Trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube sometimes makes all the magic run out the other end. This convoluted observation came to me after I noticed a screening of “Echo in the Canyon,” a documentary by Jakob Dylan, about the music scene in the neighborhood north of L.A. in the 1960s. The 82-minute film screens this weekend at The World Theatre. The project attempts to explore what made that time and that place so fertile for music and self-expression.
At first I found myself drawn to this movie. I remember the music that came from Laurel Canyon — Joni Mitchell, The Byrds, Mamas and the Papas, Carol King. This folk-inspired music sounded as if anyone could create it. Millions of teenagers — including myself — started strumming their guitars in hopes of making music that just might stir our souls.
I always wondered what made Laurel Canyon so important. I intend to watch the documentary this weekend and find out — 50 years too late.
I turned 16 in 1969, just old enough to understand how the intersection of popular music, popular culture and the Manson Family killed the dream of peace and love. Charles Manson directed his followers to murder nine people in August of that year. In a way, the music of Laurel Canyon and the celebrity murders linked us all to a new world where no one really felt safe. For some young people, comparing the news reports of the Manson murders to the mass shootings of today feels like small potatoes.
For me, I still find myself drawn to the music of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young or James Taylor and even the work of The Beatles — all artists who influenced the world from the depths of Laurel Canyon. I remember times in my life where I gathered with friends to make music and art. On a smaller scale, those times helped me understand the synergy that came from working together. Most of what we made remains forgettable today but the act of creation still drives me in many ways.
Before I wrote this column, I read a couple of reviews about “Echo in the Canyon.” One called it a vanity project by Jakob Dylan, son of Bob Dylan. Ouch. That kind of dismissal takes the luster off the film, but I still want to see it. I feel willing to take a chance on learning more about the special time in the canyon, even if the movie isn’t perfect.
Specialists in popular culture consider the violent events of August 1969 as a turning point. For me, that point came in watching my musical idols turn from artists into wealthy business tycoons, more intent on making money than making art. I felt betrayed when ticket prices skyrocketed. I still remember paying $5 for a ticket to see Frank Zappa in concert in Lincoln. Everyone stood up and rushed the stage when he started playing. Frank paused and told everyone to sit down on the floor, enjoy the show and stop getting so agitated.
For about an hour and a half, I hope to listen to some music, watch the old bands perform and learn a little more about that time half a century ago when the future felt bright and shiny. If you see me at the screening, give me a little space and remember that the future depends on understanding the past. After the screening, I’ll post something on social media.