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Singing cowboys & englishmen 

Cosmic American music was minted in 1960s Los Angeles

He set the scene: In memory of Arthur Lee (1945-2006)

This is the tall tale of two canyons, Laurel and Topanga, and a fabled segment of West Hollywood called the Sunset Strip. Two recent books -- Barney Hoskyns' Hotel California (Wiley), Michael Walker's Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock-and-Roll's Legendary Neighborhood (Faber & Faber); two forthcoming documentaries, on country-rock icon Gram Parsons and cult pop songwriter Harry Nilsson (awaiting distribution); and a slew of recordings document the fleeting promise of late 1960s Los Angeles as rock & roll Mecca.

"The Southern California folk-rock scene seemed very much a reaction to the British Invasion, which had stolen so much from American traditional music," says John Bemis of Hillsborough, NC, Americana act Hooverville, which comes to Charlotte on Aug. 11. "The scene in LA fused folk elements, such as tight harmonies and acoustic instruments, with rock & roll -- not only rock's sound, but its sensibilities too. The lifestyle of the So-Cal scene was much more rock when compared with the earlier folkies, such as Pete Seeger and the Kingston Trio.

"Of all those [Laurel Canyon] bands, we're most significantly influenced by Gram [Parsons] and Chris Hillman. They were the traditionalists of the bunch, and Hooverville has covered several of their tunes over the years."

Bemis and company's latest CD, Follow That Trail of Dust Back Home (Back Up and Push), balances the singing and writing talents of the group's frontline trio, recalling the essence of a primary Laurel Canyon influence, The Band. Although mostly Canadian, the fabled Americana outfit recorded its second, self-titled album in LA, and Music From Big Pink proved a watershed release for the area's aspiring singing cowboys. NYC's Ollabelle, which spotlights the soulful style of Amy Helm, also has a great new disc out, Riverside Battle Songs (Verve Forecast); "Fall Back" echoes the rootsy work of Helm's father, Southern Band legend Levon, acutely. And another prominent canyon rock heir, Chris Stills, has a fine EP out on V2 containing a cover of The Band's "The Weight" done en français as "Fanny."

Aside from The Band, my own romance with the period's resultant canyon/desert rock and singer-songwriter (aka confessional) genres begins with Texas-born classic rock legend Stephen Stills and ends with Georgia-born Gram Parsons. Although cosmic cowboy music was minted in Southern California, most folks forget just how vital the Southern part was to the equation. Many of the genre's leading architects and practitioners hailed from Texas and the Southeast, blending either folk-rock or R&B strains with the hard-core honky-tonk sound of Bakersfield.

I never go far without Stills' complex, varied output from the Buffalo Springfield through Manassas, and, in times of acute emotional trouble, Parsons' solo masterwork, Grievous Angel, is usually in heavy rotation. This stormy summer season has renewed my passion for both artists, with Stills currently touring in the company of his fellow Americana Rushmore figures Neil Young, David Crosby and Graham Nash, and Parsons reissued via the three-disc set Gram Parsons: The Complete Reprise Sessions (Reprise/Rhino). Filmmaker Gandulf Hennig has also released a documentary on the Waycross native who skillfully and fearlessly blended the Southern roots forms of country, R&B, rock, gospel to produce what he called Cosmic American music: Gram Parsons -- Fallen Angel (Spothouse GmbH/BBC/Rhino). The rockbiz grapevine has it that Parsons' most (in)famous friend, Rolling Stone Keith Richards, owns the movie rights to Ben Fong-Torres' GP biography Hickory Wind and will presumably produce a narrative version soon. Barney Hoskyns, a Londoner and noted rock journalist, explored postwar Los Angeles music before, in 1996's Waiting For the Sun. Hoskyns' latest tome, Hotel California (see review in this section), revisits scenes from the earlier work but in micro focus, centered primarily on the singer-songwriters (think golden boy Jackson Browne) and studio misfits (like Brian Wilson's Mississippian ace Van Dyke Parks) who emerged in the wake of the Byrds' success, proceeding to revolutionize the music business (for a while) and American interiors. Scene midwives, like Hoskyns' fellow Brits -- late Beatles publicist Derek Taylor, genius director Donald Cammell (a Stones associate) and Warner Bros. house hippie Andy Wickham -- also co-star.

After the original Byrds' demise circa 1968 -- when Parsons briefly joined and the classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo was released -- no LA groups hold more importance for me than the aforementioned Buffalo Springfield, the multiracial dark horses of Love and proto-desert rockers-cum-funkateers Little Feat.

In fact, late Love frontman Arthur Lee was born in Memphis but raised in LA's black Crenshaw-Adams district; Little Feat icon Lowell George was bred in the West Side mountains when the area was still mostly ranch land. The Feats, whose influence is indelible in the new wave of Southern rock and jam bands, will be anthologized in September, with The Best of Little Feat (Rhino). A Lee benefit show in Manhattan in June saw ex-Zeppelinite Robert Plant channeling the force of Love's psych-rock oeuvre.

Meanwhile, Southern boy Tom Petty, who once apprenticed with former Byrds sideman Leon Russell, has just dropped yet another rich meditation on the So-Cal sound: Highway Companion (American). Chiming guitar, Farfisa and twangy rhythms worthy of one-time Topanga cosmic cowboy hangout the Corral abound, while Petty's song "Jack" actually lifts the central riff of Love's "Bummer In the Summer." The propulsive exhilaration and airiness of "Flirting With Time" unites past and present, exactly nailing the feeling of what LA rock once meant. Throughout, the disc limns why the Laurel Canyon Myth continues to hold sway over subsequent generations of artists, scribes, fair maidens, freaks and power-mad hustlers.

As Lee once penned about Sunset Strip magic, maybe the people would be the times -- and briefly there was sonic catharsis to be gleaned from the murky sunshine at the limit of Manifest Destiny. Many young men went west from Greenwich Village's withering folkie scene, like Stills, Parsons and Byrds leader Roger McGuinn, hoping to slay societal dragons and personal demons with the plangent sounds of a 12-string guitar.

And the spell worked, depending on your view of the myth, until failed rock star Charlie Manson brought violence to the canyon vibe in 1969, and that same year ended with a brother's murder at the Rolling Stones' free concert at Altamont Speedway.

Yet there was value in the canyons' dark arts too: Aside from my Singing Cowboy hero Arthur Lee and his acolyte Jim Morrison, some of the scene's best music was made by underrated ex-Byrd bard Gene Clark, the Topanga-based band Spirit and Neil Young collaborator Jack Nitzsche, who produced the soundtrack for Cammell's occult-tinged cult film Performance with Ry Cooder and Randy Newman (among others). Even Young recorded "Revolution Blues," a brilliant ode to Manson and his family, and was originally meant to produce Love's masterpiece, Forever Changes.

Now-famed singer-songwriter standards issued by artists like Cackalacky Beatles protégée James Taylor and Canadian songbird Joni Mitchell -- as well as the Eagles' easy, ubiquitous twangy template thieved largely from Parsons -- arose as a reaction to the Manson murders and the general upheaval of the 1960s. And a new breed of talent brokers, like David Geffen and Eagles manager Irving Azoff, discovered different ways to bring the canyons' artists to market, perhaps garnering paeans in process (see Mitchell's "Free Man in Paris" about her now bitter enemy Geffen).

Ancient history, you say, decades after Parsons' corpse was burnt in Joshua Tree desert, the Eagles eulogized the Laurel Canyon spirit in "Hotel California," their friends in Fleetwood Mac transformed California rock from horse opera to soap opera and the Croz became the poster child for freebase. Yet 2006 has seen a startling array of reissued material from this scene and its 1960s satellites from both sides of the Atlantic. Cammell's been remembered with Rebecca and Sam Umland's biography Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side (FAB Press), and Nick Drake producer Joe Boyd has released his music memoir, White Bicycles (Serpent's Tail). Bi-coastal Elektra folk-rocker Tim Buckley is rumored to be getting the biopic treatment alongside his son Jeff. The mostly dormant form of protest music is again being spearheaded by CSNY with their Freedom of Speech tour. And even Laurel Canyon disciple Eric Clapton and raga-rock muse Ravi Shankar are coming to Charlotte in the fall.

Arizona indie Not Lame label has just released the Springfield tribute collection, Five Way Street. Here's what Mark Rozzo, rock writer and member of Brooklyn-based country-rock outfit Maplewood, had to say about his involvement with the project:

"What I love about Buffalo Springfield -- along with the buckskin fringe and cool boots -- is the fact that the band had so many great songwriters, so many great angles. Basically, they're the next step beyond the Byrds, and, along with the Byrds, they're a virtual clearinghouse for all that would be great in California -- and American -- music for years to come, from Neil Young to CSNY (and even Poco). They represent the birth of a sun-dappled, golden idyll for American pop."

Maplewood covered Rozzo's personal Springfield fave, "I Am a Child," on the tribute. He's also excited that 1970s easy rock titans America ("Horse With No Name") have recorded one of Maplewood's own canyon-tinged tunes, "Indian Summer," for their James Iha/Adam Schlesinger-produced comeback record, due out this fall from Sony.

Southern California may be going up in smoke and the cocaine cowboys' legacy may be tarnished, but the songs endure.

Hooverville plays Dilworth Playhouse on Aug. 11; 8pm; No cover.

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