“I’d have to say that, personally speaking, Crosby was worse for the good feelings of [the local] rock’n’roll [scene] than Manson was.”
“I had been to Terry Melcher’s house on Cielo Drive many times.”
I believe we were discussing the Byrds when class was last convened, so let’s now meet a formidable behind-the-scenes player and the band’s first producer, Terry Melcher. It is fairly well known that Melcher was the son of ‘virginal’ actress Doris Day, who was just sixteen when impregnated and seventeen when Terry was born. Melcher’s father was trombonist Al Jorden, who reportedly regularly beat Day, and likely Terry as well. Jorden wasn’t around for long though; his death, when Melcher was just two or three years old, was naturally ruled a suicide.
After an equally short-lived second marriage, Doris Day married her agent and producer, Marty Melcher, who was universally regarded as one of the biggest assholes in Hollywood – and that’s not an easy title to attain, given the fierce competition. Like Jorden, Melcher was well known to be a tyrannically violent and abusive man. He also reportedly embezzled some $20 million from his wife/client. On the bright side though, he did adopt and help raise Terry, who took his name.
Terry Melcher was arguably one of the most important figures lurking about the periphery of the Laurel Canyon saga, by virtue of the fact that he had deep ties to virtually all aspects of the canyon scene, including the Laurel Canyon musicians, the Manson Family, the Vito Paulekas dance troupe, and the group of young Hollywood actors generally referred to as ‘The Young Turks.’
As it turns out, Melcher first met Vito Paulekas when Terry was still in high school in the late 1950s. As Melcher later recalled, “Vito was an art instructor. When I was in high school, we’d go to his art studio because he had naked models.” A half-a-decade or so later, these two would, each in his own way, become key players in launching not just the career of the Byrds, but the entire Laurel Canyon music scene, as well as the accompanying youth counter-cultural movement.
Also while still in high school, Melcher befriended Bruce Johnston, the adopted son of a top executive with the Rexall drugstore chain. While growing up on the not-so-mean streets of Beverly Hills and Bel Air, the two recorded together as singing duo Bruce and Terry. Johnstone also played in a high school band with Phil Spector, who, it will be recalled, shared with Melcher (and various others in this story) the distinction of having lost a parent to an alleged act of suicide.
As I probably have already mentioned, it would be Spector’s crack team of studio musicians, dubbed The Wrecking Crew, who would provide the instrumental tracks for countless albums by Laurel Canyon bands. Bruce Johnston, meanwhile, would go on to become a Beach Boy, replacing Wrecking Crew member Glen Campbell, who had briefly replaced Brian Wilson after Brian abruptly decided that he no longer wanted to perform live. Brian’s little brother Dennis, meanwhile, famously forged a close bond with Terry Melcher, as well as with Gregg Jakobson, a would-be actor and talent scout who was married to Lou Costello’s daughter. Costello’s only son, by the way, Lou Jr., drowned in the family pool on November 4, 1943, just before reaching his first birthday.
The trio of Wilson, Melcher and Jakobson, who dubbed themselves the “Golden Penetrators” (Wilson referred to himself rather subtly as “The Wood”), famously forged a close bond with a musician/prophet/penetrator by the name of Charlie Manson. In 1966, Melcher, along with Mark Lindsay of the band Paul Revere and the Raiders, leased and moved into the soon-to-be infamous home at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon (Lindsay would later have the dubious distinction of also living for a time in the other infamous canyon death house, on Wonderland Avenue; Lindsay was also a regular visitor to the Log Cabin). The two were soon joined by Melcher’s girlfriend, actress Candace Bergen. Melcher and Bergen remained in the home until early 1969, frequently entertaining numerous high-profile guests from both the music and film industries.
During the summer of 1968, when Charlie Manson and numerous members of his entourage, including Charles “Tex” Watson and Dean Moorehouse, were shacking up with Melcher’s best buddy, Dennis Wilson, Tex and Dean were known to regularly visit the Melcher/Bergen home on Cielo Drive. Charlie Manson is known to have visited the Melcher home on several occasions as well, and to have occasionally borrowed Melcher’s Jaguar. Just after Melcher and Bergen vacated the home, Jakobson reportedly arranged for Moorehouse to live there briefly, before Tate and Polanski took possession in February of 1969. During Moorehouse’s stay, Tex, who would later be portrayed as the leader of the Tate and LaBianca hit squads, came calling regularly. His address book would later be found to contain a phone number for a former Polanski residence.
Watson had moved out to LA from Texas in 1966 after opting to drop out of college, which those who knew him viewed as being wildly out of character. By the spring of 1968, when Charles Watson met Charles Manson at Dennis Wilson’s home, Tex was the modish co-owner of Crown Wig Creations on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Through that business enterprise, he had developed extensive Hollywood contacts – contacts that came in handy when he began handling large drug transactions and large piles of cash for Charlie Manson. Tex Watson soon grew so close to Manson that, according to Ed Sanders, he was known to complain at times “that he actually thought he was Charlie.”
According to Vanity Fair, Tex Watson was also “a regular patron of the Whisky,” which isn’t too surprising given that Elmer Valentine’s club was well known to be a major drug trafficking site during the late 1960s. Watson’s frequent sidekick Dean Moorehouse, by the way, hailed from Minot, North Dakota, identified by Maury Terry as the longtime home of a Process Church faction with deep ties to Offutt Air Force Base. Though it is purely speculation, it seems entirely possible that Moorehouse served as a handler for both Charlies – Manson and Watson (perhaps tellingly, disinformation-peddler Vincent Bugliosi mentions Moorehouse only once in his nearly 700-page treatment of the Manson case, in much the same way that David Crosby ignores Vito Paulekas in his wordy autobiography).
In the spring of 1969, the trio of Wilson, Melcher and Jakobson got close to Bobby Beausoleil as well. Jakobson made at least two trips to the Gerard Theatrical Agency to hear demo tapes that Bobby had recorded. The agency, headed by Jack Gerard, specialized in supplying topless dancers to seedy clubs, and actors and actresses for porno film shoots. Beausoleil’s primary job with the agency was to deliver carloads of girls to the clubs; more than a few of those girls were members of Charlie’s Family. In March of 1969, just months before he was arrested for the torture-murder of Gary Hinman, Bobby had signed a songwriting contract with the agency and begun recording demos.
Beausoleil also accompanied Melcher and Jakobson on at least two trips out to the Spahn Movie Ranch, once in May of 1969 and then again the next month. Jakobson was a frequent visitor to Spahn and was known to boast of having held over 100 hours of conversations with the all-knowing prophet known as Charles Manson. Gregg also lobbied NBC to shoot a documentary film about the Manson Family’s ‘hippie commune,’ and the network was for a time quite interested in the project. Along with Dennis Wilson, Jakobson also arranged for Charlie to record at an unnamed studio in Santa Monica; that session was also attended by Terry Melcher, Bobby Beausoleil and several of the Manson girls.
Lest anyone think otherwise, by the way, the Manson Family certainly had no shortage of talented musicians. Convicted murderer Charles Manson, of course, was widely viewed by his contemporaries in the canyon as a talented singer/songwriter/guitarist. So too was convicted murderer Bobby Beausoleil, who had jammed with Dennis Wilson, played rhythm guitar for the pre-Love lineup known as the Grass Roots, knew Frank Zappa and had visited the Log Cabin, and later composed and recorded the film score for Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising. Convicted murderer Patricia Krenwinkle was an accomplished guitarist and songwriter. Convicted murderer Steve “Clem” Grogan was a talented musician as well; he later played in the prison band assembled by Beausoleil to record the Lucifer Rising soundtrack. In addition, Family members Brooks Poston and Paul Watkins were accomplished musicians, and Catherine “Gypsy” Share was a virtuoso violin player as well as being a singer and occasional actress (see, for example, Ramrodder, costarring Bobby Beausoleil and filmed partially at – where else? – Spahn Movie Ranch).
Catherine Share is notable in other ways as well, including her unparalleled feat of raising the bar so high on parental suicides that no one else, even in Laurel Canyon, is likely to be able to clear it. Orphaned as a child when both biological parents purportedly committed suicide, Gypsy was adopted by a psychologist and his wife. Her adoptive mother then allegedly committed suicide as well, leaving her to be raised by her adoptive father. Share is also notable for being the oldest of Charlie’s girls, nearly twenty-seven at the time of the murders (most of the others were under twenty-one, and many, including Dean Moorehouse’s daughter Ruth Ann “Ouisch” Moorehouse, were minors). Gypsy lived with Bobby Beausoleil before meeting and living with Manson, and she seemed to serve as a recruiter for both of them.
According to Ed Sanders, Gypsy Share also “arranged for Paul Rothschild, the producer of The Doors, to hear the family music.” It seems as though just about everyone had an opportunity to hear the Family’s music. Some of it was recorded in Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s state-of-the-art home recording studio. Some was recorded by Terry Melcher and Gregg Jakobson at Spahn Ranch using a mobile recording studio. Some was recorded in Santa Monica. By some reports, some was recorded by a major Hollywood studio. Other recordings were likely made as well, though nobody really likes to talk about such things. Gregg Jakobson recorded many of his marathon conversations with Charlie, but as with the demo recordings made by Dennis Wilson, everyone likes to pretend that such recordings were lost or destroyed or never existed.
The Family was filmed at Spahn Ranch by Melcher as well. Family members also shot an extensive amount of film making ‘home movies,’ which many witnesses have claimed included Family orgies and ritualized snuff films. A vast amount of NBC camera equipment and film was found to be in the possession of Charlie’s motley crew, all of which was claimed to be stolen. It seems likely, however, given the network’s known involvement with the Family, that the equipment was provided to them so that they could film their exploits.
When not hanging out with Charlie and Tex and Bobby, Terry Melcher also found time to produce the records that first catapulted the Byrds to fame: “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” The first, recorded in January 1965 and released a few months later, was the record that announced to the world the arrival of a new breed of music: folk-rock. It was created, simply enough, by borrowing from the songbooks of folk legends (primarily Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger) and then playing those songs on amplified equipment. Dylan himself followed suit not long after, at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965, much to the consternation of the gathered crowd of folkies.
In Hotel California, Barney Hoskyns writes that the Byrds were, from the very outset, “conceived as an electric rock and roll group.” What Hoskyns doesn’t really clarify though is who exactly it was that initially conceived of this hugely influential band in those terms. Surely it wasn’t the band members themselves who decided that they were going to pioneer a new musical genre, since they probably had their hands full with just learning to play their instruments.
It would probably be slightly more accurate to say that the Byrds appear to have been initially conceived as an electric folk-rock group. By July of 1966, however, when the band released its third album, featuring the Gene Clark-penned “Eight Miles High,” it had morphed into something different and by doing so helped pioneer another genre of music – psychedelic rock. With the later addition of Gram Parsons and the growing influence of Chris Hillman, the Byrds would next morph into a country-rock band, thus helping to spawn that genre of music as well.
According to rock ‘n’ roll legend, the first two Byrds to get together were James Joseph McGuinn III and Harold Eugene Clark. McGuinn hailed from Chicago, the son of best-selling authors James and Dorothy McGuinn. Jim had played with Bobby Darin, the Limeliters, and the Chad Mitchell Trio, and he was considered to be a talented guitarist. In 1962, he left the Chad Mitchell Trio and worked for a time in New York City as a studio musician – before hearing the call that so many others seemed to hear and making his way to Los Angeles. Once there, he wasted no time hooking up with Gene Clark.
Clark had been born in Tipton, Missouri, the second oldest in a family of thirteen siblings. An undeniably talented songwriter and vocalist, Clark cut his first record with a local rock ‘n’ roll combo when he was just thirteen years old. He later joined the New Christy Minstrels, a vocal ensemble known during his tenure primarily for the hit song “Green, Green.” Like so many others, however, Gene soon found himself packing his bags for – where else? – Los Angeles, where he met up with the recently-arrived Jim McGuinn. The newly-formed folk duo soon added a third voice to the mix – our old friend David Crosby, who had formerly been a vocalist with Les Baxter’s Balladeers.
Crosby brought in manager Jim Dickson, with whom he had done some solo sessions in 1963. The year before that, Dickson had produced a self-titled album for a band known as the Hillmen, featuring a young mandolin player out of San Diego named Chris Hillman. Hillman had cut his first album, with a band known as the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, while still in high school. He was a highly regarded young bluegrass musician and was generally considered to be a virtuoso mandolin player – which I guess is why Jim Dickson cast him to play the part of the bass player in the world’s first folk-rock band. And as we already know, Hillman had just lucked upon luxurious living accommodations right in the heart of what was to become the music community’s epicenter, so he was all set to become a rock star.
Raised on a ranch in San Diego, Hillman had traveled alone to Berkeley when he was just fifteen, ostensibly to take private Mandolin lessons. At about that same time, his father had – wait for it – reportedly committed suicide. Those two closely aligned events would have, I would guess, had a profound impact on the young musician.
Hillman would ultimately become a skilled bass player and a major figure in the Laurel Canyon-spawned country-rock movement. Like many others of that bent, Hillman had been a huge fan of Spade Cooley during his formative years and he later cited Cooley as a major influence on his own musical direction. I’m guessing that most readers are not familiar with the story of the “King of Western Swing,” which is kind of a shame because as stories go, it’s a pretty good one, so let’s digress here briefly and meet the man who was frequently cited as one of the forefathers of country-rock.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Donnell Clyde “Spade” Cooley was a popular local musician and bandleader. His weekly shows at the Redondo Beach Pier (which was close enough to my childhood home, by the way, that my friends and I occasionally rode our bikes there) could draw as many as 10,000 appreciative fans, few of whom knew of his alcoholism, violent temper, or prior arrest for attempted rape. His popularity ultimately landed him his own local television show, The Spade Cooley Hour. His career, however, came to an abrupt end on April 3, 1961, when he tortured and murdered his young wife, Ella Mae Cooley, while forcing his fourteen-year-old daughter to watch in horror.
According to court transcripts, Ella Mae had been spending a considerable amount of time in the company of two men, identified as Luther Jackson and Bud Davenport, both of whom worked in the sprawling, CIA-infested medical research facility at UCLA. On the day of her death, Ella Mae had made the rather bold decision to inform Spade that the two men had initiated her into a ‘free love’ cult and that she had decided to give up her family and all her possessions to join the group, which was in the process of buying land near the ocean to build and operate a private compound.
Spade Cooley’s response to his wife’s declaration was to brutally beat, stomp and strangle her to death, but only after repeatedly burning her with a lit cigarette. All of this was witnessed by daughter Melody, who had been told by her father that “now you’re going to watch me kill this whore.” After doing just that, Spade then asked his daughter if she thought that Ella Mae was really dead, adding, “Well, let’s see if she is.” He then proceeded to burn her lifeless body repeatedly with another lit cigarette, until he apparently was satisfied that she was indeed dead.
Unlike so many other celebrity homicide suspects, Cooley was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to serve a life sentence. He was sent to the rather notorious Vacaville facility where he served eight years before being offered early parole. Just before his scheduled release, he arranged a November 23, 1969 comeback concert in Oakland for which his captors had agreed to release him on a three-day pass. The concert was reportedly a huge success and it looked as though Cooley’s star was about to shine once again upon his pending release from prison. But that’s not quite how this story ends; instead, Cooley walked back to his dressing room right after the show and promptly dropped dead, thus ending the saga of Spade Cooley and allowing us to return to where we left off …
… actually, let’s take one more quick detour here and note that not long after Spade Cooley was scheduled for release, another peripheral character in this story decided that it might be a good idea to whack his wife as well. “Humble” Harve Miller was a popular DJ on LA’s #1 pop music station during that era, KHJ on the AM dial. During the latter half of the 1960s, Miller was yet another of the players who helped launch the careers of the Laurel Canyon bands, by getting their new singles on the radio. But then he, like Cooley, killed his wife and was sent to prison. Also like Cooley, he was granted early release. But unlike Spade, Miller successfully resumed his career. And now, at long last, we can return to our story …
By mid-1964, the nucleus of what would become the Byrds had formed with the bonding of McGuinn and Clark. Between the two of them, they would provide the band with its signature 12-string guitar sound, its two lead vocalists, and (in the early years, at least) its best songwriters. Along then came David Crosby, who added little more than harmony vocals, at least on the first two albums, but who seems to have largely hijacked the band with the help of manager Jim Dickson, who added fake bass player (but real musician) Chris Hillman. Crosby then rounded out the band by adding fake drummer Michael Clarke.
Clarke had been born Michael Dick in Spokane, Washington. At seventeen, Dick ran away from home and hitchhiked to the land of enchantment known as California, apparently becoming Michael Clarke along the way. The year was 1963. According to rock history as told by David Crosby, Clarke and Crosby met in Big Sur, which coincidentally happens to be the location of the notorious Esalen Institute (where CSNY would play some years later). A year later, the vagrant teenager with no drumming experience would find himself cast to play the role of the drummer in the band designed to be America’s answer to the Beatles. According to Crosby, Clarke’s first LA address was the home of Terry Melcher.
The band, now complete, first dubbed themselves the Jet Set and then the Beefeaters, even recording a less-then-memorable single under the latter moniker, before finally settling on the Byrds. Before the end of 1964, Jim Dickson had signed the band to a deal with Columbia Records. As Barney Hoskyns recounts in Waiting for the Sun, “The obvious ineptitude of Michael Clarke and shakiness of most of the others was still a problem when Jim Dickson got the band signed to Columbia in November. [They were] Assigned to staff producer Terry Melcher …”
That assignment, it would seem, was a rather fortuitous one given that the fledgling band’s rehearsal space just happened to be in the very same basement studio that Melcher snuck off to while in high school. Just two months after signing with Columbia, the band, or rather its surrogates, were already in the studio recording “Mr. Tambourine Man,” at the insistence of Jim Dickson. Despite the objections of various band members, Dickson reportedly pushed hard for the song to be the band’s first single. On March 26, 1965, just two months after pretending to lay down the instrumental tracks for “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the Byrds played their first real live show, as the first act at the refurbished and reopened Ciro’s nightclub.
I obviously wasn’t there so I can’t say for sure, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that a band whose entire rhythm section was just learning to play their instruments probably did not put on a very compelling performance. The Byrds apparently played one other live show before the Ciro’s opening, though the nature of that show appears to be in dispute (or perhaps there were two previous shows). According to Jim Dickson, “The Byrds first public gig was booked by Lenny Bruce’s mother, Sally Marr. She got them a job at Los Angeles City College, noon assembly, for a half hour.” According to Carl Franzoni and various others, however, it was Vito Paulekas who booked the Byrds’ first live show, at a rented hall on Melrose Avenue just a day or two before the show at Ciro’s.
In any event, “Mr. Tambourine Man” was released about a month after the band had its big public debut at Ciro’s and the LA music scene would never be the same again. Before long, clubs big and small were popping up all along the fabled Sunset Strip and bands were spilling out of Laurel Canyon to play them. As Terry Melcher recalled, “kids came from everywhere. It just happened. One day you couldn’t drive anymore. It was, like, overnight – you couldn’t drive on the Strip.”
That would soon change though. By the summer of 1967, the mythical Summer of Love, the club scene on the Strip was quickly dying. It had been killed, deliberately or not, by some of the key players who had created it: Terry Melcher, producer of the scene’s first band; Lou Adler, business partner of club owner Elmer Valentine; and John Phillips, leader of The Mamas and the Papas and composer of such ditties as “California Dreaming” and “If You’re Going to San Francisco.” It was the Monterey Pop Festival, you see, held on June 16-18, 1967, that killed the Sunset Strip scene. The bands that had filled the clubs became, literally overnight, too big to play such intimate venues. Over the course of the next decade, Laurel Canyon bands quickly moved from clubs to concert halls to massive sports arenas. But here we are, I suppose, getting ahead of ourselves.
As for the Byrds, they carried on for a good many years, albeit with numerous personnel changes. First out was the man who many feel was the most talented member of the group, Gene Clark, who dropped out in March of 1966, just one year after the band had first taken the stage at Ciro’s. Clark was also the first original Byrd to pass away, on May 24, 1991, at just 46 years of age, reportedly due to a bleeding ulcer. Two-and-a-half-years later, on December 19, 1993, Michael Clarke died as well when his liver failed. Both deaths were attributed to chronic alcoholism.
Jim McGuinn, who remained a Byrd through numerous band lineups, joined the Subud religious sect in 1965. Two years later, upon the advice of the cult’s founder, he changed his name to Roger. A decade later, he became a born-again Christian. In a similar vein, Chris Hillman became an Evangelical Christian in the 1980s, but then later switched to the Greek Orthodox faith. Hillman played in various Byrds lineups, with Gram Parson’s Flying Burrito Brothers, and in David Geffen’s failed second attempt at creating a supergroup, this one known as Souther, Hillman, Furay. David Crosby, of course, left the Byrds and became 1/3 of David Geffen’s first supergroup, Crosby, Stills & Nash. These days he primarily spends his time inseminating lesbians and occasionally reuniting with former bandmates.
Jim Dickson and Terry Melcher continued to work with some of the Byrds, particularly Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman. Melcher formed a particularly close bond with his fellow ‘trust-fund kid,’ Gram Parsons, as did Melcher’s sometime sidekick, John Phillips. Both Melcher and Phillips, of course, knew Charlie Manson (Melcher raved about him to Ned Doheny), whose former prison buddy, Phil Kaufman, was Parsons’ road manager (and cremator). I’m pretty sure though that I already mentioned that, but what I haven’t yet worked into this narrative is that the Doors’ road manager, Bill Siddons, was once a paramour of Mansonite Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme.
The Family’s fingerprints, as always, can be found in nearly every nook and cranny of the Laurel Canyon scene.