Michelle Phillips, Chris Hillman, Micky Dolenz & More Talk 'Laurel Canyon' Memories

The Eagles
Henry Diltz

The Eagles photographed at Joshua Tree in 1972.

Micky Dolenz says that explaining what happened in Los Angeles' Laurel Canyon neighborhood from the mid-60s into the '70s "is a little bit like Rashomon. You're gonna get a different sort of take from everybody."

But Alison Ellwood, director of Laurel Canyon, the comprehensive two-part docuseries airing May 31 and June 7 on Epix, did find an answer in those varied viewpoints -- basically that there is no answer.

"It's like (David) Crosby says at the end of the film -- there's no explaining why or how it happened," Ellwood, who also helmed History of the Eagles and The Go-Go's, among other documentaries, tells Billboard. "Paris happened in the '20s. The Renaissance happened. Some places become a magnet for people who discover that they can create something. It's not that they set out to do that, necessarily, and you can't force these things. They just happen."

Laurel Canyon, of course, happened to become one of the greatest hotbeds in popular music history, thanks to its cavalcade of stars attracted by inexpensive housing and its proximity to the Sunset Strip. The roster of Laurel Canyon residents is like a hall of fame come to life; Dolenz, for instance, lived next door to Alice Cooper, just down the street from the Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash residence that inspired "Our House" and a short walk from Frank Zappa, who asked the Monkees mainstay to join the Mothers of Invention.

Gradually transitioning from the home of beatnik culture, it was also home to members of the Byrds, the Turtles, the Doors, Love, Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas, Carole King, Jackson Browne and many more. And it was where Crosby, Nash and Stephen Stills first gathered, at the homes of Mitchell and "Mama Cass" Elliot.

"It's the kind of place that would naturally attract creative people," recalls Dolenz, who as a child visited Laurel Canyon with his father, who had a restaurant on the Sunset Strip. "It was just a perfect storm -- the right place, the right time. And it was pretty casual; You would just see people walking up and down the streets, and everybody left their doors open. It was, I want to say a little bit like an extended family."

The Mamas and the Papas' Michelle Phillips, who came to California with then-husband John Phillips, also remembers that "you could walk to everybody's houses, practically, and we hung out together and sang and played. And Cass loved to put people together; She was like the Gertrude Stein of Laurel Canyon. She just attracted people, and her door was always open. It was a very inspirational period, and very natural."

Chris Hillman -- an early Laurel Canyon resident, moving there during 1965 when he was with the Byrds -- says the environment fostered a cross-pollination that rubbed off on everybody's music. "The diversity was fantastic," he says. "You had Frank Zappa to the Turtles to the Monkees, the Mamas and the Papas...so many others, everybody who just lived in this within this one-mile area. It was beautiful."

Ellwood had Laurel Canyon in her creative crosshairs for the better part of two decades. She initially wanted to make a movie about the Doors; "I was looking into that and discovered this whole connection to Laurel Canyon and said, 'Omigod, there's this whole scene here! There'd be a great show to make about this whole scene.'" Using photographers (and residents) Henry Diltz and Nurit Wilde and their work as linchpins, Ellwood assembled new and archival interviews rich in anecdotes (the Monkees' Peter Tork as a nudist, anybody?) and loads of footage to tell the story. Laurel Canyon deftly works its way through the mythology of the scene, buffeting the light and exuberant with the "dark underbelly" reality of the Manson Family murders and the specter of the Vietnam War.

"It's just the story about this sort of zeitgeist that happened in this place," she says. "It became a magnet for all these artists discovering who they were, what their places was in the world through their art. And it just got bigger and bigger and bigger."

Love guitarist Johnny Echols, for his part, is satisfied that Laurel Canyon accurately reflects the life he experienced there. "I was really impressed that they put this together by giving the musicians the chance to tell their stories their way," he says. "It’s not just a bunch of disjointed old guys talking." And the story, he adds, is about a place where everybody made some groundbreaking music and significantly impacted each other.

"We were all basically equals," he says. "No one felt that they were...better than anyone else, no matter if you were more successful or not. We all hung out and partied together. I could go over and see Zappa, or he'd come over to me house and we'd borrow records from each other. We were just regular guys that lived next door to each other, and we were all just working stiffs, making our music. It was an incredible time, an incredible place."

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