“Everybody was experimenting and taking it all the way. It opened up a negative force of energy that was almost demonic.”
Frank Mazolla, editor of the film Performance
“There were a lot of weird people around. There was one guy who had a parrot called Captain Blood, and he was always scrawling real cryptic things on the inside walls of my house – Neil Young’s too.”
Joni Mitchell, describing the Laurel Canyon scene at the tail end of the 1960s
(Some of the images in this edition were originally slated for inclusion in an earlier installment of this series, but my computer was not very cooperative at the time so they were left out. All of the images contained in this chapter, by the way, and all other images in this series that are not otherwise credited in the captions, are my own original photos.)
Like Brandon DeWilde, Kenneth Anger, Mickey Dolenz and Van Dyke Parks, Ricky Nelson began his Hollywood career as a child actor. He was the son, as everyone surely knows, of America’s favorite 1950s TV mom and dad, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. Ricky began his rock ‘n’ roll career in 1957, when he was just seventeen. By 1962, he had scored no fewer than thirty Top 40 hits, trailing only superstars Elvis Presley and Pat Boone.
That reminds me that, before I forget, I need to add Elvis to the death list as well. And before you send me letters of protest, let me assure you that I do indeed know what a lot of you are thinking: “But Dave, Elvis isn’t dead! I just saw him the other day at the 7-11 right around the corner from my house. And, sure, he was looking a little bloated, but he was definitely alive. I mean, unless you’re going to try to convince me that I watched a dead guy put away a ¼ lb. Big Bite.”
Oh wait … that might not be right … what you are probably really thinking is: “Elvis?! The King?! You can’t be serious! How the hell does The King figure into any of this? What are you going to tell us next – that comedians John Belushi and Phil Hartman belong on the death list as well?”
Uhmm, have you been peeking at my notes or something? Because I actually am, as a matter of fact, going to include Mr. Hartman on the list (and I could include Mr. Belushi as well, since he did die at the Chateau Marmont Hotel, which happens to lie at the mouth of Laurel Canyon). But we’ll get to Phil Hartman later; for now, let’s talk a little bit about Mr. Presley and his admittedly tangential connections to Laurel Canyon.
Elvis arrived in LA in 1956, to begin what would prove to be a prolific film career that would continue throughout the 1960s and would result in the inexcusable creation of nearly three dozen motion pictures, each one arguably more appalling than the last. In the early years of his film career, Elvis reportedly spent his off-hours hanging out with his two best Hollywood pals – a couple of young roommates and Canyonites named Dennis Hopper and Nick Adams. In later years, Presley’s backing musicians – considered to be among the best session musicians in the business – were in high demand among the Laurel Canyon crowd. Elvis’ bass player, for example, can be heard on some of the Doors’ tracks. The entire band was recruited by “Papa” John Phillips to play on his less-than-memorable solo project. Mike Nesmith’s critically-acclaimed post-Monkees project, the First National Band, featured Presley’s band as well. Gram Parsons also hired Elvis’ band to back him up on the two solo albums he recorded at what proved to be the twilight of his life and career.
Those two solo efforts by Parsons, by the way, prominently featured the voice of a young singer/guitarist named Emmylou Harris, a relatively late arrival to the canyon scene. Harris is the daughter – brace yourselves here for a real shocker, folks – of a career US Marine Corps officer. As with so many other characters in this story, she grew up in the outlying suburbs of Washington, DC, primarily in Woodbridge, Virginia – which happens to be the home of an imposingly large Army ‘research and development’ installation known as the Harry Diamond Laboratories Woodbridge Research Facility. In other words, Emmylou Harris fit right in with the rest of the Laurel Canyon crowd.
But here I seem to have digressed from our discussion of Elvis (which was, if I remember correctly, itself a digression from our discussion of Ricky Nelson). Given though that he had only peripheral connections to Laurel Canyon, I guess I don’t really have much more to say about Elvis, other than that he reportedly died on August 16, 1977, the victim of a drug overdose at the young age of forty-two. As with Morrison, however, there have been persistent rumors that Elvis didn’t actually die at all, but rather reinvented himself to escape from the fishbowl.
As for Nelson, in the mid-1960s he successfully shed his ‘teen idol’ image and emerged as a respected pioneer of the country-rock wave that Canyonites Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles would soon ride to dizzying heights of commercial success. One future member of the Eagles, Randy Meisner, played in Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band. As the name of the band would seem to imply, Nelson did not live in Laurel Canyon but rather in one of the many neighboring canyons, but he and his band were very much a part of the early country-rock scene that included Laurel Canyon bands like The Byrds, Poco, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the First National Band.
Nelson was killed on New Year’s Eve, 1985, in a rather unusual plane crash. According to Nelson’s Wikipedia entry, “the original NTSB investigation long ago stated that the crash was probably due to mechanical problems. The pilots attempted to land in a field after smoke filled the cabin. An examination indicated that a fire originated in the right hand side of the aft cabin area at or near the floor line. The passengers were killed when the aircraft struck obstacles during the forced landing; the pilots were able to escape through the cockpit windows and survived.”
I can’t be the only one here who is pondering the obvious question: exactly when was it that the pilots were able to escape through the cockpit windows? I assume that they did not parachute out when the aircraft was still at altitude, leaving the passengers to crash and die. And they certainly couldn’t have bailed out and survived while the aircraft was coming in for a landing. So was it after the plane touched down? If so, exactly how much time was there between when the plane touched down and when it impacted the fatal obstacles? How long was this ‘escape window,’ as it were? I would think it was mere seconds, if even that, which wouldn’t seem to be enough time to execute an escape. And if the plane was going fast enough on the ground that the impact killed all aboard, what are the odds that anyone would survive such an escape attempt? I think maybe the NTSB needs to take another look at this one.
For the final eight years of his life, Nelson lived in a rather unusual home. In 1941, swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn had purchased an eleven-and-a-half-acre chunk of the Hollywood Hills just off Mulholland Drive and had a sprawling home built to his specifications. According to Laurie Jacobson and Marc Wanamaker, writing in Haunted Hollywood, the mansion featured “several mysterious secret passageways, and more than a few peepholes.” The home appeared to have been designed to allow for surreptitious observation of guests in the home’s numerous bedrooms. It is claimed that Flynn incorporated the unusual design features so that he could satisfy his own voyeuristic impulses. Researcher/writer Charles Higham, however, has cast Flynn as a Western intelligence asset (and Nazi sympathizer). And if Flynn was an intelligence operative, then it is far more likely that the home was built not so much for Flynn’s personal pleasure, but rather as a means of compromising prominent public figures (much like the home of, for example, Craig Spence).
After Nelson’s death, the palatial home stood vacant until a curious incident took place; referring once again to Jacobson and Wanamaker, we find that “A gang broke in and murdered a girl in the living room. Then a mysterious fire burned half the house. The ruins were torn down.” Shit like that has been known to happen to folks foolish enough to leave their expensive canyon homes sitting vacant … well, except for the part about the “gang.” As far as I know, the canyons have never had much of a “gang” problem. In the Hollywood Hills, the words “crime” and “gang-related” never show up at a party together. And when was the last time anyone ever heard of a “gang” kidnapping a girl and then taking her to a remote, isolated mansion to murder her?
All things considered, I’m thinking that perhaps what the authors meant to say was that “a group of people broke in and murdered a girl …” But that, of course, raises the question of exactly what sort of group of people jointly commit a premeditated murder? Other than death squads, the only such groups that come to mind are generally referred to as “cults,” which I’m guessing are far more common in the canyons than are “gangs.”
In addition to having a fondness for multi-perpetrator murders, it appears as though cults also like to start fires, oftentimes because fires are a really effective way of destroying evidence. Some of you may, however, be thinking that since the Hollywood Hills are plagued by wildfires on a more or less annual basis, then there is nothing particularly unusual about the fact that Nelson’s home, and more than a few of the other homes in this story, were destroyed by fire. For the most part though, the fires that destroyed these structures were not natural wildfires but rather fires of mysterious origin that seemed to target specific buildings. As Michael Walker noted, “Laurel Canyon would burn and burn again, targeting with uncanny precision the homes of its seemingly enchanted rock demimonde.”
(One exception was the Laurel Canyon home of blues-rocker John Mayall, which burned down to its foundation in a ferocious wildfire on September 16, 1979; that wildfire also claimed the home of Whisky owner Elmer Valentine. It was from Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, by the way, that the Rolling Stones recruited guitarist Mick Taylor, who I regrettably disparaged in the initial version of the last installment of this series. Taylor was actually quite an accomplished guitarist whose work with the Stones was frequently uncredited and who was underutilized by the band. My apologies to all the fans of the Rolling Stones who I offended.)
Moving on then to the next new name on our list, we find that on December 31, 1943 – precisely forty-two years before the plane crash that would claim the life of Ricky Nelson – Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., better known as John Denver, was born in Roswell, New Mexico. A few years later, the town of Roswell would make a name for itself and become something of a tourist destination. But that is not really our focus here today, though it should be noted that Henry John Deutschendorf, Sr. might well have known a little something about that incident, given that he was a career US Air Force officer assigned to the Roswell Army Air Field (later renamed the Walker Air Force Base), which was likely the origin of the object that famously crashed in Roswell.
After spending his childhood being frequently uprooted, as did many of our cast of characters, Denver attended Texas Tech University in the early 1960s. In 1964, he apparently heard the call of the Pied Piper and promptly dropped out of school and headed for LA. Once there, he joined up with the Chad Mitchell Trio, the group from which Jim McGuinn had recently departed to co-found The Byrds. By November 1966, Denver was front-and-center at the so-called ‘Riot on the Sunset Strip,’ alongside folks like Peter Fonda, Sal Mineo and a popular husband-and-wife duo known as Sonny and Cher.
A decade later, in the latter half of the 1970s, Denver could be found working alongside a spooky chap by the name of Werner Erhard, creator of so-called ‘EST’ training. After graduating from the ‘training’ program, Denver penned a little ditty that became the organization’s theme song. In 1985, Denver testified alongside our old friend Frank Zappa at the PMRC hearings. Twelve years later, in autumn of 1997, Denver died when his self-piloted plane crashed soon after taking off from Monterey Airport, very near where the Monterey Pop Festival had been held thirty years earlier. The date of the crash, curiously enough, was one that we have stumbled across repeatedly: October 12.
The next name we need to add to the list is one that has already worked its way into this narrative a time or two: Sonny Bono. As previously noted, Bono began his Hollywood career as a lieutenant for reclusive murder suspect Phil Spector. In the early 1960s, Bono hooked up with an underage Cherilyn Sarkisian LaPierre to form a duo known first as Caesar and Cleo, and then as Sonny and Cher. The pair were phenomenally successful, first on the Sunset Strip and later on television. Bono, of course, ultimately gave up the Hollywood life and found work in a different branch of the federal government: the U.S. House of Representatives.
On January 5, 1998, Sonny Bono died after purportedly skiing into a tree. At the time, Bono occupied a seat on the House Judiciary Committee, which was about to come to sudden prominence with the investigation and impeachment of President Bill. The ball was already rolling by the time of Bono’s death, and on January 26, 1998, just three weeks after the alleged skiing incident, Clinton held the now-notorious press conference in which he uttered the fateful words: “I did not have sexual relations with that skank, by which I mean that the executive penis did not, at any time, penetrate her womanly parts, though it is possible that she may have taken a few puffs on the presidential cigar, if you fellas know what I mean. Does anyone else have a question?” By that time, of course, Bono’s seat on the panel had been set aside for his robowife (who was, perhaps, more willing to act out the charade).
And now, as promised, let’s turn our attention to Phil Hartman. As everyone likely remembers, Saturday Night Live alumnus Hartman was murdered in his Encino home on May 28, 1998. That much is not in dispute. Decidedly less clear is the answer to the question of who it was that actually shot and killed Hartman. The official story, of course, holds that it was his wife Brynn, who shortly thereafter shot herself – with a different gun, naturally, and reportedly after she had left the house and then returned with a friend, and after the LAPD had arrived at the home. There is a very strong possibility, however, that both Phil and his wife were murdered, with the true motive for the crime covered up by trotting out the tired but ever-popular murder/suicide scenario.
In most people’s minds, of course, Phil Hartman is not associated with the Laurel Canyon scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But as it turns out, Hartman did indeed have substantial ties to that scene. To begin with, during the time that Jimi Hendrix lived in LA (in the spacious mansion just north of the Log Cabin on Laurel Canyon Boulevard), Hartman worked for him as a roadie. Soon after that, Phil found work as a graphic artist and he quickly found himself much in demand by the Laurel Canyon rock royalty. In addition to designing album covers for both Poco and America, Hartman also, believe it or not, designed a readily recognizable rock symbol that has endured for nearly forty years: the distinctive CSN logo for Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Hartman had ties to the darker side of Laurel Canyon as well. He was, for example, a high school chum of Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who would later find herself living alongside Charlie Manson at the infamous Spahn Movie Ranch. In bygone years, by the way, that very same Spahn Movie Ranch was frequently used as a filming location by western star Tom Mix, who was, as we all know, the man whose name was forever tied to the Log Cabin. Curiously enough, the Log Cabin’s guesthouse (aka the Bird House), which is still standing, was designed and built by architect Robert Byrd, who also, according to one report, designed the house at 5065 Encino Avenue where Phil Hartman was murdered, and the house at 10050 Cielo Drive where Sharon Tate and friends were murdered.
While we’re on the subject of the Bird House, I should mention that you can find numerous photos of the guesthouse and the grounds of the property at this website: http://crosbyentertainment.com/own_a_piece_of_hollywood_history.htm. Notice that among its other amenities, the house features a rather medieval-looking dungeon, because one never knows when a dungeon might come in handy for, uhmm, storing roots or something. Notice also that what was built as a ‘guesthouse’ probably makes your own home look like it belongs in a shantytown, which would tend to indicate that the property’s main residence, the Log Cabin, was a decidedly opulent dwelling.
One more curious factoid that I feel compelled to toss out here, since I did reference the Spahn Movie Ranch, is that during the days of the Manson clan’s stay at that now infamous former film set, there was a similarly dilapidated movie set that was located right across the road from Spahn. It’s name, in case you were wondering, was the Wonderland Movie Ranch.
Speaking of Wonderland, let’s turn our attention next to four individuals whose names will probably not be familiar to most readers: Ronald Launius, Billy Deverell, Barbara Richardson and Joy Miller. All died on July 1, 1981, all by bludgeoning, and all at the same location: 8763 Wonderland Avenue in Laurel Canyon. All were members of a gang that trafficked heavily in cocaine and occasionally in heroin. The leader of the group was Ron Launius, who reportedly embarked on his criminal career, and established his drug connections, while serving for Uncle Sam over in Vietnam, which is also where he began to build his carefully-crafted reputation as a cold-blooded killer. At the time that he became a murder victim himself, Launius was a suspect in no fewer than twenty-seven open homicide investigations. He was also a drug supplier to various members of the Laurel Canyon aristocracy.
Victim Billy Deverell was Launius’ second-in-command, and victim Joy Miller was Billy’s girlfriend as well as the renter of the Laurel Canyon drug den. Victim Barbara Richardson was the girlfriend of another member of the gang, David Lind, who conveniently was not at the home at the time of the mass murder. That could well have been due to the fact that Lind was, according to various rival drug dealers, a police informant for both the Sacramento and Los Angeles Police Departments. He was also a member of the ultra-violent prison gang known as the Aryan Brotherhood (as is, by several accounts, a guy that we have bumped into several times during this journey: Bobby Beausoleil). Lind, who met Launius when the two had served time together, is alleged to have overdosed in 1995, though it is widely believed that he actually went into the federal witness protection program.
The next name to go on our list is that of Brian Cole, bass player for The Association, an LA folk-rock band known for the hit songs “Along Comes Mary” and “Never My Love.” The Association was not a Laurel Canyon band but they did have close ties to the scene. The group was formed by Terry Kirkman and Jules Alexander; Kirkman had formerly played in a band with Frank Zappa, while Alexander was fresh from a stint in the US Navy. Jerry Yester, a guitarist and keyboardist with the band, was formerly with The Modern Folk Quartet, a band managed by Zappa manager Herb Cohen and produced by Byrds’ manager Jim Dickson. Guitarist Larry Ramos had formerly been with the New Christy Minstrels, which also produced Gene Clark of The Byrds.
On June 16, 1967, Cole and his band were the first to take the stage at the Monterey Pop Festival, followed by such Laurel Canyon stalwarts as The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and the Mamas and the Papas. Five years later, on August 2, 1972, Cole was found dead in his Los Angeles home. The cause of death was reportedly a heroin overdose. Cole was one month shy of his thirtieth birthday at the time of his death.
Another new name on the Laurel Canyon Death List is Lowell George, the founder and creative force behind the critically-acclaimed but largely obscure band known as Little Feat. George was the son of Willard H. George, a famous furrier to the Hollywoodmovie studios. Lowell’s first foray into the music world was with a band known as The Factory, which cut some demos with a guy by the name of Frank Zappa. The Factory evolved into the Fraternity of Man, though without George, who had left to serve as lead vocalist for The Standells. George returned, however, to join the band in the studio for the recording of their second album. By that time, as we have already seen, the Fraternity of Man had taken up residence in the Log Cabin, alongside Carl Franzoni and his fellow Freaks.
George next joined up with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, though his tenure there was destined to be a short one; like so many others, Lowell left embittered by Zappa’s dictatorial approach to making music and his condescending treatment of his bandmates. During his time with Zappa, George helped Frank out in the studio with the GTOs’ first (and only) album, as did Brits Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart (who, readers of Programmed to Kill will recall, was one of the last people known to have been in the company of a pair of underage girls before they became victims of a ‘serial killer’ in June 1980).
After parting company with Zappa, George formed Little Feat, a band composed mostly of musicians from the Fraternity of Man sessions. Lowell, who is credited with being a pioneer of the use of slide guitar in rock music, served as singer, songwriter and lead guitarist for the band, which released its debut album in 1970. Though well regarded within the industry and by critics, the band’s albums failed to sell and George ultimately announced the demise the band and recorded a solo album. After playing a show on June 29, 1979 at George Washington University in support of that album, George was found dead in an Arlington, Virginia hotel room, very near the Pentagon. Cause of death was said to be a massive heart attack, though George was just thirty-four years old at the time.
According to Barney Hoskyns (writing in Hotel California), “A regular social stop-off for George was a Laurel Canyon house on Wonderland Avenue belonging to Three Dog Night singer Danny Hutton. A drop-in den of debauchery, the Hutton house featured a bedroom with black walls and a giant fireplace. Lowell would often swing by and entertain the likes of Brian Wilson or Harry Nilsson.” Nilsson and his regular drinking buddy, John Lennon, were frequent guests at this “den of debauchery.”
Former Beatle John Lennon is, to be sure, one of the most famous names to be found on the Laurel Canyon Death List. Lennon also has the distinction of being one of the few Laurel Canyon alumni whose cause of death is acknowledged to have been homicide. The ex-Beatle, of course, never lived in the canyon, but he was a fixture on the Sunset Strip and at various Laurel Canyon hangouts, frequently in the company of Harry Nilsson. And as readers surely recall, he was gunned down on December 8, 1980 – purportedly by Mark David Chapman, but more likely by a second gunman.
Lennon was, as everyone knows, murdered in front of New York’s Dakota Apartments, which had been portrayed by filmmaker Roman Polanski in the 1960s as a den of Satanic cult activity (in his film Rosemary’s Baby). Not long before Lennon’s murder, Chapman had approached occult filmmaker Kenneth Anger and offered him a gift of live bullets. Just days after Lennon was felled, Anger’s long-delayed final cut of Lucifer Rising made its New York debut, not far from the bloodstained grounds of the Dakota Apartments. And not long after that, the ‘Reagan Revolution’ began to transform America.
Exactly three weeks after Lennon’s death, Tim Hardin – Canyonite, folk musician, close associate of Frank Zappa, author of Rod Stewart’s “Reason to Believe,” onetime tenant in Lenny Bruce’s Laurel Canyon-adjacent home, and former U.S. Marine – died of a reported heroin and morphine overdose in Los Angeles. At the time of his death, on December 29, 1980, Hardin was just thirty-nine years old.
Eight years later, on July 18, 1988, singer/songwriter/keyboardist Christa Paffgen, better known as Nico, died of a reported cerebral hemorrhage in Ibiza, Spain under unusual circumstances. After achieving some level of fame as a vocalist with the Velvet Underground, Nico had left the Warhol stable and migrated west to Laurel Canyon, where she formed a bond with a then-unknown singer-songwriter named Jackson Browne, who contributed a few songs to Nico’s 1967 debut album, Chelsea Girl (so named for New York’s Chelsea Hotel, from where Devon Wilson took a dive, and where the persona of John Train murdered the persona of Phil Ochs). Also contributing a song to Nico’s solo debut was Mr. Tim Hardin.
On December 4, 1993, some five years after Nico’s curious death, Frank Zappa died in his Laurel Canyon home of inoperable prostate cancer. Some have speculated that the cancer could have developed as a result of the chemical agents Zappa was exposed to throughout his early childhood at the Edgewood Arsenal.
And so it goes. In the next installment, we will add two more famous names to the death list, and we will use them as springboards to launch into two rarely-told stories that will add new levels of complexity to the Laurel Canyon saga.
Until then …