Monday, April 17, 2017

Dave McGowan's "Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon": Book Review

This genial set of ruminations reminds me of what were once called "bull sessions." You'd stay up late with a pal who'd regale you with off-beat speculations and ingenious theories that sounded plausible in the wee hours, at least. Dave McGowan compiled such on the Net, and one gathering resulted in this series of connections arguing, loosely, that the CIA and the military were behind the sudden influx of musical activity (I hesitate to label it all as creativity) in late 1960s Laurel Canyon.

As a native Angeleno, my memories remain those of the hazy youngster. Our 44th president, five weeks younger than me, has been relegated to "late middle age" by a journalist I recently perused, so I suppose even those of us on the cusp of fading Boomers and actually more akin to suspicious Gen X rather than the idealism of the previous generation need to be reckoned with. We after all grew up with Watergate, the return of the POWs from Vietnam, and OPEC's embargo as formative memories in junior high, a time when one's conceptions of the systems that entangle us begins to take shape.

I say this to situate myself. The hippies smacked to me of class privilege even then, while the ordinary folks I lived with and watched appeared to have to make a living and pay the bills and go to jobs they did not particularly care for often. My dad: "99% of the work done is by people who don't feel that great"; so his reply when I felt lazy and I tried to get out of weeding, cleaning kennel runs, or whatever required me to leave my bookish niche and venture out under the smoggy sun to get grimy.

Anyhow, as McGowan digresses frequently, so do I. The contents document the counterculture, but also predecessors, however dimly or briefly tied to Lookout Mountain (once the proverbial top secret place of experimentation), the "defense industry," spies, and other furtive efforts, emanating out of the Beltway with eerie regularity, once one connects the dots and fills in the family trees of a myriad.

With little talent more than to be coincidence or happenstance, many of the pampered scions found themselves rock stars, or at least hangers on and movers and shakers and hustlers and victims of such. McGowan delineates with obsessive good humor and wry asides how so many came West. His anecdotes may be familiar to those following the times, but it's entertaining to find him debunk hoary tales such as how Neil Young's hearse in Sunset Strip traffic somehow met aspiring members-to-be of Buffalo Springfield. The doleful tones of The Doors with earnest Jim Morrison (check out his lineage) get their comeuppance. And once more we contemplate the roles drugs played, to bring down such deserving outfits as Love, who could have bettered what the Doors cashed in on instead.

McGowan crams in or appends Houdini, as a coda from his other research, and like this book's trajectory, it's a wandering way into the canyon. Where houses burn with astonishing frequency, runaways get hoisted into fame, and the air of privilege for some never fades despite their hollow claims to liberal slogans. David Crosby (check out his lineage) earns deserved mockery in particular.

This lacks editing. It's all over the place, And how did the Mamas and the Papas manage to record two "fourth albums"? McGowan's affection for this intrigue proves at odds with its need for revision.

It's an enjoyable ramble, even if McGowan must admit he's stymied by the inherent secrecy within the set-ups he tries to trace. This makes for the type of "but it could all be true if we only knew the truth" sort of escape hatch that enables such suppositions their place in pop culture's fringe regions. But for any who like myself wonder why the radical protests and edgy subversion of the dangerous counterculture faded so soon into reveries and moonbeams, this provides a suggestive scenario why.
(Amazon US 5-16-17 except paragraphs 2+3)

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