Sunset on the Strip: An L.A. Music Primer

During the 1970s the last thing I was interested in was the laid-back, singer-songwriter music coming out of L.A. – The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Fleetwood Mac, Jackson Browne, etc. If it wasn’t sporting a leather jacket, a spiked haircut and an electric guitar, I wasn’t interested. However, as a librarian I have to be prepared to answer questions about music that falls outside my particular tastes. So, I visited the area of the library that houses the music books (or in library-terms the 780s) for a dose of music discovery.

The Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library houses a surprisingly diverse collection of books about all genres of popular music. One can stumble upon anything from the history of country, rock, soul, blues, and reggae to highly-specialized subjects like a detailed study of Philly soul, a history of iconic recording studios or a price guide to vintage guitars. As I browsed, my eyes fixed on a book entitled Hotel California: The True-Life Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, the Eagles, and Their Many Friends by Barney Hoskyns (781.6609 HOS).

Hoskyns starts in the early 1960s as kids with guitars from all corners of North America descended on the Sunset Strip, into the winding roads of Laurel Canyon, and eventually into the recording studios where they would find great success and be catapulted to rock god status. Hotel California reads like a novel as we follow the titular musicians from ideal-infused nascency to jaded mega-stardom. Hoskyns tells us who hooked up with whom, what classic songs were written about specific people, who had the best drugs, and whose houses were the best to crash at, the best to create at or the best to party at. We also get a glimpse into the boys’ club that abased the work of Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell and the criminally-overlooked Judie Sill.

Most important though is Hoskyns’ research and knowledge of the music – despite or due to the roiling high drama of the Laurel Canyon scene, the foundation for all folk rock was established. A canon of classic rock was created that is still a staple of FM radio. Hoskyns’ survey and analysis of this vast oeuvre is nothing short of inspiring. His enthusiastic prose made me want to give this music that I had dismissed in its entirety a second chance.

Hoskyns concludes Hotel California with the saga of record company mogul David Geffen and the formation of the Eagles, the quintessential L.A. country rock band. Did you know the Eagles were as pre-fabricated as the Monkees, calculated to yield maximum profits by capitalizing on the artistry of country rock? Hoskyns takes us on a journey where, in just a few years, we move from innocence to experience to rank cynicism as cocaine addiction becomes the defining lifestyle. The reader travels from the idyllic artist communes of Laurel Canyon to the nihilism of the just-lurking-around-the-corner punk movement ready to eradicate a generation fueled by drugs, greed and money. This is epic drama.

As I finished Hotel California I felt I needed to give the music a better listen. I went to the library’s catalog and discovered that we own many of the albums Hoskyns champions so I decided to create a soundtrack to the book. Five classic albums you can check out from the library that would be the perfect accompaniment to Hotel California are:

Crosby, Stills and Nash – self-titled – CSN were the first folk super group. Who can forget those achingly beautiful and tight harmonies and chiming acoustic guitars? There has never been a better harmony singer than David Crosby. Check out Suite: Judy Blue Eyes and Marrakesh Express.

Joni  Mitchell – Blue – Regarded by many to be Mitchell’s finest moment. Blue is a song cycle of minimalist instrumentation and lush poetry delving into the maelstrom of the many facets of relationships from infatuation to disintegration. Standout tracks: All I Want and A Case of You.

Jackson Browne – Late for the Sky – Considered by many, including Bruce Springsteen, to be Browne’s masterpiece, this Grammy-nominated album includes the iconic tracks For a Dancer and Before the Deluge.

Linda Ronstadt – Greatest Hits – Out of all the women to come out of the L.A. scene Ronstadt was the most successful. Her male contemporaries now admit she was the most intelligent of the L.A. crowd and always chose the best songs. This is a greatest hits collection; every track is golden, but most noteworthy are You’re No Good, When Will I Be Loved, and Different Drum.

The Eagles – Hotel California – Perhaps the defining album of the seventies L.A. music scene, Hotel California’s songs encapsulate the unbridled decadence that fueled the scene and ultimately caused its demise. The standout songs are the title track and the FM staple Life in the Fast Lane.

Interestingly, the same singers and musicians can be found playing on all five of these albums giving them a cohesion that defines the L.A. sound. Barney Hoskyns’ Hotel California, accompanied by a selection of the L.A. scene’s definitive albums, places the reader/listener in one of the most highly creative and recognizable epochs in American music and culture.

Tanya Walsh

Tanya is a Public Services Specialist, a certified dog trainer, and a volunteer at the Helping Hands Humane Society. Her areas of interest are music and very large dogs.