war crowd. Nothing unusual about that, I suppose. It is, you know, a small world and all that. And it is not as if Jim Morrison's story is in any way unique.
Frank Zappa: Pro-war, authoritarian, and what else?
During the early years of its heyday, Laurel Canyon's father figure is the rather eccentric personality known as Frank Zappa. Though he and his various Mothers of Invention line-ups will never attain the commercial success of the band headed by the admiral's son, Frank will be a hugely influential figure among his contemporaries.
Ensconced in an abode dubbed the 'Log Cabin' - which sat right in the heart of Laurel Canyon, at the crossroads of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Lookout Mountain Avenue - Zappa will play host to virtually every musician who passes through the canyon in the mid- to late-1960s. He will also discover and sign numerous acts to his various Laurel Canyon-based record labels. Many of these acts will be rather bizarre and somewhat obscure characters (think Captain Beefheart and Larry "Wild Man" Fischer), but some of them, such as psychedelic rocker cum shock-rocker Alice Cooper, will go on to superstardom.
Zappa, along with certain members of his sizable entourage (the 'Log Cabin' was run as an early commune, with numerous hangers-on occupying various rooms in the main house and the guest house, as well as in the peculiar caves and tunnels lacing the grounds of the home; far from the quaint homestead the name seems to imply, by the way, the 'Log Cabin' was a cavernous five-level home that featured a 2,000+ square-foot living room with three massive chandeliers and an enormous floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace), will also be instrumental in introducing the look and attitude that will define the 'hippie' counterculture (although the Zappa crew preferred the label 'Freak').
Nevertheless, Zappa (born, curiously enough, on the Winter Solstice of 1940) never really made a secret of the fact that he had nothing but contempt for the 'hippie' culture that he helped create and that he surrounded himself with.
Given that Zappa was, by numerous accounts, a pro-war, rigidly authoritarian control-freak, it is perhaps not surprising that he would not feel a kinship with the youth movement that he helped nurture. And it is probably safe to say that Frank's dad also had little regard for the youth culture of the 1960s, given that Francis Zappa was, in case you were wondering, a chemical warfare specialist assigned to - where else? - the Edgewood Arsenal.
Edgewood is, of course, the longtime home of America's chemical warfare program, as well as a facility frequently cited as being deeply enmeshed in MK-ULTRA operations. Curiously enough, Frank Zappa literally grew up at the Edgewood Arsenal, having lived the first seven years of his life in military housing on the grounds of the facility. The family later moved to Lancaster, California, near Edwards Air Force Base, where Francis Zappa continued to busy himself with doing classified work for the military/intelligence complex. His son, meanwhile, prepped himself to become an icon of the peace & love crowd. Again, nothing unusual about that, I suppose.
Zappa's manager, by the way, is a shadowy character by the name of Herb Cohen, who had come out to L.A. from the Bronx with his brother Mutt just before the music and club scene began heating up. Cohen, a former U.S. Marine, had spent a few years traveling the world before his arrival on the Laurel Canyon scene. Those travels, curiously, had taken him to the Congo in 1961, at the very time that leftist Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was being tortured and killed by our very own CIA. Not to worry though; according to one of Zappa's biographers, Cohen wasn't in the Congo on some kind of nefarious intelligence mission. No, he was there, believe it or not, to supply arms to Lumumba "in defiance of the CIA." Because, you know, that is the kind of thing that globetrotting ex-Marines did in those days (as we'll see soon enough when we take a look at another Laurel Canyon luminary).
Making up the other half of Laurel Canyon's First Family is Frank's wife, Gail Zappa, known formerly as Adelaide Sloatman. Gail hails from a long line of career Naval officers, including her father, who spent his life working on classified nuclear weapons research for the U.S. Navy. Gail herself had once worked as a secretary for the Office of Naval Research and Development (she also once told an interviewer that she had "heard voices all [her] life"). Many years before their nearly simultaneous arrival in Laurel Canyon, Gail had attended a Naval kindergarten with "Mr. Mojo Risin'" himself, Jim Morrison (it is claimed that, as children, Gail once hit Jim over the head with a hammer). The very same Jim Morrison had later attended the same Alexandria, Virginia high school as two other future Laurel Canyon luminaries - John Phillips and Cass Elliott.
"Papa" John Phillips, more so than probably any of the other illustrious residents of Laurel Canyon, will play a major role in spreading the emerging youth 'counterculture' across America. His contribution will be twofold: first, he will co-organize (along with Manson associate Terry Melcher) the famed Monterrey Pop Festival, which, through unprecedented media exposure, will give mainstream America its first real look at the music and fashions of the nascent 'hippie' movement. Second, Phillips will pen an insipid song known as "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)," which will quickly rise to the top of the charts. Along with the Monterrey Pop Festival, the song will be instrumental in luring the disenfranchised (a preponderance of whom are underage runaways) to San Francisco to create the Haight-Asbury phenomenon and the famed 1967 "Summer of Love."
Before arriving in Laurel Canyon and opening the doors of his home to the soon-to-be famous, the already famous, and the infamous (such as the aforementioned Charlie Manson, whose 'Family' also spent time at the Log Cabin and at the Laurel Canyon home of "Mama" Cass Elliot, which, in case you didn't know, sat right across the street from the Laurel Canyon home of Abigail Folger and Voytek Frykowski, but let's not get ahead of ourselves here), John Edmund Andrew Phillips was, shockingly enough, yet another child of the military/intelligence complex. The son of U.S. Marine Corp Captain Claude Andrew Phillips and a mother who claimed to have psychic and telekinetic powers, John attended a series of elite military prep schools in the Washington, D.C. area, culminating in an appointment to the prestigious U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.
John Phillips, of course - though surrounded throughout his life by military/intelligence personnel - did not involve himself in such matters. Or so we are to believe. Before succeeding in his musical career, however, John did seem to find himself, quite innocently of course, in some rather unusual places. One such place was Havana, Cuba, where Phillips arrived at the very height of the Cuban Revolution. For the record, Phillips has claimed that he went to Havana as nothing more than a concerned private citizen, with the intention of - you're going to love this one - "fighting for Castro." Because, as I mentioned earlier, a lot of folks in those days traveled abroad to thwart CIA operations before taking up residence in Laurel Canyon and joining the 'hippie' generation. During the two weeks or so that the Cuban Missile Crisis played out, a few years after Castro took power, Phillips found himself cooling his heels in Jacksonville, Florida - alongside, coincidentally I'm sure, the Mayport Naval Station.
Anyway, let's move on to yet another of Laurel Canyon's earliest and brightest stars, Mr. Stephen Stills. Stills will have the distinction of being a founding member of two of Laurel Canyon's most acclaimed and beloved bands: Buffalo Springfield, and, needless to say, Crosby, Stills & Nash. In addition, Stills will pen perhaps the first, and certainly one of the most enduring anthems of the 60s generation, "For What It's Worth," the opening lines of which appear at the top of this post (Stills' follow-up single will be entitled "Bluebird," which, coincidentally or not, happens to be the original codename assigned to the MK-ULTRA program).
Before his arrival in Laurel Canyon, Stephen Stills was (*yawn*) the product of yet another career military family. Raised partly in Texas, young Stephen spent large swaths of his childhood in El Salvador, Costa Rica, the Panama Canal Zone, and various other parts of Central America - alongside his father, who was, we can be fairly certain, helping to spread 'democracy' to the unwashed masses in that endearingly American way. As with the rest of our cast of characters, Stills was educated primarily at schools on military bases and at elite military academies. Among his contemporaries in Laurel Canyon, he was widely viewed as having an abrasive, authoritarian personality. Nothing unusual about any of that, of course, as we have already seen with the rest of our cast of characters.
There is, however, an even more curious aspect to the Stephen Stills story: Stephen will later tell anyone who will sit and listen that he had served time for Uncle Sam in the jungles of Vietnam. These tales will be universally dismissed by chroniclers of the era as nothing more than drug-induced delusions. Such a thing couldn't possibly be true, it will be claimed, since Stills arrived on the Laurel Canyon scene at the very time that the first uniformed troops began shipping out and he remained in the public eye thereafter. And it will of course be quite true that Stephen Stills could not have served with uniformed ground troops in Vietnam, but what will be ignored is the undeniable fact that the U.S. had thousands of 'advisers' - which is to say, CIA/Special Forces operatives - operating in the country for a good many years before the arrival of the first official ground troops. What will also be ignored is that, given his background, his age, and the timeline of events, Stephen Stills not only could indeed have seen action in Vietnam, he would seem to have been a prime candidate for such an assignment. After which, of course, he could rather quickly become - stop me if you've heard this one before - an icon of the peace generation.
Another of those icons, and one of Laurel Canyon's most flamboyant residents, is a young man by the name of David Crosby, founding member of the seminal Laurel Canyon band the Byrds, as well as, of course, Crosby, Stills & Nash. Crosby is, not surprisingly, the son of an Annapolis graduate and WWII military intelligence officer, Major Floyd Delafield Crosby. Like others in this story, Floyd Crosby spent much of his post-service time traveling the world. Those travels landed him in places like Haiti, where he paid a visit in 1927, when the country just happened to be, coincidentally of course, under military occupation by the U.S. Marines. One of the Marines doing that occupying was a guy that we met earlier by the name of Captain Claude Andrew Phillips.
But David Crosby is much more than just the son of Major Floyd Delafield Crosby. David Van Cortlandt Crosby, as it turns out, is a scion of the closely intertwined Van Cortlandt, Van Schuyler and Van Rensselaer families. And while you're probably thinking, "the Van Who families?," I can assure you that if you plug those names in over at Wikipedia, you can spend a pretty fair amount of time reading up on the power wielded by this clan for the last, oh, two-and-a-quarter centuries or so. Suffice it to say that the Crosby family tree includes a truly dizzying array of US senators and congressmen, state senators and assemblymen, governors, mayors, judges, Supreme Court justices, Revolutionary and Civil War generals, signers of the Declaration of Independence, and members of the Continental Congress. It also includes, I should hasten to add - for those of you with a taste for such things - more than a few high-ranking Masons. Stephen Van Rensselaer III, for example, reportedly served as Grand Master of Masons for New York. And if all that isn't impressive enough, according to the New England Genealogical Society, David Van Cortlandt Crosby is also a direct descendant of 'Founding Fathers' and Federalist Papers' authors Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.
If there is, as many believe, a network of elite families that has shaped national and world events for a very long time, then it is probably safe to say that David Crosby is a bloodline member of that clan (which may explain, come to think of it, why his semen seems to be in such demand in certain circles - because, if we're being honest here, it certainly can't be due to his looks or talent.) If America had royalty, then David Crosby would probably be a Duke, or a Prince, or something similar (I'm not really sure how that shit works). But other than that, he is just a normal, run-of-the-mill kind of guy who just happened to shine as one of Laurel Canyon's brightest stars. And who, I guess I should add, has a real fondness for guns, especially handguns, which he has maintained a sizable collection of for his entire life. According to those closest to him, it is a rare occasion when Mr. Crosby is not packing heat (John Phillips also owned and sometimes carried handguns). And according to Crosby himself, he has, on at least one occasion, discharged a firearm in anger at another human being. All of which made him, of course, an obvious choice for the Flower Children to rally around.
Another shining star on the Laurel Canyon scene, just a few years later, will be singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, who is - are you getting as bored with this as I am? - the product of a career military family. Browne's father was assigned to post-war 'reconstruction' work in Germany, which very likely means that he was in the employ of the OSS, precursor to the CIA. As readers of my "Understanding the F-Word" may recall, U.S. involvement in post-war reconstruction in Germany largely consisted of maintaining as much of the Nazi infrastructure as possible while shielding war criminals from capture and prosecution. Against that backdrop, Jackson Browne was born in a military hospital in Heidelberg, Germany. Some two decades later, he emerged as ... oh, never mind.
Let's talk instead about three other Laurel Canyon vocalists who will rise to dizzying heights of fame and fortune: Gerry Beckley, Dan Peek and Dewey Bunnell. Individually, these three names are probably unknown to virtually all readers; but collectively, as the band America, the three will score huge hits in the early '70s with such songs as "Ventura Highway," "A Horse With No Name," and the Wizard of Oz-themed "The Tin Man." I guess I probably don't need to add here that all three of these lads were products of the military/intelligence community. Beckley's dad was the commander of the now-defunct West Ruislip USAF base near London, England, a facility deeply immersed in intelligence operations. Bunnell's and Peek's fathers were both career Air Force officers serving under Beckley's dad at West Ruislip, which is where the three boys first met.
We could also, I suppose, discuss Mike Nesmith of the Monkees and Cory Wells of Three Dog Night (two more hugely successful Laurel Canyon bands), who both arrived in LA not long after serving time with the U.S. Air Force. Nesmith also inherited a family fortune estimated at $25 million. Gram Parsons, who would briefly replace David Crosby in The Byrds before fronting The Flying Burrito Brothers, was the son of Major Cecil Ingram "Coon Dog" Connor II, a decorated military officer and bomber pilot who reportedly flew over 50 combat missions. Parsons was also an heir, on his mother's side, to the formidable Snively family fortune. Said to be the wealthiest family in the exclusive enclave of Winter Haven, Florida, the Snively family was the proud owner of Snively Groves, Inc., which reportedly owned as much as 1/3 of all the citrus groves in the state of Florida.
And so it goes as one scrolls through the roster of Laurel Canyon superstars. What one finds, far more often than not, are the sons and daughters of the military/intelligence complex and the sons and daughters of extreme wealth and privilege - and oftentimes, you'll find both rolled into one convenient package. Every once in a while, you will also stumble across a former child actor, like the aforementioned Brandon DeWilde, or Monkee Mickey Dolenz, or eccentric prodigy Van Dyke Parks. You might also encounter some former mental patients, such as James Taylor, who spent time in two different mental institutions in Massachusetts before hitting the Laurel Canyon scene, or Larry "Wild Man" Fischer, who was institutionalized repeatedly during his teen years, once for attacking his mother with a knife (an act that was gleefully mocked by Zappa on the cover of Fischer's first album). Finally, you might find the offspring of an organized crime figure, like Warren Zevon, the son of William "Stumpy" Zevon, a lieutenant for infamous LA crimelord Mickey Cohen.
All these folks gathered nearly simultaneously along the narrow, winding roads of Laurel Canyon. They came from across the country - although the Washington, DC area was noticeably over-represented - as well as from Canada and England. They came even though, at the time, there was no music industry in Los Angeles. They came even though, at the time, there was no live music scene to speak of. They came even though, in retrospect, there was no discernable reason for them to do so.
It would, of course, make sense these days for an aspiring musician to venture out to Los Angeles. But in those days, the centers of the music universe were Nashville, Memphis and New York. It wasn't the industry that drew the Laurel Canyon crowd, you see, but rather the Laurel Canyon crowd that transformed Los Angeles into the epicenter of the music industry.
To what then do we attribute this unprecedented gathering of future musical superstars in the hills above Los Angeles? What was it that inspired them all to head out west? Perhaps Neil Young said it best when he told an interviewer that he couldn't really say why he headed out to LA circa 1966; he and others "were just going like Lemmings."
“He was great, he was unreal—really, really good.”
“He had this kind of music that nobody else was doing. I thought he really had something crazy, something great. He was like a living poet.”
|Joni Mitchell in her Laurel Canyon home, 1968
photo: Baron Wolman
In the first chapter of this saga, we met a sampling of some of the most successful and influential rock music superstars who emerged from Laurel Canyon during its glory days. But these were, alas, more than just musicians and singers and songwriters who had come together in the canyon; they were destined to become the spokesmen and de facto leaders of a generation of disaffected youth (as Carl Gottlieb noted in David Crosby's co-written autobiography, "the unprecedented mass appeal of the new rock 'n' roll gave the singers a voice in public affairs.") That, of course, makes it all the more curious that these icons were, to an overwhelming degree, the sons and daughters of the military/intelligence complex and the scions of families that have wielded vast wealth and power in this country for a very long time.
When I recently presented to a friend a truncated summary of the information contained in the first installment of this series, said friend opted to play the devil's advocate by suggesting that there was nothing necessarily nefarious in the fact that so many of these icons of a past generation hailed from military/intelligence families. Perhaps, he suggested, they had embarked on their chosen careers as a form of rebellion against the values of their parents. And that, I suppose, might be true in a couple of cases. But what are we to conclude from the fact that such an astonishing number of these folks (along with their girlfriends, wives, managers, etc.) hail from a similar background? Are we to believe that the only kids from that era who had musical talent were the sons and daughters of Navy Admirals, chemical warfare engineers and Air Force intelligence officers? Or are they just the only ones who were signed to lucrative contracts and relentlessly promoted by their labels and the media?
If these artists were rebelling against, rather than subtly promoting, the values of their parents, then why didn't they ever speak out against the folks they were allegedly rebelling against? Why did Jim Morrison never denounce, or even mention, his father's key role in escalating one of America's bloodiest illegal wars? And why did Frank Zappa never pen a song exploring the horrors of chemical warfare (though he did pen a charming little ditty entitled "The Ritual Dance of the Child-Killer")? And which Mamas and Papas song was it that laid waste to the values and actions of John Phillip's parents and in-laws? And in which interview, exactly, did David Crosby and Stephen Stills disown the family values that they were raised with?
In the coming weeks, we will take a much closer look at these folks, as well as at many of their contemporaries, as we endeavor to determine how and why the youth 'counterculture' of the 1960s was given birth. According to virtually all the accounts that I have read, this was essentially a spontaneous, organic response to the war in Southeast Asia and to the prevailing social conditions of the time. 'Conspiracy theorists,' of course, have frequently opined that what began as a legitimate movement was at some point co-opted and undermined by intelligence operations such as CoIntelPro. Entire books, for example, have been written examining how presumably virtuous musical artists were subjected to FBI harassment and/or whacked by the CIA.
Here we will, as you have no doubt already ascertained, take a decidedly different approach. The question that we will be tackling is a more deeply troubling one: "what if the musicians themselves (and various other leaders and founders of the 'movement') were every bit as much a part of the intelligence community as the people who were supposedly harassing them?" What if, in other words, the entire youth culture of the 1960s was created not as a grass-roots challenge to the status quo, but as a cynical exercise in discrediting and marginalizing the budding anti-war movement and creating a fake opposition that could be easily controlled and led astray? And what if the harassment these folks were subjected to was largely a stage-managed show designed to give the leaders of the counterculture some much-needed 'street cred'? What if, in reality, they were pretty much all playing on the same team?
I should probably mention here that, contrary to popular opinion, the 'hippie'/'flower child' movement was not synonymous with the anti-war movement. As time passed, there was, to be sure, a fair amount of overlap between the two 'movements.' And the mass media outlets, as is their wont, did their very best to portray the flower-power generation as the torch-bearers of the anti-war movement - because, after all, a ragtag band of unwashed, drug-fueled long-hairs sporting flowers and peace symbols was far easier to marginalize than, say, a bunch of respected college professors and their concerned students. The reality, however, is that the anti-war movement was already well underway before the first aspiring 'hippie' arrived in Laurel Canyon. The first Vietnam War 'teach-in' was held on the campus of the University of Michigan in March of 1965. The first organized walk on Washington occurred just a few weeks later. Needless to say, there were no 'hippies' in attendance at either event. That 'problem' would soon be rectified. And the anti-war crowd - those who were serious about ending the bloodshed in Vietnam, anyway - would be none too appreciative.
As Barry Miles has written in his coffee-table book, Hippie, there were some hippies involved in anti-war protests, "particularly after the police riot in Chicago in 1968 when so many people got injured, but on the whole the movement activists looked on hippies with disdain." Peter Coyote, narrating the documentary "Hippies" on The History Channel, added that "some on the left even theorized that the hippies were the end result of a plot by the CIA to neutralize the anti-war movement with LSD, turning potential protestors into self-absorbed naval-gazers." An exasperated Abbie Hoffman once described the scene as he remembered it thusly: "There were all these activists, you know, Berkeley radicals, White Panthers ... all trying to stop the war and change things for the better. Then we got flooded with all these 'flower children' who were into drugs and sex. Where the hell did the hippies come from?!"
As it turns out, they came, initially at least, from a rather private, isolated, largely self-contained neighborhood in Los Angeles known as Laurel Canyon (in contrast to the other canyons slicing through the Hollywood Hills, Laurel Canyon has its own market, the semi-famous Laurel Canyon Country Store; its own deli and cleaners; its own elementary school, the Wonderland School; its own boutique shops and salons; and, in more recent years, its own celebrity reprogramming rehab facility named, as you may have guessed, the Wonderland Center. During its heyday, the canyon even had its own management company, Lookout Management, to handle the talent. At one time, it even had its own newspaper.)
One other thing that I should add here, before getting too far along with this series, is that this has not been an easy line of research for me to conduct, primarily because I have been, for as long as I can remember, a huge fan of 1960s music and culture. Though I was born in 1960 and therefore didn't come of age, so to speak, until the 1970s, I have always felt as though I was ripped off by being denied the opportunity to experience firsthand the era that I was so obviously meant to inhabit. During my high school and college years, while my peers were mostly into faceless corporate rock (think Journey, Foreigner, Kansas, Boston, etc.) and, perhaps worse yet, the twin horrors of New Wave and Disco music, I was faithfully spinning my Hendrix, Joplin and Doors albums (which I still have, or rather my eldest daughter still has, in the original vinyl versions) while my color organ (remember those?) competed with my black light and strobe light. I grew my hair long until well past the age when it should have been sheared off. I may have even strung beads across the doorway to my room, but it is possible that I am confusing my life with that of Greg Brady, who, as we all remember, once converted his dad's home office into a groovy bachelor pad.
Anyway ... as I have probably mentioned previously on more than one occasion, one of the most difficult aspects of this journey that I have been on for the last decade or so has been watching so many of my former idols and mentors fall by the wayside as it became increasingly clear to me that people who I once thought were the good guys were, in reality, something entirely different than what they appear to be. The first to fall, naturally enough, were the establishment figures - the politicians who I once, quite foolishly, looked up to as people who were fighting the good fight, within the confines of the system, to bring about real change. Though it now pains me to admit this, there was a time when I admired the likes of (egads!) George McGovern and Jimmy Carter, as well as (oops, excuse me for a moment; I seem to have just thrown up in my mouth a little bit) California pols Tom Hayden and Jerry Brown. I even had high hopes, oh-so-many-years-ago, for (am I really admitting this in print?) aspiring First Man Bill Clinton.
Since I mentioned Jerry "Governor Moonbeam" Brown, by the way, I must now digress just a bit - and we all know how I hate it when that happens. But as luck would have it, Jerry Brown was, curiously enough, a longtime resident of a little place called Laurel Canyon. As readers of Programmed to Kill may recall, Brown lived on Wonderland Avenue, not too many doors down from 8763 Wonderland Avenue, the site of the infamous "Four on the Floor" murders, regarded by grizzled LA homicide detectives as the most bloody and brutal multiple murder in the city's very bloody history (if you get a chance, by the way, check out "Wonderland" with Val Kilmer the next time it shows up on your cable listings; it is, by Hollywood standards, a reasonably accurate retelling of the crime, and a pretty decent film as well).
As it turns out, you see, the most bloody mass murder in LA's history took place in one of the city's most serene, pastoral and exclusive neighborhoods. And strangely enough, the case usually cited as the runner-up for the title of bloodiest crime scene - the murders of Stephen Parent, Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Voytek Frykowski and Abigail Folger at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, just a couple miles to the west of Laurel Canyon - had deep ties to the Laurel Canyon scene as well.
As previously mentioned, victims Folger and Frykowski lived in Laurel Canyon, at 2774 Woodstock Road, in a rented home right across the road from a favored gathering spot for Laurel Canyon royalty. Many of the regular visitors to Cass Elliot's home, including a number of shady drug dealers, were also regular visitors to the Folger/Frykowski home (Frykowski's son, by the way, was stabbed to death on June 6, 1999, thirty years after his father met the same fate.) Victim Jay Sebring's acclaimed hair salon sat right at the mouth of Laurel Canyon, just below the Sunset Strip, and it was Sebring, alas, who was credited with sculpting Jim Morrison's famous mane. One of the investors in his Sebring International business venture was a Laurel Canyon luminary who I may have mentioned previously, Mr. John Phillips.
Along with the victims, the alleged killers also lived in and/or were very much a part of the Laurel Canyon scene. Bobby "Cupid" Beausoleil, for example, lived in a Laurel Canyon apartment during the early months of 1969. Charles "Tex" Watson, who allegedly led the death squad responsible for the carnage at Cielo Drive, lived for a time in a home on - guess where? - Wonderland Avenue. During that time, curiously enough, Watson co-owned and worked in a wig shop in Beverly Hills, Crown Wig Creations, Ltd., that was located near the mouth of Benedict Canyon. Meanwhile, one of Jay Sebring's primary claims-to-fame was his expertise in crafting men's hairpieces, which he did in his shop near the mouth of Laurel Canyon. A typical day then in the late 1960s would find Watson crafting hairpieces for an upscale Hollywood clientele near Benedict Canyon, and then returning home to Laurel Canyon, while Sebring crafted hairpieces for an upscale Hollywood clientele near Laurel Canyon, and then returned home to Benedict Canyon. And then one crazy day, as we all know, one of them became a killer and the other his victim. But there's nothing odd about that, I suppose, so let's move on.
Oh, wait a minute ... we can't quite move on just yet, as I forgot to mention that Sebring's Benedict Canyon home, at 9820 Easton Drive, was a rather infamous Hollywood death house that had once belonged to Jean Harlow and Paul Bern. The mismatched pair were wed on July 2, 1932, when Harlow, already a huge star of the silver screen, was just twenty-one years old. Just two months later, on September 5, Bern caught a bullet to the head in his wife's bedroom. He was found sprawled naked in a pool of his own blood, his corpse drenched with his wife's perfume. Upon discovering the body, Bern's butler promptly contacted MGM's head of security, Whitey Hendry, who in turn contacted Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg. All three men descended upon the Benedict Canyon home to, you know, tidy up a bit. A couple hours later, they decided to contact the LAPD. This scene would be repeated years later when Sebring's friends would rush to the home to clean up before officers investigating the Tate murders arrived.
Though Bern's was the most famous body to be hauled out of the Easton Drive house in a coroner's bag, it certainly wasn't the only one. Another man had reportedly committed suicide there as well, in some unspecified fashion. Yet another unfortunate soul drowned in the home's pool. And a maid was once found swinging from the end of a rope. Her death, needless to say, was ruled a suicide as well. That's a lot of blood for one home to absorb, but the house's morbid history, though a turn-off to many prospective residents, was reportedly exactly what attracted Jay Sebring to the property. His murder would further darken the black cloud hanging over the home.
As Laurel Canyon chronicler Michael Walker has noted, LA's two most notorious mass murders, one in August of 1969 and the other in July of 1981 (both involving five victims, though at Wonderland one of the five miraculously survived), provided rather morbid bookends for Laurel Canyon's glory years. Walker though, like others who have chronicled that time and place, treats these brutal crimes as though they were unfortunate aberrations. The reality, however, is that the nine bodies recovered from Cielo Drive and Wonderland Avenue constitute just the tip of a very large, and very bloody, iceberg. To partially illustrate that point, here is today's second trivia question: what do Diane Linkletter (daughter of famed entertainer Art Linkletter), legendary comedian Lenny Bruce, screen idol Sal Mineo, starlet Inger Stevens, and silent film star Ramon Novarro, all have in common?
If you answered that all were found dead in their homes, either in or at the mouth of Laurel Canyon, in the decade between 1966 and 1976, then award yourself five points. If you added that all five were, in all likelihood, murdered in their Laurel Canyon homes, then add five bonus points.
Only two of them, of course, are officially listed as murder victims (Mineo, who was stabbed to death outside his home at 8563 Holloway Drive on February 12, 1976, and Novarro, who was killed near the Country Store in a decidedly ritualistic fashion on the eve of Halloween, 1968). Inger Steven's death in her home at 8000 Woodrow Wilson Drive, on April 30, 1970 (Walpurgisnacht on the occult calendar), was officially a suicide, though why she opted to propel herself through a decorative glass screen as part of that suicide remains a mystery. Perhaps she just wanted to leave behind a gruesome crime scene, and simple overdoses can be so, you know, bloodless and boring.
Diane Linkletter, as we all know, sailed out the window of her Shoreham Towers apartment because, in her LSD-addled state, she thought she could fly, or some such thing. We know this because Art himself told us that it was so, and because the story was retold throughout the 1970s as a cautionary tale about the dangers of drugs. What we weren't told, however, is that Diane (born, curiously enough, on Halloween day, 1948) wasn't alone when she plunged six stories to her death on the morning of October 4, 1969. Au contraire, she was with a gent by the name of Edward Durston, who, in a completely unexpected turn of events, accompanied actress Carol Wayne to Mexico some 15 years later. Carol, alas, perhaps weighed down by her enormous breasts, managed to drown in barely a foot of water, while Mr. Durston promptly disappeared. As would be expected, he was never questioned by authorities about Wayne's curious death. After all, it is quite common for the same guy to be the sole witness to two separate 'accidental' deaths.
Art also neglected to mention, by the way, that just weeks before Diane's curious death, another member of the Linkletter clan, Art's son-in-law, John Zwyer, caught a bullet to the head in the backyard of his Hollywood Hills home. But that, of course, was an unconnected, uhmm, suicide, so don't go thinking otherwise.
I'm not even going to discuss here the circumstances of Bruce's death from acute morphine poisoning on August 3, 1966, because, to be perfectly honest, I don't know too many people who don't already assume that Lenny was whacked. I'll just note here that his funeral was well-attended by the Laurel Canyon rock icons, and control over his unreleased material fell into the hands of a guy by the name of Frank Zappa. And another rather unsavory character named Phil Spector, whose crack team of studio musicians, dubbed The Wrecking Crew, were the actual musicians playing on many studio recordings by such bands as The Monkees, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, and The Mamas and the Papas.
(As for the trivia question, the person being praised, of course, was our old friend Chuck Manson. And the guy singing his praises was Mr. Neil Young.)
During the ten-year period during which Bruce, Novarro, Mineo, Linkletter, Stevens, Tate, Sebring, Frykowski and Folger all turned up dead, a whole lot of other people connected to Laurel Canyon did as well, often under very questionable circumstances. The list includes, but is certainly not limited to, all of the following names:“I mean, fuck, he auditioned for Neil [Young] for fuck’s sake.” Graham Nash, explaining to author Michael Walker how close Charlie Manson was to the Laurel Canyon scene.
1. Marina Elizabeth Habe, whose body was carved up and tossed into the heavy brush along Mulholland Drive, just west of Bowmont Drive, on December 30, 1968. Habe, just seventeen at the time of her death, was the daughter of Hans Habe, who emigrated to the U.S. from fascist Austria circa 1940. Shortly thereafter, he married a General Foods heiress and began studying psychological warfare at the Military Intelligence Training Center. After completing his training, he put his psychological warfare skills to use by creating 18 newspapers in occupied Germany – under the direction, no doubt, of the OSS (precursor to the CIA). Below: view into the San Fernando Valley from Mulholland Drive in Laurel Canyon. In the foreground is the undergrowth where the body of Marina Habe was found.
2. Christine Hinton, who was killed in a head-on collision on September 30, 1969. At the time, Hinton was a girlfriend of David Crosby and the founder and head of The Byrd’s fan club. She was also the daughter of a career Army officer stationed at the notorious Presidio military base in San Francisco. Another of Crosby’s girlfriends from that same era was Shelley Roecker, who grew up on the Hamilton Air Force Base in Marin County.
3. Jane Doe #59, found dumped into the heavy undergrowth of Laurel Canyon in November 1969, within sight of where Habe had been dumped less than a year earlier. The teenage girl, who was never identified, had been stabbed 157 times in the chest and throat.
4. Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson, singer, songwriter and guitarist for the Laurel Canyon blues-rock band, Canned Heat, was found dead in his Topanga Canyon home on September 3, 1970. His death was written off as a suicide/OD. Wilson had moved to Topanga Canyon after the band’s Laurel Canyon home – on Lookout Mountain Avenue, next door to Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash’s home – burned to the ground. “Blind Owl” was just twenty-seven years old at the time of his death. A little more than a decade later, Wilson’s former bandmate, Bob “The Bear” Hite, who had once acknowledged in an interview that he had partied in the canyons with various members of the Manson Family, died of a heart attack at the ripe old age of 36.
5. Jimi Hendrix, who reportedly briefly occupied the sprawling mansion just north of Frank Zappa's 'Log Cabin' after he moved to LA in 1968, died in London under seriously questionable circumstances on September 18, 1970. Though he rarely spoke of it, Jimi had served a stint in the U.S. Army with the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell. His official records indicate that he was forced into the service by the courts and then released after just one year when he purportedly proved to be a poor soldier. One wonders though why he was assigned to such an elite division if he was indeed such a failure. One also wonders why he wasn’t subjected to disciplinary measures rather than being handed a free pass out of his ostensibly court-ordered service. In any event, Jimi himself once told reporters that he was given a medical discharge after breaking an ankle during a parachute jump. And one biographer has claimed that Jimi faked being gay to earn an early release. The truth, alas, remains rather elusive. At the time of Jimi’s death, the first person called by his girlfriend – Monika Danneman, who was the last to see Hendrix alive – was Eric Burden of the Animals. Two years earlier, Burden had relocated to LA and taken over ringmaster duties from Frank Zappa after Zappa had vacated the Log Cabin and moved into a less high-profile Laurel Canyon home. Within a year of Jimi’s death, an underage prostitute named Devon Wilson, who had been with Jimi the day before his death, plunged from an eighth-floor window of New York’s Chelsea Hotel. On March 5, 1973, a shadowy character named Michael Jeffery, who had managed both Hendrix and Burden, was killed in a mid-air plane collision. Jeffery was known to openly boast of having organized crime connections and of working for the CIA. After Jimi’s death, it was discovered that Jeffery had been funneling most of Hendrix’s gross earnings into offshore accounts in the Bahamas linked to international drug trafficking. Years later, on April 5, 1996, Danneman, the daughter of a wealthy German industrialist, was found dead near her home in a fume-filled Mercedes
6. Jim Morrison, who for a time lived in a home on Rothdell Trail, behind the Laurel Canyon Country Store, may or may not have died in Paris on July 3, 1971. The events of that day remain shrouded in mystery and rumor, and the details of the story, such as they are, have changed over the years. What is known is that, on that very same day, Admiral George Stephen Morrison delivered the keynote speech at a decommissioning ceremony for the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard, from where, seven years earlier, he had helped choreograph the Tonkin Gulf Incident. A few years after Jim’s death, his common-law wife, Pamela Courson, dropped dead as well, officially of a heroin overdose. Like Hendrix, Morrison had been an avid student of the occult, with a particular fondness for the work of Aleister Crowley. According to super-groupie Pamela DesBarres, he had also “read all he could about incest and sadism.” Also like Hendrix, Morrison was just twenty-seven at the time of his (possible) death.
7. Brandon DeWilde, a good friend of David Crosby and Gram Parsons, was killed in a freak accident in Colorado on July 6, 1972, when his van plowed under a flatbed truck. In the 1950s, DeWilde had been an in-demand child actor since the age of eight. He had appeared on screen with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Alan Ladd, Lee Marvin, Paul Newman, John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda. Around 1965, DeWilde fell in with Hollywood’s ‘Young Turks,’ through whom he met and befriended Crosby, Parsons, and various other members of the Laurel Canyon Club. DeWilde was just thirty at the time of his death.
8. Christine Frka, a former governess for Moon Unit Zappa and the Zappa family’s former housekeeper at the Log Cabin, died on November 5, 1972 of an alleged drug overdose, though friends suspected foul play. As “Miss Christine,” Frka had been a member of the Zappa-created GTOs, a musical act, of sorts, composed entirely of very young groupies. She was also the inspiration for the song, “Christine’s Tune: Devil in Disguise” by Gram Parson’s Flying Burrito Brothers. Frka was probably in her early twenties when she died, possibly even younger.
9. Danny Whitten, a guitarist/vocalist/songwriter with Neil Young’s sometime band, Crazy Horse, died of an overdose on November 18, 1972. According to rock ‘n’ roll legend, Whitten had been fired by Young earlier that day during rehearsals in San Francisco. Young and Jack Nietzsche, Phil Spector’s former top assistant, had given Whitten $50 and put him on a plane back to LA. Within hours, he was dead. Whitten was just twenty-nine.
10. Bruce Berry, a roadie for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, died of a heroin overdose in June 1973. Berry had just flown out to Maui to deliver a shipment of cocaine to Stephen Stills, and was promptly sent back to LA by Crosby and Nash. Berry was a brother of Jan Berry, of Jan and Dean. (Dean Torrence, the “Dean” of Jan and Dean, had played a part in the fake kidnapping of Frank Sinatra, Jr., just after the JFK assassination. The staged event was a particularly lame effort to divert attention away from the questions that were cropping up, after the initial shock had passed, about the events in Dealey Plaza.)
11. Clarence White, a guitarist who had played with The Byrds, was run over by a drunk driver and killed on July 14, 1973. White had grown up near Lancaster, not far from where Frank Zappa spent his teen years. At least one member of White’s immediate family was employed at Edwards Air Force Base. The driver who killed young Clarence, just twenty-nine years old at the time of his death, was given a one-year suspended sentence and served no time
12. Gram Parsons, formerly with the International Submarine Band, The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, allegedly overdosed on a speedball at the Joshua Tree Inn on September 19, 1973. Just two months before his death, Parson’s Topanga Canyon home had burnt to the ground. After his death, his body was stolen from LAX by the Burrito’s road manager, Phil Kaufman, and then taken back out to Joshua Tree and ritually burned on the autumnal equinox (Kaufman had been a prison buddy of Charlie Manson’s at Terminal Island; when Phil was released from Terminal Island in March of 1968, he quickly reunited with his old pal, who had been released a year earlier.) By the time of Gram’s death, his family had already experienced its share of questionable deaths. Just before Christmas, 1958, Parson’s father had sent Gram, along with his mother and sister, off to stay with family in Florida. The next day, just after the winter solstice, “Coon Dog” caught a bullet to the head. His death was recorded as a suicide and it was claimed that he had sent his family away to spare them as much pain as possible. It seems just as likely, however, that “Coon Dog” knew his days were numbered and wanted to get his family out of the line of fire. The next year, 1959, Gram’s mother married again, to Robert Ellis Parsons, who adopted Gram and his sister Avis. Six years later, in June of 1965, Gram’s mother died the day after a sudden illness landed her in the hospital. According to witnesses, she died “almost immediately” after a visit from her husband, Robert Parsons. Many of those close to the situation believed that Parsons had a hand in her death (very shortly thereafter, Robert Parsons married his stepdaughter’s teenage babysitter). Following his mother’s death, Parsons briefly attended Harvard University, and then launched his music career with the formation of the International Submarine Band, which quickly found its way to – where else? – Laurel Canyon. Gram’s death in 1973 at the age of 26 left his younger sister Avis as the sole surviving member of the family. She was killed in 1993, reportedly in a boating accident, at the age of 43.
13. “Mama” Cass Elliot, the “Earth Mother” of Laurel Canyon whose circle of friends included musicians, Mansonites, young Hollywood stars, the wealthy son of a State Department official, singer/songwriters, assorted drug dealers, and some particularly unsavory characters the LAPD once described as “some kind of hit squad,” died in the London home of Harry Nilsson on July 29, 1974 (Nilsson had been a frequent drinking buddy of John Lennon in Laurel Canyon and on the Sunset Strip). At thirty-two, Cass had lived a long and productive life, by Laurel Canyon standards. Four years later, in the very same room of the very same London flat, still owned by Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon of The Who also died at thirty-two (on September 7, 1978). Though initial press reports held that Cass had choked to death on a ham sandwich, the official cause of death was listed as heart failure. Her actual cause of death could likely be filed under “knowing where too many of the bodies were buried.” Moon reportedly died from a massive overdose of a drug used to treat alcohol withdrawal. Like Cass, Moon had at one time been a resident of Laurel Canyon.
14. Amy Gossage, Graham Nash’s girlfriend at the time, was murdered in her San Francisco home on February 13, 1975. Just twenty years old at the time, she had been stabbed nearly fifty times and was bludgeoned beyond recognition. Amy’s father, a famed advertising/PR executive, had died of leukemia in 1969. Not long after, her half-sister had been killed in a car crash. In May of 1974, her mother, the daughter of a wealthy banking family, died as well, reportedly of cirrhosis of the liver. That left just Amy, age 19, and her brother Eben, age 20, both of whom reportedly had serious drug dependencies. Amy’s brutal murder, cleverly enough, was pinned on Eben. Police had conveniently found bloodstained clothes, along with a hammer and scissors, sitting on the porch of Eben’s apartment, looking very much as though it had been planted. A friend of Eben’s would later remark, perhaps quite tellingly, “If Eben did kill her, I’m convinced he doesn’t know he did it.”
15. Tim Buckley, a singer/songwriter signed to Frank Zappa’s record label and managed by Herb Cohen, died of a reported overdose on June 29, 1975. Buckley had once appeared on an episode of The Monkees, and, like Monkee Peter Tork (and so many others in this story), he hailed from Washington, DC. Buckley was just twenty-eight at the time of his death. His son, Jeff Buckley, also an accomplished musician, managed to remain on this planet two years longer than his dad did; he was thirty when he died in a bizarre drowning incident on May 29, 1997.
16. Phyllis Major Browne, wife of singer/songwriter Jackson Browne, reportedly overdosed on barbiturates on March 25, 1976. Her death was – you all should know the words to this song by now – ruled a suicide. She was just thirty years old.
There are a few other curious deaths we could add here as well, though they were only indirectly related to the Laurel Canyon scene. Nevertheless, they deserve an honorable mention, especially the Bobby Fuller and Phil Ochs entries; the former because it is a rather extraordinary example of the exemplary work done by the LAPD, and the latter because it just may contain a key to understanding the Laurel Canyon phenomenon:
Bobby Fuller, singer/songwriter/guitarist for the Bobby Fuller Four, was found dead in his car near Grauman’s Chinese Theater on July 18, 1966, after being lured away from his home by a mysterious 2:00-3:00 AM phone call of unknown origin. Fuller is best known for penning the hit song “I Fought the Law,” which had just hit the charts when he supposedly committed suicide at the age of twenty-three. There were multiple cuts and bruises on his face, chest and shoulders, dried blood around his mouth, and a hairline fracture to his right hand. He had been thoroughly doused with gasoline, including in his mouth and throat. The inside of the car was doused as well, and an open book of matches lay on the seat. It was perfectly obvious that Fuller’s killer (or killers) had planned to torch the car, destroying all evidence, but likely got scared away. The LAPD, nevertheless, ruled Fuller’s death a suicide – despite the coroner’s conclusion that the gas had been poured after Bobby’s death. Police later decided that it wasn’t a suicide after all, but rather an accident. They didn’t bother to explain how Fuller had accidentally doused himself with gasoline after accidentally killing himself. At the time of his death, one of Fuller’s closest confidants was a prostitute named Melody who worked at PJ’s nightclub, where Bobby frequently played. The club was co-owned by Eddie Nash, who would, many years later, orchestrate the Wonderland massacre. A few years after Bobby’s death, his brother and bass player, Randy Fuller, teamed up with drummer Dewey Martin, formerly of Buffalo Springfield.
Gary Hinman, a musician, music teacher, and part-time chemist, was brutally murdered in his Topanga Canyon home on July 27, 1969. Convicted of his murder was Mansonite Bobby Beausoleil, who had played rhythm guitar in a local band known as the Grass Roots. To avoid confusion with the more famous band already using that name, the Laurel Canyon band changed its name to Love. Beausoleil would claim that the band’s new name was inspired by his own nickname, Cupid.
Janis Joplin, vocalist extraordinaire, was found dead of a heroin overdose on October 4, 1970 at the Landmark Hotel, about a mile east of the mouth of Laurel Canyon, where she occasionally visited. Indications were that she had taken or been given a “hot shot,” many times stronger than standard street heroin. Joplin’s father, by the way, was a petroleum engineer for Texaco. And though it might normally seem an odd coupling, it somehow seems perfectly natural, in the context of this story, that Janis once dated that great crusader in the war on all things immoral, William Bennett. Like Morrison and Hendrix, Joplin died at the age of twenty-seven.
Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, lead guitarist and bass player for the Allman Brothers, were killed in freakishly similar motorcycle crashes on October 29, 1971 and November 11, 1972. Allman was the son of Willis Allman, a US Army Sergeant who had been murdered by another soldier near Norfolk, Virginia (home of the world’s largest naval installation) on December 26, 1949. In 1967, Duane and his younger brother, Gregg, then billing themselves as The Allman Joys, ventured out to Los Angeles. While there, Gregg auditioned for and was almost signed by the Laurel Canyon band Poco, which featured Buffalo Springfield alumni Richie Furay and Jim Messina, as well as future Eagle Randy Meisner. Duane was killed when a truck turned in front of his motorcycle at an intersection and inexplicably stopped. Just over a year later, Oakley had a similar run-in with a bus, just three blocks from where Allman had been killed. Following the crash, Berry had dusted himself off and declined medical attention, insisting that he was okay. Three hours later, he was rushed to the hospital, where he died. Both Oakley and Allman were just twenty-four years old
Phil Ochs, folk singer/songwriter and political activist, was found hanged in his sister’s home in Far Rockaway, New York on April 9, 1976. Throughout his life, Ochs was one of the most overtly political of the 1960s rock and folk music stars. A regular attendee at anti-war, civil rights, and labor rallies, Ochs appeared to be, at all times, an unwavering political leftist (he named his first band The Singing Socialists). That all changed, however, and rather dramatically, in the months before his death. Born in El Paso, Texas on December 19, 1940, Phil and his family moved frequently during the first few years of his life. His father, Dr. Jacob Ochs, had been drafted by the US Army and assigned to various military hospitals in New York, New Mexico and Texas. In 1943, Dr. Ochs was shipped overseas, returning two years later with a medical discharge. Upon his return, he was immediately institutionalized and didn’t return to his family for another two years. During that time, he was subjected to every ‘treatment’ imaginable, including electroshock ‘therapy.’ When he finally returned to his family, in 1947, he was but a shell of his former self, described by Phil’s sister as “almost like a phantom.” Beginning in the fall of 1956, Phil Ochs began attending Staunton Military Academy, the very same institution that future ‘serial killer’/cult leader Gary Heidnik would attend just one year after Ochs graduated. During Phil’s two years there, a friend and fellow band member was found swinging from the end of a rope (I probably don’t need to add here that the death was ruled a suicide). Following graduation, Phil enrolled at Ohio State University, but not before, oddly enough, having a little plastic surgery done to alter his appearance (doing such things, needless to say, was rather uncommon in 1958). In early 1962, just months before his scheduled graduation, Ochs dropped out of college to pursue a career in music. By 1966, he had released three albums. In 1967, under the management of his brother, Michael Ochs, Phil moved out to Los Angeles. Michael had begun working the previous year as an assistant to Barry James, who maintained a party house at 8504 Ridpath in Laurel Canyon. In the early 1970s, with his career beginning to fade, Phil Ochs began to travel internationally, usually accompanied by vast quantities of booze and pills. Those travels included a visit to Chile, not long before the US-sponsored coup that toppled Salvador Allende. In early summer of 1975, Phil Ochs’ public persona abruptly changed. Using the name John Butler Train, Ochs proclaimed himself to be a CIA operative and presented himself as a belligerent, right-wing thug. He told an interviewer that, “on the first day of summer 1975, Phil Ochs was murdered in the Chelsea Hotel by John Train … For the good of societies, public and secret, he needed to be gotten rid of.” That symbolic assassination, on the summer solstice, took place at the same hotel that Devon Wilson had flown out of a few years earlier. One of Ochs’ biographers would later write that Phil/John “actually believed he was a member of the CIA.” Also in those final months of his life, Ochs began compiling curious lists, with entries that clearly were references to US biological warfare research: “shellfish toxin, Fort Dietrich, cobra venom, Chantilly Race Track, hollow silver dollars, New York Cornell Hospital …” Many years before Ochs’ metamorphosis, in an interesting bit of foreshadowing, psychological warfare operative George Estabrooks explained how US intelligence agencies could create the perfect spy:
“We start with an excellent subject … we need a man or woman who is highly intelligent and physically tough. Then we start to develop a case of multiple personality through hypnotism. In his normal waking state, which we will call Personality A, or PA, this individual will become a rabid communist. He will join the party, follow the party line and make himself as objectionable as possible to the authorities. Note that he will be acting in good faith. He is a communist, or rather his PA is a communist and will behave as such. Then we develop Personality B (PB), the secondary personality, the unconscious personality, if you wish, although this is somewhat of a contradiction in terms. This personality is rabidly American and anti-communist. It has all the information possessed by PA, the normal personality, whereas PA does not have this advantage … My super spy plays his role as a communist in his waking state, aggressively, consistently, fearlessly. But his PB is a loyal American, and PB has all the memories of PA. As a loyal American, he will not hesitate to divulge those memories.”Estabrooks never explained what would happen if the programming were to go haywire and Personality B were to become the conscious personality, but my guess is that such a person would be considered a severe liability and would be treated accordingly. They might even be find themselves swinging from the end of a rope. Phil Ochs was thirty-five at the time of his death.
And with that, I think we can move on now from the Laurel Canyon Death List. The list is not yet complete, mind you, since we have only covered the years 1966-1976. Rest assured then that we will continue to add names as we follow the various threads of this story. Some of those names will be quite familiar, while others will be significantly less so. One of the names from that era that has been all but forgotten is Judee Lynn Sill, who was once favorably compared to such other Laurel Canyon singer/songwriters as Joni Mitchell, Judi Collins and Carole King. By the time of her death on November 23, 1979, however, she had been all but forgotten, and not a single obituary was published to note her passing.
Judee was born in Studio City, California, not far from the northern entrance to Laurel Canyon, on October 7, 1944. Her father, Milford “Bud” Sill, was reportedly a cameraman for Paramount Studios with numerous Hollywood connections. When Judee was quite young, however, Bud moved the family to Oakland and opened a bar known as “Bud’s Bar.” He also operated a side business as an importer of rare animals, which required him to spend a considerable amount of time traveling in Central and South America. Such a business, it should be noted, would provide an ideal cover for covert intelligence work. In any event, Bud Sill was dead by 1952, when Judee was just seven or eight years old. Depending on who is telling the story, Bud died either from pneumonia or a heart attack.
Following Bud’s death, the family relocated back to Southern California and Judee’s older brother Dennis, still in his teens, took over the family importing business. That didn’t last long though as Dennis soon turned up dead down in Central America, either from a liver infection or a car accident. The animal importing business, I guess, is a rather dangerous one.
Judee’s mother, Oneta, met and married Ken Muse, an Academy Award winning animator for Hanna-Barbera who was described by Judee as an abusive, violent alcoholic. At fifteen, Judee fled her violent home life and lived with an older man with whom she pulled off a series of armed robberies in the San Fernando Valley. Those activities landed her in reform school, which did little to curb her appetite for drugs, crime and alcohol. She spent the next few years with a serious heroin addiction, which she financed by dealing drugs and turning tricks in some of LA’s seedier neighborhoods.
By 1963, Judee had cleaned herself up enough to enroll in junior college. In the early winter of 1965, however, Judee’s mom, her last surviving family member, died either of cancer or of complications arising from her chronic alcoholism (take your pick; the details of this story will likely remain forever elusive). Barely an adult, Judee was left all alone in the world, and thus began another downward spiral into drugs and crime, which culminated in her being arrested and possibly serving time on forgery and drug charges.
In the late 1960s, with her addictions apparently temporarily curbed, Sill joined the Laurel Canyon scene, where she attempted to forge a career as a singer/songwriter. Her first big break came when she sold the song “Lady O” to The Turtles (yet another Laurel Canyon band to hit it big in the mid-1960s; best known for the hit single “Happy Together,” The Turtles were led by lead vocalist/songwriter Howard Kaylan, who happened to be, small world that it is, a cousin of Frank Zappa’s manager and business partner, Herb Cohen). The band released the song, which featured Judee’s guitar work, in 1969. The next year, Sill became the first artist signed to David Geffen’s fledgling Asylum record label. The year after that, her self-titled debut album became Asylum’s first official release. The first single from the album, “Jesus Was a Crossmaker,” was produced by Graham Nash, whom she opened for on tour following the album’s release.
Though critically well-received, the album’s sales were disappointing, in part because the record was overshadowed by the debut albums of Jackson Browne and The Eagles, both released by Asylum shortly after the release of Judee’s album. Sill’s second album, 1973’s “Heart Food,” was even more of a commercial disappointment. Nevertheless, in 1974 she began work on a third album in Monkee Mike Nesmith’s recording studio. Prior to completion, however, she abandoned the project and promptly disappeared without a trace. What became of her between that time and her death some five years later remains largely a mystery. It is assumed that she once again descended into a life of drugs and prostitution, but no one seems to know for sure.
It is alleged that she was seriously injured when her car was rear-ended by actor Danny Kaye, causing her to suffer from chronic back pain thereafter, thus contributing to her drug addictions. According to a friend of hers, she lived in a home that featured an enormous photo of Bela Lugosi above the fireplace, a large ebony cross above her bed, and racks of candles. She is said to have read extensively from Rosicrucian manuscripts and from the writings of Aleister Crowley, to have possessed a complete collection of the work of Helena Blavatsky, and to have been a gifted tarot card reader.
What is known for sure is that, on the day after Thanksgiving, 1979, Judee Sill, the last surviving member of her family, was found dead in a North Hollywood apartment. The cause of death was listed as “acute cocaine and codeine intoxication.” It was claimed that a suicide note was found, but friends insisted that the supposed note was either a portion of a diary entry or an unfinished song. One of her friends would later note that, at some point in her life, Judee began to realize that “there was a part of her that wasn’t under her conscious control.” I’m guessing that Phil Ochs, and quite a few other characters in this story, could relate to that.
The bridge of the USS Bon Homme Richard, January 1964.
Just months later, the guy on the right would guide his ship into the Tonkin Gulf, and the young man on the left would begin a remarkable transformation into a brooding rock god.
The Bon Homme Richard, by the way, was launched on April 29, 1944, under the sponsorship of Catherine McCain, the grandmother of a certain presidential contender.
Until around 1913, Laurel Canyon remained an undeveloped (and unincorporated) slice of LA - a pristine wilderness area rich in native flora and fauna. That all began to change when Charles Spencer Mann and his partners began buying up land along what would become Laurel Canyon Boulevard, as well as up Lookout Mountain. A narrow road leading up to the crest of Lookout Mountain was carved out, and upon that crest was constructed a lavish 70-room inn with sweeping views of the city below and the Pacific Ocean beyond. The Lookout Inn featured a large ballroom, riding stables, tennis courts and a golf course, among other amenities. But the inn, alas, would only stand for a decade; in 1923, it burned down, as tends to happen rather frequently in Laurel Canyon.
In 1913, Mann began operating what was billed as the nation's first trackless trolley, to ferry tourists and prospective buyers from Sunset Boulevard up to what would become the corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Lookout Mountain Avenue. Around that same time, he built a massive tavern/roadhouse on that very same corner. Dubbed the Laurel Tavern, the structure boasted a 2,000+ square-foot formal dining room, guest rooms, and a bowling alley on the basement level. The Laurel Tavern, of course, would later be acquired by Tom Mix, after which it would be affectionately known as the Log Cabin.
Shortly after the Log Cabin was built, a department store mogul (or a wealthy furniture manufacturer; there is more than one version of the story, or perhaps the man owned more than one business) built an imposing, castle-like mansion across the road, at the corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and what would become Willow Glen Road. The home featured rather creepy towers and parapets, and the foundation is said to have been riddled with secret passageways, tunnels, and hidden chambers. Similarly, the grounds of the estate were (and still are) laced with trails leading to grottoes, elaborate stone structures, and hidden caves and tunnels.
Across Laurel Canyon Boulevard, the grounds of the Laurel Tavern/Log Cabin were also laced with odd caves and tunnels. As Michael Walker notes in Laurel Canyon, "Running up the hillside, behind the house, was a collection of man-made caves built out of stucco, with electric wiring and light bulbs inside." According to various accounts, one secret tunnel running under what is now Laurel Canyon Boulevard connected the Log Cabin (or its guesthouse) to the Houdini estate. This claim is frequently denounced as an urban legend, but given that both properties are known to possess unusual, uhmm, geological features, it's not hard to believe that the tunnel system on one property was connected at one time to the tunnel system on the other. The Tavern itself, as Gail Zappa would later describe it, was "huge and vault-like and cavernous."
Lookout Mountain Inn
With these two rather unusual structures anchoring an otherwise undeveloped canyon, and the Lookout Inn sitting atop uninhabited Lookout Mountain, Mann set about marketing the canyon as a vacation and leisure destination. The land that he carved up into subdivisions with names like "Bungalow Land" and "Wonderland Park" was presented as the ideal location to build vacation homes. But the new inn and roadhouse, and the new parcels of land for sale, definitely weren't for everyone. The roadhouse was essentially a country club, or what Jack Boulware of Mojo Magazine described as "a masculine retreat for wealthy men." And Bungalow Land was openly advertised as "a high-class restricted park for desirable people only."
"Desirable people," of course, tended to be wealthy people without a great deal of skin pigmentation.
As the website of the current Laurel Canyon Association notes, "restrictive covenants were attached to the new parcel deeds." These were thinly veiled attempts to limit ownership to white males of a certain class. While there are many references to the bigotry of the developers in our area, it would appear that some residents were also prone to bias and lawlessness. This article was published in a local paper in 1925:
Frank Sanceri, the man who was flogged by self-styled 'white knights' on Lookout Mountain in Hollywood several months ago, was found not guilty by a jury in Superior Judge Shea's courtroom of having unlawfully attacked Astrea Jolley, aged 11.The author of this little slice of Laurel Canyon history would clearly like us to believe that the "wealthier residents" were a group quite separate from the violent hooligans roaming the canyon. The history of such groups in Los Angeles, however, clearly suggests otherwise. Paul Young, for example, has written in L.A. Exposed of Los Angeles' early "vigilance committees, which stepped in to take care of outlaws on their own, often with the complete absolution of the mayor himself. Judge Lynch, for example, formed the Los Angeles Rangers in 1854 with some of the city's top judges, lawyers, and businessmen, including tycoon Phineas Banning of the Banning Railroad. And there was the Los Angeles Home Guard, another bloodthirsty paramilitary organization, made up of notable citizens, and the much-feared El Monte Rangers, a group of Texas wranglers that specialized in killing Mexicans. As one would expect, there was no regard for the victim's rights in such kangaroo courts. Victims were often dragged from their homes, jail cells, even churches, and beaten, horse-whipped, tortured, mutilated, or castrated before being strung up on the nearest tree."
"Wealthier residents were also attracted to Laurel Canyon. With the creation of the Hollywood film industry in 1910, the canyon attracted a host of 'photoplayers,' including Wally Reid, Tom Mix, Clara Bow, Richard Dix, Norman Kerry, Ramon Navarro, Harry Houdini and Bessie Love."
And that, dear readers, is how we do things out here on the 'Left' Coast.
Before moving on, I need to mention here that, of the eight celebrity residents of Laurel Canyon listed by the Association, fully half died under questionable circumstances, and three of the four did so on days with occult significance. While Bessie Love, Norman Kerry, Richard Dix and Clara Bow all lived long and healthy lives, Ramon Navarro, as we have already seen, was ritually murdered in his home on Laurel Canyon Boulevard on the eve of Halloween, 1968. Nearly a half-century earlier, on January 18, 1923, matinee idol Wallace Reid was found dead in a padded cell at the mental institution to which he had been confined. Just thirty-one years old, Reid's death was attributed to morphine addiction, though it was never explained how he would have fed that habit while confined to a cell in a mental hospital.
Tom Mix died on a lonely stretch of Arizona highway in the proverbial single-car crash on October 12, 1940 (the birthday of notorious occultist Aleister Crowley), when he quite unexpectedly encountered some temporary construction barricades that had been set up alongside a reportedly washed-out bridge. Although he wasn't speeding (by most accounts), Mix was nevertheless allegedly unable to stop in time and veered off the road, while a crew of what were described as "workmen" reportedly looked on. It wasn't the impact that killed Mix though, but rather a severe blow to the back of the head and neck, purportedly delivered during the crash by an aluminum case he had been carrying in the back seat of his car. There is now a roadside marker at the spot where Mix died. If you should happen to stop by to have a look, you might as well pay a visit to the Florence Military Reservation as well, since it's just a stone's throw away.
Harry Houdini died on Halloween day, 1926, purportedly of an attack of appendicitis precipitated by a blow to the stomach. The problem with that story, however, is that medical science now recognizes it to be an impossibility. According to a recent book about the famed illusionist (The Secret Life of Houdini, by William Kalush and Larry Sloman), Houdini was likely murdered by poisoning. Questions have been raised, the book notes, by the curious lack of an autopsy, an "experimental serum" that Houdini was apparently given in the hospital, and indications that his wife, Bess, may have been poisoned as well (though she survived). On March 23, 2007, an exhumation of Houdini's remains was formally requested by his surviving family members. It is unclear at this time when, or even if, that will happen.
Houdini's death, on October 31, 1926, came exactly eight years after the first death to occur in what would become known as the "Houdini house." In 1918, not long after the home was built, a lover's quarrel arose on one of the home's balconies during a Halloween/birthday party. The gay lover of the original owner's son reportedly ended up splattered on the ground below. According to legend, the businessman managed to get his son off, but only after paying off everyone he could find to pay off, including the trial judge. The aftermath of the party proved to be financially devastating for the family, and the home was apparently put up for sale.
Not long after that, as fate would have it, Harry Houdini was looking for a place to stay in the Hollywood area, as he had decided to break into the motion picture business. He found the perfect home in Laurel Canyon - the home that would, forever after, carry his name. By most accounts, he lived there from about 1919 through the early 1920s, during a brief movie career in which he starred in a handful of Hollywood films. A key scene in one of those films, "The Grim Game," was reportedly shot at the top of Lookout Mountain, near where the Lookout Inn then stood.
On October 31, 1959, precisely thirty-three years after Houdini's death, and forty-one years after the unnamed party guest's death, the distinctive mansion on the corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Willow Glen Road burned to the ground in a fire of mysterious origin (the ruins of the estate remain today, undisturbed for nearly fifty years). On October 31, 1981, exactly twenty-two years after the fire across the road, the legendary Log Cabin on the other side of Laurel Canyon Boulevard also burned to the ground, in yet another fire of mysterious origin (some reports speculated that it was a drug lab explosion). And twenty-five years after that, on October 31, 2006, The Secret Life of Houdini was published, challenging the conventional wisdom on Houdini's death.
Far more compelling than the revelations about Houdini's death, however, was something else about the illusionist that the book revealed for the first time: Harry Houdini was a spook working for both the U.S. Secret Service and Scotland Yard. And his traveling escape act, as it turns out, was pretty much a cover for intelligence activities. Just as, as I think I wrote in a previous newsletter, John Wilkes Booth used his career as a traveling stage performer as a cover for intelligence operations. And just as - sorry to have to break it to you - many of your favorite movie and television actors and musical artists continue in that tradition today.
The book, of course, doesn't make such reckless allegations about any performers other than Houdini. I added all of that. What the book does do, however, is compellingly document that Houdini was, in fact, an intelligence asset who used his magic act as a cover. Not only did the authors obtain corroborating documentation from Scotland Yard, they also received an endorsement of their claim from no less an authority than John McLaughlin, former Acting Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (who knew it was that easy? - maybe I should give John a call and run some of my theories by him).
It appears then that, of the eight celebrity residents of Laurel Canyon listed on the Laurel Canyon Association website, at least two (Novarro and Houdini), and possibly as many as four, were murdered. That seemed like a rather high homicide rate to me, so I looked up a recent study on the Internet and found that, on average, a white person in this country has about a 1-in-345 chance of being murdered. Non-white persons, of course, have a far greater chance of being murdered, but nowhere near the 1-in-4 to 1-in-2 odds that a white celebrity living in Laurel Canyon faces.
Statistically speaking, if you were a famous actor in the 1920s, you would have been better off playing a round of Russian Roulette than living in Laurel Canyon.
Anyway ... two ambitious projects in the 1940s brought significant changes to Laurel Canyon. First, Laurel Canyon Boulevard was extended into the San Fernando Valley, providing access to the canyon from both the north and the south. The widened boulevard was now a winding thoroughfare, providing direct access to the Westside from the Valley. Traffic, needless to say, increased considerably, which probably worked out well for the planners of the other project, because it meant that the increased traffic brought about by that other project probably wasn't noticed at all. And that's good, you see, because the other project was a secret one, so if I tell you about it, you have to promise not to tell anyone else.
Lookout Mountain Laboratory
What would become known as Lookout Mountain Laboratory was originally envisioned as an air defense center. Built in 1941 and nestled in two-and-a-half secluded acres off what is now Wonderland Park Avenue, the installation was hidden from view and surrounded by an electrified fence. By 1947, the facility featured a fully operational movie studio. In fact, it is claimed that it was perhaps the world's only completely self-contained movie studio. With 100,000 square feet of floor space, the covert studio included sound stages, screening rooms, film processing labs, editing facilities, an animation department, and seventeen climate-controlled film vaults. It also had underground parking, a helicopter pad and a bomb shelter.
Over its lifetime, the studio produced some 19,000 classified motion pictures - more than all the Hollywood studios combined (which I guess makes Laurel Canyon the real 'motion picture capital of the world'). Officially, the facility was run by the U.S. Air Force and did nothing more nefarious than process AEC footage of atomic and nuclear bomb tests. The studio, however, was clearly equipped to do far more than just process film. There are indications that Lookout Mountain Laboratory had an advanced research and development department that was on the cutting edge of new film technologies. Such technological advances as 3-D effects were apparently first developed at the Laurel Canyon site. And Hollywood luminaries like John Ford, Jimmy Stewart, Howard Hawks, Ronald Reagan, Bing Crosby, Walt Disney and Marilyn Monroe were given clearance to work at the facility on undisclosed projects. There is no indication that any of them ever spoke of their work at the clandestine studio.
The facility retained as many as 250 producers, directors, technicians, editors, animators, etc., both civilian and military, all with top security clearances - and all reporting to work in a secluded corner of Laurel Canyon. Accounts vary as to when the facility ceased operations. Some claim it was in 1969, while others say the installation remained in operation longer. In any event, by all accounts the secret bunker had been up and running for more than twenty years before Laurel Canyon's rebellious teen years, and it remained operational for the most turbulent of those years.
The existence of the facility remained unknown to the general public until the early 1990s, though it had long been rumored that the CIA operated a secret movie studio somewhere in or near Hollywood. Filmmaker Peter Kuran was the first to learn of its existence through classified documents he obtained while researching his 1995 documentary, "Trinity and Beyond." And yet even today, some 15 years after its public disclosure, one would have trouble finding even a single mention of this secret military/intelligence facility anywhere in the 'conspiracy' literature.
I think we can all agree though that there is nothing the least bit suspicious about any of that, so let's move on.
In the 1950s, as Barney Hoskyns has written in Hotel California, Laurel Canyon was home to all "the hippest young actors," including, according to Hoskyns, Marlon Brando, James Dean, James Coburn and Dennis Hopper. In addition to Hopper and Dean, yet another of the young stars of "Rebel Without a Cause" found a home in the canyon as well: Natalie Wood. In fact, Natalie lived in the very home that Cass Elliot would later turn into a Laurel Canyon party house. A fourth young star of the film, Sal Mineo, lived at the mouth of the canyon, and the fifth member of the "Rebel Without a Cause" posse, Nick Adams, lived just a mile or so away (as the crow flies) in neighboring Coldwater Canyon.
With the exception of Hopper, all of their lives were tragically cut short, proving once again that Laurel Canyon can be a very dangerous place to live.
First there was that great American icon, James Dean, who ostensibly died in a near head-on collision on September 30, 1955, at the tender age of twenty-four. Next to fall was Nick Adams, who had known Dean before either were stars, when both were working the mean streets of Hollywood as young male prostitutes. Adams died on February 6, 1968, at the age of thirty-six, in his home at 2126 El Roble Lane in Coldwater Canyon. His official cause of death was listed as suicide, of course, but as actor Forrest Tucker has noted, "All of Hollywood knows Nick Adams was knocked off." Nick's relatives reportedly received numerous hang-up calls on the day of his death, and his tape recorder, journals and various other papers and personal effects were conspicuously missing from his home. His lifeless body, sitting upright in a chair, was discovered by his attorney, Ervin "Tip" Roeder. On June 10, 1981, Roeder and his wife, actress Jenny Maxwell (best known for being spanked by Elvis in "Blue Hawaii"), were gunned down outside their Beverly Hills condo.
Next in line was Sal Mineo, whose murder on February 12, 1976 we have already covered. Last to fall was Natalie Wood, who died on November 29, 1981 in a drowning incident that has never been adequately explained. Before being found floating in the waters off Catalina Island, Wood had been aboard a private yacht in the company of actors Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken. She was forty-three when she was laid to rest.
The list of famous former residents of the canyon also includes the names of W.C. Fields, Mary Astor, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Errol Flynn, Orson Welles, and Robert Mitchum, who was infamously arrested on marijuana charges in 1948 at 8334 Ridpath Drive, the same street that would later be home to rockers Roger McGuinn, Don Henley and Glen Frey, as well as to Paul Rothchild, producer of both The Doors and Love. Mitchum's arrest, by the way, appears to have been a thoroughly staged affair that cemented his 'Hollywood bad boy' image and gave his career quite a boost, but I guess that's not really relevant here.
Another famous resident of Laurel Canyon, apparently in the 1940s, was science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein, who reportedly resided at 8775 Lookout Mountain Avenue. Like so many other characters in this story, Heinlein was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and he had served as a naval officer. After that, he embarked on a successful writing career. And despite the fact that he was, by any objective measure, a rabid right-winger, his work was warmly embraced by the Flower Power generation.
Heinlein's best-known work is the novel Stranger in a Strange Land, which many in the Laurel Canyon scene found to be hugely influential. Ed Sanders has written, in The Family, that the book "helped provide a theoretical basis for Manson's family." Charlie frequently used Strange Land terminology when addressing his flock, and he named his first Family-born son Valentine Michael Manson, in honor of the book's lead character.
David Crosby was a big Heinlein fan as well. In his autobiography, he references Heinlein on more than one occasion and proclaims that, "In a society where people can go armed, it makes everybody a little more polite, as Robert A. Heinlein says in his books." Frank Zappa was also a member of the Robert Heinlein fan club. Barry Miles notes in his biography of the rock icon that his home contained "a copy of Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince and other essential sixties reading, including Robert Heinlein's sci-fi classic, Stranger in a Strange Land, from which Zappa borrowed the word 'discorporate' for [the song] 'Absolutely Free.'"
And that, fearless readers, more or less brings us to the Laurel Canyon era that we are primarily concerned with, the wild and wooly 1960s, which we will take a closer look at in the next chapter of this saga.
So what, if anything, have we learned today? We have learned that murder and random acts of violence have been a part of the culture of the canyon since the earliest days of its development. We have also learned that spooks posing as entertainers have likewise been a part of the canyon scene since the earliest days. And, finally, we have learned that spooks who didn't even bother to pose as entertainers were streaming into the canyon to report to work at Lookout Mountain Laboratory for at least twenty years before the first rock star set foot there.
One final note is in order here: we are supposed to believe that all of these musical icons just sort of spontaneously came together in Laurel Canyon (one finds the words "serendipitous" sprinkled freely throughout the literature).
But how many peculiar coincidences do we have to overlook in order to believe that this was just a chance gathering?
1. Let's suppose, hypothetically speaking, that you are the young man in the photo at the top of this post, and you have recently arrived in Laurel Canyon and now find yourself fronting a band that is on the verge of taking the country by storm. Just a mile or so down Laurel Canyon Boulevard from you lives another guy who also recently arrived in Laurel Canyon, and who also happens to front a band on the verge of stardom. He happens to be married to a girl that you attended kindergarten with, and her dad, like yours, was involved in atomic weapons research and testing (Admiral George Morrison for a time did classified work at White Sands). Her husband's dad, meanwhile, is involved in another type of WMD research: chemical warfare.
2. This other guy's business partner/manager is a spooky ex-Marine who just happens to have a cousin who, bizarrely enough, also fronts a rock band on the verge of superstardom. And this third rock-star-on-the-rise also happens to live in Laurel Canyon, just a mile or two from your house. Just down a couple of other streets, also within walking distance of your home, live two other kids who - wouldn't you know it? - also happen to front a new rock band. These two kids happened to attend the same Alexandria, Virginia high school that you attended, and one of them also attended Annapolis, just like your dad did, and just like your kindergarten friend's dad did.
3. Though almost all of you hail from (or spent a substantial portion of your childhood in) the Washington, D.C. area, you now find yourselves on the opposite side of the country, in an isolated canyon high above the city of Los Angeles, where you are all clustered around a secret military installation. Given his background in research on atomic weapons, your father is probably familiar to some extent with the existence and operations of Lookout Mountain Laboratory, as is the father of your kindergarten friend, and probably the fathers of a few other Laurel Canyon figures as well.
“This is how I remember my life. Other folks may not have the same memories, even though we might have shared some of the same experiences.”So begins David Crosby’s autobiography, Long Time Gone (co-written by Carl Gottlieb). As it turns out, quite a few other folks seem to remember some people in Crosby’s life who are all but ignored in the lengthy book. The names are casually dropped only once, and not by Crosby but rather in a quote from manager Jim Dickson in which he describes the scene at the Sunset Strip clubs when The Byrds played: “We had them all. We had Jack Nicholson dancing, we had Peter Fonda dancing with Odetta, we had Vito and his Freakers.”
Following that brief mention by Dickson, Gottlieb briefly explains to readers that, “Vito and his Freakers were an acid-drenched extended family of brain-damaged cohabitants.” And that, in an incredibly self-indulgent 489-page tome, is the only mention you will find of “Vito and his Freakers” – despite the fact that, by just about all other accounts, the group dismissed as “brain-damaged cohabitants” played a key role in the early success of Crosby’s band. And the early success of Arthur Lee’s band. And the early success of Frank Zappa’s band. And the early success of Jim Morrison’s band. But especially in the early success of David Crosby’s band.
As Barry Miles noted in his biography of Frank Zappa, “The Byrds were closely associated with Vito and the Freaks: Vito Paulekas, his wife Zsou and Karl Franzoni, the leaders of a group of about 35 dancers whose antics enlivened the Byrds early gigs.” In Waiting for the Sun, Barney Hoskyns writes that the early success of The Byrds and other bands was due in no small part to “the roving troupe of self-styled ‘freaks’ led by ancient beatnik Vito Paulekas and his trusty, lusty sidekick Carl Franzoni.” Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer, former drummer and keyboardist for the band Love, went further still, claiming that Vito actually “got the Byrds together, as I remember – they did a lot of rehearsing at his pad.”
And according to various other accounts, The Byrds did indeed utilize Vito’s ‘pad’ as a rehearsal studio, as did Arthur Lee’s band. More importantly, the Freaks drew the crowds into the clubs to see the fledgling bands perform. But as important as their contribution was to helping launch the careers of the Laurel Canyon bands, “Vito and his Freakers” were notable for something else as well; according to Barry Miles, writing in his book Hippie, “The first hippies in Hollywood, perhaps the first hippies anywhere, were Vito, his wife Zsou, Captain Fuck and their group of about thirty-five dancers. Calling themselves Freaks, they lived a semi-communal life and engaged in sex orgies and free-form dancing whenever they could.”
Some of those who were on the scene at the time agree with Miles’ assessment that Vito and his troupe were indeed the very first hippies. Arthur Lee, for example, boasted that they “started the whole hippie thing: Vito, Karl, Szou, Beatle Bob, Bryan and me.” One of David Crosby’s fellow Byrds, Chris Hillman, also credited the strange group with being at the forefront of the hippie movement: “Carl and all those guys were way ahead of everyone on hippiedom fashion.” Ray Manzarek of The Doors remembered them as well: “There were these guys named Carl and Vito who had a dance troupe of gypsy freaks. They were let in for free, because they were these quintessential hippies, which was great for tourists.”
If these folks really were the very first hippies, the first riders of that ‘counter-cultural’ wave, then we should probably try to get to know them. As it turns out, however, that is not such an easy thing to do. Most accounts – and there aren’t all that many – offer little more than a few first names, with no consensus agreement on how those first names are even spelled (“Karl” and “Carl” appear interchangeably, as do “Szou” and “Zsou,” and “Godot” and “Godo”). But for you, dear readers – because I apparently have way too much time on my hands – I have gone the extra mile and sifted through the detritus to dig up at least some of the sordid details.
By all accounts the troupe was led by one Vito Paulekas, whose full name is said to have been Vitautus Alphonsus Paulekas. Born the son of a Lithuanian sausage-maker circa 1912, Vito hailed from Lowell, Massachusetts. From a young age, he developed a habit of running afoul of the law. According to Miles, he spent a year-and-a-half in a reformatory as a teenager and “was busted several times after that.” In 1938, he was convicted of armed robbery and handed a 25-year sentence following a botched attempt at holding up a movie theater. By 1942, however, just four years later, he had been released into the custody, so to speak, of the US Merchant Marine (a branch of the US Navy during wartime), ostensibly to escort ships running lend-lease missions.
Following his release from the service, circa 1946, Vito arrived in Los Angeles. What he did for the next fifteen years or so is anyone’s guess; there is virtually no mention of those years in any of the accounts I have stumbled across. What is known is that by the early 1960s, Vito was ensconced in an unassuming building at the corner of Laurel Avenue and Beverly Boulevard, just below the mouth of Laurel Canyon (and very near Jay Sebring’s hair salon). At street level was his young wife Szou’s clothing boutique, which has been credited by some of those making the scene in those days with being the very first to introduce ‘hippie’ fashions. Upstairs was the living quarters for Vito, Szou and their young son, Godot. Downstairs was what was known as the “Vito Clay” studio, where, according to Miles and various others, Paulekas “made a living of sorts by giving clay modeling lessons to Beverly Hills matrons who found the atmosphere in his studio exciting.”
According to most accounts, it wasn’t really the Mayan-tomb decor of the studio that many of the matrons found so exciting, but rather Vito’s reportedly insatiable sexual appetite and John Holmesian physique. In any event, Vito’s students also apparently included such Hollywood luminaries as Jonathon Winters, Mickey Rooney and Steve Allen. Nevertheless, though Paulekas claimed to be a serious artist (a painter, poet, dancer and photographer, in addition to a sculptor), there is scant evidence that I have seen that supports such claims (I am not, however, the most objective of art critics, as I am, as best I can determine, apparently not cultured enough to ‘get’ the majority of what passes for art).
As for his erstwhile sidekick, Carl Orestes Franzoni, he has claimed in interviews that his “mother was a countess” and his father “was a stone carver from Rutland, Vermont. The family was brought from Italy, from the quarries in the northern part of Italy, to cut the stone for the monuments of the United States.” That would make his father, I’m guessing here, someone of some importance in the Mason community, if Carl is to be believed. By Franzoni’s own account, he grew up as something of a young hoodlum in Cincinnati, Ohio, and later went into business with some shady Sicilian characters selling mail-order breast and penis pumps out of an address on LA’s fabled Melrose Avenue. As Franzoni remembered it, his business “partner’s name was Scallacci, Joe Scallacci – the same name as the famous murderer Scallacci. Probably from the same family.” Probably so.
Franzoni, born circa 1934, hooked up with the older Paulekas sometime around 1963 and soon after became his constant sidekick. As previously mentioned, the group also included Vito’s wife Szou, an ex-cheerleader who had hooked up with Paulekas when she was just sixteen and he was already in his fifties. Also in the troupe was a young Rory Flynn (Errol Flynn’s statuesque daughter), a bizarre character named Ricky Applebaum who had half a moustache on one side of his face and half a beard on the other, most of the young girls who would later become part of Frank Zappa’s GTO project, and a lot of other oddball characters who donned ridiculous pseudonyms like Linda Bopp, Butchie, Beatle Bob, Emerald, and Karen Yum Yum.
Also flitting about the periphery of the dance troupe were a young Gail Sloatman (the future Mrs. Zappa, for those who have already forgotten) and a curious character on the LA music scene by the name of Kim Fowley. The two were, for a time, closely allied, and even cut a record together as “Bunny and the Bear” that Fowley produced (“America’s Sweethearts”). In 1966, Fowley produced a record for Vito as well, billed as “Vito and the Hands.” The 7” single, “Where It’s At,” which featured the musicianship of some of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, came no closer to entering the charts than did Fowley and Sloatman’s effort. Sloatman, by the way, soon found work as an assistant and booking agent for Elmer Valentine, who we will meet shortly.
Fowley, as with so many other characters in this story, has a rather interesting history. He was born in 1939, the son of actor Douglas Fowley, a WWII Navy veteran and attendee of St. Francis Xavier Military Academy. According to the younger Fowley’s account, he was initially abandoned to a foster home but later taken back and raised by his father. He grew up in upscale Malibu, California, where he shared his childhood home with “a bunch of actors and guys from the Navy.” At the age of six-and-a-half, Fowley had an unusual experience that he later shared with author Michael Walker: dressed up in a sailor suit by his dad and his Navy buddies, he was taken “to a photographer named William, who took a picture of me in the sailor suit. His studio was next door to the Canyon [Country] Store.” Right after that, he was driven down Laurel Canyon Boulevard to the near-mythical Schwabs Drugstore, where “everybody cheered and two chorus girls grabbed my six-year-old cock and balls and stuck a candy cigarette in my mouth.”
Nice story, Mr. Fowley. Thanks for sharing.
It’s probably safe to assume that childhood experiences such as that helped to prepare Fowley for his later employment as a young male street hustler, a profession that he practiced on the seedy streets of the city of angels (by Fowley’s own account, I should probably add here, just as it was James Dean himself who claimed to have worked those same streets with Nick Adams). Following that, Fowley spent some time serving with the Army National Guard, after which he devoted his life to working in the LA music industry as a musician, writer and producer – as well as, according to some accounts, a master manipulator.
Around 1957, Fowley played in a band known as the Sleepwalkers, alongside future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston. At times, a diminutive young guitarist named Phil Spector – who had moved out to LA with his mother not too many years earlier, following the suicide of his father when Phil was just nine – sat in with the group. During the 1960s, Fowley was best known for producing such ridiculous yet beloved novelty songs as the Hollywood Argyles’ “Alley Oop” and the Rivington’s “Papa Oom-Mow-Mow,” though he also did more respectable work, such as collaborating on some Byrds’ tracks and having some of his original songs covered by both the Beach Boys and the Flying Burrito Brothers.
In 1975, Fowley had perhaps his greatest success when he created the Runaways, further lowering the bar that Frank Zappa had already set rather low some years earlier when he had created and recorded the GTOs. The Runaways featured underage versions of Joan Jett and Lita Ford, whom Fowley tastefully attired in leather and lingerie. As he would later boast, “Everyone loved the idea of 16-year-old girls playing guitars and singing about fucking.” Especially, I would imagine, their mothers and fathers. Some of the young girls in the band, including Cherie Curry, would later accuse Fowley of requiring them to perform sexual services for he and his associates as a prerequisite for membership in the group.
Prior to assembling the Runaways, one of Fowley’s proudest accomplishments had been producing the 1969 album “I’m Back and I’m Proud” by rockabilly pioneer Gene Vincent, featuring backing vocals by Canyonite Linda Ronstadt. Just two years later, Vincent – a Navy veteran raised in that penultimate Navy town, Norfolk, Virginia – permanently checked out of the Hotel California on October 12, 1971 (there’s that date again), due reportedly to a ruptured stomach ulcer. Not long before his death, Vincent had been on tour in the UK, but he had hastily returned to the US due to pressure from, among others, promoter Don Arden. Known none-too-affectionately as the “Al Capone of Pop,” Arden had a penchant for guns and violence and was known to openly boast of his affiliation with powerful organized crime figures. In addition to being a business partner of the equally nefarious Michael Jeffery, Arden was also the father of Sharon Osbourne and the former manager of her husband’s band, Black Sabbath … but here I have surely digressed, so let’s try to bring this back around to where we left off.
One other accomplishment of Fowley’s bears mentioning here: he received a guest vocalist credit on the Mothers of Invention album “Freak Out,” as did both Vito Paulekas and his sidekick, Carl Franzoni, to whom the song “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” was dedicated (some sources claim that Bobby Beausoleil also provided guest vocals on Zappa’s debut album, though his name does not appear in the album’s credits).
By at least as early as 1962, not long before Carl Franzoni joined the group, the Freak troupe was already hitting the clubs a couple nights each week to refine their unique style of dance (perhaps best described as an epileptic seizure set to music) and show off their distinctively unappealing, though soon to be quite popular, fashion sense. In those early days, they danced to local black R&B bands and to a band out of Fresno known as the Gauchos, in dives far removed from the fabled Sunset Strip – because, Franzoni has said, “There were no white bands [in LA] yet,” and “There were no clubs on Sunset Boulevard.”
That, of course, was all about to quickly change. As if by magic, new clubs began to spring up along the legendary Sunset Strip beginning around 1964, and old clubs considered to be long past their prime miraculously reemerged.
In January 1964, a young Chicago vice cop named Elmer Valentine opened the doors to the now world-famous Whisky-A-Go-Go nightclub. Just over a year later, in spring of 1965, he opened a second soon-to-be-wildly-popular club, The Trip. Not long before that, near the end of 1964, the legendary Ciro’s nightclub began undergoing extensive renovations. Opened in 1940 by Billy Wilkerson, an associate of Bugsy Siegel, the upscale club had flourished for the first twenty years of its existence, with a clientele that regularly included Hollywood royalty and organized crime figures. By the early 1960s though the Strip was dead, and the once prestigious club had gone to seed.
Ciro’s reopened in early 1965, just before The Trip opened its doors and just in time, as it turns out, to host the very first club appearance by the musical act that was about to become the first Laurel Canyon band to commit a song to vinyl: The Byrds. By 1967, Gazzaris had opened up on the Strip as well, and in the early 1970s Valentine would open yet another club that endures to this day, The Roxy. Smaller clubs like the London Fog, where The Doors got their first booking as the house band in early 1966, opened their doors to the public in the mid 1960s as well.
The timing of the opening of Valentine’s first two clubs, and the reopening of Ciro’s, could not have been any more fortuitous. The paint was barely dry on the walls of the new clubs when bands like Love and The Doors and The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield and the Turtles and the Mothers and the Lovin’ Spoonful came knocking. The problem, however, was that the new clubs were not yet well known, Ciro’s had been long left for dead, and nobody had the slightest idea who any of these newfangled bands were. What was needed then was a way to create a buzz around the clubs that would draw people in and kick-start the Strip back to life, as well as, of course, launch the careers of the new bands.
The bands themselves could not be expected to fill the new clubs, since, besides being unknown, they also – and yeah, I know that you don’t really want to hear this, and I will undoubtedly be deluged with letters of complaint, but I’m going to say it anyway – weren’t very good, at least not in their live incarnations. To be sure, they sounded great on vinyl, but that was largely due to the fact that the band members themselves didn’t actually play on their records (at least not in the early days), and the rich vocal harmonies that were a trademark of the ‘Laurel Canyon sound’ were created in the studio with a good deal of multi-tracking and overdubs. On stage, it was another matter entirely.
Enter then the wildly flamboyant and colorful Freak squad, who were one key component of the strategy that was devised to lure patrons into the clubs (the other component of the strategy, hinted at in one of the quotes near the top of this post, will be covered in installment #7). Vito and Carl’s dancers were a fixture on the Sunset Strip scene from the very moment that the new clubs opened their doors to the public, and they were, by all accounts, treated like royalty by the club owners. As John Hartmann, proprietor of the Kaleidoscope Club, acknowledged, he “would let Vito and his dancers into the Kaleidoscope free every week because they attracted people. They were really hippies, and so we had to have them. They got in free pretty much everywhere they went. They blessed your joint. They validated you. If they’re the essence of hippiedom and you’re trying to be a hippie nightclub, you need hippies.”
As the aforementioned Kim Fowley put it, with characteristic bluntness, “A band didn’t have to be good, as long as the dancers were there.” Indeed, the band was largely irrelevant, other than to provide some semblance of a soundtrack for the real show, which was taking place on the dance floor. Gail Zappa candidly admitted that, even at her husband’s shows, the real attraction was not on the stage: “The customers came to see the freaks dance. Nobody ever talks about that, but that was the case.” Frank added that, “As soon as they arrived they would make things happen, because they were dancing in a way nobody had seen before, screaming and yelling out on the floor and doing all kinds of weird things. They were dressed in a way that nobody could believe, and they gave life to everything that was going on.”
For reasons that clearly had more to do with boosting attendance at the clubs than with any actual talents displayed by the group, Vito and Carl seem to have become minor media darlings over the course of the 1960s and into the 1970s. The two can be seen, separately and together, in a string of cheap exploitation films, including Mondo Bizarro from 1966, Something’s Happening (aka The Hippie Revolt) from 1967, the notorious Mondo Hollywood, also released in 1967, and You Are What You Eat, with David Crosby, Frank Zappa and Tiny Tim, which hit theaters in 1968. In 1972, Vito made his acting debut in a non-documentary film, The White Horse Gang.
Paulekas reportedly also popped up on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life, and Franzoni made an appearance on a 1968 Dick Clark TV special. The golden child, Godot Paulekas, was featured in a photo in Life magazine circa 1966, and the whole troupe showed up for an appearance on the Tonight Show. According to Barry Miles, Vito also “appeared regularly on the Joe Pyne Show and in between the bare-breasted girls in the late fifties and early sixties men’s magazines.”
Joe Pyne, for those of you too young to remember (myself included), is the guy that we have to thank for paving the way for the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Don Imus, Morton Downey, Jr., Jerry Springer and Wally George. For Mr. Pyne, you see, was the guy who pioneered the confrontational interview style favored by so many gasbags today. The decorated Marine Corps veteran debuted as a talk-radio host in 1950 and quickly became known for insulting and demeaning anyone who dared to disagree with him, guests and listeners alike. In 1957, he moved his show to LA, and by 1965, he was nationally syndicated both on the radio and on television. His favored targets, as you may have guessed, included hippies, feminists, gays, and anti-war activists, and his interviews frequently ended with his guest either walking off or being thrown off the stage. Nearing the peak of his popularity, Pyne died on March 23, 1970 at the age of forty-five, reportedly of lung cancer. His ideological offspring, however, live on.
PART 6Vito was in his fifties, but he had four-way sex with goddesses … He held these clay-sculpting classes on Laurel Avenue, teaching rich Beverly Hills dowagers how to sculpt. And that was the Byrds’ rehearsal room. Then Jim Dickson had the idea to put them on at Ciro’s, on the basis that all the freaks would show up and the Byrds would be their Beatles.” —Kim Fowley
Recruits for Vito and Carl’s dance troupe weren’t likely hard to come by, given that, according to Miles, Vito operated “the first crash pad in LA, an open house to countless runaways where everyone was welcome for a night, particularly young women.” By the mid 1960s, the group had expanded into a second communal location in addition to the basement studio at 303 Laurel Avenue: the ubiquitous Log Cabin.
According to Jack Boulware, writing in Mojo magazine, architect Robert Byrd and his son built a new guesthouse (aka ‘the treehouse’) on the property in the early 1960s, and “The following year, a communal family of weirdos moved into the cabin and treehouse, centered around two underground hipsters named Vito Paulekas and Carl Franzoni, organizers of freeform dance troupes at clubs along the Sunset Strip.” By 1967, the dancers were splitting “their rent with staff from the hippie publication The Oracle. Retired journalist John Bilby recalls at least 36 people living and partying at the Log Cabin and treehouse, including the band Fraternity of Man. ‘Tim Leary was definitely there, George Harrison and Ravi Shankar were there,’ Bilby says.”
For those who may not necessarily be ‘in the know’ about such things, the Fraternity of Man were best known for the novelty song, “Don’t Bogart Me;” Tim Leary was best known for being a painfully obvious CIA asset; and The Oracle was a San Francisco-based publication with intelligence ties that specialized in pitching psychedelic occultism to impressionable youth.
According to Barry Miles, “Franzoni’s commune ended in May 1968,” as that was when The Oracle moved out and our old friend Frank Zappa moved in. The lead Mother “had visited Karl at the log cabin on a previous trip and realized it was perfect for his needs.” And it was an easy move for Frank, since he was already living in the canyon at the home of Pamela Zarubica (aka Suzy Creamcheese) at 8404 Kirkwood Drive, where Zappa had met his new wife, Gail, and where Gail’s old kindergarten pal, James Douglas Morrison, was known to occasionally pass the time. Ms. Zarubica/Creamcheese was yet another member of Vito’s dance troupe.
As multiple sources remember it, Miles is mistaken in his contention that Franzoni’s commune came to an end; Frank Zappa took over as ringmaster, to be sure, but Franzoni and all his cohorts stayed on. Carl had a room in the basement, where he was known to bowl, usually naked and intoxicated, in the middle of the night. The doomed Christine Frka had a room down there as well, as did other future GTOs. Various other members of the dance troupe occupied other nooks and crannies in both the main house and the guesthouse/treehouse. Indeed, as Miles noted correctly, the Freak dancers became so closely associated with the Mothers of Invention that “they got dubbed as ‘the Mothers Auxiliary’ and Karl Franzoni, in particular, was included in a lot of group photographs.”
And that, my friends, is the story of Vito’s Freakers – or at least a sanitized version. Because there is, as it turns out, a very dark underbelly to this story. And much of it is centered around that angelic hippie child that the readers of Life magazine met in 1966, and who we now must sadly add to the Laurel Canyon Death List. For young Godot Paulekas, you see, never made it past the age of three (by most accounts). The specifics of the tragedy are all but impossible to determine, unfortunately, as there is little agreement in the various accounts of the event. Left unclear is exactly how the child died, when the tragedy occurred, and what age the boy was.
According to Barry Miles, “Vito and Szou’s three-year-old son Godo had fallen through a trapdoor on the roof of the building and died.” Michael Walker tells of a “two or three” year old Godot “fall[ing] to his death from a scaffold at the studio.” An article in the San Francisco Weekly had it as “a 5-year-old boy” who died when he “fell through a skylight.” Super-groupie and former Freak dancer Pamela DesBarres agreed with the skylight scenario, but not the age: “Vito’s exquisite little puppet child, Godot, fell through a skylight during a wacky photo session on the roof and died at age three-and-a-half.” Alban Pfisterer of the band Love recalled a much darker scenario: “[Vito] got married, had a baby, gave it acid, and it fell off the roof and died.”
When Robert Carl Cohen recently digitally remastered his notorious Mondo Hollywood for DVD release, he added postscripts for all the famous and infamous people who were featured in his film. For “Godo” Paulekas, he inserted the following caption: “Died age 2 – victim of medical malpractice.” Thus we now have a further muddying of the waters. Since Cohen’s claim though is so clearly at odds with every other account of the incident, and since he was quite close to Vito and thus inclined to cast his friend in the best possible light, we can probably safely disregard Cohen’s belated postscript.
The details of the incident that can be ascertained are, to put it mildly, rather disturbing. We know, for example, that a musician and writer named Raphael told writer Michael Walker that, before the child’s death, he had been present one evening at Vito’s place when Godot was brought out: “They passed that little boy around, naked, in a circle with their mouths. That was their thing about ‘introducing him to sensuality.’” We also know that Vito and Szou had a rather odd reaction to the death of their first-born son and only child, as recounted by Ms. DesBarres: “I was beside myself with sorrow, but Vito and Szou insisted on continuing our plans for the evening. We went out dancing, and when people asked where little Godot was, Vito said, ‘He died today.’ It was weird, really weird.”
That it was, but perhaps even weirder is the full text of the quote from the San Francisco Weekly (earlier, I presented you an excerpt): “By 1967, [Kenneth] Anger had relocated to San Francisco and was searching for a new Lucifer. Angler's first candidate to play Lucifer, a five-year-old boy whose hippie parents had been fixtures on the Los Angeles counterculture scene, fell through a skylight to his death.” As many readers may be aware, he soon found his new Lucifer in the form of Mansonite and former Grass Roots guitarist Bobby “Cupid” Beausoleil.
And so it was that the soon-to-be convicted murderer replaced the cherubic hippie child as the face of Lucifer. But what was it, one wonders, that drew Anger’s twisted eye to the young boy? And how close a relationship did Anger have with Paulekas and Franzoni? And most importantly, how did Godot Paulekas really die? We will likely never know for sure, but let’s just quickly review some of the factors that might come into play when searching for a solution to this mystery:
- The young boy was reportedly subjected to pedophilic treatment by his parents and others.
- The boy’s parents displayed a truly chilling indifference to the child’s death.
- Kenneth Anger had expressed an interest in filming the boy.
- Pamela DesBarres contends that the toddler died during a “wacky photo session.”
- Alban Pfisterer has claimed that the child was drugged.
- Bobby Beausoleil has said that some of Anger’s film projects were for private collectors: “every once in a while he’d do a little thing that wouldn’t be for distribution.”
- Finally, according to biographer Bill Landis, Kenneth Anger was at one time investigated by the police on suspicion that he had been producing snuff flicks.
Pamela DesBarres shed further light on the dark edges of the Freak troupe with this description of a scene that Vito had staged one evening in his studio: “two tenderly young girls were tonguing each other … everyone was silently observing the scene as if it were part of their necessary training by the headmaster, Vito … One of the girls on the four-poster was only twelve years old, and a few months later Vito was deported to Tahiti for this very situation, and many more just like it.”
It was actually Haiti that Vito appears to have fled to, and then to Jamaica (which at the time had no extradition treaty with the United States), accompanied by his wife Szou and their new baby daughter Groovee Nipple (or possibly Gruvi Nipple; does anyone really care which is the proper spelling?) According to Miles, this occurred in December of 1968, though other accounts vary. Carl Franzoni, meanwhile, became embroiled in some unspecified legal troubles of his own and went into hiding, resurfacing in Canada by some reports. At around that same time, Frank Zappa moved on to yet another location in Laurel Canyon, a high-security home on Woodrow Wilson Drive.
Also at around that same time, according to author Ed Sanders, the Manson Family came calling at the Log Cabin: “One former Manson family associate claims that a group of four to six family members lived on Laurel Canyon Boulevard in the log cabin house once owned by cowboy-actor Tom Mix. They lived there for a few weeks, in late 1968, in a cave-like hollow in back of the residence.” According to Franzoni, Manson also came calling at the Vito Clay studio on Laurel Avenue: “Applebaum took over Vito’s place when Vito vacated at Beverly and Laurel. So he inherited all the people that came after that … he was the beginning of the Manson clan. Manson came there because he had heard about Vito but Vito was gone.”
It does not appear as though Vito was actually deported, by the way, but rather that he fled the country in a very Mike Ruppertian fashion to avoid likely prosecution. In any event, it makes perfect sense, in retrospect, that Charlie Manson and his Family came calling just as Vito fled the scene, and that a Mansonite replaced the Freak child as the embodiment of Lucifer. For the truth, you see, is that, in many significant ways, Charles Manson was little more than a younger version of Vito Paulekas. Consider, if you will, all of the following Mansonesque qualities that Vito (and to some extent, Carl) seemed to share:
- Vito appears to have spent a good portion of his younger years in prisons and reform schools, as did, as we all know, Charles Milles Manson.
- Vito considered himself to be a gifted artist and poet, as did our old friend Charlie Manson.
- Vito, according to Miles, “was something of a guru,” as was, quite obviously, Chuck Manson.
- Vito surrounded himself with a flock of very young (often underage) women, as did Manson.
- Vito was considerably older than his followers, and so too was Charlie.
- When Vito addressed his flock, they listened with rapt attention as though they were being delivered the word of God, as was true with Charlie as well.
- Carl Franzoni was known to wear a black cape and refer to himself as “Captain Fuck,” while Manson was also partial to black capes and declared himself to be “the God of Fuck.”
- Vito is said to have had a virtually insatiable libido, as did, of course, Chuck Manson.
- Vito’s flock adopted nicknames to aid in the depersonalization process, as did Charlie’s.
- Vito’s troupe included a Beverly Hills hairstylist named Sheldon Jaman, while Charlie’s included a Beverly Hills hairpiece stylist named Charles Watson.
- Vito believed in introducing children to sexuality at a very young age, while in the Manson Family, as Sanders has noted, “Infant sexuality was encouraged.”Vito apparently liked to stage live sex shows for his followers, usually involving underage participants, which was also a specialty of Charles Milles Manson.
- Finally, Vito encouraged his followers to drug themselves while he himself largely abstained, thus enabling him to at all times maintain control, while Manson limited his own drug intake for the very same reason.
Franzoni and Manson were not, by the way, the only folks on the Laurel Canyon/Sunset Strip scene who developed a fondness for black capes in the latter half of the 1960s. As Michael Walker noted in Laurel Canyon, during that same period of time David Crosby had “taken to wearing an Oscar Wilde/Frank Lloyd Wright-ish cape wherever he went.”
In unrelated news, Ed Sanders notes in The Family that, “Around March 10, 1968, a convoy of seven Process automobiles containing thirty people and fourteen Alsatian dogs journeyed toward Los Angeles.” Vincent Bugliosi added, in his best-selling Helter Skelter, that in “1968 and 1969, The Process launched a major recruiting drive in the United States. They were in Los Angeles in May and June of 1968 and for at least several months in the fall of 1969.” The Processians, it should be noted, were instantly recognizable on the streets of LA due to the fact that they had a curious habit of donning black capes wherever they went.
In other news, it appears as though Frank Zappa also displayed some of the same less-than-admirable qualities shared by Manson and Paulekas. As DesBarres observed, “Vito was just like Frank, he never got high either. They were both ringmasters who always wanted to be in control.” And as Barry Miles noted in his Zappa biography, Frank’s daughter Moon “recalls men with straggling beards, body odour and bad posture who crouched naked near her playthings …” Also, the “Zappa children watched porn with their parents and were encouraged in their own sexuality as soon as they reached puberty. When they became teenagers, Gail insisted they shower with their overnight guests in order to conserve water.” Because, you know, apparently the Zappas were having a hard time paying their water bill.
By the early 1970s, Vito Paulekas had resurfaced up north in Cotati, California, with Carl Franzoni once again at his side. The two were, by all accounts, treated like rock stars in the funky little town, and they are to this day proudly and prominently featured on the city’s official website. By some accounts, Vito even served as mayor of the town, with Franzoni assisting as his Director of Parks and Recreation. Paulekas also taught classes at Sonoma State College, presumably in the art department. Szou eventually split from Vito and went to work for an attorney, leaving the hippie life (and hopefully the “Z” in her name) behind. Franzoni, meanwhile, turned up now and then on that early version of America’s Got Talent known as The Gong Show (apparently as one of the ‘Worm Dancers’).
The Gong Show, of course, was the brainchild of Chuck Barris, who famously claimed that during the days when he appeared to be working as a mild-mannered game show producer, he was actually on the payroll of the CIA, and that while he was ostensibly serving as a chaperone to the couples who had won trips on The Dating Game, what he was really doing was carrying out assassinations. Kind of like, I guess you could say, that Harry Houdini guy. One reader, by the way, insists that “Chucky Baby” was at one time a resident of – guess where? – Laurel Canyon (though I have not been able to confirm that).
Anyway, during those same 1970s, “The cabin and treehouse scene,” according to Jack Boulware, “grew creepy.” Actually, it had always been pretty creepy, it likely just became a little more openly creepy. Eric Burden of the Animals moved in after Zappa vacated, and the property continued to be communally occupied. In fact, it appears to have remained something of a commune throughout the 1970s, quite possibly right up until the time that it burned to the ground on October 31, 1981. Who paid the rent is anybody’s guess – as is why such a prestigious property seems to have been made available for dirt cheap to pretty much any “communal family of weirdos” who wanted to move in.
Vito Paulekas and Carl Franzoni appear to have remained in northern California throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. Franzoni was still milling about the area as recently as 2002. In February of this year, the aging Freak, now reportedly 74, rode along on a tour of 1960s hotspots offered by a local tour company and delighted the crowd by reenacting his distinctive dance style in front of Vito’s former studio. The tour operator billed Franzoni as “the King of the Freaks,” a title formerly held by his mentor, Vito Paulekas. The original king, alas, had died in October of 1992. His memorial service was held, appropriately enough, on October 31, 1992.
“As all halfway-decent managers in the rock era have done, [Jim] Dickson worked on seducing the in-crowd and creating a buzz around [The Byrds] … The timing was perfect … LA’s baby-boomers were mobile, getting around, looking for action. And now they were joined by the hip elite of Hollywood itself, from Sal Mineo and Peter Fonda to junkie comic Lenny Bruce.” —Barney Hoskyns, Waiting for the Sun
As important as the Freaks were to building an audience for the new Laurel Canyon bands, there was another group that played a key role as well: Hollywood’s so-called “Young Turks.”
Many of these young and glamorous Hollywood stars forged very close bonds with the Laurel Canyon musicians. Some of them, including Peter Fonda, found homes in the canyon so that they could live, work and party among the rock stars (and, in their free time, pass around John Phillips’ wife to just about every swinging dick in the canyon, including Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty, Roman Polanski, and Gene Clark of The Byrds). Some of them never left; Jack Nicholson to this day lives in a spacious estate just off the portion of Mulholland Drive that lies between Laurel Canyon and Coldwater Canyon. Not far west of Nicholson’s property (which now includes the neighboring estate formerly owned by Marlon Brando) sits the longtime home of Warren Beatty.
Like the Freaks, the Turks became an immediate and constant presence on the newly emerging Sunset Strip scene. And as with the Freaks, their presence on the Strip was heavily promoted by the media. Locals and tourists alike knew where to go to gawk at the Freaks and, as an added bonus, quite possibly rub shoulders with the likes of Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper and Warren Beatty, along with their female counterparts like Jane Fonda, Nancy Sinatra and Sharon Tate.
From the symbiotic relationship between Laurel Canyon actors and Laurel Canyon musicians arose a series of feature films that are now considered counter-cultural classics. One such film was 1967’s The Trip, an unintentionally hilarious attempt to create a cinematic facsimile of an LSD trip. Written by, of all people, Jack Nicholson, the movie starred fellow Turks Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Bruce Dern. Seated in the director’s chair was Roger Corman, who, throughout his career, worked side-by-side with David Crosby’s dad on no less than 23 feature films. Recruited to supply the soundtrack for the film was Gram Parson’s International Submarine Band (Parson’s music, however, was ultimately not used, though the band does make a brief on-screen appearance). The house where most of the film was shot, at the top of Kirkwood Drive in Laurel Canyon, was the home of Love’s Arthur Lee.
Another ‘psychedelic’ cult film of the late 1960s with deep roots in Laurel Canyon was the Monkee’s 1968 big-screen offering, Head. Also scripted by Nicholson (with assistance from Bob Rafelson), the movie included cameo appearances by canyon dwellers Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson and Frank Zappa. The music – performed, of course, by The Monkees – was a mix of songs written by the band and contributions from Canyon songwriters like Carol King and Harry Nilsson. And shockingly, some of that music is actually pretty good. Even more shockingly, the movie overall is arguably the most watchable of the 1960s cult films. It is certainly a vast improvement over, for example, 1968’s wretched Psych Out (starring Nicholson and Dern).
I do realize, by the way, that some of you out there in readerland cringe every time I mention The Monkees as though they were a ‘real’ band. The reality though is that they were every bit as ‘real’ as most of their contemporaries. And while the made-for-TV Beatles replicants were looked down upon by music critics and fans alike, they were fully accepted as members of the musical fraternity by the other Laurel Canyon bands. The homes of both Mickey Dolenz and Peter Tork were popular canyon hangouts in the late ‘60s for a number of ‘real’ musicians. Also regularly dropping by Dolenz’ party house were Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson.
The difference in perception between their peers and the public was attributable to the fact that the other bands knew something that the fans did not: the very same studio musicians who appeared without credit on The Monkee’s albums also appeared without credit on their albums. And then, of course, there was the fact that so many of Laurel Canyon’s ‘real’ musicians had taken a stab at being a part of The Monkees, including Steven Stills, Love’s Bryan MacLean, and Three Dog Night’s Danny Hutton – all of whom answered the Monkees’ casting call and were rejected.
There were undoubtedly other future stars who auditioned for the show as well, though most would probably prefer not to discuss such things. Despite persistent rumors, however, there was one local musician who we can safely conclude did not read for a part: Charles Manson. Given that the show was cast in 1965 and began its brief television run in 1966, while Charlie was still imprisoned at Terminal Island awaiting his release in March of 1967, there doesn’t appear to be any way that Manson could have been considered for a part on the show. And that’s kind of a shame when you think about it, because if he had been, we might today remember Charlie Manson not as one of America’s most notorious criminals, but rather as the guy who made Marcia Brady swoon.
And, let’s be honest here, would that really have been any worse than seeing her go ga-ga over the likes of Davy Jones? I mean, I could have understood if she had gotten weak in the knees over, you know, a real man like David Cassidy or Bobby Sherman. Now, I hope we can all agree that those guys were cool … right? Is everyone with me on this? Anyone? … Anyone? …
You know, I’m thinking back right now as I sit here, and I can actually picture in my mind the covers of a couple of Bobby Sherman albums that I had in my personal coll … err, that we had lying around the house for some reason, I’m not really sure why, and … come to think of it, I think there might have even been a Bobby Sherman poster or two pulled from the pages of Tiger Beat magazine, and, uhmm, I suppose I can see how that might seem a little bit, uhhh, what’s the word I’m looking for? … ‘gay’ or whatever to a modern, twenty-first-century-man-about-town, but I’m sure that, if you checked into it, you would find that there were a lot of young boys back ‘in the day’ who just really dug Bobby Sherman and those great songs like “Julie (Do You Love Me)” and “Easy Come, Easy Go” and … uhmm … maybe this is a good time to get back to where we left off.
Returning then to the counter-cultural films of the 1960s, the most critically acclaimed of the lot, and the one with the deepest roots in Laurel Canyon, was Easy Rider. Directed (sort of) by Dennis Hopper, from a script co-written by he and Peter Fonda, the film starred Fonda and Hopper along with Jack Nicholson (the only one in the movie who did anything resembling actual acting). Hopper’s walrus-mustachioed character in the film was based on David Crosby, who was regularly seen racing his motorcycle up and down the winding streets of Laurel Canyon (that motorcycle, by the way, had been a gift from Crosby’s good buddy, Peter Fonda). Fonda’s absurd ‘Captain America’ character was inspired either by John Phillips’ riding partner, Gram Parsons, or by Crosby’s former bandmate in The Byrds, Roger McGuinn (depending upon who is telling the story.) That very same Roger McGuinn scored the original music for the film. His contributions were joined on the soundtrack by offerings from fellow Canyonite musicians The Byrds, Steppenwolf, Fraternity of Man, and Jimi Hendrix. And the movie’s hippie commune was reportedly created and filmed in the canyons, near Mulholland Drive.
Since Easy Rider had such deep roots in the Laurel Canyon scene, we need to briefly focus our attention here on one other individual who worked on the film: art director Jeremy Kay, aka Jerry Kay. Before Easy Rider, Kay had worked on such cinematic abominations as Angels from Hell, Hells Angels on Wheels (with Jack Nicholson), and Scorpio Rising (Kenneth Anger’s occult-tinged homage to gay bikers). In the mid-1970s, Kay would write, direct and produce a charming little film entitled Satan’s Children. Of far more interest here than his film credits though is his membership in the 1960s in a group known as the Solar Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis (or OTO), which found itself in the news, and not in a good way, just after Easy Rider opened on theater screens across America.
Two weeks after Easy Rider premiered on July 14, 1969, police acting on a phone tip raided the Solar Lodge’s compound near Blythe, California and found a six-year-old boy locked outdoors in a 6’x6’ wooden crate in the sweltering desert heat. The young boy, whose father was a Los Angeles County probation officer (as was Michelle Phillip’s father, by the way), had been chained to a steel plate for nearly two months in temperatures reaching as high as 117° F. According to an FBI report, the box also contained a can “partially filled with human waste and swarming with flies … The stench was nauseating.” Before being put in the box, the child had been burned with matches and beaten with bamboo poles by cult members. The leader of the cult, Georgina Brayton, had reportedly told cult members that “when it was convenient, she was going to give [the boy] LSD and set fire to the structure in which he was chained and give him just enough chain to get out of reach of the fire.” Killing the child had also been discussed (and apparently condoned by the boy’s mind-fucked mother).
Eleven adult members of the sect were charged with felony child abuse, the majority of them young white men in their early twenties. All were brought to trial and convicted. In a curious bit of timing, the raid that resulted in the arrests and convictions coincided with the torture and murder of musician Gary Hinman by a trio of Manson acolytes. Though it is, not surprisingly, vehemently denied by concerned parties, various sources have claimed that Manson had ties to the group, which also maintained a home near the USC campus in Los Angeles. There is no doubt that Charlie preached the same dogma, including the notion of an apocalyptic race war looming on the horizon. The massacre at the Tate residence occurred less than two weeks after the raid on the OTO compound. Manson’s Barker Ranch hideout would be raided a few months later, on October 12, 1969 – the birthday, as I may have already mentioned, of Aleister Crowley, the Grand Poobah of the OTO until his death in 1947.
Sorry about that little digression, folks. I’m not entirely sure how we ended up at the Barker Ranch when the focus of this installment was supposed to be on the Young Turks. So having now established that those Turks were a fully integrated part of the Laurel Canyon/Sunset Strip scene, and also that they played an important role in luring the public out to the new clubs to check out the new bands, our next task is to get to know a little bit about who these folks are and where they came from.
Let’s begin with Mr. Bruce Dern, who has some of the most provocative connections of any of the characters in this story. It is probably safe to say that Dern’s parents had rather impressive political connections, given that baby Bruce’s godparents were sitting First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and future two-time Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson (he lost both times, in 1952 and 1956, to Eisenhower). Bruce’s paternal grandfather was a guy by the name of George Dern, who served as Secretary of War under President Franklin Roosevelt (for the youngsters in the crowd, ‘Secretary of War’ is what we used to call the ‘Secretary of Defense’ in a slightly less Orwellian era). George had also served as Governor of Utah and Chairman of the National Governors’ Association. Bruce’s mother was born Jean MacLeish, and she happened to be the sister of Archibald MacLeish, who also served under Franklin Roosevelt, as the Director of the War Department’s Office of Facts and Figures and as the Assistant Director of the Office of War Information. In other words, Archibald MacLeish was essentially America’s Minister of War Propaganda. He also served at various times as an Assistant Secretary of State and as the Librarian of Congress. By far the most impressive item on his résumé, however, was his membership in everyone’s favorite secret society, Skull and Bones (class of 1915, one year before Prescott Bush was tapped in 1916).
It would appear then that, even by Laurel Canyon standards, Mr. Dern has friends in very high places. Let’s turn our attention next to the guy being embraced by Dern in the photo above, Mr. Peter Fonda. Of course, we all know that Fonda is the son of good ol’ Hank Fonda, lovable Hollywood liberal and all-around nice guy. And certainly even a contrarian such as myself would not be so bold as to suggest that Henry Fonda might have some skeletons in his closet … right? Just for the hell of it though, there are a few chapters of the Hank Fonda saga that we should probably review here.
We can begin, I suppose, by noting that Hank served as a decorated US Naval Intelligence officer during World War II, thus sparing Peter the stigma of being the only member of the Laurel Canyon in-crowd to have not been spawned by a member of the military/intelligence community. Not too many years after the war, Hank’s wife, Francis Ford Seymour, was found with her throat slashed open with a straight razor. Peter was just ten years old at the time of his mother’s, uhmm, suicide on April 14, 1950. When Seymour had met and married Hank, she was the widow of George Brokaw, who had, curiously enough, previously been married to prominent CIA asset Claire Booth Luce.
Fonda rebounded quickly from Seymour’s unusual death, and within eight months he was married once again, to Susan Blanchard, to whom he remained married until 1956. In 1957, Hank married yet again, this time to Italian Countess Afdera Franchetti (who followed up her four-year marriage to Fonda with a rumored affair with newly-sworn-in President John Kennedy). Franchetti, as it turns out, is the daughter of Baron Raimondo Franchetti, who was a consultant to fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. The countess is also the great-granddaughter of Louise Sarah Rothschild, of the ever-popular Rothschild banking family (perhaps you’ve heard of them?)
Before moving on, I should probably mention that Hank’s first wife, Margaret Sullavan – who was yet another child of Norfolk, Virginia – also allegedly committed suicide, on New Year’s Day, 1960. Nine months later, her daughter Bridget followed suit. In 1961, very soon after the deaths of first her mother and then her sister, Sullavan’s other daughter, Brook Hayward, walked down the aisle with the next Young Turk on our list, Dennis Hopper. For those who may be unfamiliar with Hopper’s body of work, he is the guy who was once found wandering naked and bewildered in a Mexican forest. And the guy who, after divorcing Hayward in 1969, married Michelle Phillips on Halloween day, 1970, only to have her file for divorce just eight days later claiming that Hopper had kept her handcuffed and imprisoned for a week while making “unnatural sexual demands.”
Without passing judgment here, I think it’s fair to say that Michelle Phillips has been around the block a time or two, if you catch my drift, so if even she thought Hopper’s demands were a bit over the top, then one can only wonder just how “unnatural” they might have been. For what it’s worth, Hopper just recently told a journalist that he “didn’t handcuff her, [he] just punched her out!” In his mind, apparently, that makes him somewhat less of an asshole.
Most official biographies of Hopper would lead one to believe that he was the son of a simple farmer. Dennis recently acknowledged, however, that that was clearly not the case: “My mother’s father was a wheat farmer and I was raised on their farm. But my father was not a farmer.” To the contrary, Hopper’s dad was “a working person in intelligence” who during WWII “was in the OSS. He was in China, Burma, India.” Hopper has proudly proclaimed that his father “was one of the 100 guys that liberated General Wainright out of prison in Korea,” which might be a little more impressive were it not for the fact that it was actually the Red Army that freed Wainright and other prisoners; the US intel team just came to pick them up, debrief them and transport them home … but that, I suppose, isn’t really relevant.
After the war, according to Hopper, his dad carried a gun, which I suppose is what most lay ministers in the Methodist Church do. The family also left the farm in Kansas and relocated to San Diego, California, home of the Imperial Beach Naval Air Station, the United States Naval Radio Station, the United States Naval Amphibious Base, the North Island Naval Air Station, Fort Rosecrans Military Reservation, the United States Naval Training Center, the United States Marine Corps Recruit Depot, and the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station. And just north of the city sits the massive Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base. Other than that though, San Diego is just a sleepy little beach town where Hopper’s dad ostensibly worked for the Post Office.
The modern version of Dennis Hopper, by the way, is wildly at odds with the hippie image that he at one time tried very hard to cultivate. Today’s Dennis Hopper is an unapologetic cheerleader for Team Bush who proudly boasts of having voted a straight Republican ticket for nearly thirty years. He could very well turn up on the campaign trail in the coming months with his lips firmly planted on the ass of war criminal John McCain.
To briefly recap then, we have thus far met three of the ‘Young Turks’ and we have found that one of them is the nephew of a Bonesman, another is the son of a Naval Intelligence officer who was once married to a Rothschild descendent, and the third is the slightly deranged son of an OSS officer. Come to think of it, we have actually covered one of the ‘Turkettes’ as well, since Jane Fonda obviously came from the same family background as her younger brother, Peter. As for the other female members of the posse, Sharon Tate was the daughter of Lt. Col. Paul Tate, a career US Army intelligence officer, and Nancy Sinatra is, of course, the daughter of Francis Albert Sinatra, whose known associates included Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Sam Giancana, Carlo Gambino, Goetano Luchese and Joseph Fishetti (a cousin of Al Capone).
Frank Sinatra was also a client of hairdresser-to-the-stars Jay Sebring, as was Henry Fonda, who also at one time, strangely enough, lived in the guesthouse at 10050 Cielo Drive. Yet another client of Sebring’s was the next Young Turk on our list, Warren Beatty, whose father, Ira Owens Beaty, was ostensibly a professor of psychology. Young Warren, however, spent all of his early years living in various spooky suburbs of Washington, DC. He was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1937, after which his father moved the family to Norfolk, Virginia, which I think I may have mentioned is home to the world’s largest Naval facility (the reason for that, by the way, is that Norfolk is the gateway to the nation’s capital). The family later relocated to Arlington, Virginia, home of the Pentagon, where Warren attended high school and where he was known on the football field, as John Phillips (who attended a rival school) remembers it, as ‘Mad Dog’ Beaty.
Ira Beaty’s relatively frequent relocations, and the fact that those relocations always seemed to land the family in DC suburbs that are of considerable significance to the military/intelligence community, would tend to indicate that Warren’s dad was something other than what he appeared to be – though that is, of course, a speculative assessment. But if Ira Beaty was on the payroll of some government entity, working within the psychology departments of various DC-area universities, then it wouldn’t require a huge leap of faith to further speculate about what type of work he was doing, given the wholesale co-opting of the field of psychology by the MK-ULTRA program and affiliated projects.
The next Young Turk up for review is the one who went on to become arguably the most acclaimed actor of his generation, Mr. Jack Nicholson. The following is a biographical sketch of Nicholson as presented by Wikipedia: “Bundy was born at the Elizabeth Lund Home for Unwed Mothers in Burlington, Vermont. The identity of his father remains a mystery … To avoid social stigma, Bundy’s grandparents Samuel and Eleanor Cowell claimed him as their son; in taking their last name, he became Theodore Robert Cowell. He grew up believing his mother Eleanor Louise Cowell to be his older sister. Bundy biographers Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth state that he learned Louise was actually his mother while he was in high school. True crime writer Ann Rule states that it was around 1969, shortly following a traumatic breakup with his college girlfriend.”
Uhhm … hang on a minute … I think I might have screwed up. Something doesn’t seem quite right, but I’m not exactly sure what …. Oh, shit! I see what I did wrong! I accidentally cut and pasted ‘serial killer’ Ted Bundy’s bio instead of Jack Nicholson’s. Sorry about that. This is how Jack’s bio is supposed to read: Nicholson was born at some indeterminate location to an underage, unwed showgirl. The identity of his father remains a mystery … To avoid social stigma, Nicholson’s grandparents John Joseph and Ethel Nicholson claimed him as their son; in taking their last name, he became John Joseph Nicholson, Jr. He grew up believing his mother June Francis Nicholson to be his older sister. Reporters state that he learned June was actually his mother in 1974, when he was 37 years old. By then, June had been dead for just over a decade, having only lived to the age of 44.
It is said that Nicholson was born at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City, but there is no record of such a birth at the hospital or in the city’s archives. As it turns out, Jack Nicholson has no birth certificate. Until 1954, by which time he was nearly an adult, he did not officially exist. Even today, the closest thing he has to a birth certificate is a ‘Certificate of a Delayed Report of Birth’ that was filed on May 24, 1954. The document lists John and Ethel Nicholson as the parents and identifies the location of the birth as the Nicholson’s home address in Neptune, New Jersey.
It appears then that there is no way to determine who Jack Nicholson really is. He has told journalists that he has no interest in identifying who his father was, nor, it would appear, in verifying his mother’s identity. What we do know is that the nucleus of the 1960s clique known as the Young Turks (and Turkettes) was composed of the following individuals: the nephew of a Bonesman; the son of an OSS officer; the son of a Naval intelligence officer; the daughter of that same Naval intelligence officer; the daughter of an Army intelligence officer; the daughter of a guy who openly associated with prominent gangsters throughout his life; the son of a probable spychologist; and a guy whose early years are so shrouded in mystery that he may or may not actually exist.
I should probably also mention here that Henry Fonda scored his first acting gig through Dorothy “Dodie” Brando, the director of a local theater and the mother of Jack Nicholson’s future neighbor, Marlon Brando. Being the small world that it is, Marlon’s mom happened to be a good friend of Hank’s mom, Elma Fonda. Truth be told, the families had likely had close ties for a long time. A very long time. The ancestors of both Marlon Brando and Henry Fonda, you see, arrived in New York at nearly the same time, roughly three-and-a-half centuries ago.
Marlon Brando is in a direct line of descent from French Huguenot colonists Louis DuBois and Catharine Blanchan DuBois, who arrived in New York from Mannheim, Germany circa 1660 and promptly founded New Rochelle. Other descendents of DuBois include former U.S. Senator Leverett Saltonstall, former Massachusetts Governor and CFR member William Weld, current California First Lady Maria Shriver, and quite likely U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Zachary Taylor.
Henry Fonda, on the other hand, is a direct descendent of Jellis Douw Fonda and Hester Jans Fonda, Dutch colonists who arrived in New York circa 1650 and settled near what would become Albany. The Fondas had sailed out of Friesland, Netherlands on a ship dubbed the Valckenier, which happened to be co-owned by a very wealthy Dutchman by the name of Jan-Baptist van Rensselaer. And Mr. van Rensselaer, as those who have been paying attention in class will recall, happened to be from the bloodline that would one day produce a guy by the name of David van Cortland Crosby.
It would appear then that Peter Fonda kind of owed Crosby that Triumph motorcycle that he gave him back in the ‘60s, what with David’s ancestors having been cool enough to give Peter’s ancestors a lift over to the New World and all.
One other thing we could note here about Hank Fonda before wrapping up this installment: on September 28, 1919, when Henry was just fourteen years old, he bore witness to a crime so brutally sadistic and depraved that one wonders what such an event would do to a young boy’s psyche. According to an account published at the time, a young black man named Will Brown, accused of raping a white girl, was beaten unconscious by an angry mob. His clothes were then torn off and he was hanged from a lamppost. Though quite dead, his corpse was then riddled with bullets, after which he was cut down and dragged behind a car. His body was then doused with fuel and burned. Following that, Mr. Brown’s charred, battered, bullet-ridden corpse was proudly dragged through the streets of downtown. To commemorate the event, the lynch rope was cut into small pieces that were sold for 10 cents each to eager buyers.
And that, my friends, is a snapshot of the sick society we live in … but here, perhaps, I have digressed.
Let’s wrap up this installment with a quick review of what we have learned about the people populating Laurel Canyon in the mid-to-late 1960s.
1. We know that one subset of residents was a large group of musicians who all decided, nearly simultaneously, to flood into the canyon.
2. The most prominent members of this group were, to an overwhelming degree, the sons and daughters of the military/intelligence community.
3. We also know that mingled in with them were the young stars of Hollywood, who also were, to an astonishing degree, the sons and daughters of the military/intelligence community.
4. And, finally, we know that also in the mix were scores of military/intelligence personnel who operated out of the facility known as Lookout Mountain Laboratory.
I got to tell you here folks that, given the relatively small size of Laurel Canyon, I’m beginning to wonder if there was any room left over for any normal folks who might have wanted to live the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. But even so, I’m sure that there are still some hardcore ‘coincidence theorists’ in the crowd who will still see all of this as “much ado about nothing.”
I am committed though to helping those folks see the light, no matter how much it might hurt their sensitive eyes, so I am going to toss one more provocative element into the Laurel Canyon mix, courtesy of Paul Young’s L.A. Exposed:
“The most infamous male madam [throughout LA’s sordid history] would have to be Billy Bryars, the wealthy son of an oil magnate, and part-time producer of gay porn. Bryars was said to have a stellar group of customers using his ‘brothel’ at the summit of Laurel Canyon. In fact, some have claimed that none other than J. Edgar Hoover, the founder and chief executive officer of the FBI, was one of his best clients … when Bryars fell under police scrutiny in 1973, allegedly for trafficking in child pornography, officers obtained a number of confessions from some of his hustlers, and some of them identified Hoover and [Clyde] Tolson as ‘Mother John and Uncle Mike,’ and claimed that they had serviced them on numerous occasions.”It appears then that the top law-enforcement officials in the nation were also a part of the Laurel Canyon scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s, along with various other unnamed persons of prominence.
And we also find, not too shockingly at this point, that Laurel Canyon was a portal of child pornography, which of course goes hand-in-hand with the reports that we have already reviewed of organized, multi-perpetrator child sexual abuse.
And lest we forget, we also have that long and bloody Laurel Canyon Death List, which, in the next installment, is going to get even longer, and even bloodier.
Stay tuned …
* * * * * * * * *
And now, faithful readers, allow me to address a few common questions that have arisen, beginning with:
1. What is the subtitle of the series, “The Strange but Mostly True Story …” supposed to mean? Do you just make this shit up as you go along?
The subtitle alludes to the fact that when dealing with anything concerning Hollywood, there is almost always more than one version of the ‘truth.’ Much of what passes for truth in Hollywood is actually legend and mythmaking, and much of what is dismissed as rumor and legend is actually at least an approximation of the truth. I have endeavored to report this story as accurately as humanly possible by utilizing my finely-honed bullshit detector to separate fact from fiction. Most of the important details of the story, in any event, are not disputed.
2. Are you planning on ultimately publishing this as a book?
I doubt it. I considered putting it together as a book manuscript, but I ultimately decided to put it out on the Internet instead, for a couple of reasons, the first of which is that I wanted people to actually read it. And you people, if we’re being honest here, aren’t really into that ‘old school’ concept of buying and reading books. The reality is that, based on the traffic to my site of late, far more people have read this series in the couple of months that it was been in progress than have read my last book after four years in print.
The other reason that I chose to present this material via the Internet is so that all of you can help to insure that the story is told as accurately as possible. This is, in a sense, a collaborative effort. Though I am willing to do most of the heavy lifting, I am relying on all of you to point out any gaffes or omissions. In other words, this is very much a work in progress and I have already made some minor corrections in previous posts thanks to feedback from readers.
Thanks to one particularly helpful reader who has access to California’s Birth, Death, Marriage and Divorce Indexes, as well as U.S. Census information, we now know a little more about the Paulekas clan than we did before. Vitautas Alfonso Paulekas was born on May 20, 1913 in Massachusetts, the son of John and Rose Paulekas. He had one older sister, Albena, and two younger brothers, Bronislo and John. Vito married Szou (real name Sueanne C. Shaffer) on July 7, 1961, when he was 48 and she was just 18. If they met when she was 16, as seems quite probable, then Vito was 46 at the time, rather than in his fifties as previously reported.
By far the most interesting information to surface concerns young Godo Paulekas. Born on December 1, 1963, Godo died on December 23, 1966, having just made it past his third birthday. December 23 was, curiously enough, the winter solstice (or very close to it). And it wasn’t just any winter solstice, mind you, but specifically the first winter solstice in the Age of Satan (as declared by Kenneth Anger’s buddy, Anton LaVey, on April 30, 1966). The date of his death also means that young Godo died less than 48 hours before Christmas morning, and yet his parents still thought it a good time to go out dancing.
Vito and Sueanne divorced in Northern California in March of 1975. Before doing so, they produced several more children, each given increasingly ridiculous names. Gruvi Nipples Paulekas was born on June 23, 1967, exactly six months after Godo’s death and, therefore, very near the summer solstice. Bp Paulekas was born on December 29, 1969, just days after the third anniversary of Godo’s death. Bizarrely enough, Sky Paulekas was born on December 1, 1971, on what would have been Godo’s eighth birthday. Last but certainly not least, Phreekus Mageekus Paulekas was born on January 28, 1974, a little over a year before Vito and Sueanne divorced. According to one report, Gruvi has joined Godo in the great beyond, a victim of her voracious appetite for drugs and alcohol.
As for Carl Franzoni, there were indeed a couple of brothers named Franzoni who were brought over from Italy in the early 1800s to carve the Masonic monuments of Washington. According to Ihna Thayer Frary’s book, They Built the Capitol, Guiseppe Franzoni (and his brother Carlo) “had especially good family connections in Italy, he being a nephew of Cardinal Franzoni and son of the President of the Academy of Fine Arts at Carrara.” Also shipped over were Francisco Iardella, a cousin of the Franzoni brothers, and Giovanni Andrei, a brother-in-law of Guiseppe Franzoni. Thus far, I have been unable to verify that Carl Franzoni is in fact descended from these men, but it seems quite likely given that Carl would probably not be aware of such an obscure chapter of American history were it not for a family connection.
One final note: I looked it up and it turns out that Bobby Sherman ended up becoming a sheriff’s deputy. For real. Unlike his late-1960s Here Comes the Brides co-star, David Soul, who later became fake bad-ass cop ‘Hutch,’ Bobby became a real bad-ass cop. So I guess he was pretty cool after all. Except for, of course, the hair. And the clothes. And the sappy songs. And the bad acting. And …
Let’s just forget that I ever brought it up.
“No one here gets out alive” —Jim Morrison
Not too long after Thomas’ passing, my computer became quite ill as well. At first, it looked as though there was little hope of saving her. My tech buddy had all but pronounced her DOA when he unexpectedly detected a faint spark of life and a will to live. She could be saved, he proclaimed, but it would take some time and money. Given her advanced age (2 in human years, which is about 137 in computer years), he suggested I might be better off buying a new model. But then, of course, I would find myself face-to-face with the dreaded abomination known as Windows Vista. Also, I didn’t really need the headache and tedium of setting up a new machine, transferring everything over, etc.
So I decided to wait it out, and for several days I found myself completely lost in the world. My computer and my cat, you see, were my two very best non-human friends. They were also, more importantly, my research assistants. I am a night-owl by nature and it is in the wee hours of the morning, when the wife and kids are fast asleep, that I create literary masterpieces (like the one you are reading right now). My two trusted and loyal companions in those endeavors have long been my computer and my cat. And now they were both gone. Fuck.
The computer ultimately made a full recovery and returned home ready for action. Thomas, unfortunately, would not be coming back, so we would have to soldier on without him. But then, alas, came news of a far greater tragedy: a friend of 20+ years had succumbed to injuries sustained in a rock-climbing accident near his home in Superior, Colorado. Just 47 years old and an avid outdoorsman, rock climber, mountain biker and hockey player, he leaves behind that which he cherished most in his life – three young kids, the oldest of whom is just 14. He was a good man and a good friend who touched many lives during his relatively short stay here on planet Earth, and he will not soon be forgotten.
It is, therefore, with a heavy heart that I return now to my position as self-appointed Laurel Canyon tour guide.
* * * * * * * * * *
Sometimes pieces of the puzzle just seem to fall from the heavens. I don’t really know why that happens – and to be honest, I find it somewhat disconcerting at times. On Sunday, July 6, the venerable Washington Post, in a most timely manner, generously provided a new piece of the puzzle that even I, your jaded host, find rather remarkable. It seems that a former reporter and novelist by the name of Alex Abella “has written a history of RAND, which was founded more than 60 years ago by the Air Force as a font of ideas on how that service might fight and win a nuclear war with the USSR … Abella focuses on Albert Wohlstetter, a mathematical logician turned nuclear strategist who was the dominant figure at Rand starting in the early 1950s and whose influence has extended beyond his death in 1997 into the current Bush administration … Wohlstetter epitomized what became known as the ‘RAND approach’ – a relentlessly reductive, determinedly quantitative analysis of whatever problem the independent, non-profit think tank was assigned, whether the design of a new bomber or improving public education in inner-city schools.”
Let me interrupt here for just a brief moment to note that the RAND corporation is a lot of things, but “independent” has never been one of them. Anyway, getting back to the Post’s timely book review, we find that “it was not so much Wohlstetter himself as his acolytes … who had a major impact in Washington.” Most of those acolytes need no introduction, as the names should be instantly recognizable to just about everyone: Richard Perle (who once dated Wohlstetter’s daughter), Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Andrew Marshall (“formerly a RAND economist, who, as promoter of the high-tech ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ in Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Department, was dubbed the Pentagon’s ‘Yoda.’”)
In the latter half of the 1950s and the early 1960s, while Wohlstetter was with the RAND corporation and also a professor at UCLA (and while his wife Roberta also worked as an analyst for RAND), Albert and his followers – the men who now serve as the apparent architects of US foreign policy – regularly met in a heavily wooded neighborhood in Los Angeles known as … actually, I think I’m going to defer back to the Washington Post’s book review and let journalist Gregg Herken tell you how “those bright, eager and ambitious young men … had sat cross-legged on the floor with their mentor at his stylish house in (drum roll, please!) Laurel Canyon.”
The title of the Post’s book review is “Dr. Strangelove’s Workplace,” which presumably is a reference to the notorious RAND corporation. But I think that we can all agree that the title could just as easily apply to Wohlstetter’s stylish Laurel Canyon home. In fact, as the pieces of this puzzle continue to fall into place, it is beginning to seem as though “Dr. Strangelove’s Workplace” might be a good title for the entire damn canyon. We now know that, in addition to hosting both a secret military/intelligence facility and a call-boy/kiddy-porn operation servicing prominent public figures, Laurel Canyon was also the birthplace and meeting place of what we now know as the ‘neocon’/PNAC crowd, as well as the home base of the guiding light of the Rand corporation.
Thus far in our journey, we have encountered Masons, the FBI, the OSS, the CIA, the secret society known as Skull and Bones, the Rothschild family, military intelligence of every conceivable stripe, the OTO, the RAND corporation, the ‘neocon’ cabal, and just about every other nefarious group that regularly pops up in the ‘conspiracy’ literature – with one very obvious exception: we have not yet met up with any member of the legendary Rockefeller clan. Luckily though, we’re about to remedy that oversight.
This next contribution comes from deep within the archives of Time magazine, from an article entitled “The Bride Wore Pink,” published six decades ago on February 23, 1948: “One morning last week, bespectacled Bryant Bowden, editor of the weekly Okeechobee (Fla.) News, sauntered into the Okeechobee courthouse and stopped to eye the bulletin board in the main hall. Among the marriage-license applications, which, by Florida law, must be publicly posted for three days before a ceremony, he saw something which made him goggle. Winthrop Rockefeller, 35, of New York – the fourth of John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s five sons and one of the most eligible bachelors in the world – had stated his intention of marrying one Eva Sears, also of New York.”
“Editor Bowden had a bitter moment – his paper would not be published for two days. Then he remembered that he was the Okeechobee correspondent for the Associated Press. He telephoned the AP office in Jacksonville. A few hours later, the whole U.S. journalistic horizon glowed a bright pink with the fireworks he had touched off.”Indeed he was. So who was this mystery woman – this woman who had once had a brief career in Hollywood before moving to Paris and taking a job as a secretary at the U.S. embassy? She appears to have gone by many names at different times in her life, including Eva Paul, Eva Paul Sears, Barbara Paul, Barbara Paul Sears, and “Bobo” Rockefeller. None of them, however, was the name she was given at the time of her birth. As Time magazine noted so many years ago, “Her parents were Lithuanian immigrants and she was born Jievute Paulekiute in a coal patch near Noblestown, Pa.” Even that, however, was not her real name – at least not by American custom and tradition.
“While the first headlines blazed (and while Manhattan gossip columnists scrambled to assure their readers that they had known all about the romance for months), herds of reporters were dispatched to find an answer to the question: Who is Eva Sears? Hearst’s Cholly Knickerbocker (Ghighi Cassini) haughtily announced that she was Mrs. Barbara Paul Sears of the fine old Philadelphia Pauls and thus a society girl of impeccable pedigree. He was wrong.”
In her parents’ homeland, I am told, “Paulekiute” is the feminine version of a surname we have previously encountered: “Paulekas,” which was her parents’ surname. Eva Paul’s father, as it turns out, just happened to be the brother of Vito Paulekas’ father (a fact verified by – and brought to my attention by – a member of the Paulekas family.) I’m no genealogist, but I’m pretty sure that that means that the self-styled "King of the Hippies" was a first cousin of "Bobo" Rockefeller, and a cousin-in-law (or something like that) of Winthrop Rockefeller himself. Vito was also a cousin of the couple’s only child, Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, who would later serve as the Lieutenant Governor of the state of Arkansas.
The Paulekas family, alas, missed the couple’s day of celebration. According to Time, “Bobo’s mother and stepfather … were unable to attend the ceremony because they were making a batch of Lithuanian cheese on their Indiana farm.” I guess we all have our priorities. Truth be told though, the Paulekas clan has a somewhat different explanation: they were deliberately excluded from the ceremony as it was felt they were a bit too uncultured to break bread with the likes of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the Marquess of Blandford.
We will be revisiting Vito Paulekas in an upcoming edition, to review other new information that has come my way. For now, we will just note that we can add the Rockefellers to the list of folks connected to the Laurel Canyon scene. And that, of course, made Laurel Canyon the ideal place for all the rock musicians and hippies and flower children to hang out in the 1960s and 1970s, even with the stench from all the dead bodies that kept piling up. Speaking of which, let’s check in and see what names have been added to the Laurel Canyon Death List since we last took a peek.
The first new name I see is Mr. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, who purportedly drowned without assistance in his home swimming pool on July 3, 1969, at the age of 27 (Jim Morrison would allegedly die precisely two years later, also at the age of 27). Just three days after Jones’ tragic death, the Stones, with the Hells Angels providing security, played a previously-scheduled concert in Hyde Park, footage of which appears in Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother. Despite being the founder of the Stones and being widely regarded as the main creative force within the band, Jones had been unceremoniously dumped by the group on June 9, less than a month before his death. He was replaced just four days later by the vastly inferior talent known as Mick Taylor (who would later be replaced by Ron Wood). It would later be claimed that Jones was booted from the band due to his chronic substance abuse problems, although Keith Richards’ legendary intake of drugs never seemed to pose a problem for the group.
“Fair enough,” you say, “but what does any of that have to do with Laurel Canyon? Clearly the Stones were not a Laurel Canyon band.” True enough, but as Barney Hoskyns has written (in Hotel California), “In the summer of 1968 the English band was flirting heavily with Satanism and the occult … and spending a lot of time in Los Angeles.” A lot of time, that is, in and around Laurel Canyon – and during that time, Mick Jagger was involved in two occult-drenched film projects: Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising and Donald Cammell’s Performance.
Jagger was the first musical superstar tapped by Anger to compose a soundtrack for his Lucifer Rising project, which at the time was to star Mansonite Bobby Beausoleil (who had, as we all remember, replaced Godo Paulekas). Anger would later solicit a soundtrack for the long-delayed film project from Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, the proud owner of one of the world’s largest collections of Aleister Crowley memorabilia, including Crowley’s notorious Boleskine estate on the shores of Scotland’s Loch Ness. When ultimately released, however, the film featured a soundtrack by neither Jagger nor Page, but rather one that was composed, recorded and arranged inside a prison cell by convicted murderer Bobby Beausoleil. The pre-prison footage that Anger had shot of Beausoleil, meanwhile, ended up in a different film: the aforementioned Invocation of My Demon Brother. Starring in Lucifer Rising, as Osiris, was Performance writer and co-director Donald Seaton Cammell.
Donald Cammell was the son of Charles Richard Cammell, who happened to be a close friend and biographer of notorious occultist and British intelligence asset Aleister Crowley. Donald himself was the godson of the Great Beast. Cammell’s decidedly Crowleyian film was originally to star his good friend Marlon Brando, but the role ultimately went to actor James Fox. Brando and Cammell, by the way, once wrote a novel together – a novel so horrifyingly bad that I dare not mention its title here for fear that some of you may purchase it out of curiosity and then blame me for any trauma you endure while attempting to actually read it.
Speaking of Brando, by the way, have I mentioned yet the curious string of deaths that began eighteen years ago, on May 16, 1990, when Marlon’s son Christian gunned down Dag Drollet, the father of his sister Cheyenne’s unborn child, in Marlon’s Laurel Canyon-adjacent home? Though convicted, Christian got off with a rather light sentence, thanks primarily to Marlon having had his own daughter, the prosecution’s potential star witness, locked away in a mental institution in Tahiti, safe from subpoena. A few years later, on April 14, 1995, 25-year-old Cheyenne was found swinging from the end of a rope, her death unsurprisingly ruled a suicide. The next year, Christian Brando was released from prison and promptly became involved with a woman by the name of Bonnie Lee Bakley, who caught a bullet to the head on May 4, 2001 while in the company of new hubby Robert Blake (her tenth husband). Marlon dropped dead next, on July 1, 2004 (though his death wasn’t particularly suspicious, given that he was getting on in years). His home was promptly purchased by good friend and neighbor Jack Nicholson, who immediately announced plans to bulldoze it, declaring the structure to be decrepit. He never did though explain why a man wealthy enough to own his own chain of Polynesian islands was purportedly living in a derelict abode. A few years later, on January 26 of 2008, Christian Brando dropped dead at the relatively young age of 49.
Returning now, after that brief digression, to our discussion of Donald Cammell’s Performance, we find that Mick Jagger was cast to play the role of ‘Turner,’ a debauched rock star (which, obviously, was a real stretch for Mick). Fox played ‘Chas,’ a violent organized-crime figure. He was trained for the role by David Litvinoff, a real-life crime figure and associate of the notoriously sadistic Kray brothers. Litvinoff reportedly sent Fox to the south of London for a couple of months to hang out with his gangster buddies; when he returned, according to various accounts, Fox had literally become the violent character he portrayed in the film.
Recruited to create the film’s soundtrack was Bernard Alfred “Jack” Nitzsche, an occultist and the son of a supposed ‘medium.’ Nitzsche, along with Sonny Bono, had begun his music career as a lieutenant for gun-brandishing producer Phil Spector (Nitzsche was one of the architects of Spector’s famed “wall of sound”). Nitzsche was also a familiar presence on the Laurel Canyon scene, collaborating with such noted bands and artists as Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young, Crazy Horse, Randy Newman, Michelle Phillips, The Turtles, Captain Beefheart and Carole King. Nitzsche also worked with several of the people we will be adding today to the Laurel Canyon Death List, including David Blue, Ricky Nelson and Sonny Bono. And one guy who was already added to the list: Tim Buckley.
Nitzsche’s Performance soundtrack was composed, according to author Michael Walker, “in a witch’s cottage in the canyon” (I’m not exactly sure what a “witch’s cottage” is, but it’s nice to know that Laurel Canyon had one). One of the musicians hired by Nitzsche to play on that soundtrack was Lowell George, who we will also be adding to the Laurel Canyon Death List. For now, let’s add Donald Cammell to the list, since on April 24, 1996, he became yet another of the characters in this story to catch a bullet to the head (need I add here that the wound was reportedly self-inflicted?) Nitzsche died five years later of a heart attack, on August 25, 2000. A few years earlier, he had made an appearance on primetime television – as a gun-brandishing drunkard arrested on the streets of Hollywood on Cops.
Before moving on, there is one other thing I need to mention about Cammell’s film: John Phillips once stated that Performance was about estranging one’s self from society in order to create a new, better social order. “With really intelligent people,” according to Phillips, “it’s almost a matter of inbreeding at this point.” I don’t know about all of you readers out there, but when I first stumbled upon that quote, it suddenly dawned on me that one element that was previously missing from this story was a pro-eugenics comment from one of our flower-power icons, so I’m glad that we were able to squeeze that in.
Since we now seem to have segued onto the topic of John Phillips, let’s go ahead and add his good friend Steve Brandt to the Death List. Brandt, who was also a close friend of the victims at 10050 Cielo Drive, allegedly overdosed on barbiturates in late November of 1969, some three-and-a-half months after the Manson murders. In the days and weeks following those murders, Brandt had placed numerous phone calls to the LAPD. Those calls became increasingly frantic in nature, and Brandt became increasingly fearful that his own life might be in jeopardy. He soon decided to put some distance between himself and LA, so he headed for New York City. On the night of his death, according to Phillips’ autobiography, Brandt attended a Rolling Stones concert at Madison Square Gardens, where he attempted to run on stage but was repelled and beaten by a security guard. He then went home and, according to official mythology, overdosed.
It seems obvious that if someone had information that desperately needed to be made public, and if it was the kind of information that authorities had, say, willfully failed to act upon, and if the information was of the type that could not, needless to say, be taken to the mainstream media, and if the year was 1969 and the mass communication technology that we now take for granted did not yet exist, then grabbing the mike at a Stones concert at Madison Square Gardens might just be one of the most effective means of disseminating that information. Brandt failed in what may have been an attempt to do just that, and he turned up dead just hours later. Shit happens, I guess.
Moving on, I couldn’t help noticing that when I mentioned David Blue a few paragraphs back, a lot of you scratched your heads and asked, “David Who?” Allow me then to quickly introduce you to another of the forgotten talents of Laurel Canyon. Blue was born Stuart David Cohen on February 18, 1941; shortly thereafter, his father was deployed overseas. According to David, his dad “came hobbling home on crutches and stayed depressed all his life” (not unlike, it seems fair to say, the family situation of our old friend Phil Ochs). David and his slightly older half-sister, Suzanne, endured a hellish existence consisting of alternating periods of rages and silences. Suzanne got out first, only to end up busted for prostitution in New York City in 1963. Suzanne’s next stop, just a few months later, was at the county morgue.
David, meanwhile, had gotten out of the house as well, by dropping out of school and joining the US Navy at the age of seventeen – just as Lenny Bruce had done. Like Jimi Hendrix, Blue was purportedly booted out of the service, after which he decided to become a folk singer. His first album was released in 1966; a later effort was produced by Graham Nash, who also, as everyone surely recalls, produced a record for Judee Sill, with whom Blue had much in common (you people had better be paying attention because – I’m warning you! – there will, at some point, be a quiz on all this shit, and if you miss too many questions on that quiz, you will be locked out from further access to these articles!)
… … … … Just kidding!! I don’t even know how to set that shit up! But if I did, I would totally fucking do it! Anyway, let’s get back to our story …
Like Judee Sill, David Blue was one of the Laurel Canyon stars who never quite shone as brightly as they should have. And also like Sill, Blue was one of the first few acts signed by David Geffen’s fledgling Asylum label. Finally, as with Judee, David was long forgotten by the time of his death, on December 2, 1982, when the forty-one-year-old Blue dropped dead while jogging in New York’s Washington Square Park. The former rising star (and occasional actor) lay in the morgue for three days before anyone noticed that he was missing.
“Everybody was experimenting and taking it all the way. It opened up a negative force of energy that was almost demonic.” —Frank Mazolla, editor of the film Performance
“There were a lot of weird people around. There was one guy who had a parrot called Captain Blood, and he was always scrawling real cryptic things on the inside walls of my house – Neil Young’s too.” — Joni Mitchell, describing the Laurel Canyon scene at the tail end of the 1960s
Like Brandon DeWilde, Kenneth Anger, Mickey Dolenz and Van Dyke Parks, Ricky Nelson began his Hollywood career as a child actor. He was the son, as everyone surely knows, of America’s favorite 1950s TV mom and dad, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. Ricky began his rock ‘n’ roll career in 1957, when he was just seventeen. By 1962, he had scored no fewer than thirty Top 40 hits, trailing only superstars Elvis Presley and Pat Boone.
That reminds me that, before I forget, I need to add Elvis to the death list as well. And before you send me letters of protest, let me assure you that I do indeed know what a lot of you are thinking: “But Dave, Elvis isn’t dead! I just saw him the other day at the 7-11 right around the corner from my house. And, sure, he was looking a little bloated, but he was definitely alive. I mean, unless you’re going to try to convince me that I watched a dead guy put away a ¼ lb. Big Bite.”
Oh wait … that might not be right … what you are probably really thinking is: “Elvis?! The King?! You can’t be serious! How the hell does The King figure into any of this? What are you going to tell us next – that comedians John Belushi and Phil Hartman belong on the death list as well?”
Uhmm, have you been peeking at my notes or something? Because I actually am, as a matter of fact, going to include Mr. Hartman on the list (and I could include Mr. Belushi as well, since he did die at the Chateau Marmont Hotel, which happens to lie at the mouth of Laurel Canyon). But we’ll get to Phil Hartman later; for now, let’s talk a little bit about Mr. Presley and his admittedly tangential connections to Laurel Canyon.
Elvis arrived in LA in 1956, to begin what would prove to be a prolific film career that would continue throughout the 1960s and would result in the inexcusable creation of nearly three dozen motion pictures, each one arguably more appalling than the last. In the early years of his film career, Elvis reportedly spent his off-hours hanging out with his two best Hollywood pals – a couple of young roommates and Canyonites named Dennis Hopper and Nick Adams. In later years, Presley’s backing musicians – considered to be among the best session musicians in the business – were in high demand among the Laurel Canyon crowd. Elvis’ bass player, for example, can be heard on some of the Doors’ tracks. The entire band was recruited by “Papa” John Phillips to play on his less-than-memorable solo project. Mike Nesmith’s critically-acclaimed post-Monkees project, the First National Band, featured Presley’s band as well. Gram Parsons also hired Elvis’ band to back him up on the two solo albums he recorded at what proved to be the twilight of his life and career.
Those two solo efforts by Parsons, by the way, prominently featured the voice of a young singer/guitarist named Emmylou Harris, a relatively late arrival to the canyon scene. Harris is the daughter – brace yourselves here for a real shocker, folks – of a career US Marine Corps officer. As with so many other characters in this story, she grew up in the outlying suburbs of Washington, DC, primarily in Woodbridge, Virginia – which happens to be the home of an imposingly large Army ‘research and development’ installation known as the Harry Diamond Laboratories Woodbridge Research Facility. In other words, Emmylou Harris fit right in with the rest of the Laurel Canyon crowd.
But here I seem to have digressed from our discussion of Elvis (which was, if I remember correctly, itself a digression from our discussion of Ricky Nelson). Given though that he had only peripheral connections to Laurel Canyon, I guess I don’t really have much more to say about Elvis, other than that he reportedly died on August 16, 1977, the victim of a drug overdose at the young age of forty-two. As with Morrison, however, there have been persistent rumors that Elvis didn’t actually die at all, but rather reinvented himself to escape from the fishbowl.
As for Nelson, in the mid-1960s he successfully shed his ‘teen idol’ image and emerged as a respected pioneer of the country-rock wave that Canyonites Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles would soon ride to dizzying heights of commercial success. One future member of the Eagles, Randy Meisner, played in Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band. As the name of the band would seem to imply, Nelson did not live in Laurel Canyon but rather in one of the many neighboring canyons, but he and his band were very much a part of the early country-rock scene that included Laurel Canyon bands like The Byrds, Poco, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the First National Band.
Nelson was killed on New Year’s Eve, 1985, in a rather unusual plane crash. According to Nelson’s Wikipedia entry, “the original NTSB investigation long ago stated that the crash was probably due to mechanical problems. The pilots attempted to land in a field after smoke filled the cabin. An examination indicated that a fire originated in the right hand side of the aft cabin area at or near the floor line. The passengers were killed when the aircraft struck obstacles during the forced landing; the pilots were able to escape through the cockpit windows and survived.”
I can’t be the only one here who is pondering the obvious question: exactly when was it that the pilots were able to escape through the cockpit windows? I assume that they did not parachute out when the aircraft was still at altitude, leaving the passengers to crash and die. And they certainly couldn’t have bailed out and survived while the aircraft was coming in for a landing. So was it after the plane touched down? If so, exactly how much time was there between when the plane touched down and when it impacted the fatal obstacles? How long was this ‘escape window,’ as it were? I would think it was mere seconds, if even that, which wouldn’t seem to be enough time to execute an escape. And if the plane was going fast enough on the ground that the impact killed all aboard, what are the odds that anyone would survive such an escape attempt? I think maybe the NTSB needs to take another look at this one.
For the final eight years of his life, Nelson lived in a rather unusual home. In 1941, swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn had purchased an eleven-and-a-half-acre chunk of the Hollywood Hills just off Mulholland Drive and had a sprawling home built to his specifications. According to Laurie Jacobson and Marc Wanamaker, writing in Haunted Hollywood, the mansion featured “several mysterious secret passageways and more than a few peepholes.” The home appeared to have been designed to allow for surreptitious observation of guests in the home’s numerous bedrooms. It is claimed that Flynn incorporated the unusual design features so that he could satisfy his own voyeuristic impulses. Researcher/writer Charles Higham, however, has cast Flynn as a Western intelligence asset (and Nazi sympathizer). And if Flynn was an intelligence operative, then it is far more likely that the home was built not so much for Flynn’s personal pleasure, but rather as a means of compromising prominent public figures (much like the home of, for example, Craig Spence).
After Nelson’s death, the palatial home stood vacant until a curious incident took place; referring once again to Jacobson and Wanamaker, we find that “a gang broke in and murdered a girl in the living room. Then a mysterious fire burned half the house. The ruins were torn down.” Shit like that has been known to happen to folks foolish enough to leave their expensive canyon homes sitting vacant … well, except for the part about the “gang.” As far as I know, the canyons have never had much of a “gang” problem. In the Hollywood Hills, the words “crime” and “gang-related” never show up at a party together. And when was the last time anyone ever heard of a “gang” kidnapping a girl and then taking her to a remote, isolated mansion to murder her?
All things considered, I’m thinking that perhaps what the authors meant to say was that “a group of people broke in and murdered a girl …” But that, of course, raises the question of exactly what sort of group of people jointly commit a premeditated murder? Other than death squads, the only such groups that come to mind are generally referred to as “cults,” which I’m guessing are far more common in the canyons than are “gangs.”
In addition to having a fondness for multi-perpetrator murders, it appears as though cults also like to start fires, oftentimes because fires are a really effective way of destroying evidence. Some of you may, however, be thinking that since the Hollywood Hills are plagued by wildfires on a more or less annual basis, then there is nothing particularly unusual about the fact that Nelson’s home, and more than a few of the other homes in this story, were destroyed by fire. For the most part though, the fires that destroyed these structures were not natural wildfires but rather fires of mysterious origin that seemed to target specific buildings. As Michael Walker noted, “Laurel Canyon would burn and burn again, targeting with uncanny precision the homes of its seemingly enchanted rock demimonde.”
(One exception was the Laurel Canyon home of blues-rocker John Mayall, which burned down to its foundation in a ferocious wildfire on September 16, 1979; that wildfire also claimed the home of Whisky owner Elmer Valentine. It was from Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, by the way, that the Rolling Stones recruited guitarist Mick Taylor, who I regrettably disparaged in the initial version of the last installment of this series. Taylor was actually quite an accomplished guitarist whose work with the Stones was frequently uncredited and who was underutilized by the band. My apologies to all the fans of the Rolling Stones that I offended.)
Moving on then to the next new name on our list, we find that on December 31, 1943 – precisely forty-two years before the plane crash that would claim the life of Ricky Nelson – Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., better known as John Denver, was born in Roswell, New Mexico. A few years later, the town of Roswell would make a name for itself and become something of a tourist destination. But that is not really our focus here today, though it should be noted that Henry John Deutschendorf, Sr. might well have known a little something about that incident, given that he was a career US Air Force officer assigned to the Roswell Army Air Field (later renamed the Walker Air Force Base), which was likely the origin of the object that famously crashed in Roswell.
After spending his childhood being frequently uprooted, as did many of our cast of characters, Denver attended Texas Tech University in the early 1960s. In 1964, he apparently heard the call of the Pied Piper and promptly dropped out of school and headed for LA. Once there, he joined up with the Chad Mitchell Trio, the group from which Jim McGuinn had recently departed to co-found The Byrds. By November 1966, Denver was front-and-center at the so-called ‘Riot on the Sunset Strip,’ alongside folks like Peter Fonda, Sal Mineo and a popular husband-and-wife duo known as Sonny and Cher.
The next name we need to add to the list is one that has already worked its way into this narrative a time or two: Sonny Bono. As previously noted, Bono began his Hollywood career as a lieutenant for reclusive murder suspect Phil Spector. In the early 1960s, Bono hooked up with an underage Cherilyn Sarkisian LaPierre to form a duo known first as Caesar and Cleo, and then as Sonny and Cher. The pair were phenomenally successful, first on the Sunset Strip and later on television. Bono, of course, ultimately gave up the Hollywood life and found work in a different branch of the federal government: the U.S. House of Representatives.
On January 5, 1998, Sonny Bono died after purportedly skiing into a tree. At the time, Bono occupied a seat on the House Judiciary Committee, which was about to come to sudden prominence with the investigation and impeachment of President Bill. The ball was already rolling by the time of Bono’s death, and on January 26, 1998, just three weeks after the alleged skiing incident, Clinton held the now-notorious press conference in which he uttered the fateful words: “I did not have sexual relations with that skank, by which I mean that the executive penis did not, at any time, penetrate her womanly parts, though it is possible that she may have taken a few puffs on the presidential cigar, if you fellas know what I mean. Does anyone else have a question?” By that time, of course, Bono’s seat on the panel had been set aside for his robowife (who was, perhaps, more willing to act out the charade).
And now, as promised, let’s turn our attention to Phil Hartman. As everyone likely remembers, Saturday Night Live alumnus Hartman was murdered in his Encino home on May 28, 1998. That much is not in dispute. Decidedly less clear is the answer to the question of who it was that actually shot and killed Hartman. The official story, of course, holds that it was his wife Brynn, who shortly thereafter shot herself – with a different gun, naturally, and reportedly after she had left the house and then returned with a friend, and after the LAPD had arrived at the home. There is a very strong possibility, however, that both Phil and his wife were murdered, with the true motive for the crime covered up by trotting out the tired but ever-popular murder/suicide scenario.
In most people’s minds, of course, Phil Hartman is not associated with the Laurel Canyon scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But as it turns out, Hartman did indeed have substantial ties to that scene. To begin with, during the time that Jimi Hendrix lived in LA (in the spacious mansion just north of the Log Cabin on Laurel Canyon Boulevard), Hartman worked for him as a roadie. Soon after that, Phil found work as a graphic artist and he quickly found himself much in demand by the Laurel Canyon rock royalty. In addition to designing album covers for both Poco and America, Hartman also, believe it or not, designed a readily recognizable rock symbol that has endured for nearly forty years: the distinctive CSN logo for Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Hartman had ties to the darker side of Laurel Canyon as well. He was, for example, a high school chum of Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who would later find herself living alongside Charlie Manson at the infamous Spahn Movie Ranch. In bygone years, by the way, that very same Spahn Movie Ranch was frequently used as a filming location by western star Tom Mix, who was, as we all know, the man whose name was forever tied to the Log Cabin. Curiously enough, the Log Cabin’s guesthouse (aka the Bird House), which is still standing, was designed and built by architect Robert Byrd, who also, according to one report, designed the house at 5065 Encino Avenue where Phil Hartman was murdered, and the house at 10050 Cielo Drive where Sharon Tate and friends were murdered.
While we’re on the subject of the Bird House, I should mention that you can find numerous photos of the guesthouse and the grounds of the property at this website. Notice that among its other amenities, the house features a rather medieval-looking dungeon, because one never knows when a dungeon might come in handy for, uhmm, storing roots or something. Notice also that what was built as a ‘guesthouse’ probably makes your own home look like it belongs in a shantytown, which would tend to indicate that the property’s main residence, the Log Cabin, was a decidedly opulent dwelling.
One more curious factoid that I feel compelled to toss out here, since I did reference the Spahn Movie Ranch, is that during the days of the Manson clan’s stay at that now infamous former film set, there was a similarly dilapidated movie set that was located right across the road from Spahn. It’s name, in case you were wondering, was the Wonderland Movie Ranch.
Speaking of Wonderland, let’s turn our attention next to four individuals whose names will probably not be familiar to most readers: Ronald Launius, Billy Deverell, Barbara Richardson and Joy Miller. All died on July 1, 1981, all by bludgeoning, and all at the same location: 8763 Wonderland Avenue in Laurel Canyon. All were members of a gang that trafficked heavily in cocaine and occasionally in heroin. The leader of the group was Ron Launius, who reportedly embarked on his criminal career, and established his drug connections, while serving for Uncle Sam over in Vietnam, which is also where he began to build his carefully-crafted reputation as a cold-blooded killer. At the time that he became a murder victim himself, Launius was a suspect in no fewer than 27 open homicide investigations. He was also a drug supplier to various members of the Laurel Canyon aristocracy.
Victim Billy Deverell was Launius’ second-in-command, and victim Joy Miller was Billy’s girlfriend as well as the renter of the Laurel Canyon drug den. Victim Barbara Richardson was the girlfriend of another member of the gang, David Lind, who conveniently was not at the home at the time of the mass murder. That could well have been due to the fact that Lind was, according to various rival drug dealers, a police informant for both the Sacramento and Los Angeles Police Departments. He was also a member of the ultra-violent prison gang known as the Aryan Brotherhood (as is, by several accounts, a guy that we have bumped into several times during this journey: Bobby Beausoleil). Lind, who met Launius when the two had served time together, is alleged to have overdosed in 1995, though it is widely believed that he actually went into the federal witness protection program.
The next name to go on our list is that of Brian Cole, bass player for The Association, an LA folk-rock band known for the hit songs “Along Comes Mary” and “Never My Love.” The Association was not a Laurel Canyon band but they did have close ties to the scene. The group was formed by Terry Kirkman and Jules Alexander; Kirkman had formerly played in a band with Frank Zappa, while Alexander was fresh from a stint in the US Navy. Jerry Yester, a guitarist and keyboardist with the band, was formerly with The Modern Folk Quartet, a band managed by Zappa manager Herb Cohen and produced by Byrds’ manager Jim Dickson. Guitarist Larry Ramos had formerly been with the New Christy Minstrels, which also produced Gene Clark of The Byrds.
On June 16, 1967, Cole and his band were the first to take the stage at the Monterey Pop Festival, followed by such Laurel Canyon stalwarts as The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and the Mamas and the Papas. Five years later, on August 2, 1972, Cole was found dead in his Los Angeles home. The cause of death was reportedly a heroin overdose. Cole was one month shy of his thirtieth birthday at the time of his death.
Another new name on the Laurel Canyon Death List is Lowell George, the founder and creative force behind the critically-acclaimed but largely obscure band known as Little Feat. George was the son of Willard H. George, a famous furrier to the Hollywood movie studios. Lowell’s first foray into the music world was with a band known as The Factory, which cut some demos with a guy by the name of Frank Zappa. The Factory evolved into the Fraternity of Man, though without George, who had left to serve as lead vocalist for The Standells. George returned, however, to join the band in the studio for the recording of their second album. By that time, as we have already seen, the Fraternity of Man had taken up residence in the Log Cabin, alongside Carl Franzoni and his fellow Freaks.
George next joined up with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, though his tenure there was destined to be a short one; like so many others, Lowell left embittered by Zappa’s dictatorial approach to making music and his condescending treatment of his bandmates. During his time with Zappa, George helped Frank out in the studio with the GTOs’ first (and only) album, as did Brits Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart (who, readers of Programmed to Kill will recall, was one of the last people known to have been in the company of a pair of underage girls before they became victims of a ‘serial killer’ in June 1980).
After parting company with Zappa, George formed Little Feat, a band composed mostly of musicians from the Fraternity of Man sessions. Lowell, who is credited with being a pioneer of the use of slide guitar in rock music, served as singer, songwriter and lead guitarist for the band, which released its debut album in 1970. Though well regarded within the industry and by critics, the band’s albums failed to sell and George ultimately announced the demise of the band and recorded a solo album. After playing a show on June 29, 1979 at George Washington University in support of that album, George was found dead in an Arlington, Virginia hotel room, very near the Pentagon. Cause of death was said to be a massive heart attack, though George was just thirty-four years old at the time.
According to Barney Hoskyns (writing in Hotel California), “A regular social stop-off for George was a Laurel Canyon house on Wonderland Avenue belonging to Three Dog Night singer Danny Hutton. A drop-in den of debauchery, the Hutton house featured a bedroom with black walls and a giant fireplace. Lowell would often swing by and entertain the likes of Brian Wilson or Harry Nilsson.” Nilsson and his regular drinking buddy, John Lennon, were frequent guests at this “den of debauchery.”
Former Beatle John Lennon is, to be sure, one of the most famous names to be found on the Laurel Canyon Death List. Lennon also has the distinction of being one of the few Laurel Canyon alumni whose cause of death is acknowledged to have been homicide. The ex-Beatle, of course, never lived in the canyon, but he was a fixture on the Sunset Strip and at various Laurel Canyon hangouts, frequently in the company of Harry Nilsson. And as readers surely recall, he was gunned down on December 8, 1980 – purportedly by Mark David Chapman, but more likely by a second gunman.
Lennon was, as everyone knows, murdered in front of New York’s Dakota Apartments, which had been portrayed by filmmaker Roman Polanski in the 1960s as a den of Satanic cult activity (in his film Rosemary’s Baby). Not long before Lennon’s murder, Chapman had approached occult filmmaker Kenneth Anger and offered him a gift of live bullets. Just days after Lennon was felled, Anger’s long-delayed final cut of Lucifer Rising made its New York debut, not far from the bloodstained grounds of the Dakota Apartments. And not long after that, the ‘Reagan Revolution’ began to transform America.
Exactly three weeks after Lennon’s death, Tim Hardin – Canyonite, folk musician, close associate of Frank Zappa, author of Rod Stewart’s “Reason to Believe,” onetime tenant in Lenny Bruce’s Laurel Canyon-adjacent home, and former U.S. Marine – died of a reported heroin and morphine overdose in Los Angeles. At the time of his death, on December 29, 1980, Hardin was just thirty-nine years old.
Eight years later, on July 18, 1988, singer/songwriter/keyboardist Christa Paffgen, better known as Nico, died of a reported cerebral hemorrhage in Ibiza, Spain under unusual circumstances. After achieving some level of fame as a vocalist with the Velvet Underground, Nico had left the Warhol stable and migrated west to Laurel Canyon, where she formed a bond with a then-unknown singer-songwriter named Jackson Browne, who contributed a few songs to Nico’s 1967 debut album, Chelsea Girl (so named for New York’s Chelsea Hotel, from where Devon Wilson took a dive, and where the persona of John Train murdered the persona of Phil Ochs). Also contributing a song to Nico’s solo debut was Mr. Tim Hardin.
On December 4, 1993, some five years after Nico’s curious death, Frank Zappa died in his Laurel Canyon home of inoperable prostate cancer. Some have speculated that the cancer could have developed as a result of the chemical agents Zappa was exposed to throughout his early childhood at the Edgewood Arsenal.
And so it goes. In the next installment, we will add two more famous names to the death list, and we will use them as springboards to launch into two rarely-told stories that will add new levels of complexity to the Laurel Canyon saga.
Until then …
“By the time Manson shifted base from Rustic Canyon to an old ranch in Chatsworth, he'd begun formulating the notion that he and his followers had to prepare themselves for a race war with Black America.” —Barney Hoskyns (in Hotel California, his take on the Laurel Canyon/Sunset Strip scene)
“There were a lot of weird people around. There was one guy who had a parrot called Captain Blood, and he was always scrawling real cryptic things on the inside walls of my house – Neil Young’s too.” — Joni Mitchell, describing the Laurel Canyon scene at the tail end of the 1960s
In this outing, we will be temporarily leaving Laurel Canyon. But don’t worry; we won’t be traveling far, and we’ll be returning soon enough.
Today we will be exploring Rustic Canyon, which lies about nine miles west of Laurel Canyon. It was there, in Lower Rustic Canyon, that Beach Boy Dennis Wilson lived in what Steven Gaines described in Heroes and Villains as “a palatial log-cabin-style house at 14400 Sunset Boulevard that had once belonged to humorist Will Rogers.” The expansive home sat on three landscaped acres of gently rolling hills.
In the summer of 1968, as is fairly well known, Charlie Manson and various members of his entourage moved in with Wilson. “Tex” Watson, curiously enough, was already living there. As many as two-dozen members of Manson’s clan spent the entire summer there, with Wilson picking up the tab for all expenses. The Mansonites (mostly nubile young women) regularly drove Wilson’s expensive cars and demolished at least one of them. Dennis didn’t seem to mind; he was busy recording Manson in his home studio and inviting fellow musicians, like Neil Young, over to the house to hear Charlie perform (Young was so impressed that he urged Mo Ostin to sign him).
Dennis would later claim that he had destroyed all the Manson demo tapes, that he remembered almost nothing of his time with Charlie and the Family, and that he certainly knew nothing about the Tate and LaBianca murders, which were committed in the summer of 1969, about a year after the Family had vacated the Rustic Canyon residence.
At some point in time, Wilson had a change of heart and decided that maybe he did indeed know a little something about the murders. “I know why Charles Manson did what he did,” said Dennis. “Someday, I’ll tell the world. I’ll write a book and explain why he did it.” Needless to say, that book was never written and Wilson’s story, if indeed he had one, was never told. Instead, Dennis Wilson drowned under questionable circumstances on December 28, 1983, in the marina where his beloved ship was docked.
But this story isn’t really about Dennis Wilson; it’s about Charlie Manson and his alleged motive for allegedly ordering the Tate and LaBianca murders.
According to the ‘Helter Skelter’ scenario popularized by lead prosecutor/disinformation peddler Vincent Bugliosi, Manson was hoping to spark an apocalyptic race war. It is said that Charlie believed that America’s black population would prevail over whitey, but that, having won the war, the victors would be incapable of governing themselves. And that, alas, is when Charlie and his retinue would emerge from the shadows to take command.
According to Barney Hoskyns, Manson began formulating his race war theory during his stay in Rustic Canyon. If true, then Charlie appears to have been following in the footsteps of a former Rustic Canyon guru – one who preceded him by a few decades, and who, like Charlie, had a certain fondness for swastikas.
Just to the north of Dennis Wilson’s old home is a vast wilderness of undeveloped canyon lands. Lower Rustic Canyon soon gives way to Upper Rustic Canyon, and all signs of human civilization abruptly vanish. The land remains wild and undeveloped save for an old fire road that winds along the summit between Rustic Canyon and a neighboring canyon. That road is closed to the public and vehicle traffic is nonexistent. Aside from an occasional hiker wandering in from nearby Will Rogers State Park, there is nary a human to be seen.
The farther in one hikes, the more wild and untamed it becomes. Along with the sights of the city, the sounds and the scents quickly disappear as well. Within a very short time, it is surprisingly easy to forget that one is still within the confines of the city of Los Angeles. In its fall splendor, the canyon looks nothing like the Los Angeles that I know and don’t quite love. It is beautiful, serene, pastoral. And yet, filled with mist and heavily overgrown, it is also vaguely ominous.
If one knows where to look, there is a narrow concrete stairway that is accessible from the fire road. This stairway descends down to the floor of the canyon, and it is a very, very long descent. Five hundred and twelve steps long, to be exact. As one makes the descent, this stairway, which seems to go on forever, seems wildly out of place. With time to kill on the way down, one finds oneself pondering (actually, most people probably wouldn’t, but I did) how many man-hours it took to set forms for 512 poured concrete steps, and how truckloads of concrete had to be poured out here in the middle of nowhere.
Reaching the canyon floor, one finds that, though the native flora has struggled mightily to reclaim the land, remnants of a past civilization can be seen everywhere. Some structures remain largely intact – a nearly 400,000-gallon, spring-fed reservoir serving a sophisticated potable water system; a concrete-walled structure that once housed twin electrical generators capable of lighting a small town; more concrete stairways hundreds of steps long, each snaking its way up the canyon walls; weathered livestock stables; professionally graded and paved roads; countless stone retaining walls; an incinerator; concrete foundations and skeletal remains of former dwellings; the rusting carcass of a Mansonesque VW bus; and, at the former entrance, an imposing set of electronically-controlled, wrought-iron security gates.
It is the kind of place that seems tailor-made for Charlie and his Family – remote and secluded, yet accessible by the Family’s custom-built dune buggies; with just enough crumbling infrastructure to provide rudimentary shelter for the clan; and with elaborate security provisions, including sentry positions and a formerly-electrified fence completely encircling the 50-acre compound (as well as, by some reports, an underground tunnel complex). And it was located just a short hike up the canyon from the place that Charlie Manson called home in the summer of 1968.
While exploring this place, obvious questions begin to come to mind (they would, that is, if I didn’t already know the answers, but try to work with me here): who developed this remote portion of the canyon? And why? Why here, in what feels like the middle of nowhere? The goal appears to have been to create a hidden and completely self-sustaining community, and an extraordinary amount of money was invested in infrastructure development … but why?
Very few Angelenos know of the curious ruins in Rustic Canyon, and fewer still know the history of those ruins. Every now and then though, a local reporter will pay a visit and the story will make a one-time appearance in a local publication, briefly casting some light on a bit of the hidden history of Los Angeles. In May 1992, Marc Norman of the Los Angeles Business Journal was one such reporter (“Hermit Chic – Rustic Canyon”).
According to Norman, “County records show ‘Jessie Murphy, a widow,’ purchasing 50-plus acres north of [Will] Rogers’ property in 1933, but the owners were actually named Stephens – Norman, an engineer with silver-mining interests, and Winona, the daughter of an industrialist and a woman given to things supernatural. Local lore has it that Winona fell under the spell of a certain unnamed gentleman …” This trio, along with unnamed others, began “a 10-year construction program costing $4 million … starting with a water tank holding 375,000 gallons and a concrete diesel-powered generator station with foot-thick walls – both of which are still visible. The hillsides were terraced for orchards, an electrified fence circled the boundaries and a huge refrigerated locker was built into a hillside … The one thing Murphy/Stephens couldn’t seem to get right was their main house. The first architect hired was Welton Becket, but there are also sketches by Lloyd Wright, and in 1941, Paul Williams drafted blueprints for a sprawling mansion with 22 bedrooms, a children’s dining room, a gymnasium, pool and a workshop in the basement.”
Thirteen years later, in September 2005, Cecelia Rasmussen of the Los Angeles Times added a few details to the story (“Rustic Canyon Ruin May Be a Former Nazi Compound,” September 4, 2005): “Southern California has been the cradle to many odd cults, credos, utopias and dystopias. Among the most mysterious are the ruins of a Rustic Canyon enclave once known as Murphy Ranch … on [Rustic Canyon’s] secluded and woodsy floor stand the eerily burned-out and graffiti-scarred remains of concrete and steel structures, underground tunnels and stairways leading from the top of the canyon to the bottom … Behind the locked and rusted wrought iron entrance gates and flagstone wall stand the traces of a small community that had the capacity to grow its own food, generate its own electricity and dam its own water … The hillsides were terraced with 3,000 nut, citrus, fruit and olive trees, and fitted with water pipes, sprinklers and an elaborate greenhouse. A high barbed-wire fence discouraged intruders … research indicates that it could have been home to up to 40 local Nazis from about 1933 to 1945 … armed guards patrolled the canyon dressed in the uniform worn by Silver Shirts, a paramilitary group modeled after Hitler’s brownshirts … A man known through oral histories only as ‘Herr Schmidt’ supposedly ruled the place and claimed to possess metaphysical powers.”
Herr Schmidt, needless to say, was the gentleman whose spell Winona Stephens fell under. According to Marc Norman, Schmidt “convinced her that the coming world war would be won by Germany, that the United States would collapse into years of violent anarchy and that the chosen few (read: the Stephenses, the certain gentleman and other true believers) would need a tight spot in which to hole up, self-sufficient, until the fire storm had passed. Then they could emerge not only intact but, thanks to the superiority of their politics, rulers of the anthill and, not incidentally, the origin of its new population.”
Murphy Ranch also reportedly featured a 20,000-gallon diesel fuel tank, livestock stables, and dairy and butchering facilities. Along both sides of the compound “rise eight crumbling, narrow stairways of at least 500 steps each,” as the LA Times noted. Those stairways apparently led to sentry positions high on the canyon walls (for the record, they are not actually crumbling, though most are overgrown with impenetrable vegetation). During Murphy Ranch’s years of operation, nearby residents reportedly complained of late-night military exercises and the sounds of live gunfire echoing through the canyons.
To summarize then, it appears that the city of Los Angeles was home to a secret, militarized Nazi compound that was in operation both before and during World War II. Remnants of that blacked-out chapter of LA history can be seen to this day, though few make the trek. The purpose of the decaying compound was to ride out an anarchic, apocalyptic war, so that the chosen few could emerge as the rulers of the new world.
It was all so very Mansonesque, and, ironically enough, Manson and his crew spent an entire summer camped out at a home that was within a two-mile hike of this curious place. It should have been something of a Mecca for Charlie, and yet he apparently knew nothing of its existence. It seems somehow disrespectful that the Family didn’t choose to set up camp here rather than at, say, Barker Ranch. At the very least, they should have paid a visit.
In the late 1940s, after the close of the war, Murphy Ranch was reportedly converted into an artist’s colony. Architect Welton Becket, who designed several of the structures at the ranch, went on to design two of LA’s landmark structures: the Capitol Records building and the Music Center. In 1973, the property once known as Murphy Ranch was purchased by the city of Los Angeles. As far as I know, the city has no plans to reopen the facility.
“Van Cortlandt and Untermyer functioned as outdoor meeting sites for the cult.”Maury Terry, referring to the cult behind the ‘Son of Sam’ murders (from The Ultimate Evil)
Just to the west of Laurel Canyon, and slightly to the east of Coldwater Canyon, lies a large estate known as Greystone Park, home of the long-vacant Greystone Mansion. The home, and the grounds it sits on, is said to be, to this day, the most expensive private residence ever built in the city of Los Angeles. Constructed in the 1920s, the home and grounds carried the then-unfathomable price tag of $4,000,000 (by way of comparison, the Lookout Inn, built a decade-and-a-half earlier, was projected to cost from $86,000-$100,000; in other words, the single-family residence cost at least 40 times what the lavish 70-room inn cost – and the inn required bringing infrastructure and building materials to a remote mountaintop).
The massive, 46,000 square-foot edifice sits amid 22 lavishly landscaped acres of prime Hollywood Hills real estate. This rather ostentatious home was built by uberwealthy oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny as a wedding present for his son, Edward “Ned” Doheny, Jr.. If that plotline sounds vaguely familiar, it is probably because Edward Doheny was the inspiration for Upton Sinclair’s Oil, and thus for the homicidal Daniel Plainview character in There Will Be Blood (some of the interior shots near the end of that film, of expansive, marble-floored rooms, could very well have been shot in the real Greystone, though the exterior shots certainly were not).
Upon the home’s completion, in September 1928, young Ned Doheny and his new bride moved into the humble abode. Within months, the home would be bloodstained; soon after, it would be permanently abandoned.
Poor Ned, you see, was found dead in the cavernous home on February 16, 1929. Near him lay the lifeless body of his assistant/personal secretary, Hugh Plunkett. Both men had been shot. Despite persistent rumors of an inordinately long delay in reporting the deaths, and of the bodies having been moved to re-stage the crime scene, no formal inquest was ever conducted and the case was written off as a murder/suicide arising from a gay lovers’ quarrel. Plunkett was said to be the triggerman and the media quickly went into a frenzy playing up the scandalous homosexuality angle and portraying young Plunkett as positively demented.
It is anyone’s guess whether or not the two really were gay lovers, but it matters little; the rest of the story was almost certainly a work of fiction. In reality, both men were likely murdered as part of the massive cover-up/damage-control operation that followed the disclosure of the Harding-era Teapot Dome scandal, which the Doheny family, as it turns out, was very deeply immersed in. The murder/suicide scenario was then trotted out because, as we all know, if the alleged perpetrator is already dead, it pretty much eliminates the need for things like investigations and trials.
Some forty years after those gunshots rang out in the opulent Greystone Mansion, a new Ned Doheny, scion of the very same Doheny oil clan, would join the ranks of the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters club. Like Terry Melcher and Gram Parsons, Doheny was viewed by some as a ‘trust-fund kid.’ His closest circle of friends included country-rockers Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther and Glen Frey. In addition to recording his own solo albums (his self-titled debut was released in 1973), Doheny contributed to albums by such Laurel Canyon superstars as Don Henley and Graham Nash.
Strangely enough, New York City once had a large estate known as Greystone as well. That Greystone was donated to the city as parkland, and it thereafter became known as Untermyer Park – the same Untermyer Park identified by Maury Terry as one of the two principal ritual sites used by the Process Church faction behind the ‘Son of Sam’ murders. The other site used by the cult was Van Cortlandt Park, named for Jacobus Van Cortlandt, a former Mayor of New York and one of David Van Cortlandt Crosby’s forefathers. Another of Crosby’s forefathers lent his name to Schuyler Road, which happens to run along the western boundary of the Greystone Park in the Hollywood Hills.
I have no idea what, if anything, any of that means, but I thought it best that I toss it into the mix.
* * * * * * * * * *
One of the two, whom we’ll call Jerry, had a decidedly conservative upbringing. Born into a politically well-connected Republican family, Jerry devoted his early years to pursuing a career in the Jesuit priesthood. His father, an active Republican Party operative, was an aspiring politician who initially had no luck in getting himself elected to office. Ultimately though, he succeeded in capturing the coveted California Governor’s seat in 1959, and he did it by employing a simple gimmick: he merely changed the “R” after his name to a “D.” He held the seat for two terms, through 1967, and then was replaced by a fellow who had employed a similar trick: replacing the “D” after his name with an “R.”
That gentleman, of course, was Ronald Wilson Reagan, who would govern the state through 1975, when he handed the reins over to Jerry, who, like his dad, had decided that he was a liberal Democrat. In fact, according to the media, Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, Jr. was an ultraliberal extremist whose politics fell somewhere to the left of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
During Laurel Canyon’s glory years, Jerry Brown resided in a home on Wonderland Avenue, not too many doors down from the Wonderland death house (and from the homes of numerous singers, songwriters and musicians). His circle of friends in those days, as some may recall, included the elite of Laurel Canyon’s country-rock stars, including Linda Ronstadt (with whom he was long rumored to be romantically involved), Jackson Browne and the Eagles.
Another figure making the rounds in Laurel Canyon during the same period of time was a gent by the name of Mike Curb. At various times, Curb worked as a musician, composer, recording artist, film producer and record company executive. He also had the notable distinction of serving as the musical director on the notorious documentary feature Mondo Hollywood, which ostensibly chronicled the emerging Laurel Canyon/Sunset Strip scene. Filmed from 1965 through 1967 (well before the Manson murders), the film featured representatives from the Manson Family (Bobby Beausoleil), the Manson Family’s victims (Jay Sebring), the Freak troupe (Vito, Carl, Szou and Godo), and Laurel Canyon’s musical fraternity (Frank Zappa and his future wife, Gail Sloatman). It also featured acid guru Richard “Babawhateverthefuckitwasthathecalledhimself” Alpert.
Mondo Hollywood, as I mentioned in a previous installment, was the creation of filmmaker Robert Carl Cohen, who, as it turns out, has an interesting background for a guy whose destiny was to capture on film the emerging 1960s countercultural scene. In 1954, Cohen served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The following year, he was on assignment to NATO. Following that, he served in Special Services in Germany. The very next year, he produced, directed, edited and narrated a documentary short entitled Inside Red China. Two years later, he wore all the same hats for a documentary entitled Inside East Germany. A few years later, he put together another documentary entitled Three Cubans.
Cohen has proudly proclaimed that he was the first (or at least among the first) Western journalists/filmmakers allowed to enter and shoot footage in each of these countries. In the case of Cuba (and likely the others as well), he did so under the sponsorship of the U.S. State Department. Mr. Cohen would like us to believe that he undertook these projects as nothing more than what he outwardly appeared to be – an independent filmmaker – but I have a hunch that few readers of this site are naïve enough to believe that a private citizen not working for the intelligence community could land such assignments.
Have I mentioned, by the way, that Cohen is not a fan of this website? I know this because he sent a few e-mails my way in which he denounced my site as being “based on slander and third-party hearsay,” or some such gibberish, and he followed that up by issuing some empty legal threats. As it turns out though, I don’t much give a fuck what Robert Carl Cohen thinks of my website.
And now, after that brief digression, we return to our discussion of Laurel Canyon’s dynamic duo of Jerry Brown and Mike Curb. In addition to his work on Mondo Hollywood, Curb also served as ‘song producer’ on another key countercultural film of the era, Riot on the Sunset Strip (which, despite its title, had little to do with the actual event). In addition, Curb scored a slew of cheaply-produced biker flicks, including The Wild Angels, Devil’s Angels, Born Losers, The Savage Seven and The Glory Stompers. Along the way, he worked alongside many of Laurel Canyon’s ‘Young Turks,’ including Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper.
It is unclear whether the paths of this odd couple crossed during Laurel Canyon’s glory years, but as fate would have it, they were to cross in 1979 in Sacramento, California. Mike Curb, you see, after being encouraged by Ronald Reagan to venture into politics, was elected to serve as Governor Jerry Brown’s second-in-command. And so it was that these two men, both veterans of the 1960s Laurel Canyon scene, came to sit side-by-side in the governor’s mansion, one sporting a “D” after his name, and the other an “R.”
Governor Brown, however, had little time to spend on actually governing the state of California. Tossing his hat into the presidential ring, he spent much of the first half of his second term out of the state, working the campaign trail. This allowed Lieutenant Governor Curb, as acting governor of the state, to sign into law a withering array of reactionary legislation that was far removed from what the people had in mind when they elected ‘Governor Moonbeam.’ This arrangement allowed the nominal liberal of the Laurel Canyon tag-team, Jerry Brown, to keep his hands clean even as his administration moved far away from its originally stated goals – and even as he made little effort to rein in his wayward underling.
These days, Jerry Brown maintains little of his liberal façade. As California’s Attorney General, he works hand-in-hand with the state’s Nazi-loving governor, Ahhnuld Schwarzenegger. Of course, if his carefully-crafted image is to be believed, Schwarzenegger is practically a liberal himself. The truth however, is something much different … or maybe not. Given that we are living in an era when a straight-faced media can routinely describe Bill and Hillary and Barry O as liberals, then I suppose Jerry and Arnie have as much right to wear that label as anyone. But then again, so do George and John.
By that, I mean, Get me a lead singer. He's got sort of an androgynous blonde hair, very pretty. We need a guitar player, sort of hatchet-faced, wears a hat, plays very fast, very dramatic. He must be very dramatic. Get me a pound of bass player, pound of drummer…they're making little cardboard cutouts. They hire a producer, they hire writers…And in the current stuff now, they don't even bother getting people to play. Don't bother with that guitar player, bass player, drummer - nonsense…The people in those bands can't write, play, or sing.” - David Crosby, describing the synthetic, manufactured nature of today's rock bandsFirst of all, before getting back into the Laurel Canyon scene, I need to say that some of you people really need to mellow out on the visits to my website. Seriously. This isn’t a crack-house, for fuck’s sake, so just chill out a little bit. I mean, I’ve grown accustomed to the fact that you feel free to drop in unannounced at all hours of the day and night, but maybe, just maybe, you could consider doing it a bit less frequently. Is that so much to ask?
“David was obnoxious, loud, demanding, thoughtless, full of himself - of the four of them [David Crosby, Steven Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young], the least talented.” - David Geffen
Don’t get me wrong here – I’m flattered by the attention. I really am. The problem though is that you have overloaded my now-overworked website, causing it to spontaneously disappear on, of all days, the morning of September 11, 2008. And to add insult to injury, the generic, no-frills page that popped up instead, proclaiming that my site was under house arrest for the crime of exceeding its bandwidth allocation, was arguably more attractive than my actual homepage.
Luckily, this problem was quickly brought to my attention by a few alert readers and I was able to liberate my site by digging deeply into my pockets to come up with the bail money that the jailers were demanding (I think they referred to it as “adding resources” to my site, but I wasn’t really fooled by that. And I didn’t, by the way, really dig that deeply into my pockets.
But that’s not the point. No, the point is that my site is – and I’m sure that there are many of you who do not know this – primitive by design. It is my belief that the ‘retro website’ look will soon be all the rage, and I want to be at the forefront of that movement. Everything old will someday become new again, and the ‘net has been around for long enough now, given our collectively short attention span, that a return to basics – to those first tentative baby-steps some of us took in creating one of those newfangled things called ‘websites’ – is all but guaranteed. My site, needless to say, will become the template that will be followed by everyone who wants to run with the in-crowd. I will, of course, be regarded as something of a visionary. Unfortunately though, I will ultimately be revealed as a fraud when, a few years down the road, legions of fans suddenly realize that, long after the fad has passed, my site is still retro. Self-righteous critics will denounce me as a poser, a charlatan – they may even invoke that most demeaning of future slurs and label me a ‘Palin.’
But before that happens, the brief time during which I shall have basked in the limelight will have made it all worthwhile. Of course, none of that has much to do with purchasing additional bandwidth for my site, so I guess it does come down to the money issue after all. Because if your behavior continues, I fear that the situation could soon spiral completely out of control, forcing me to come to you, like every other ass wipe on the Internet, with hat in hand. Before long, I could be spending all of my time organizing annual fundraising drives, with the word ‘annual’ defined here, as it appears to be elsewhere, as ‘every twelve days.’ And no one really wants to see that happen.
And yes, by the way, I do realize that I am likely contributing to the problem by including lots of large color photos in the posts, which presumably hog up lots of bandwidth [that’s techno-speak that I am throwing in here to make me sound really smart, when the reality is that any attempt that I might make to define the word ‘bandwidth’ would sound a lot like the governor of Alaska attempting to explain the strategic significance of that frozen state: “You may not know this, but I have been told by a real scientist – I think he was anarchaeologist– that at onetime there was a land bridge between Alaska and Russia that some cavemen or dinosaurs or something came across. Supposedly that was way back in olden times, like even before John McCain was born.
But as everyone who goes to my church knows, ‘olden times’ wasn’t really that long ago, since the Earth is only about 438 years old. That’s why Todd and I believe that that bridge is still up there somewhere, and if the Russians find it before we do, then we could be in some serious gosh darn trouble. That’s why I wanted all that earmark money for the ‘Bridge to Nowhere,’ because that was really a secret code name for ‘the bridge to Russia.’ Once it is found and fully restored, my husband Todd is going to lead a special commando team on snowmobiles – he’s been training for it for years, you know – and they’re going to sneak across Siberia and kick Russia’s little behind. I’m not supposed to talk about any of that though, so try to keep it on the down-low. We don’t want to give President Gorbachev the heads-up, if you know what I mean … by the way, are we on TV right now?”], but I prefer to place the blame on all of you. So try to mellow out just a little bit.)
And yes, I do realize that the preceding passage might have been a bit more topical had I actually gotten it posted when it was written, a couple of months ago. But let’s not dwell on that; instead, let’s get back to our little story, shall we?
At the very beginning of this journey, I noted that Jim Morrison’s story was not “in any way unique.” As it turns out, however, that proclamation is not exactly true. It was a true enough statement in the context in which it appeared—which is to say that Morrison’s family background did not differ significantly from that of his musical peers–but in many other significant ways, Jim Morrison was indeed a most unique individual, and quite possibly the unlikeliest rock star to ever stumble across a stage. Morrison essentially arrived on the scene as a fully-developed rock star, complete with a backing band, a stage persona and an impressive collection of songs—enough, in fact, to fill the Doors’ first few albums. How exactly Jim Morrison reinvented himself in such a radical mannerremains something of a mystery, since before his sudden incarnation as singer/songwriter, James Douglas Morrison had never shown the slightest interest in music. None whatsoever. He certainly never studied music and could neither read nor write it. By his own account, he never had much of an interest in even listening to music. He told one interviewer that he “never went to concerts—one or two at most.” And before joining the Doors, he “never did any singing. I never even conceived of it.” Asked near the end of his life if he had ever had any desire to learn to play a musical instrument, Jim responded, “Not really.”
Rothdell Trail in Laurel Canyon, where Jim Morrison reportedly lived for a time in the late 1960's
So here we had a guy who had never sang (apparently not even in the shower or in his car, which seems rather odd to me), who had “never even conceived” of the notion that he could open his mouth and make sounds come out, and who could not play an instrument and had no interest in learning such a skill, and who had never much listened to music or been anywhere near a band, even just to watch one perform, and yet this guy somehow emerged, virtually overnight, as a fully-formed rock star who would quickly become an icon of his generation.
And even more bizarrely, legend holds that he brought with him enough original songs to fill the first few Doors’ albums. Morrison did not, you see, do as any other singer/songwriter does and pen the songs over the course of the band’s career; instead, he allegedly wrote them all at once, before the band was even formed. As Jim once acknowledged in an interview, he was “not a very prolific songwriter. Most of the songs I’ve written I wrote in the very beginning, about three years ago. I just had a period when I wrote a lot of songs.”
In fact, all of the good songs that Morrison is credited with writing were written during that period—the period during which, according to rock legend, Jim spent most of his time hanging out on the rooftop of a Venice apartment building, consuming copious amounts of LSD. This was just before he hooked up with fellow student Ray Manzarek to form the Doors. Legend also holds, strangely enough, that that chance meeting occurred on the beach, though it seems far more likely that the pair would have actually met at UCLA, where both attended the university’s rather small and close-knit film school.
So we are to believe then that a few dozen complete songs, never heard by anyone and never played by any musician, existed only in Jim Morrison’s acid-addled brain. Anything is possible, I suppose, but even if we accept that premise, we are still left with some nagging questions, including the question of how those songs got out of Jim Morrison’s head.
As a general rule of thumb, if a songwriter doesn’t know how to read and write music, he can play the song for someone who does and thereby create the sheet music (which was the case, for example, with all of the songs that Brian Wilson penned for the Beach Boys). But Jim quite obviously could not play his own songs. So did he, I don’t know, maybe hum them?
The legendary Whisky-A-Go-Go, as it looks today
And these are, it should be clarified, songs that we are talking about here, as opposed to just lyrics, which would more accurately be categorized as poems. Because Jim, as we all know, was quite a prolific poet, whereas he was a songwriter only for one brief period in his life. But why was that? Why did Morrison, with no previous interest in music, suddenly and inexplicably become a prolific songwriter, only to just as suddenly lose interest after mentally penning an impressive catalog of what would become regarded as rock staples? And how and why did Jim achieve the accompanying physical transformation that changed him from a clean-cut, collegiate, and rather conservative looking young man into the brooding sex symbol who would take the country by storm? And why, after a few years of adopting that persona, did Jim transform once again, in the last year or so of his life, into an overweight, heavily-bearded, reclusive poet who seemed to have lost his interest in music just as suddenly and inexplicably as he had obtained it?
It was not just Morrison who was, in retrospect, a bit of an oddity; the entire band differed from other Laurel Canyon bands in a number of significant ways. As Vanity Fair noted many years ago, “The Doors were always different.” All four members of the group, for example, lacked previous band experience. Morrison and Manzarek, as noted, were film students, and drummer John Densmore and guitarist Robby Kreigerwere recruited by Manzarek from his Transcendental Meditation class—which is, I guess, where one goes to find musicians to fill out one’s band. That class, however, apparently lacked a bass player, so they did without—except for those times when they used session musicians and then claimed that they did without.
The Doors could cite no such band lineage. They were just four guys who happened to come together to play the songs written by the singer who had never sung but who had a sudden calling and a magical gift for songwriting. And as you would expect with four guys who had never actually played in a band before, they pretty much sucked. But don’t take my word for it; let’s let the band’s producer, Paul Rothchild, weigh in: “The Doors were not great live performers musically. They were exciting theatrically and kinetically, but as musicians they didn’t make it; there was too much inconsistency, there was too much bad music. Robby would be horrendously out of tune with Ray, John would be missing cues, there was bad mike usage too, where you could not hear Jim at all.”
But sucking as a band, of course, does not really set the Doors apart from its contemporaries. Another thing that was unusual about the band, however, is that, from the moment the band was conceived, the lineup never changed. No one was added, no one was replaced, no one dropped out of the band over ‘artistic differences,’or to pursue a solo career, or to join another band, or for any of the other reasons that bands routinely change shape.
It would be difficult to identify another Laurel Canyon band of any longevity that could make the same claim. After their first two albums, the Byrds changed line-ups with virtually every album release. Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention were in a near-constant state of flux. Laurel Canyon’s country-rock bands were also constantly changing shape, usually by incestuously swapping members amongst themselves.
But not the Doors. Jim Morrison’s band arrived on the scene as a fully-formed entity, with a name, a stable line-up, a backlog of soon-to-be hit songs—and no previous experience writing, arranging, playing or performing music. Other than that though, they were just your run-of-the-mill, organic, grass-roots rock-and-roll band—with a curious aversion to political advocacy.
Jim Morrison was, by virtually all accounts, a voracious reader. Former teachers and college professors expressed amazement at the breadth and depth of his knowledge on various topics, and at the staggering array of literary sources that he could accurately cite. And yet he was known to tell interviewers that he “had not studied politics that much, really.” But that was okay, according to drummer John Densmore, since “a lot of people at our concerts at least, they’re sort of —it seems like they don’t really come to hear us speak politics.”
It was mentioned previously that Valentine was a former Chicago vice cop, but what was not mentioned is that he was a fully corrupt cop. By his own account, he worked as a police captain’s bagman, “collecting the filthy lucre on behalf of the captain.” He also boasted that, even while working as a vice cop, his night job was “running nightclubs for the outfit—for gangsters.” One “very close friend” from his days in Chicago was “Felix Alderisio, also known as Milwaukee Phil, who was arguably the most feared hit man in the country in the 1950's and 60's, carrying out at least 14 murders for Sam Giancana and other Chicago bosses.”
The Doors get their start at London Fog while Love plays two doors down at the Whisky (from Mondo Bizarro)
Valentine obviously had considerable financial backing to launch his business enterprise, and it wasn’t much of a secret on the Strip where that backing came from. Frank Zappa once cryptically referred to Valentine’s backers as an “ethnic organization,” while Chris Hillman of the Byrds simply noted that, “whoever financed Elmer, I don’t want to know.”
Valentine received far more than just financial backing to launch the Whisky; he got a generous assist from the media as well. As Vanity Fair noted, “Within months of the Whisky’s debut, Life magazine had written it up, Jack Paar hadbroadcast an episode of his post-Tonight weekly program from the club, and Steve McQueen and Jayne Mansfield had installed themselves as regulars.”
During that very same era, it should be noted, Mansfield was also a high-profile member of the Church of Satan, with close ties to founder Anton LaVey, who in turn had ties, as we have already seen, to the dance troupe led by Vito Paulekas, which, as we have also seen, had close ties to Laurel Canyon’s very first band, the Byrds. How was that for a segue?
The Byrds 1971
As a fledgling band, the Byrds had any number of problems. The first and most obvious was that the band’s members did not own any musical instruments. That problem was solved though when Naomi Hirschorn, best known for funding such other quasi-governmental projects as the Hirschorn Museum in Washington, D.C., stepped up to the plate to provide the band with instruments, amplifiers and the like. But that didn’t solve a bigger problem, which was that the band’s members, with the exception of Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, didn’t have a clue as to how to actually play the instruments.
Cast to play the bass player was Chris Hillman, who had never picked up a bass guitar in his life. As he candidly admitted years later,he “was a mandolin player and did not know how to play bass. But they didn’t know how to play their instruments either, so I didn’t feel too bad about it.” On drums was Michael Clarke, who had never before held a set of drumsticks in his hands, but who bore a resemblance to Rolling Stone Brian Jones, which was deemed to be of more significance than actual musical ability. As Crosby co-author Carl Gottlieb recalled, “Clarke had played beatnik bongos and conga drum, but had no experience with conventional drumming.”
Gene Clark, though by far the most gifted songwriter in the band and a talented vocalist as well, could play the guitar, but not particularly well, so he was relegated to banging the tambourine, which was Jim Morrison’s (and various non-musically inclined members of the Partridge Family’s) instrument of choice as well. David Crosby, tasked with rhythm guitar duties, wasn’t much better. Crosby himself admitted, in his first autobiography (does anyone really need to write more than one autobiography, by the way?), that “Roger was the only one who could really play.”
The band had another problem as well: with the exception of Gene Clark, who was good but not terribly prolific, the group was a bit lacking in songwriting ability. To compensate, they initially played mostly covers. Fully a third of the band’s first album consisted of covers of Dylan songs, and nearly another third was made up of covers of songs by other folk singer/songwriters. Clark contributed the five original songs, two of them co-written with McGuinn. As for Crosby, who emerged as the band’s biggest star, his only contribution to the Byrd’s first album was backing vocals.
As would be expected, the Byrds’ live performances, according to Barney Hoskyns in Waiting for the Sun, “weren’t terribly good.” But that didn’t matter much; the band got a lot of assistance from the media, with Time magazine beingamong the first to champion the new band. And they also got a lot of help from Vito and the Freaks and from the Young Turks, as was previously discussed.
We shall return to the Byrds, and to our old friend Vito, in the next outing. For now, I leave you with this curious little story about Byrd Chris Hillman’s initial arrival in Laurel Canyon, as told by Michael Walker in Laurel Canyon: “In the autumn of 1964, a nineteen-year-old bluegrass adept and virtuoso mandolin player named Chris Hillman stood at the corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Kirkwood Drive contemplating a FOR RENT sign on a telephone pole across from the Canyon Country Store …It didn’t take him long to find a place to stay, and, in the canyon’s emerging mythos of enchanted serendipity, one presented itself as if by magic. ‘This guy drives up and he says ‘you looking for a place to rent?’ Hillman recalls. ‘I said yeah, and he said. ‘Well, follow me up.’ It was this young guy who was a dentist. It was his parent’s house, a beautiful old wood house down a dirt road—and he lived on the top, and he was renting out the bottom part. I just went, ‘Wow, perfect.’ The guy ended up being my dentist for a while … It was the top of the world, a beautiful, beautiful place. I had the best place in the canyon.”
The Whisky's signature 'Go-Go Dancers' work it out circa 1966 (screen cap from Mondo Mod)
I'd have to say that, personally speaking, Crosby was worse for the good feelings of [the local] rock'n'roll [scene] than Manson was.” —Terry MelcherTerry Melcher 1974
“I had been to Terry Melcher's house on Cielo Drive many times.” —David Crosby ”
I'm not going to sugarcoat this at all: you people really suck when it comes to picking me out of a photo lineup. And I'm not talking about sucking just a little bit here, folks – no, I'm talking about totally sucking ass. And it wasn't even a particularly difficult task, to be perfectly honest. After all, I provided you with twenty-one composite sketches of what I looked like circa 1966, and yet only one of you – just one! – could correctly identify me. So to give the rest of you a sporting chance, I'm going to narrow it down for you: I'm one of the three wise men – which is to say, the three hairless kids – in the top row.
Anyway, I believe we were discussing the Byrds when class was last convened, so let's now meet a formidable behind-the-scenes player and the band's first producer, Terry Melcher. It is fairly well known that Melcher was the son of 'virginal' actress Doris Day, who was just sixteen when impregnated and seventeen when Terry was born. Melcher's father was trombonist Al Jorden, who reportedly regularly beat Day, and likely Terry as well. Jorden wasn't around for long though; his death, when Melcher was just two or three years old, was naturally ruled a suicide.
After an equally short-lived second marriage, Doris Day married her agent and producer, Marty Melcher, who was universally regarded as one of the biggest assholes in Hollywood – and that's not an easy title to attain, given the fierce competition. Like Jorden, Melcher was well known to be a tyrannically violent and abusive man. He also reportedly embezzled some $20 million from his wife/client. On the bright side though, he did adopt and help raise Terry, who took his name.
Terry Melcher was arguably one of the most important figures lurking about the periphery of the Laurel Canyon saga, by virtue of the fact that he had deep ties to virtually all aspects of the canyon scene, including the Laurel Canyon musicians, the Manson Family, the Vito Paulekas dance troupe, and the group of young Hollywood actors generally referred to as 'The Young Turks.'
As it turns out, Melcher first met Vito Paulekas when Terry was still in high school in the late 1950s. As Melcher later recalled, "Vito was an art instructor. When I was in high school, we'd go to his art studio because he had naked models." A half-a-decade or so later, these two would, each in his own way, become key players in launching not just the career of the Byrds, but the entire Laurel Canyon music scene, as well as the accompanying youth counter-cultural movement.
Also while still in high school, Melcher befriended Bruce Johnston, the adopted son of a top executive with the Rexall drugstore chain. While growing up on the not-so-mean streets of Beverly Hills and Bel Air, the two recorded together as singing duo Bruce and Terry. Johnston also played in a high school band with Phil Spector, who, it will be recalled, shared with Melcher (and various others in this story) the distinction of having lost a parent to an alleged act of suicide.
As I probably have already mentioned, it would be Spector's crack team of studio musicians, dubbed The Wrecking Crew, who would provide the instrumental tracks for countless albums by Laurel Canyon bands. Bruce Johnston, meanwhile, would go on to become a Beach Boy, replacing Wrecking Crew member Glen Campbell, who had briefly replaced Brian Wilson after Brian abruptly decided that he no longer wanted to perform live. Brian's little brother Dennis, meanwhile, famously forged a close bond with Terry Melcher, as well as with Gregg Jakobson, a would-be actor and talent scout who was married to Lou Costello's daughter. Costello's only son, by the way, Lou Jr., drowned in the family pool on November 4, 1943, just before reaching his first birthday.
© Dave McGowan—The Canyon Country Store, where Chris Hillman had a fortuitous encounter.
The trio of Wilson, Melcher and Jakobson, who dubbed themselves the "Golden Penetrators" (Wilson referred to himself rather subtly as "The Wood"), famously forged a close bond with a musician/prophet/penetrator by the name of Charlie Manson. In 1966, Melcher, along with Mark Lindsay of the band Paul Revere and the Raiders, leased and moved into the soon-to-be infamous home at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon (Lindsay would later have the dubious distinction of also living for a time in the other infamous canyon death house, on Wonderland Avenue; Lindsay was also a regular visitor to the Log Cabin). The two were soon joined by Melcher's girlfriend, actress Candace Bergen. Melcher and Bergen remained in the home until early 1969, frequently entertaining numerous high-profile guests from both the music and film industries.
During the summer of 1968, when Charlie Manson and numerous members of his entourage, including Charles "Tex" Watson and Dean Moorehouse, were shacking up with Melcher's best buddy, Dennis Wilson, Tex and Dean were known to regularly visit the Melcher/Bergen home on Cielo Drive. Charlie Manson is known to have visited the Melcher home on several occasions as well, and to have occasionally borrowed Melcher's Jaguar. Just after Melcher and Bergen vacated the home, Jakobson reportedly arranged for Moorehouse to live there briefly, before Tate and Polanski took possession in February of 1969. During Moorehouse's stay, Tex, who would later be portrayed as the leader of the Tate and LaBianca hit squads, came calling regularly. His address book would later be found to contain a phone number for a former Polanski residence.
Watson had moved out to LA from Texas in 1966 after opting to drop out of college, which those who knew him viewed as being wildly out of character. By the spring of 1968, when Charles Watson met Charles Manson at Dennis Wilson's home, Tex was the modish co-owner of Crown Wig Creations on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Through that business enterprise, he had developed extensive Hollywood contacts – contacts that came in handy when he began handling large drug transactions and large piles of cash for Charlie Manson. Tex Watson soon grew so close to Manson that, according to Ed Sanders, he was known to complain at times "that he actually thought he was Charlie."
According to Vanity Fair, Tex Watson was also "a regular patron of the Whisky," which isn't too surprising given that Elmer Valentine's club was well known to be a major drug trafficking site during the late 1960's. Watson's frequent sidekick Dean Moorehouse, by the way, hailed from Minot, North Dakota, identified by Maury Terry as the longtime home of a Process Church faction with deep ties to Offutt Air Force Base. Though it is purely speculation, it seems entirely possible that Moorehouse served as a handler for both Charlies – Manson and Watson (perhaps tellingly, disinformation-peddler Vincent Bugliosi mentions Moorehouse only once in his nearly 700-page treatment of the Manson case, in much the same way that David Crosby ignores Vito Paulekas in his wordy autobiography).
In the spring of 1969, the trio of Wilson, Melcher and Jakobson got close to Bobby Beausoleil as well. Jakobson made at least two trips to the Gerard Theatrical Agency to hear demo tapes that Bobby had recorded. The agency, headed by Jack Gerard, specialized in supplying topless dancers to seedy clubs, and actors and actresses for porno film shoots. Beausoleil's primary job with the agency was to deliver carloads of girls to the clubs; more than a few of those girls were members of Charlie's Family. In March of 1969, just months before he was arrested for the torture-murder of Gary Hinman, Bobby had signed a songwriting contract with the agency and begun recording demos.
Beausoleil also accompanied Melcher and Jakobson on at least two trips out to the Spahn Movie Ranch, once in May of 1969 and then again the next month. Jakobson was a frequent visitor to Spahn and was known to boast of having held over 100 hours of conversations with the all-knowing prophet known as Charles Manson. Gregg also lobbied NBC to shoot a documentary film about the Manson Family's 'hippie commune,' and the network was for a time quite interested in the project. Along with Dennis Wilson, Jakobson also arranged for Charlie to record at an unnamed studio in Santa Monica; that session was also attended by Terry Melcher, Bobby Beausoleil, and several of the Manson girls.
Lest anyone think otherwise, by the way, the Manson Family certainly had no shortage of talented musicians. Convicted murderer Charles Manson, of course, was widely viewed by his contemporaries in the canyon as a talented singer/songwriter/guitarist. So too was convicted murderer Bobby Beausoleil, who had jammed with Dennis Wilson, played rhythm guitar for the pre-Love lineup known as the Grass Roots, knew Frank Zappa and had visited the Log Cabin, and later composed and recorded the film score for Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising.
Convicted murderer Patricia Krenwinkle was an accomplished guitarist and songwriter. Convicted murderer Steve "Clem" Grogan was a talented musician as well; he later played in the prison band assembled by Beausoleil to record the Lucifer Rising soundtrack. In addition,Family members Brooks Poston and Paul Watkins were accomplished musicians, and Catherine "Gypsy" Share was a virtuoso violin player as well as being a singer and occasional actress (see, for example, Ramrodder, costarring Bobby Beausoleil and filmed partially at – where else? – Spahn Movie Ranch).
© Dave McGowan—Stilt houses along the private road leading to 10050 Cielo Drive as they appear today.
Catherine Share is notable in other ways as well, including her unparalleled feat of raising the bar so high on parental suicides that no one else, even in Laurel Canyon, is likely to be able to clear it. Orphaned as a child when both biological parents purportedly committed suicide, Gypsy was adopted by a psychologist and his wife. Her adoptive mother then allegedly committed suicide as well, leaving her to be raised by her adoptive father. Share is also notable for being the oldest of Charlie's girls, nearly twenty-seven at the time of the murders (most of the others were under twenty-one, and many, including Dean Moorehouse's daughter Ruth Ann "Ouisch" Moorehouse, were minors). Gypsy lived with Bobby Beausoleil before meeting and living with Manson, and she seemed to serve as a recruiter for both of them.
According to Ed Sanders, Gypsy Share also "arranged for Paul Rothchild, the producer of The Doors, to hear the family music." It seems as though just about everyone had an opportunity to hear the Family's music. Some of it was recorded in Beach Boy Brian Wilson's state-of-the-art home recording studio. Some was recorded by Terry Melcher and Gregg Jakobson at Spahn Ranch using a mobile recording studio. Some was recorded in Santa Monica. By some reports, some was recorded by a major Hollywood studio. Other recordings were likely made as well, though nobody really likes to talk about such things. Gregg Jakobson recorded many of his marathon conversations with Charlie, but as with the demo recordings made by Dennis Wilson, everyone likes to pretend that such recordings were lost or destroyed or never existed.
The Family was filmed at Spahn Ranch by Melcher as well. Family members also shot an extensive amount of film making 'home movies,' which many witnesses have claimed included Family orgies and ritualized snuff films. A vast amount of NBC camera equipment and film was found to be in the possession of Charlie's motley crew, all of which was claimed to be stolen. It seems likely, however, given the network's known involvement with the Family, that the equipment was provided to them so that they could film their exploits.
When not hanging out with Charlie and Tex and Bobby, Terry Melcher also found time to produce the records that first catapulted the Byrds to fame: "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn, Turn, Turn." The first, recorded in January 1965 and released a few months later, was the record that announced to the world the arrival of a new breed of music: folk-rock. It was created, simply enough,by borrowing from the songbooks of folk legends (primarily Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger) and then playing those songs on amplified equipment. Dylan himself followed suit not long after, at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965, much to the consternation of the gathered crowd of folkies.
In Hotel California, Barney Hoskyns writes that the Byrds were, from the very outset, "conceived as an electric rock and roll group." What Hoskyns doesn't really clarify though is who exactly it was that initially conceived of this hugely influential band in those terms. Surely it wasn't the band members themselves who decided that they were going to pioneer a new musical genre, since they probably had their hands full with just learning to play their instruments.
It would probably be slightly more accurate to say that the Byrds appear to have been initially conceived as an electric folk-rock group. By July of 1966, however, when the band released its third album, featuring the Gene Clark-penned "Eight Miles High," it had morphed into something different and by doing so helped pioneer another genre of music – psychedelic rock. With the later addition of Gram Parsons and the growing influence of Chris Hillman, the Byrds would next morph into a country-rock band, thus helping to spawn that genre of music as well.
© Mondo Mod—Pandora's Box, circa 1966
According to rock 'n' roll legend, the first two Byrds to get together were James Joseph McGuinn III and Harold Eugene Clark. McGuinn hailed from Chicago, the son of best-selling authors James and Dorothy McGuinn. Jim had played with Bobby Darin, the Limeliters, and the Chad Mitchell Trio, and he was considered to be a talented guitarist. In 1962, he left the Chad Mitchell Trio and worked for a time in New York City as a studio musician – before hearing the call that so many others seemed to hear and making his way to Los Angeles. Once there, he wasted no time hooking up with Gene Clark.
Clark had been born in Tipton, Missouri, the second oldest in a family of thirteen siblings. An undeniably talented songwriter and vocalist, Clark cut his first record with a local rock 'n' roll combo when he was just thirteen years old. He later joined the New Christy Minstrels, a vocal ensemble known during his tenure primarily for the hit song "Green, Green." Like so many others, however, Gene soon found himself packing his bags for – where else? – Los Angeles, where he met up with the recently-arrived Jim McGuinn. The newly-formed folk duo soon added a third voice to the mix – our old friend David Crosby, who had formerly been a vocalist with Les Baxter's Balladeers.
Crosby brought in manager Jim Dickson, with whom he had done some solo sessions in 1963. The year before that, Dickson had produced a self-titled album for a band known as the Hillmen, featuring a young mandolin player out of San Diego named Chris Hillman. Hillman had cut his first album, with a band known as the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, while still in high school. He was a highly regarded young bluegrass musician and was generally considered to be a virtuoso mandolin player – which I guess is why Jim Dickson cast him to play the part of the bass player in the world's first folk-rock band. And as we already know, Hillman had just lucked upon luxurious living accommodations right in the heart of what was to become the music community's epicenter, so he was all set to become a rock star.
Raised on a ranch in San Diego, Hillman had traveled alone to Berkeley when he was just fifteen, ostensibly to take private Mandolin lessons. At about that same time, his father had – wait for it – reportedly committed suicide. Those two closely aligned events would have, I would guess, had a profound impact on the young musician.
Hillman would ultimately become a skilled bass player and a major figure in the Laurel Canyon-spawned country-rock movement. Like many others of that bent, Hillman had been a huge fan of Spade Cooley during his formative years and he later cited Cooley as a major influence on his own musical direction. I'm guessing that most readers are not familiar with the story of the "King of Western Swing," which is kind of a shame because as stories go, it's a pretty good one, so let's digress here briefly and meet the man who was frequently cited as one of the forefathers of country-rock.
© Dave McGowan—The Roxy Theater, opened by Elmer Valentine, Lou Adler and David Geffen, as it looks today.
Throughout the 1940's and 1950's, Donnell Clyde "Spade" Cooley was a popular local musician and bandleader. His weekly shows at the Redondo Beach Pier (which was close enough to my childhood home, by the way, that my friends and I occasionally rode our bikes there) could draw as many as 10,000 appreciative fans, few of whom knew of his alcoholism, violent temper, or prior arrest for attempted rape. His popularity ultimately landed him his own local television show, The Spade Cooley Hour. His career, however, came to an abrupt end on April 3, 1961, when he tortured and murdered his young wife, Ella Mae Cooley, while forcing his fourteen-year-old daughter to watch in horror.
According to court transcripts, Ella Mae had been spending a considerable amount of time in the company of two men, identified as Luther Jackson and Bud Davenport, both of whom worked in the sprawling, CIA-infested medical research facility at UCLA. On the day of her death, Ella Mae had made the rather bold decision to inform Spade that the two men had initiated her into a 'free love' cult and that she had decided to give up her family and all her possessions to join the group, which was in the process of buying land near the ocean to build and operate a private compound.
Spade Cooley's response to his wife's declaration was to brutally beat, stomp and strangle her to death, but only after repeatedly burning her with a lit cigarette. All of this was witnessed by daughter Melody, who had been told by her father that "now you're going to watch me kill this whore." After doing just that, Spade then asked his daughter if she thought that Ella Mae was really dead, adding, "Well, let's see if she is." He then proceeded to burn her lifeless body repeatedly with another lit cigarette, until he apparently was satisfied that she was indeed dead.
Unlike so many other celebrity homicide suspects, Cooley was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to serve a life sentence. He was sent to the rather notorious Vacaville facility where he served eight years before being offered early parole. Just before his scheduled release, he arranged a November 23, 1969 comeback concert in Oakland for which his captors had agreed to release him on a three-day pass. The concert was reportedly a huge success and it looked as though Cooley's star was about to shine once again upon his pending release from prison. But that's not quite how this story ends; instead, Cooley walked back to his dressing room right after the show and promptly dropped dead, thus ending the saga of Spade Cooley and allowing us to return to where we left off ...
... actually, let's take one more quick detour here and note that not long after Spade Cooley was scheduled for release, another peripheral character in this story decided that it might be a good idea to whack his wife as well. "Humble" Harve Miller was a popular DJ on LA's #1 pop music station during that era, KHJ on the AM dial. During the latter half of the 1960's, Miller was yet another of the players who helped launch the careers of the Laurel Canyon bands, by getting their new singles on the radio. But then he, like Cooley, killed his wife and was sent to prison. Also like Cooley, he was granted early release. But unlike Spade, Miller successfully resumed his career. And now, at long last, we can return to our story ...
© Dave McGowan—Ciro's Nightclub, AKA The Comedy Store, as it looks today.
By mid-1964, the nucleus of what would become the Byrds had formed with the bonding of McGuinn and Clark. Between the two of them, they would provide the band with its signature 12-string guitar sound, its two lead vocalists, and (in the early years, at least) its best songwriters. Along then came David Crosby, who added little more than harmony vocals, at least on the first two albums, but who seems to have largely hijacked the band with the help of manager Jim Dickson, who added fake bass player (but real musician) Chris Hillman. Crosby then rounded out the band by adding fake drummer Michael Clarke.
Clarke had been born Michael Dick in Spokane, Washington. At seventeen, Dick ran away from home and hitchhiked to the land of enchantment known as California, apparently becoming Michael Clarke along the way. The year was 1963. According to rock history as told by David Crosby, Clarke and Crosby met in Big Sur, which coincidentally happens to be the location of the notorious Esalen Institute (where CSNY would play some years later). A year later, the vagrant teenager with no drumming experience would find himself cast to play the role of the drummer in the band designed to be America's answer to the Beatles. According to Crosby, Clarke's first LA address was the home of Terry Melcher.
The band, now complete, first dubbed themselves the Jet Set and then the Beefeaters, even recording a less-then-memorable single under the latter moniker, before finally settling on the Byrds. Before the end of 1964, Jim Dickson had signed the band to a deal with Columbia Records. As Barney Hoskyns recounts in Waiting for the Sun, "The obvious ineptitude of Michael Clarke and shakiness of most of the others was still a problem when Jim Dickson got the band signed to Columbia in November. They were assigned to staff producer Terry Melcher ..."
That assignment, it would seem, was a rather fortuitous one given that the fledgling band's rehearsal space just happened to be in the very same basement studio that Melcher snuck off to while in high school. Just two months after signing with Columbia, the band, or rather its surrogates, were already in the studio recording "Mr. Tambourine Man," at the insistence of Jim Dickson. Despite the objections of various band members, Dickson reportedly pushed hard for the song to be the band's first single. On March 26, 1965, just two months after pretending to lay down the instrumental tracks for "Mr. Tambourine Man," the Byrds played their first real live show, as the first act at the refurbished and reopened Ciro's nightclub.
I obviously wasn't there so I can't say for sure, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that a band whose entire rhythm section was just learning to play their instruments probably did not put on a very compelling performance. The Byrds apparently played one other live show before the Ciro's opening, though the nature of that show appears to be in dispute (or perhaps there were two previous shows). According to Jim Dickson, "The Byrds first public gig was booked by Lenny Bruce's mother, Sally Marr. She got them a job at Los Angeles City College, noon assembly, for a half hour." According to Carl Franzoni and various others, however, it was Vito Paulekas who booked the Byrds' first live show, at a rented hall on Melrose Avenue just a day or two before the show at Ciro's.
© Dave McGowan—The Hyatt House, AKA the riot house, looms over The Comedy Store, as it did over Ciro's in the 60's.
In any event, "Mr. Tambourine Man" was released about a month after the band had its big public debut at Ciro's and the LA music scene would never be the same again. Before long, clubs big and small were popping up all along the fabled Sunset Strip and bands were spilling out of Laurel Canyon to play them.As Terry Melcher recalled, "kids came from everywhere. It just happened. One day you couldn't drive anymore. It was, like, overnight – you couldn't drive on the Strip."
That would soon change though. By the summer of 1967, the mythical Summer of Love, the club scene on the Strip was quickly dying. It had been killed, deliberately or not, by some of the key players who had created it:Terry Melcher, producer of the scene's first band; Lou Adler, business partner of club owner Elmer Valentine; and John Phillips, leader of The Mamas and the Papas and composer of such ditties as "California Dreaming" and "If You're Going to San Francisco." It was the Monterey Pop Festival, you see, held on June 16-18, 1967, that killed the Sunset Strip scene. The bands that had filled the clubs became, literally overnight, too big to play such intimate venues. Over the course of the next decade, Laurel Canyon bands quickly moved from clubs to concert halls to massive sports arenas. But here we are, I suppose,getting ahead of ourselves.
As for the Byrds, they carried on for a good many years, albeit with numerous personnel changes. First out was the man who many feel was the most talented member of the group, Gene Clark, who dropped out in March of 1966, just one year after the band had first taken the stage at Ciro's. Clark was also the first original Byrd to pass away, on May 24, 1991, at just 46 years of age, reportedly due to a bleeding ulcer. Two-and-a-half-years later, on December 19, 1993, Michael Clarke died as well when his liver failed. Both deaths were attributed to chronic alcoholism.
Jim McGuinn, who remained a Byrd through numerous band lineups, joined the Subud religious sect in 1965. Two years later, upon the advice of the cult's founder, he changed his name to Roger. A decade later, he became a born-again Christian. In a similar vein, Chris Hillman became an Evangelical Christian in the 1980s, but then later switched to the Greek Orthodox faith. Hillman played in various Byrds lineups, with Gram Parson's Flying Burrito Brothers, and in David Geffen's failed second attempt at creating a supergroup, this one known as Souther, Hillman, Furay. David Crosby, of course, left the Byrds and became 1/3 of David Geffen's first supergroup, Crosby, Stills & Nash. These days he primarily spends his time inseminating lesbians and occasionally reuniting with former bandmates.
Jim Dickson and Terry Melcher continued to work with some of the Byrds, particularly Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman. Melcher formed a particularly close bond with his fellow 'trust-fund kid,' Gram Parsons, as did Melcher's sometime sidekick, John Phillips. Both Melcher and Phillips, of course, knew Charlie Manson (Melcher raved about him to Ned Doheny), whose former prison buddy, Phil Kaufman, was Parsons' road manager (and cremator). I'm pretty sure though that I already mentioned that, but what I haven't yet worked into this narrative is that the Doors' road manager, Bill Siddons, was once a paramour of Mansonite Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme.
The Family's fingerprints, as always, can be found in nearly every nook and cranny of the Laurel Canyon scene.
No one could recall ever seeing or hearing about Gram being involved in a protest of any sort.” — Author Ben Fong Torres, who interviewed scores of people close to Gram Parsons while researching Hickory WindTiming is a curious thing. When I first started this series in May of 2008, the fact that Jim Morrison's father had served as the commander of the ship sinvolved in the Gulf of Tonkin 'incident' had gone virtually unreported for some four-and-a-half decades. Readers were shocked – shocked, I tell you! – when I began this series by trotting out that revelation. Some even accused me of making it up, or of somehow twisting the facts.
But as fate would have it, as December of 2008 rolled around, the mainstream media was suddenly awash with reports of the unusual Morrison family connection. On December 8, for example, the Los Angeles Times carried a report on Admiral George Stephen Morrison, described therein as "a retired Navy rear admiral and the father of the late rock icon Jim Morrison." According to the Times report, "Morrison had a long career that included serving as operations officer aboard the aircraft carrier Midway and commanding the fleet during the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led to an escalation of American involvement in Vietnam."
The very next day, on December 9, the New York Times followed suit with a report by William Grimes: "George S. Morrison, who commanded the fleet during the Gulf of Tonkin incident that led to an escalation of the Vietnam War and whose son Jim was the lead singer of the Doors ... Aboard the flagship carrier Bon Homme Richard, Mr. Morrison commanded American naval forces in the gulf when the destroyer Maddox engaged three North Vietnamese torpedo boats on Aug. 2, 1964. A skirmish and confused reports of a second engagement two days later led President Lyndon B. Johnson to order airstrikes against North Vietnam and to request from Congress what became known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, allowing him to carry out further military operations without declaring war."
Mr. Grimes has penned a rather charitable account of the Tonkin Gulf incident, to be sure, but what is of far more interest here is the fact that the media is talking about the Morrison/Tonkin Gulf/Doors connection at all. What makes it okay to do so now, it would appear, is the fact that Admiral Morrison exited this world on November 17, 2008, at the ripe old age of 89. His death was reportedly due to unspecified injuries sustained in a fall. According to his obituaries, his distinguished career included raining bombs down on Japanese civilians and Pacific Islanders during the final year of World War II, and serving as "an instructor for secret nuclear-weapons projects in Albuquerque."
On December 7, the day before George Morrison's name turned up in the LA Times' obituaries, another key name from the Laurel Canyon saga appeared there as well: Elmer Valentine, co-owner of the hottest clubs on the Strip in the late 1960's and early 1970's – the Whisky-A-Go-Go, the Roxy, and the Rainbow. Valentine died of unspecified causes on December 3, 2008, at the age of 85. On December 9, the New York Times ran his obituary right alongside that of Morrison. Valentine was therein characterized as "a self-described crooked cop who fled Chicago to start a new life on the Sunset Strip."
In addition to Whisky a Go Go, Elmer Valentine founded the Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles. (Art Streiber/AUGUST/file 2000)
Some scribes, I suppose, would find it a bit disconcerting to find that some of the characters in their work-in-progress had suddenly started dropping dead. After all, the cause of death in both cases is a bit fuzzy, and Morrison dropped just four days after Part 11 was posted and Valentine followed suit 6 days after Part 12 went up. But they were both quite elderly, of course, so maybe it was just their time to go.
Anyway, the real focus of this chapter is singer/songwriter/guitarist/keyboardist Gram Parsons, and the Gram Parsons story, as it turns out, is essentially a microcosm of the Laurel Canyon story. Most of the classic elements are present and accounted for: the royal bloodlines, the not-so-well-hidden intelligence connections, the occult overtones, the extravagantly wealthy family background, an incinerated house or two, and, of course, a whole lot of curious deaths. Without further adieu then, let's get to know a little more about Mr. Parsons.
First of all, let's begin with the obvious: Gram Parsons was far from being the biggest star to emerge from the Laurel Canyon scene. In his short lifetime, he failed to achieve any significant level of commercial success. None of his albums, whether recorded solo or with the International Submarine Band, the Byrds, or the Flying Burrito Brothers, climbed very high on the sales charts.But to many fans and musicians alike, he is considered a hugely influential and tragically overlooked figure.
It is safe to say that Parsons does not have nearly the number of fans that, say, David Crosby or Frank Zappa have. Compared to contemporaries who died during the same era and at roughly the same age – artists like Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix – Parsons is all but unknown. But the fans that he does have tend to be particularly rabid ones, and if you happen to be one of them, you might want to skip this chapter. And the next, actually, because this is kind of a long story.
We begin back about, oh, a thousand years ago, with Ferdinand the Great, the first King of Castille on the Iberian Peninsula. It is to him that the wealthy Connor family claims their family lineage can be traced. Also in the family tree was King Edward II of England, son of Edward I and Eleanor of Castille. According to some sources, Eddie II was murdered by having a red-hot iron rod shoved up his ass, though most of his loyal subjects probably didn't shed many tears. Bringing the royal bloodline to America was one Colonel George Reade, born in the UK in 1608 and married in Yorktown, Pennsylvania sometime thereafter.
Reade's offspring would ultimately spawn Ingram Cecil Connor, Jr., a well-to-do gent who settled in Columbia, Tennessee. Like his father before him, Cecil attended Columbia Military Academy. In May 1940, at the outset of World War II, he then enlisted in the US Army Air Force as a 2nd Lieutenant. In March of 1941, Cecil, who during the war would become known as "Coon Dog," though no one seems to remember why, was shipped off to Hawaii. Nine months later, of course, Pearl Harbor came under attack by Japanese bombers.
Not to worry though – Cecil was never in harm's way, having opted to forgo living in officer's quarters on the military base in favor of staying at a luxurious, massive estate near Diamond Head owned by uber-wealthy heiress Barbara Hutton. Hutton, for those who don't know, was the granddaughter of Frank Woolworth, the founder of the Woolworth's five-and-dime store chain.She was also the daughter of Franklyn Laws Hutton, a co-founder of E.F. Hutton, one of the nation's most prestigious brokerage firms until it ran afoul of the law for such crimes as check kiting, money laundering and mail fraud. Barbara was also the niece of Marjory Post Hutton, the daughter of C.W. Post, founder of what would become General Foods.
Like so many of the other characters who have populated this story (including Gram Parsons), Barbara was traumatized in childhood by the alleged suicide of a parent. According to news reports, it was 5-year-old Barbara who discovered her mother Edna's lifeless body in May of 1917. An empty bottle of strychnine was reportedly recovered by police from a nearby bathroom. There was no autopsy performed and no official inquest was ever conducted, as would be expected when an extremely wealthy person dies under questionable circumstances.
In 1930, just after the onset of the last Great Depression, Barbara was thrown a lavish debutante ball attended by those at the very top of the food chain, including members of the Astor and Rockefeller families. The next year, she inherited a fortune estimated to be worth the equivalent of $1 billion today. She was just nineteen at the time. Two years later, she received further inheritance that raised her net worth to an estimated $2-$2.5 billion (in today's dollars). Much of the rest of the country was busily wallowing in abject poverty.
Ms Hutton lived a very troubled life, with numerous failed marriages and relationships. One of her many paramours was Phillip van Rensselaer, who later penned a book about her life which he entitled Million Dollar Baby. Van Rensselaer, it will be recalled, was from the same family tree as Laurel Canyon's own David Crosby – the man whom Gram Parsons would briefly replace in the Byrds. And that, boys and girls, brings us back to our man-of-the-hour.
(I almost added "after that brief digression" to the preceding sentence, but then I remembered that, though I rarely read commentary on my work on the web, I did stumble across something the other day. The review was positive overall, though it did note that my website design was, uhmm, I think the word was "atrocious," and that I had (this may not be an exact quote) "an unnatural fondness for the word 'digress.'" I could, I suppose, mount a spirited defense against the charges, but the evidence appears to be overwhelming. But here I really have digress ... let's just get back to our story, shall we?)
As World War II drug on, Ingram Cecil Connor, Jr. worked his way up the chain of command to the rank of Major. In the Pacific theater of operations, he was a decorated hero and a squadron commander who flew numerous combat missions. After the war, he continued to serve in the Air Force at a base in Bartow, Florida, very near the Snively family home in Winter Haven. On March 22, 1945, the spring equinox, "Coon Dog" Connor married Avis Snively.
The Snively clan had first come to America circa 1700, about a century after the arrival of the man who spawned the Connor clan. According to historical records and genealogical charts, Johann Jacob Schnebele, a Swiss Mennonite, was born in 1659. When in his late 50's, around 1715 or shortly thereafter, he ventured across the Atlantic and settled near Cornwall, Pennsylvania. Johann died and was buried in 1743 near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Brought over with him to America was his son Jacob, born on the winter solstice of 1694, and his daughter Maria, born in 1702. In 1724, in Mannheim, Pennsylvania, Maria Schnebele married the son of immigrants Hans Hersche and Anna Geunder. That son had Americanized his name and become known as Andrew Hershey. The Schnebele name was likewise Americanized to Snavely (or Snively). The Hershey and Snavely clans would continue to happily intermarry, ultimately producing, in 1857, Milton Snavely Hershey, the son of Henry Hershey and Fanny Snavely.
Milton S. Hershey, of course, would go on to found the world's largest producer of chocolate confections. Less well known is that Hershey failed miserably in his first several attempts to launch a candy company, in Philadelphia, Chicago and New York City. All of those ventures were financed with Snively/Snavely family money. Hershey ultimately succeeded in launching the successful Lancaster Caramel Company in 1883. In 1900, he sold the caramel company to focus exclusively on chocolate confections. With proceeds from that sale, he purchased 40,000 acres of undeveloped land and built not only the world's largest chocolate facility, but an entire company town.
The moral of this story, in case you missed it, is that without the Schnebele/Snavely/Snively family fortune, there never would have been any such thing as a Hershey bar or a town known as Hershey, Pennsylvania.
As for Maria's brother, Jacob Schnebele, he died in August of 1766 in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, but not before fathering an astounding nineteen children. One of those was son Andrew, who himself fathered fourteen kids. From that branch of the family tree would emerge John Andrew "Papa John" Snively, born in 1888, who headed off to Florida in the early 1900s to seek his fortune. By the 1950's, Snively Groves was the largest shipper of fresh fruit in the state of Florida.
Avis Snively, who exchanged vows with Ingram Cecil Connor, Jr., was the daughter of Papa John. On November 5, 1946, Coon Dog and Avis gave birth to their first child and only son, Ingram Cecil Connor III, later known as Gram Parsons. Soon after, the family relocated to Waycross, Georgia, where, as with Winter Haven, the Snively family owned a massive amount of land devoted to citrus fruit production. It was there that young Ingram "Gram" Connor was raised.
The Connor family home in Waycross, as would be expected, was large and luxurious, and there were numerous servants in attendance, all of whom had considerably more skin pigmentation than did the Connors. Coon Dog and Avis entertained frequently, and both were well known to be heavy drinkers; there were hushed rumors that they were 'swingers' as well. As Gram's younger sister, known as Little Avis, would later recall, "Things were mighty strange around the house."
In September of 1957, when Gram was not yet eleven, he was sent off to attend the Bowles School, a combination prep school and military academy in Jacksonville, Florida. On his entry questionnaire, he was asked for his top three college choices; Gram chose Annapolis, West Point, and Georgia Tech.While attending Bowles, he became a member of the Centurions, the school's version of an elite fraternity.
The following year, just before Christmas 1958, Ingram Cecil "Coon Dog" Connor, Jr. was found sprawled across his bed in the family home, a bullet hole in his right temple. A .38 handgun was found nearby. There was no note to be found. Cecil's brother Tom had visited just the month before, around Thanksgiving, and Coon Dog had told him that he'd never been happier and that life with Avis was wonderful. Curiously, his death was initially ruled to be accidental.
Just ten months before Cecil's death, Papa John Snively, Avis' dad, had also died, and now she found herself with both of the men in her life gone. And yet, according to a family member, she never appeared to grieve and she displayed a "total lack of remorse" over anything she may have done to drive Coon Dog to allegedly commit suicide (by some reports, she had been having an affair).
Some six months after Cecil's death, Avis, Gram and Little Avis boarded a train for a cross-country trip. They were gone the entire summer. Not long after returning, the family moved from the house that Cecil had died in, and Avis soon met Robert Ellis Parsons, who owned a business that ostensibly specialized in leasing heavy construction equipment. Parson's clients, curiously enough, happened to be in Cuba, then under the brutal hand of Batista, and in various South American countries that were also under the thumb of US-installed dictators.
It is unclear, by the way, where the "Ellis" in Parsons name comes from, so it would probably be irresponsible to mention the Ellis family that is an intermarried branch of the Bush family, but with the Cuba connection and all, it's hard for the mind not to wander there.
The Snively clan took an immediate dislike to Parsons, who was described by one family member as a "greedy son of a bitch." Nevertheless, Avis quickly married him and Bob Parsons quickly took control of her life. One of his first moves was to adopt Gram and Avis, even going so far as to have new birth certificates drawn up listing him as their biological father (how exactly does one go about doing that, by the way?) He also promptly impregnated Avis and convinced her to file a $1.5 million lawsuit against her brother, John, Jr., and her sister, Evalyn. The suit was settled out of court, with Avis receiving an unspecified number of citrus groves, but the real repercussions would be felt some fifteen years later with the bankruptcy of much of the family business in 1974.
In 1960, just a year after marrying, Bob and Avis added daughter Diane to the family. Also added was eighteen-year-old babysitter Bonnie, whom Bob immediately began an affair with, which apparently was not a very well-kept secret. What was a somewhat better kept secret is that, in the early 1960's, following the Cuban revolution, Robert Ellis Parsons became involved in the 'Cuban cause,' which is to say that he had very close ties to the leaders of an exile group that was being trained in Polk County, Florida to overthrow the Cuban government.
On one occasion (or at least one occasion that is acknowledged), he brought young Gram along to visit the group's training camp. As luck would have it, a team from Life magazine happened to also be there that day and Gram – wouldn't you know it? – was photographed at the camp. When Avis was informed of that development, she worked quickly to insure that those photos were never published. To this day, they have never surfaced.
During that same era, Bob Parsons converted a downtown warehouse that he owned into a teen nightclub to showcase the talents of his 'son,' Ingram "Gram" Parsons, who sang and played keyboards and the guitar. Circa 1963, Gram got a folk combo together that was known as the Shilos. During the summer of 1964, the summer before Gram's senior year of high school, the band spent a month in New York. During that brief time, Parsons met and bonded with Brandon DeWilde, Richie Furay, and John Phillips, then of the Journeymen. He would meet up with all three again a couple years later in Laurel Canyon.
Despite his early preference for Annapolis or West Point, Gram applied to Harvard and Johns Hopkins. Despite decidedly unimpressive grades and test scores, he was accepted by Harvard, purportedly due to an essay he submitted that he likely didn't actually write. During his last year of high school, Gram and the Shilos booked an hour gig at the campus radio station at Bob Jones University ... yes, that Bob Jones University.
At his high school graduation in June of 1965, Gram was in his cap and gown and all set to proceed with the ceremonies when he was pulled aside and informed that his mother Avis had suddenly passed away. Seemingly unaffected, he chose to participate in the ceremonies. A classmate and friend has said that there was no sign that anything was troubling Gram that day as he went through the graduation rituals.
Avis had died in the hospital, reportedly of alcohol poisoning, right after Bob Parsons had smuggled her in a bottle of scotch. Gram's mother was just forty-two at the time of her death. His father, Coon Dog, had only made it to the age of forty-one. Neither of their kids, Gram or Little Avis, would make it even that far.
Soon after his mother's death, Gram received a draft notice from the Selective Service. Not to worry though – Bob quickly got him a 4-F deferment and Gram happily went off to Harvard, enrolling in September of 1965. By February of 1966, just five months later, Gram had had enough of Harvard and he withdrew. According to some sources, he never really went to Harvard at all, but rather spent all his time taking in the folk music scene in Cambridge and putting his own band together.
Gram arrived at Harvard a few years too late to catch the peak of the folk music scene in Cambridge. In the early 1960s, the college town had been one of the cradles of the resurgent folk movement, hosting such luminaries as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Bob Neuwirth, Tom Rush, Pete Seeger, Richard and Mimi Farina, Geoff and Maria Muldaur, Eric Andersen and Joni Mitchell.
The epicenter of the Cambridge folk scene was the legendary Club 47, opened in 1958 as a jazz and blues venue. A very young Joan Baez, whose reputedly CIA-connected father worked at nearby MIT, was the first folkie to take the stage, not long after the club opened. Dylan reportedly first performed there in 1961, taking the stage between the billed acts. The scene hit its peak in the summer of 1962, which was the Cambridge equivalent of the Haight's Summer of Love.
The Cambridge scene, and others in Greenwich Village and elsewhere, were necessary precursors to the Laurel Canyon scene.
The canyon scene was essentially created by taking the music of that earlier scene, particularly the work of Dylan and Seeger, and mixing it with the instrumentation being utilized across the pond by a band known as the Beatles. It is entirely fitting then that, as with Laurel Canyon, the Cambridge scene came complete with its own resident psycho killer.
In addition to the folk scene hitting its peak in the summer of 1962, something else newsworthy happened in Cambridge that summer: a lot of women started turning up dead – six of them in that first summer alone, and seven more over the next couple of years. And as Susan Kelly noted in The Boston Stranglers, one of those victims was killed right across the street from Club 47: "Just across the street from [victim Beverly Samans'] apartment, a very young and not yet famous Joan Baez and an equally youthful and unknown Bob Dylan were playing to reverently hushed audiences at the Club 47."
As the title of Kelly's book implies, there actually was no such person as the Boston Strangler, but that didn't stop authorities and the media from pinning all the murders on one Albert DeSalvo, far better known as the Boston Strangler. And so it was that just as Laurel Canyon would have Charlie Manson as its unofficial mascot, the earlier scene in Cambridge had Albert DeSalvo. And neither of them, curiously enough, appear to have actually committed any murders, though a whole lot of people certainly did get murdered.
Folkie Richard Farina, by the way, was the husband of Mimi Baez, Joan's younger sister. Farina had attended Cornell University as an engineering major. Cornell also happened to be where Joan and Mimi's dad, Albert Baez, conducted classified research. Albert Baez tended to move around a lot, popping up for varying periods of time at Stanford, UC Berkeley, Cornell, and MIT, all of which have been repeatedly identified as hotbeds of MK-ULTRA research.
Albert Baez also traveled abroad, to France, Switzerland, and, in 1951, to Baghdad, Iraq, where he spent a year purportedly teaching physics and building a physics laboratory at the University of Baghdad. 1951 also happened to be the year that Mossadegh was duly elected in neighboring Iran and the CIA immediately began planning a coup to oust him, but I'm sure that that is just a coincidence.
Anyway, Farina married Mimi when he was twenty-six and she was just seventeen. The two of them, along with Joan, became stars of the Cambridge folk music scene, which they were introduced to when their dad moved the family to Boston in 1958 when he went to work at MIT. Richard and Mimi's marriage was a short one, alas, as Richard Farina was killed in a motorcycle accident in Carmel, California, on, of all days, April 30, 1966. On that very same day, in nearby San Francisco, Anton Szandor LaVey declared it to be the dawn of the Age of Satan. But perhaps I've gotten sidetracked here...
During Gram's brief time at Harvard, he began gathering together what would become the International Submarine Band. When he dropped out in early 1966, he and his new band mates moved to the Bronx in New York, where Gram rented an 11-room party house where marijuana and LSD flowed freely. One unofficial member of his band was child-actor-turned-aspiring-musician Brandon DeWilde, known in the 1950s as "the king of child actors." Parsons and DeWilde worked together on demo tapes during their time in New York.
In November/December 1966, nine months after leaving Harvard for New York, Gram ventured out to California. While there, he met a certain Nancy Ross, who at the time was living with David Crosby. In Ben Fong-Torres' Hickory Wind, Ross provides some interesting biographical details: "I grew up with David Crosby here in town ... I was thirteen when we met. David and I were part of the debutante set ... My father was a captain in the Royal Air Force of England ... I married Eleanor Roosevelt's grandson, Rex, at sixteen, seventeen. I was still married to Rex when I was with David ... The marriage lasted a couple of years. I got an apartment and started designing restaurants for Elmer Valentine of Whisky-a-Go-Go."
At age nineteen, Ross went with Crosby "up to his little bachelor apartment,where I drew pentagrams on the wall." Soon after, Crosby bought a house on Beverly Glen and Ross moved in with him. That is where Gram Parsons found Nancy Ross and stole her away from David Crosby: "Brandon DeWilde, who was a good friend of David's and Peter Fonda's, brought Gram up to our Beverly Glen house one Christmas time." According to Nancy, Gram quickly stole her heart.
Shortly after, in early 1967, Parsons permanently relocated to Los Angeles with his band in tow. According to Fong-Torres, Gram – who received up to $100,000 a year from his trust fund, a considerable amount of money in the mid-1960's – "found a house for the rest of the band on Willow Glen Avenue, off Laurel Canyon Boulevard and just north of Sunset." He and Nancy found an apartment together nearby.
Meanwhile, back home, Bob Parsons had married Bonnie shortly after the death of Avis, and the newlywed couple had then moved with Little Avis and Diane to New Orleans. Back in Waycross, the Connor family home that had been abandoned after Coon Dog's (alleged) suicide had been occupied since 1960 by the family of Sheriff Robert E. Lee. In late 1968, on the eve of the election that put Richard Nixon in the White House, the stately home exploded from within and caught fire. The cause of the explosion was never determined.
Oh, and as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in hell
Could break that Satan’s spell
And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died”
—Don McLean, American Pie
Once ensconced in the hills above Los Angeles, Gram Parsons and his band began recording what would prove to be their only album, Safe at Home, which some pop music historians regard as the first country-rock album, but others regard as a straight country album performed by guys who look like they should be playing in a rock band. Whatever the case, by the time the album was released, in 1968, Gram had disbanded the International Submarine Band and unofficially joined the Byrds, replacing the recently departed David Crosby, who had determined that there wasn't quite room in the band for both he and his ego.
Parsons' time with the Byrds was rather brief, just four to five months, after which he was replaced by virtuoso guitarist Clarence White, who had been part of the Cambridge folk scene. Despite his brief tenure, Parsons is credited with having a major influence on the album that the band produced during that period, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which is also regarded by some music aficionados as the first true country-rock album.
Soon after leaving the Byrds, Parsons ran into Richie Furay, who was casting about for a new band after the breakup of Laurel Canyon's own Buffalo Springfield. Gram and Furay considered working together but quickly realized that they wanted to go in different musical directions, so Furay went to work putting Poco together while Parsons assembled the Flying Burrito Brothers. By 1969, Gram's new band had taken shape, with Gram supplying lead vocals and guitar, Chris Hillman also on guitar, Chris Etheridge on bass, and "Sneaky Pete" Kleinow on pedal steel guitar. With various other local musicians sitting in, the band recorded and released The Gilded Palace of Sin, which is probably also regarded by some as the first true country-rock album. Byrd Michael Clarke would later join the band, as would soon-to-be-Eagle Bernie Leadon.
Also in 1969, late in the year, 23-year-old Gram hooked up with 16-year-old Gretchen Burrell. His new love interest was the daughter of high-profile news anchor Larry Burrell, who was very well-connected in Hollywood. Before long,Gretchen had moved into Parsons' place at the notorious Chateau Marmont Hotel, with her parents' blessings - because most wealthy parents, I would think, want their teenage daughter living in a debauched rock star's drug den. Another guest at the hotel at that same time, incidentally, was Rod Stewart(at whose home, readers of Programmed to Kill will recall, one of the victims of the so-called Sunset Strip Killers would later be last seen).
At the tail end of 1969, Parsons and his fellow Burrito Brothers had the dubious distinction of playing as one of the opening acts at the Rolling Stones' infamous free show at Altamont. Gram had become a very close confidant of the Stones, particularly Keith Richards, and he would later be credited with being the inspiration for the country flavor evident on the Stones' Let it Bleed album.
Parsons had first met up with the Stones when they were in Los Angeles in the summer of 1968 to mix their Beggar's Banquet album. Also hooking up with the Stones around that same time was Phil Kaufman, a recently-released prison buddy of Charlie Manson. Kaufman initially lived with the Manson Family after being released in March of 1968, and he thereafter remained what Kaufman himself described as a "sympathetic cousin" to Charlie. He also went to work as the Rolling Stones' road manager for their 1968 American tour, which is the type of job apparently best filled by ex-convict friends of Charles Manson.
In late summer of 1969, following the probable murder of Brian Jones in July, the Stones were back in LA to complete their Let It Bleed album and prepare for yet another tour. According to Ben Fong-Torres, writing in Hickory Wind,"Mick and Keith stayed at Stephen Stills's [sic] house near Laurel Canyon ... Before Stills, the house had been occupied by Peter Tork of the Monkees." (For the record, other reports hold that the Peter Tork house was in, not near, Laurel Canyon.)
On December 6, 1969, temporary Laurel Canyon residents Mick and Keith,along with permanent Laurel Canyon residents Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and the Flying Burrito Brothers, all gathered at a desolate speedway known as Altamont to stage a free concert. By the time it was over, four people were dead and another 850 concert-goers were injured to varying degrees, mostly by members of the Hell's Angels swinging leaded pool cues.
The Angels had, of course, been hired by the Stones to ostensibly provide security. That decision is almost universally cast as an innocent mistake on the part of the band, though such a claim is difficult to believe. It was certainly no secret that the reactionary motorcycle clubs, formed by former military men, were openly hostile to hippies and anti-war activists; as early as 1965, they had brutally attacked peaceful anti-war demonstrators while police, who had courteously allowed the Angels to pass through their line, looked on. It was also known that the Angels were heavily involved in trafficking meth, a drug that was widely blamed for the ugliness that had descended over the Haight.
Perhaps less well known was that more than a few of those biker gangs had uncomfortably close ties to Charlie Manson, particularly a club known as the Straight Satans, one of whose members, Danny DeCarlo, watched over the Family's arsenal of weapons. At least one of the performers taking the stage at Altamont, curiously enough, also had close ties to the motorcycle clubs; as was revealed in his autobiography, Crosby "had friends in every Bay Area chapter of the Hells Angels."
The death that the concert at Altamont will always be remembered for, of course, is that of Meredith Hunter, the young man who was stabbed to deathby members of the Hell's Angels right in front of the stage while the band (in this case, the Rolling Stones) played on. The song they were playing, contrary to most accounts of the incident, was Sympathy for the Devil, as was initially reported in Rolling Stone magazine based on the accounts of several reporters on the scene and a review of the unedited film stock.
Most accounts claim that Hunter was killed while the band performed Under My Thumb. All such claims are based on the mainstream snuff film Gimme Shelter, in which the killing was deliberately presented out of sequence. In the absence of any alternative filmic versions of Hunter's death, the Maysles brothers' film became the default official orthodoxy. Of course, someone went to great lengths to insure that there would be only one available version of events; as Rolling Stone also reported, shortly after the concert, "One weird Altamont story has to do with a young Berkeley filmmaker who claims to have gotten 8MM footage of the killing. He got home from the affair Saturday and began telling his friends about his amazing film. His house was knocked over the next night, completely rifled. The thief took only his film, nothing else."
Contrary to the impression created by Gimme Shelter, Hunter was killed not long into the Stones' set. But as the film's editor, Charlotte Zwerin, explained to Salon some thirty years later, the climax of the movie always has to come at the end: "We're talking about the structure of a film. And what kind of concert film are you going to be able to have after somebody has been murdered in front of the stage? Hanging around for another hour would have been really wrong in terms of the film." What wasn't wrong, apparently, was deliberately altering the sequence of events in what was ostensibly a documentary film.
One of the young cameramen working for the Maysles brothers that day,curiously enough, was a guy by the name of George Lucas (it is unclear whether it was Lucas who captured the conveniently unobstructed footage of the murder.) Not long after, Lucas began a meteoric rise to the very top of the Hollywood food chain. Also present that day, and featured in the film gyrating atop a raised platform near the stage, was the King of the Freaks himself, Vito Paulekas.
Many of the accounts of the tragedy at Altamont include the demonstrably false claim that Hunter can unmistakably be seen drawing a gun just before being jumped and killed by the Angels (some accounts even have Hunter firing the alleged gun). The relevant frames from the film are included here for your review. What can certainly be fairly clearly seen is the large knife being brought down into Hunter's back. But a gun being brandished by Mr. Hunter? If you can see one, then you either have far better eyes than I, or a far more active imagination. Or both.
The Angel who was charged with the murder and then ultimately acquitted, Alan David Passaro, was found floating face down in a reservoir in March of 1985 with $10,000 in his pocket. Despite a widespread belief to the contrary,Passaro's acquittal was not based on the jury having been convinced that Hunter had drawn a gun, but rather on the fact that the knife wounds that killed Hunter were apparently upstrokes, which meant that they were not the wounds inflicted on-camera by Passaro. He and/or someone else continued to stab Hunter after he was down, and it was those wounds, which the cameras didn't clearly record, that killed him.
About one year after Altamont, otherwise obscure singer/songwriter Don McLean penned the lyrics to what was destined to become one of the most iconic songs in the annals of popular music: American Pie. Those lyrics are essentially a chronological recitation of various tragedies that shaped the world of popular music. Not long after a reference to the August 1969 Manson murders and their connection to the Laurel Canyon music scene (Helter Skelter in a summer swelter, The birds flew off with a fallout shelter, Eight miles high and falling fast), and just before a reference to the October 1970 death of Janis Joplin (I met a girl who sang the blues, And I asked her for some happy news, but she just smiled and turned away, I went down to the sacred store, Where I'd heard the music years before, but the man there said the music wouldn't play), can be found a verse, reproduced at the top of this post, in which McLean characterizes the death of Hunter as a ritualized murder.
I, of course, would never make such a wild and reckless claim.
Augustus Owsley Stanley III—Chronicle 1967
As was the custom with big events in the mid to late-1960's,particularly in the northern California area, Altamont was drenched in acid. And as was also the custom at that time, that acid was provided free-of-charge by Mr. Augustus Owsley Stanley III, also known as The Bear. At the so-called "Human Be-In" staged in January of 1967, for example, Owsley had kindly distributed 10,000 tabs of potent LSD. For the Monterey Pop Festival just five months later, he had cooked up and distributed 14,000 tabs. For Altamont, he did likewise.
The 1960's were, you see - and you can look this up if you don't believe me -the era of brotherly love. So if someone happened to have, say, a cache of acid with a street value of $20,000-$30,000 (a considerable amount of money in the 1960s), he was naturally expected to hand it out for free to thousands of random strangers. Of course, probably the only person who routinely had such vast stockpiles of LSD was the premier acid chemist of the hippie era, Augustus Owsley Stanley.
No one - not Ken Kesey, not Richard "Babawhateverthefuckhecalledhimself" Alpert, not even Timothy Leary - did more to 'turn on' the youth of the 1960's than Owsley. Leary and his cohorts may have captured the national media spotlight and created public awareness, but it was Owsley who flooded the streets of San Francisco and elsewhere with consistently high quality, inexpensive, readily available acid. By most accounts, he was never in it for the money and he routinely gave away more of his product than he sold. What then was his motive? According to Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain, writing in Acid Dreams, "Owsley cultivated an image as a wizard-alchemist whose intentions with LSD were priestly and magical."
To be sure, Owsley is revered by many as something of an icon of the 1960s counterculture - a man motivated by nothing more than an altruistic desire to 'turn on' the world. But then again, the trio listed in the preceding paragraph are revered by many as well, so you'll excuse me if I'm a bit hesitant to embrace Owsley as some sort of anti-hero - especially given his rather provocative background and family history.
Augustus Owsley Stanley III is the son, naturally enough, of Augustus Owsley Stanley II, who served as a military officer during World War II aboard the USS Lexington and thereafter found work in Washington, D.C. as a government attorney. He raised his son primarily in - where else? - Arlington, Virginia.Young Owsley's grandfather was Augustus Owsley Stanley, who served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1903 through 1915, as the Governor of Kentucky from 1915 through 1919, and as a U.S. Senator from 1919 through 1925. Senator Stanley's father, a minister with the Disciples of Christ, served as a judge advocate with the Confederate Army. His mother was a niece of William Owsley, who also served as a Governor of Kentucky, from 1844 through 1848, and who lent his name to Owsley County, Kentucky.
During Owsley III's formative years, he attended the prestigious Charlotte Hall Military Academy in Maryland, but was reportedly tossed out in the ninth grade for being intoxicated. Not long after that, at the tender age of fifteen,Owsley voluntarily committed himself to St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C.. St. Elizabeth's, it should be noted, had a far more sinister name upon its founding in 1855: the Government Hospital for the Insane. He remained confined there for, uhmm, 'treatment' for the next fifteen months.During that time, his mother, in keeping with one of the recurrent themes of this saga, passed away.
Owsley apparently resumed his education following his curious confinement,but he had reportedly dropped out of school by the age of eighteen.Nevertheless, he apparently had no trouble at all gaining acceptance to the University of Virginia, which he attended for a time before enlisting in the U.S. Air Force in 1956, at the age of twenty-one. During his military service,Owsley was an electronics specialist, working in radio intelligence and radar.
After his stint in the Air Force, Owsley set up camp in the Los Angeles area, ostensibly to study ballet. During that same time, he also worked at Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which was undoubtedly the primary reason for his move to LA. In 1963, Owsley moved once again, this time to Berkeley, California, which just happened to be ground-zero of the budding anti-war movement. He may or may not have briefly attended UC Berkeley,which is where he allegedly cribbed the recipe for LSD from the university library.
Owsley soon began cooking up both Methedrine and LSD in a makeshift bathroom lab near the campus of the university. On February 21, 1965, that lab was raided by state narcotics agents who seized all his lab equipment and charged Stanley with operating a meth lab. As Barry Miles recounted in Hippie,"Berkeley was awash with speed and Owsley was responsible for much of it."Nevertheless, Owsley walked away from the raid unscathed, and, with the help of his attorney, who happened to be the vice-mayor of Berkeley, he even successfully sued to have all his lab equipment returned. He quickly put that equipment to work producing some 4,000,000 tabs of nearly pure LSD in the mid-1960s.
Also in February of 1965, Owsley and his frequent sidekicks, the Grateful Dead, moved down to the Watts area of Los Angeles, of all places, to ostensibly conduct 'acid tests.' The group rented a house that was conveniently located right next door to a brothel, curiously paralleling the modus operandi of various intelligence operatives who were (or had been) involved in conducting their own 'acid tests.' The band departed the communal dwelling in April 1965, just a few months before Watts exploded in violence that left thirty-four corpses littering the streets.
Owsley had been with the Dead from the band's earliest days, as both a financial backer and as their sound engineer. He is credited with numerous electronic innovations that changed the way that live rock music was presented to the masses - and likely not in a good way, given that his work as a sound technician undoubtedly drew heavily upon his military training.
In 1967, Owsley unleashed on the Haight a particularly nasty hallucinogen known as STP. Developed by the friendly folks at Dow Chemical, STP had been tested extensively at the Edgewood Arsenal as a possible biowarfare agentbefore being distributed to hippies as a recreational drug. Owsley reportedly obtained the recipe from Alexander Shulgin, a former Harvard man who developed a keen interest in psychopharmacology while serving in the U.S. Navy. Shulgin worked for many years as a senior research chemist at Dow,and later worked very closely with the DEA.
In 1970, Owsley began serving time after a conviction on drug charges. That time was served, appropriately enough, at Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution, the very same prison that had, just a few years earlier, housed both Charlie Manson and Phil Kaufman. A few years later, it would also be home to both Timothy Leary and his alleged (but not actual)nemesis, G. Gordon Liddy. After his release, Owsley continued to work as a sound technician, eventually graduating to a new medium: television.
After that rather lengthy digression, we return now to our regularly scheduled program: the Gram Parsons saga. Along with Mick and the boys, Gram made a hasty exit from the chaos at Altamont via the Stones' private helicopter. The next year, his Flying Burrito Brothers released their second album, Burrito Deluxe, which was produced by Jim Dickson, the man who played such a pivotal role in shaping Laurel Canyon's first band, the Byrds. By June, Parsons had been booted out of the band, reportedly due to chronic alcohol and drug abuse. He quickly signed with A&M Records and was partnered with our old friend Terry Melcher.
Terry Melcher and Candice Bergen at the Whisky-a-Go-Go
Gram became a regular visitor to Melcher's Benedict Canyon home, where the self-destructive pair worked on songs together, with Gram on guitar and Melcher on piano. John Phillips became a close associate of Parsons at this time as well. Meanwhile, sister Avis had been institutionalized back in New Orleans. She had gotten pregnant, after which Bob Parsons had moved quickly to have her committed and to have her marriage annulled. Little Avis reached out repeatedly to big brother Gram for help, but got none.
In late October of 1970, Gram went to A&M and signed out the master tapes of ten songs that he had recorded with Melcher; those tapes were never seen or heard again, as seems to happen from time-to-time with recordings made with Melcher. During roughly that same period of time, Parsons was busted with a briefcase full of prescription drugs. As would be expected, however, the charges were quietly dropped and Gram walked away unscathed.
There are many who claim, by the way, that the musicians under examination in this series were relentlessly persecuted by agents of the state, ostensibly to silence their voices of protest. But if that is true, then why is it that on more than one occasion when the state seems to have had solid evidence of crimesthat could bring prison time, no action was taken? Our old friend David Crosby, for example, has candidly acknowledged that "the DEA could have popped me for interstate transport of dope or dealing lots of times and never did ..." And John Phillips, busted for wholesale trafficking of pharmaceuticals, was, by his own account, "looking at forty-five years and got thirty days." He began serving his sentence on April 20, appropriately enough, and served just twenty-four days - in a minimum security prison that offered "residents" such activities as "basketball, aerobics, softball, tennis, archery, and golf," and that featured a "delicious kosher kitchen, an elaborate salad bar, and a tasty brunch on Sundays."
Sorry, but we seem to have drifted off course once again. I'll try to stay focused on the Gram Parsons story for the rest of this post.
In 1971, Gram married Gretchen Burrell. The lavish affair was held, curiously enough, at the New Orleans home of step-dad Bob Parsons, a fact that has left Gram's chroniclers somewhat puzzled. Bob Parsons was, after all, the man who had - at least in the eyes of many family members - terrorized and institutionalized Gram's younger sister, carried on a scandalous affair with the family's babysitter, murdered Gram's mother and subsequently married that babysitter, and repeatedly looted the family coffers. And yet it was Bob Parsons, of all people, whom Gram trusted to host his wedding, suggesting a bond between the two that would seem to defy conventional explanations.
That same year, Gram spent some time in France, hanging out once again with the Rolling Stones. The following year, he was signed to Reprise Records by Mo Ostin and he and Gretchen moved back into the Chateau Marmont, where Gram and Emmylou Harris began working on the songs that would make up his first solo album. Emmylou, as Fong-Torres notes, had been raised on "various military bases around Virginia," so she quickly fit right in with the Laurel Canyon crowd.
In 1973, with his first solo album, entitled simply GP, due for release, "Gram and Gretchen finally moved out of the Chateau Marmont and found a cozy brown wood-shingled house on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, which wound its way north from Hollywood through the stars' favorite canyon." Working once again with Emmylou, Gram began working on tracks for what would be his posthumously-released second solo album,Grievous Angel.
As July of 1973 rolled around, a series of tragedies befell Parsons and the people around him. In July of the previous year, Gram's friend Brandon DeWilde - who had introduced Gram to Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern and Jack Nicholson, resulting in Gram's involvement in The Trip - had been killed in a traffic accident. A year later, on July 15, 1973, Gram's friend and fellow musician, Clarence White, was hit by a car and killed. According to Fong-Torres, "Around the same time that Clarence White was killed, Sid Kaiser, a familiar face in the Los Angeles rock scene, a close friend of Gram's and, not so incidentally, a source of high-quality drugs, died of a heart attack." Just after those two deaths, "In late July 1973 ... [Gram's] house in Laurel Canyon burned down."
Other sources, for the record, have placed that house in Topanga Canyon rather than Laurel Canyon. Whatever the case, Gram was home when the house caught fire and was briefly hospitalized for smoke inhalation. Having lost their home and all their possessions, Gram and Gretchen "moved into Gretchen's father's spacious home on Mulholland Drive in Laurel Canyon."Because the Burrells, naturally enough, also lived in everyone's favorite canyon.
Gram wouldn't live in the Burrell estate long though; on September 19, 1973, Ingram Cecil Connor III died in a nondescript room at the Joshua Tree Inn. His death is usually attributed to a drug overdose, but toxicology reports suggest otherwise. Parsons' death received minimal press coverage, partly because,as fate would have it, singer/songwriter Jim Croce went down in a blaze of glory the very next day, on September 20, 1973. But though the media had moved on, the Gram Parsons story wasn't quite over yet.
Parsons had been a regular visitor to Joshua Tree National Park, where one of his favorite pastimes was said to be ingesting hallucinogenic drugs and then searching for UFOs. Sometimes he would take friends, such as Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, along with him to help with the search. I'm no expert, to be sure, but it seems to me that if your goal is to succeed in spotting UFOs,then the dropping-acid strategy is probably a pretty good approach. But again, that's not really my area of expertise.
In September of 1973, Gram was accompanied to Joshua Tree by his personal assistant, Michael Martin, Martin's girlfriend, Dale McElroy, and Parson's former high school sweetheart, Margaret Fisher. As the story goes, the group soon ran out of pot and quickly dispatched Martin back to LA to pick up a fresh supply. He was, therefore, officially not there at the time of Gram's death,though why he hadn't returned has never been explained, especially given that his job was, specifically, to keep an eye on Gram and monitor his drug intake.
How Gram Parsons died is anyone's guess. There are as many versions of the event as there were witnesses to it. Actually, that's not quite true - there are more versions than there were witnesses, because some of those witnesses have told more than one story. Officially, Parsons died of an overdose, but forensic testing revealed no morphine or barbiturates in his blood. Morphine showed up in his liver and urine, but as experts have noted, those toxicology results indicate chronic, but not recent, use.
Police seem to have had little interest in getting at the truth and made no apparent effort to reconcile the various conflicting accounts. Details of the incident - such as how long Gram had been left alone, whether he was still alive when discovered, who made that discovery, etc. - were wildly inconsistent in the accounts of Fisher, McElroy, and Frank and Alan Barbary(the Inn's owner and his son, who were also witnesses, and whose accounts conflicted both with each other and with the girls' accounts).
At the hospital, police spoke briefly with the two girls and then released them.Within two hours, Phil Kaufman was on the scene to pick up Fisher and McElroy. Bypassing the police and the hospital, Kaufman went directly to the Inn, which the girls had returned to, and quickly hustled them straight back to LA. Police never spoke to either of the women again, despite the conflicting accounts and the open question of what exactly it was that killed Gram.
On the autumnal equinox of 1973, Kaufman and Martin, driving a dilapidated hearse provided by McElroy, arrived at LAX to claim the body of Gram Parsons. Apparently no one, including the police officer who was nearby,found it at all unusual that two drunken, disheveled men in an obviously out-of-service hearse (it had no license plates and several broken windows) had arrived without any paperwork to claim the body of a deceased celebrity. In fact, according to Kaufman's dubious account, the cop even helped the pair load the casket into the hearse - and then looked the other way when Martin slammed the hearse into a wall on the way out of the hangar.
Kaufman and Martin then drove the body back out to Joshua Tree, doused it with gasoline and set it ablaze. Local police initially speculated that the cremation was "ritualistic," which indeed it was, but such reports were, and continue to be, scoffed at.
On September 26, LAPD detectives, led by anchorman Larry Burrell, came knocking on Kaufman's door with warrants to serve. Bizarrely enough, director Arthur Penn was there with a full crew shooting scenes for the film Night Moves with star Gene Hackman (because when you're a friend of Charlie Manson's, it would appear, everyone in Hollywood wants to hang out with you). While the crew continued working, Kaufman was taken in, but he was back just a few hours later. In the end, he and Martin were fined $300 each plus reimbursement for the cost of the coffin.
In January 1974, four months after his death, Grievous Angel was released to critical acclaim and public indifference. Later that year, Gram's adoptive father, Bob Parsons, died as well, reportedly of alcohol-related illness. He had apparently been making moves aimed at gaining control of the deceased musician's estate. In keeping with family tradition, Bob failed to make it to the age of fifty (Gram's real dad, Coon Dog, had died at forty-one, his mother at forty-two, and Gram at just twenty-six).
By sheer coincidence, no doubt, the deaths of Gram and Bob Parsons were followed by the bankruptcy of much of the Snively family business, which also occurred in 1974. Around that same time, Little Avis gave birth to daughter Flora. Sixteen years later, both were killed in a boating accident in Virginia.Avis had made it all the way to age forty.