Monday, March 7, 2011

I was a Lady of the Canyon, by Sk Waller

I spent a large part of 1971 in an exclusive commune in the Hollywood Hills, in a mansion called Shady Oak that was owned by Peter Tork of the Monkees. This is a uniquely famous house in rock history. Earlier, it had been rented by Stephen Stills and was where Crosby Stills, Nash & Young rehearsed for their performance at Woodstock. In fact, there were two rooms off of the pool that had been their rehearsal/recording studio. The house was originally built for band director Carmen Dragon (father of “Captain” Daryl Dragon of The Captain & Tennille), and was later bought by actor Wally Cox. Peter Tork bought it from him during the Monkees’ heyday. During my stint there, I met some of rock’s greatest legends, for good or ill.

Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Greg Reeves, Dallas Taylor
And Graham Nash rehearsing in the driveway.

Funny how this picture brings back so many memories in a truly visceral way. I can tell you into what room every window opens. I remember the scent of the jasmine and honeysuckle and how the bougainvillea cascaded down from the bower bridge that led from the main house to the pool house. Peter Tork’s time at the house is now legendary for the parties he held. These were literal marathons, complete with naked celebrities and pretty girls lazing around the pool.

When I moved in the house tenant was sci-fi screenwriter Rick Strauss and his wife Simone, who was a fashion designer with Patty Woodard. Neither Rick nor Simone were famous, but they made enough to pay the $1600 rent at a time when my tiny studio in Santa Barbara, an exclusive beach town known for its high rents and old money, cost me $125. Rick also wrote for the L.A. Free Press and was known as an eccentric cross between an aging hipster and a Hollywood guru.

I remember that there was a huge hole in the bar, like someone had kicked it in. I’ve always been curious about who made that hole. Someone told me it was Jim Morrison of The Doors, but it could have been anybody.  When I recently asked Peter how it happened, he said he couldn't even remember it being there much less who did it. Such were the times. It was the 60s, remember, and the house had been a secret, gated hideaway for the crème de la crème of the world of popular music. There were some pictures on the web of Jimi Hendrix and George Harrison by the pool, but I can’t find them now.

We had a maid who came in once a week, but we were expected to pull our own weight. Bill, a tall, good looking blonde who worked at the Olde Worlde restaurant on the Strip did the cooking, Cathy, who became my friend, cleaned the Strauss’s rooms upstairs while also acting as the nanny of their baby. Diane (and who seemed oh, so glamorous to me) was a leggy brunette who was a protégée of actress Stella Stevens, did a lot of sunbathing, and a couple of guys performed jobs that pertained to the concerts that we held at Venice Beach and Griffith Park. At one of these concerts, I opened for the soon-to-be-renamed Doobie Brothers.

Because it was less than two years after the Manson murders, L.A. was still paranoid about anything that looked like a hippie commune. Suddenly, hippies weren’t just harmless, peace-loving sideshow freaks; in the canyons of Hollywood little signs began sprouting up, proclaiming security systems and very large dogs. Rick had dubbed our group, which was actually an event production collective, The Shady Oak Family. Understandably, the word ‘family’ in this context made some people apprehensive. We were always reassuring people on radio and television appearances, and in the newspapers.

The police were frequent guests, but not in the way you might think. They respected Rick because our events were well-known for being incident-free. The police chief shared bagels and lox with us on more than one Sunday morning, laughing with us at the kitchen table and, amazingly, treating us with a curious camaraderie. The L.A. Times published a huge spread on us one Sunday and, when I can get back to California, I intend to hunt it up in the library archives.

Unfortunately, the Strauss’s went bankrupt and they moved into a smaller house in Studio City that was also owned by Peter Tork. The family broke up and everyone had to move on.  I was asked to stay, but, disillusioned within the month, I left, although I still took gigs that they got me for a while.

I wrote a lot of good songs in that fabulous Laurel Canyon house—the musical vibes there were incredible. Oddly, if money were no object I’d probably want to buy it, not for the house as a real estate property, but for its history.

The Rolling Stones by the pool at Shady Oak.

Mick Taylor, Keith Richards & Mick Jagger in the solarium.

David Crosby takes a plunge into the pool. Can’t tell you how many times
I sunbathed on that board with Diane. Ah, the smell of Ban de Soliel!

Rick Strauss was not your typical commune patriarch. Sure, he taught us lessons about life (he was 60 years old and knew a great deal more about life than we did), and he used the popular spiritual texts at the time, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Tao te Ching, the Teachings of the Buddha, Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, etc., but he saw himself mostly as a mentor, taking in talented young people and preparing them for life as well as for fame.

“You live up here on Mount Olympus. You eat what you want, drink what you want, ingest what you want, dress how you want, make love to whom you want. You are gods and goddesses and you will treat each other as such. If you want to be treated the same way when you descend into the material world, you must continue to act like gods and goddesses. You are ambassadors for a new age. Conduct yourselves accordingly.”

I’ve never forgotten that.

By Sk Waller, guest Groovy Reflections blogger  and author of "Beyond the Bridge, A Rock & Roll Trilogy". For more info click here