Laurel Canyon’s summer of Crosby, Stills, and Nash remembered….
As eyewitnesses go, they don’t get much closer than Henry Diltz, a founder member of the Modern Folk Quartet who accidentally found a second career in photography when he snapped a picture of a group of snazzily-dressed young men who turned out to be the Buffalo Springfield.
Diltz is now a proprietor of the Morrison Hotel gallery, selling fine art rock photography, but in the late 1960s, he was a fixture of the Los Angeles music scene centred round clubs such as the Troubadour and the Whisky A Go Go, where the revivalist sounds of the folk revival were turning into something less traditional. His proximity to the action is captured in the DVD extras, which include footage of the Byrds playing the Troubadour, and Stephen Stills acting the country squire at his Surrey mansion. Joni Mitchell can also be observed administering emergency surgery to Graham Nash’s ripped backside, somewhere near Big Bear. And there’s something terribly poignant about his footage of the construction of the Woodstock stage in an alfalfa field in upstate New York (he was the official photographer).
Alas, the 8mm footage is silent, so the bulk of this documentary is peopled with talking heads. Mama Cass and Joni Mitchell are talked up (Diltz has beautiful stills of Joni), but the broader story of Laurel Canyon gives way to a familiar retelling of the early careers of Crosby, Stills, Nash and – in the periphery, not interviewed – Young. Prefaced by the assassination of JFK, an event that is said to have prompted a generation to turn to the Beatles (who agent John Hartman characterises fondly as “long-haired dirty bugs from England”), the film settles into a tale of competing personalities and wasted talent. David Crosby, whose reputation was sealed by his smart green cape, notes, of the way the Byrds dismissed Gene Clark, “we had a lot of money, big egos, no brains.”
Crosby, Stills and Nash don’t always agree on the order of events, but they are well-schooled in telling their own story. More telling interventions are made by less central figures. Van Dyke Parks makes an unusually ill-tempered claim to have named the Buffalo Springfield, while (sacked) CSN drummer Dallas Taylor is amusingly acerbic about the “total hippie shit” he witnessed. There’s a show-stealing cameo, too, from club boss Mario Maglieri, who lives up to his nickname, “The Godfather of Sunset Strip”.
In the end, Diltz’s argument seems to be that the legends of the strip were Crosby, Stills, and Nash, an analysis that the group are in no rush to disprove. There’s very little music in the film, so only true believers are likely to be convinced. Still, it’s worth it just to observe Stills’ reaction when informed of Dallas Taylor’s suggestion that George Harrison, and not Neil Young, might have joined as the fourth voice of CSN. Mirth is only the half of it.
EXTRAS: 8mm silent footage, photo library, extended interviews, booklet. 5/10
Photo: Henry Diltz