Listening, as I often do, to the Sirius XM satellite radio channel Deep Tracks, I heard of the motion picture “documentary” Echo in the Canyon well before I saw it — which happened just the other day.
The Deep Tracks pitch was that this movie went way deep into the genesis of American folk rock, and the music that it involved, and that that evolved from it, focusing on the music scene in Laurel Canyon, the Los Angeles exurb where many 1960s pop and rock musicians lived. But, having watched it for the first time since it was released three-plus years ago, there’s a lot more going on here/there, not all of it totally friendly to, or supportive of, the original music.
For starters: despite the appearance, live and on video, of the Legends of Rock Music® — the Beatles, Jackson Browne, the Byrds, Eric Clapton, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Steven Stills, Neil Young — getting more face time than any of them is one Jakob Dylan, son of Bob and frontman for the 1990s-and-on band the Wallflowers. To his credit, in interviewing the still living listed above, he asks good questions and teases out some interesting insights.
But he seems curiously unmoved by the interactions with these musical icons, rarely cracking a smile, or much of any other facial expression. Does he inwardly believe that none of these major players in folk rock, pop and rock and roll are not as significant as his father? Hate to think that’s so, but an exchange with Crosby made me wonder.
The founding member of the Byrds AND CSN and Sometimes Y makes a reference to Dylan — and Jakob replies, “You’ll have to be more specific,” or something like. Crosby responds with, “OK, Bob Dylan,” or something along those lines. There’s an awkward mini-moment of silence in there, too.
The amount of facetime that Crosby — and to a lesser extent, former Hollies member and CSN/Y co-founder — gets is a downside of the film, for me, anyway. Crosby and Nash have always seem self-absorbed and preachy, the latter famous for his (mostly one-sided) shouting match with Pete Townshend of the Who over how political rock should be. Nash thought it could change the world; Townshend, not so much.
The other facet of the movie that’s a bit off-putting to me is the interludes of J. Dylan and other “modern” artists performing the songs of the ’60s musicians. Many of them I’m not familiar with, despite being a regular listener to SXM’s The Spectrum, which splits time between “new” music and classic rock. Fiona Apple? Is that Siri’s sister? Cat Power? Cat Stevens? Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys?
Norah Jones I watched perform live on video (Austin City Limits, perhaps), and she’s a talented lady. Beck I’ve heard plenty of, but it’s hard to recognize ’60s folk rock influences in his music. And their , and J. Dylan’s, performances of the classic seem rather emotionless — less like they are paying tribute, and more like they are saying, “Look at me, doing Really Important Music!” Even Jakob seems distant, unattached.
(Full disclosure: You could put J. Dylan and the Wallflowers’ Grammy-winning “One Headlight” on a tape loop, and I would just keep listening.)
Also awkward is these “youngsters” sitting around a coffee table covered with the classic albums by those ’60s artists and others, and fondling the colorful, cardboard-covered vinyl. These are cassette-era folks — probably some CD-era and later — and they probably only saw these relics in their parents’ LP collections, if there.
Those caveats — and OK, there were a bunch of them — aside, the movie is mostly fun, fascinating. Dylan (THAT one) interviews Petty a number of times — reportedly, the last face time that great rock artist got before departing the planet nearly four years ago. The Head Heartbreaker is, as usual, wry and ironic — and, although a bit younger than most of the other MVPs and VIPs, very knowledgeable.
McGuinn also gets a lot of exposure. He seems younger than you know he is, and his craft on the guitar, and his keen perception of The Music, shine through. Unlike his Buffalo Springfield and CSN/Y partners Crosby and Young, Stills is amiable, unprepossessing, much less-egotistic. (Flunking the audition for The Monkees not only did not bring him down, it likely enhanced his career and work.)
Ringo Starr pops up several times, as always goofily cheery — and every time interviewed standing in front of a perfect, late-’60s Pontiac Firebird convertible — but offering valuable insights. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, one of the songwriting and composing greats of the era — Dylan Senior said of him, “Jesus, that ear. He should donate it to The Smithsonian.” — could have offered some of the best insights, but seems disconnected, scattered. He seems still not entirely recovered from his emotional issues.
Clapton’s involvement in the Laurel Canyon scene was mostly from his Cream phase, and he offers some interesting recollections. Browne, like Crosby and Nash, is a bit too earnest, a bit too humorless; he must have been an outsider even back then. Michelle Phillips, one of the Mamas of the Mamas and Papas, is fascinating, reflecting back on the chaos of a group whose work some have called “folk music gone wrong.” (Personally, I felt that folk music needed to go somewhere, anywhere.)
But one of the most fascinating interviewees isn’t a musician at all: Lou Adler, record and film producer, founder of Dunhill Records, manager of a number of major acts. Adler, who produced the Ms & Ps, Jan and Dean, the Grass Roots, Carole King and others, revisits the studios where the music was made, and really gets down into the weeds.
But more noticeable to me was who was missing, a Laurel Canyon habitué, important singer/songwriter of the mid- to- late ’60s. CSN/Y got their start, it is said, at a party at Joni Mitchell’s Canyon residence.
The film includes a lot of video footage I have never seen, a lot of it fun stuff, among which are a number of performances by the featured artists. One of those that really struck me was Dick Clark interviewing Buffalo Springfield on the set of American Bandstand — Young, of course, monopolizing the conversation.
Despite its shortcomings and off-puttings, the film — I think I watched it on Netflix — is definitely worth watching, for those of us of that age and stage. It is an echo of the soundtrack of our lives.