When I first started putting my liberal assumptions about the world to the test, I really thought that libertarianism had done a pretty thorough job of slaughtering all the sacred cows with which I’d grown up. Little did I know that an even more powerful red pill lay between the covers of David McGowan’s chronicle of the bands that defined the flower power counterculture, Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon. If you’re at all like me in that you bought the mythology of the 60’s being an era of enlightened emancipation and a fearless rebellion against repressive norms and reckless imperialism, then you are well advised to brace yourself for a severely rude awakening. Weird Scenes may, in fact, shatter your world. It’s not that McGowan has uncovered lots of brand new revelations that have never come to light. It’s simply that he’s peered between the cracks of both the public record and the mythology of these artists and dug deeper to reveal a mosaic of facts that can hardly be dismissed as mere coincidence. McGowan’s work will doubtless be viewed as conspiracy theory to many, but his sources and methods are very conventional. What McGowan himself concedes as the hurdle of disbelief that the reader might encounter is the manner in which he’s pieced together the history and the implications thereof. What we learn from Weird Scenes is that not only were the movers of the 60’s musical revolution mysteriously concentrated in the very exclusive Laurel Canyon area, but what bound all of them were three common threads dangling against the backdrop of one highly curious phenomenon.
- Family connections to the military or intelligence community
- Connections to the occult
- A long chain of mysterious deaths and brutal murders
- Laurel Canyon was home to a top secret military intelligence film studio whose presence and purpose remain largely unknown to this day
All of the information presented runs completely contrary to the mythology of the Peace and Love 60’s counterculture. In fact, McGowan’s work doesn’t just cast doubt on the idea of an organic social and cultural phenomenon, it detonates the very foundations of the popular myth. At the core of the book are simple but mind blowingly provocative questions:
What if the counterculture revolution was engineered?
What if these artists were working in concert with the military intelligence establishment to mainstream rock culture and decadence?
What if the goal was sabotaging both the antiwar Left and to hastening the break down of the social order?
I know what you’re thinking. That sounds like crazy talk, but McGowan’s thesis is reasonable. He posits that there was an active and engaged antiwar movement on the Left. He also delineates between the real activists and the decadents who were eventually branded “hippies.” He is suggesting that this decadent strain of counterculture was the unique export of the Laurel Canyon phenomenon. And despite the weight of the lore surrounding the Haight Ashbury scene, the Laurel Canyon scene preceded it by a couple years. Obviously, McGowan doesn’t unearth the secret white paper or the definitive proof of the CIA’s hidden hand. Rather, what emerges is a series of patterns that suggest that the convergence of so many artists with so many common connections who left such a large pile of corpses in their wake is something other than cosmic serendipity.
McGowan begins by sketching the broad strokes of his narrative arc and fills in the details in the subsequent chapters. I don’t think I’m alone by saying that I had to shake off brain scrambling bewilderment at every turn of the page. I was suspicious of the monolithic leftist messaging of the music industry, but I had no idea how deep the rabbit hole went. I suspect I’m no different from others in thinking that that the industry is corrupt, and any artist’s untimely death, eccentricities or habits can be chalked up to that simple fact. We accept the notion that the industry places incredible pressures on artists while offering unlimited access to every vice and pleasure. But is it mere coincidence that nearly every one of the characters in the Laurel Canyon scene was connected to the military intelligence community somehow? And if this was a collective act of rebellion, where are the public denunciations of their parents’ actions and allegiances? Is the confluence of all this talent, both real and imagined, and the speed with which they were catapulted into the limelight a purely organic phenomenon? If the establishment really saw them as a threat to the social order, why weren’t law enforcement officials making routine sweeps of the Canyon? Why did the media establishment trumpet these artists with enthusiasm if there wasn’t a tacit acceptance of an overall lifestyle message from the highest echelons? How did these artists routinely escape the draft or any convictions?
Weird Scenes focuses on the prime movers of the early Canyon scene. These included The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart, The Doors, Steppenwolf, Love, The Beach Boys, The Monkees and The Mamas and the Papas. This scene also included what were then considered the Young Turks. Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, Sharon Tate, and Jane Fonda all have intelligence community connections just like their rock counterparts and are an integral part of this tapestry. It’s odd that a pack of up and coming actors wouldn’t mind being canonized in the press by being associated with the folks who initiated the Armenian genocide, but then again, the fact that this name lives on in alternative media as a leftist propaganda and current affairs show tells you a lot about this industry.
There are also fascinating side stories about some lesser known artists who all had links to the Canyon scene in one way or another. Fans of Roky Erickson, Judee Sill and Phil Ochs will appreciate the depth of McGowan’s research. Each band achieved different levels of public success, but each story peeled back new layers of intrigue, pathology and decadence that was a way of life in this exclusive enclave nestled in the Los Angeles hills.
I don’t know how these individuals fare in other rock history books, but no one comes out looking particularly great. Since so many of the Laurel Canyon luminaries were children of the military establishment, the fact that several notable figures exhibited domineering control freak/cult leader-like tendencies should come as little surprise. Stephen Stills, Frank Zappa and John Phillips in particular all fell into this category. Though it’s largely peripheral to the Zappa saga, Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) is exposed as something akin to a pathological Mansonesque cult leader. This is also chronicled in all its cringe inducing detail in Zoot Horn Rollo’s extraordinary memoir, Lunar Notes.
If it seems like every couple years, we get a new telegenic boy band to ignite the hormones of the tweener set, you can thank The Monkees. The genesis of the manufactured media friendly boy band can certainly be traced back to them. As it turns out, very few of the Canyon bands were actually very good in a live setting. The story behind The Byrds in particular will definitely leave you a little slack jawed. Most of these early acts relied on the talents of a group of studio musicians that eventually became known as the Wrecking Crew.
Zappa’s tale is a particular standout because he stands apart from virtually everyone else in the history of rock both artistically and politically. Zappa remains highly regarded by musicians because his oeuvre is such a singular achievement in the history of 20th century music. Setting aside all other concerns and caveats, Zappa’s unique gifts and prodigious output are legendary when measured against artists of any genre. Needless to say, Zappa was also a complete totalitarian. Even if he was shilling for globalist institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, his anticommunist/neoconservative political convictions also set him in sharp contrast to virtually every other major artist. Zappa also notoriously ridiculed hippie culture while actively trying to consolidate that very audience for his band. If you strip away the avant-garde nature of his music, you have very unique window of insight into this entire cabal. Culture creation that emanates from the globalist/military intelligence complex which presents an illusion of freewheeling bohemianism but masks a uniquely authoritarian and pathological mindset.
Then there are the myriad stories of rampant sexual promiscuity and sexual depravity. Before Manson hit the Canyon scene, Vito Paulekas and his entourage of Freaks apparently single handedly launched the phenomena of the Free Love Hippie. Rock has long been associated with sex and drugs, but Paulekas in particular seems to have played a significant role in cementing that association in the public mind. The fact that this routinely included teenagers is yet another eyebrow raising revelation. In fact, sex with underage kids and pedophilia is an undercurrent of more than a few stories. It is howlingly hilarious that pop stars are now publicly preaching the #MeToo hashtag as though they’re these pious crusaders when everyone knows that the industry’s history and underlying message has always been one of pure sexual decadence.
At the bottom of the depravity barrel are the two sets of murders that betray the heart of darkness that seemingly defined Laurel Canyon. These were the Wonderland murders and the Manson murders. It even includes possible connections to the infamous Black Dahlia murder. Needless to say, connections to the occult go hand in hand with all of these stories. What is to be made of the string of torched homes and unexplained or mysterious deaths surrounding so many of the Canyon’s brightest stars? What is up with Gram Parsons’ death? What should we conclude about Gene Clark’s bizarre demise? What really happened to Jim Morrison? The list goes on longer than you can imagine.
It’s mostly a secondary theme in the book, but mafiosi and serial killers are also part of this sordid tale. Between this book and Fredric Dannen’s Hit Men, the full weight of the music industry’s degeneracy begins to show in its Dorian Gray-like visage. Ironically, McGowan took up this project based off the work he did exploring serial killers in his 2004 book, Programmed to Kill. It’s a merely a side dish in the Weird Scenes narrative, but Rodney Alcala’s story alone should leave you asking a few questions.
The one aspect of the McGowan’s work which is probably unique among all historical accounts of this scene is his exposé of the top secret military film studio, Lookout Mountain Airforce Station. It was billed as a film processing studio for nuclear testing footage, but that just doesn’t add up. Why would the military schlep film all the way from Nevada to Laurel Canyon? They could’ve done that anywhere. This was a fully equipped studio with sound stages, screening rooms, an animation department, climate controlled vaults, a bomb shelter and a helipad. This sounded more like a prototype for ILM or WETA. Hollywood luminaries ranging from Ronald Reagan to Marilyn Monroe all had clearance to work there on undisclosed projects. I suppose that like every other phenomenon of life in the Canyon, it’s all just a big coincidence. Right?
McGowan concludes with the transition from the 60’s and 70’s Canyon artists to the origins of 80’s New Wave. Rock was a well established phenomenon by that time, so if you think that puts a kibosh on all this conspiratard nonsense, you’d be dead wrong. As every rock fan is aware, a little record label called IRS Records run by a gentleman named Miles Copeland III was home to more than a few big names in 80’s pop. His brother Ian Copeland also ran a booking agency called Frontier Booking International (aka FBI). Combined with the IRS roster, FBI’s contact with other major artists extended their influence over the New Wave era even further. Their little brother, Stewart, formed a little band called The Police. Big deal, right? Plenty of families go into the entertainment industry. It would be easy to dismiss if the patriarch of the Copeland family weren’t a well known CIA operative. So I suppose the children of a spook who collectively form a label called IRS, a booking agency called FBI and a band called The Police and end up dominating the 80’s is just another coincidence. Right?
This book was a revelation, but it was also really difficult. Even if I didn’t own records by every artist, they collectively formed the background soundtrack to growing up in California in the 70’s and 80’s. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that the pioneers of counterculture were brave contrarians, rabble rousers, eccentrics and visionaries. In a world of phony politicians, bloodthirsty war hawks and corrupt businessmen, the artists were supposed to be the fearless truth tellers and the guardians of the human soul. They might’ve been decadent, but the art made up for their excess. How wrong could it be to try and create a Brotherhood of Man through rock n’ roll? The fact I completely handwaved away the implications of someone like Charles Manson ingratiating himself with the leading lights of counterculture is certainly a testament to pop music’s effectiveness in engineering a perception of unassailable righteousness. But what if the gulf between the fantasy and the reality was wider than you ever imagined? What conclusions are you supposed to reach about an industry packed with connections to the intelligence community, gangsters, occultists, control freaks, pedophiles, and otherwise pathological degenerates? Even if you really, really loved the music that came from it? The prospect that the entire rock revolution was a giant military psyop is among the bitterest pills I’ve ever swallowed. That’s not to say that there was no organic artistry or genuine greatness, but once you peer behind the curtain, the rock n’ roll wizard loses some of his mojo. Sometimes, the truth hurts. Dave McGowan deserves credit for administering the tough medicine.