Henry Diltz: caught in the Canyon

He photographed the most enduring images of the 60s folk-rock stars who lived in LA's Laurel Canyon. Now Henry Diltz stars in a documentary about the period. Sean O'Hagan looks back at Diltz's most iconic pictures

Gallery: Henry Diltz

In the mid-60s, Henry Diltz was touring with his group, the Modern Folk Quartet, when, on impulse, he bought a second-hand camera for $20 in a junk shop. Diltz lived in the hills above Los Angeles in Laurel Canyon, where his neighbours included the musician Stephen Stills. When Stills invited him to come to a gig his new group were playing in a folk club on nearby Redondo Beach, Diltz brought his camera along. It was a fortuitous move that would alter the course of his life and career.

Diltz was taking photographs of a huge hippy mural outside the venue, when the group wandered out after their soundcheck. He asked them to stand beneath the mural so he could capture its scale and, without thinking too much about it, made his first portrait of a rock group that belonged to the fledgling Los Angeles music scene. The group was Buffalo Springfield, also featuring Neil Young, who were then, alongside the Byrds, at the vanguard of an emerging LA folk-rock scene. A few weeks later he sold the photograph for $100 to Teen Set magazine and, as he puts it, was "up and running" as a photographer.

Eric Clapton, David Crosby and Joni Mitchell
‘Eric Clapton [right] was shy and didn’t know anyone in LA, so Mama Cass organised a picnic to introduce him to her friends. David Crosby [back] brought a young singer he’d discovered – Joni Mitchell [left]. Cass’s daughter Owen is sitting in the foreground.’ Photograph: Henry Diltz Photograph: Henry Dilz/PR

As that scene grew, Diltz grew with it, becoming an insider-photographer for a laid-back but creative milieu that blossomed in the many half-hidden houses on the leafy, eucalyptus and jasmine-scented lanes of Laurel Canyon. For more than a decade, Diltz photographed the musicians where he lived: the Loving Spoonful, the Byrds, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Frank Zappa, the Doors and the Eagles. "There was a feeling of unity like it was our neighbourhood," says Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas in Legends of the Canyon, a new documentary which traces the trajectory of the area's music scene. In the late-60s, there were pot-fuelled picnics at Mama Cass's house attended by a visiting Beatle or a neighbourhood Byrd, nude-swimming parties at Peter Tork's (of the Monkees) house on Willow Glen and all-night bacchanals at Frank Zappa's home with groupies such as the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously) and Pamela Des Barres.

There was also sustained creativity, including marathon songwriting sessions at the house on Lookout Mountain that Joni Mitchell shared with her lover, Graham Nash. In the documentary, both David Crosby and Nash recall not being able to use the piano because Mitchell monopolised it, sometimes writing three fully formed songs in the course of a morning. An early Mitchell composition, "Ladies of the Canyon", was one of several songs portraying that seemingly idyllic time and place. Others include: "12.30 (Young Girls are Coming to the Canyon)" by the louche John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas; "Laurel Canyon Blvd" by Van Dyke Parks; the saccharine "Our House" by Graham Nash, a hymn to blissful domesticity with Joni, and the more acidic "Love Street" by Jim Morrison, which describes the Laurel Canyon Country Store as "the place where the creatures meet".

James Taylor Strumming Guitar
‘James was sitting on the floor by a window finger picking "Oh Susannah" on the guitar. The sound was like a fantastic music box and it completely blew my mind. I sank to my knees and began taking pictures immediately.’ Photograph: Henry Diltz/ Corbis Photograph: Henry Diltz/ Corbis

Convenient to both Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevards, where most of the groups paid their dues in either the Troubadour or Whiskey a Go Go, and yet high above Hollywood and half-hidden amid trees and foliage, Laurel Canyon became a place where musicians could be part of the lingering hippy dream and yet be safely among their own in a scene that was communal yet elitist. That sense of elitism grew as, in the early to mid-70s, cocaine replaced marijuana and LSD as the drug of choice among the second wave of singer-songwriters who retreated to the canyon, including the Eagles and Jackson Browne. Soon, every Laurel Canyon song seemed to be another variation on the superstar blues, a trope that culminated with the Eagles's epic metaphorical whine, "Hotel California". "You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave."

In the main, Diltz's photographs are mainly a testimony to earlier time of relative innocence, a prelapsarian era before the Manson Family murders in 1969 cast a long shadow over the Los Angeles music scene. (Charles Manson had hung out with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys and, according to Nash, had auditioned for Young's group.) Harder-edged groups such as the Doors and Love channelled the latent darkness of the Laurel Canyon scene, but it was left to Young, an LA outsider by birth and temperament, to articulate it in song. In 1974, as if summoning the murderous spirit of Manson, he wrote "Revolution Blues", which culminated with the lines: "Well I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars/ But I hate them worse than lepers and I'll kill them in their cars." It was a long way from "Our House" and the evocative portraits by Henry Diltz of a Laurel Canyon idyll that once seemed certain to last forever.

Legends of the Canyon – Directors Cut is released through Universal Music on 27 May


Sean O'Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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