Echo in the Canyon

Rock ‘n’ roll is at its most vulnerable when searching for relevance. But I’m willing to give it a pass if it “shows” me the connection and doesn’t simply “tell” me it’s relevant.

In the late 1960s, San Francisco had The Haight, but Los Angeles had Laurel Canyon, a canopied forest a skip west of Hollywood concrete and searchlights, where musicians lived and mingled, trading ideas and inspiring chords and chicanery. Home to Joni Mitchell, who released an album titled Ladies of the Canyon, and John Mayall, who put out Blues from Laurel Canyon. While Van Dyke Parks recorded “Laurel Canyon Blvd” for his Song Cycle LP, Kim Fowley heralded “The Canyon People.” Jim Morrison lived directly above The Country Store where Pamela Des Barres hung out in between being Gail and Frank Zappa’s babysitter. Arthur Lee and Love lived there. So did Eric Burdon. But none of them aside from Zappa – a story about whom Stephen Stills relates at one point – is even remotely mentioned in Andy Slater’s vanity project Echo in the Canyon, which by its very title is more a ricochet than a revelation.

Initially I thought it was going to be an attempt to connect the dots between past and present, the way the record Rainy Day had done in the ’80s using members of various Paisley Underground musicians from The Three O’ Clock, The Bangles and Rain Parade to cover songs that had inspired them by Buffalo Springfield, The Who and Hendrix.

But instead what’s here is Jakob Dylan imitating an interview with the likes of Tom Petty – who, OK, was inspired by Jim McGuinn – who is quoted as saying this entire L.A. scene was influenced by George Harrison using that Rickenbacker 12-string, which in turn caused him to couple his folk compositions to a Beatles beat. Slater has rounded up an array of his buddies, who manage to deliver uninspired, stoic recitations of Neil Young and Brian Wilson songs. Jakob Dylan muddles through “The Bells of Rhymney” as though Jack Jones had a hiatal hernia. Fiona Apple (Slater used to be her manager!) turns diamonds to dust with her geriatric jerkoff pondering of Brian Wilson’s “In My Room.”

If this were truly a case of linear imprinting on a new generation, why not get Carnie Wilson or Susanna Hoffs or Ty Segall to render their songs? Because obviously it’s a showcase for Slater’s partners. He must’ve wanted to make a movie about Beck or Regina Spektor and Norah Jones but knew nobody would go see it.

And just who is Andy Slater?

He used to work for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. My introduction came during a meeting at my apartment in the early ’80s, before MTV, while kicking around the idea for a monthly video music magazine. Slater had been invited by another participant, and he burst in asking if I had any Coke! My response was, “Sure – in a can or a glass?” He looked confused. Someone said, “David’s serious,” and he bolted out the door, not to return.

So then he managed a few bands, relocated, became President of Capitol Records for six years. I next encountered him at the Frolic Room II in L.A., and he comes over and says, “David, why are you here?” I was there to meet up with Jeffrey Lee Pierce but simply said, “I’m on vacation.” “No, no… but why are you here?” was his reply.

“There’s something happening here/ What it is ain’t exactly clear…”

Echo in the Canyon is not the worst rock movie ever made. That would be Velvet Goldmine. It’s the third worst rock film, just behind The Song Remains the Same, because of its arrogant bribe to lure its audience into the comforting belief that these times are just as volatile and creative at the hands of Cat Power and Beck as when Brian Wilson and Neil Young were in charge! Cat Power? A person who came by my apartment with a friend who I owed for a magazine ad, and the first words out of her mouth after seeing my 29-inch television were, “Mister, your TV’s too big!” I directed her to stand in the hallway until the transaction was completed. As for Beck, he once came into the store where I worked and started bellyaching about a William Burroughs book being overpriced at 50 cents! He was thrown out, much to the amusement of Thurston Moore, who commented, “We’ve been trying to lose that jerk all day long!”

All you really need to know about Echo in the Canyon is that it’s made clear that “Laurel Canyon was the antithesis of plastic Hollywood in the 1960s as depicted on television.” Then all the archival footage used is from Ed Sullivan and American Bandstand!

The phlegm-forged audacity it takes to dig underneath the surface of an acknowledged pinnacle of pop excellence should have turned up hidden gems. Instead, this film depicts its impact as generic, stodgy and downbeat – at least, that’s what comes through each performance. But it’s just so damned gratifying to learn that Tom Petty fell in love with Pet Sounds, almost as comforting to realize that Uncle Lou must be on meds, as Lou Adler rambles on and on describing the floor plans of recording studios that no longer exist!

Missing is the nitty gritty about Jackson Browne’s nude romp with Nico. Michelle Phillips gets to brag about her infidelity and how it inspired John to write “Go Where You Wanna Go,” but no attempt is made to ask if she was ever jealous of Mackenzie.

Echo in the Canyon avoids the spark that stoked the flame in exchange for Jakob Dylan and crew to see their names on screen.