No 520 Hotel California by Barney Hoskyns (Book 8 of #20booksofsummer)

You know I’d go back there tomorrow
But for the work I’ve taken on
Stoking the star-maker machinery
Behind the popular song

Free Man in Paris, Joni Mitchell


Despite a subtitle that’s enough to put even the hardened music fan off, Barney Hoskyns’ exploration of the Los Angeles singer-songwriter scene of the early 1970s is as thorough as it is entertaining.


Puncturing the mythology that has grown up around the Laurel Canyon set, Hoskyns book features a vast array of characters who built their careers on a mixture of mellow tunes, confessional lyrics, complicated romantic entanglements and heavy drug use.

Framing his book around the meteoric rise of Asylum Records, David Geffen and The Eagles in particular, Hoskyns looks at how this most personal and intimate style of music became the sound of choice for a generation.

Featuring an incestuous cast of singer-songwriters from Joni Mitchell to Jackson Browne, Neil Young to Linda Ronstadt and any number of feuding bands like the Mamas and Papas, Fleetwood Mac and most notably Crosby, Stills & Nash, Hoskyns also examines the backroom executives like David Geffen and Elliot Roberts who propelled these performers to worldwide fame.

joni mitchell laurel canyon
Joni Mitchell in her Laurel Canyon home

Despite a relatively narrow focus of just a few years, Hoskyns covers a lot of ground here meaning that some scenes are brief and some character sketches thin. Despite the fecundity of the subject matter, he is smart enough to keep his style simple and low-key, mainly allowing the anecdotes to do all the heavy lifting.

And what anecdotes there are. The in-fighting between Crosby, Stills & Nash (later joined by Young) is both terrifying and highly entertaining. The numerous affairs between pretty much everyone and everyone else come to a climax (shall we say) when rivals Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell meet on the doorstep of notorious womaniser JD Southern’s house, one of them leaving and one arriving.

Bands are formed and then split within a matter of months and the Troubadour Club becomes a revolving door for sensitive singer –songwriters to achieve wealth and fame by spilling the details of their personal lives in their songs.

Hoskyns cleverly charts the subtle changes that happened over these years where performers and bands charted a journey from the idealism of their Laurel Canyon beginnings to corporate in-fighting, mud-slinging and cold hard business.

Under the all seeing eye and hand of kingpin and star maker David Geffen, these artistic idealists became hard-nosed business people, buying bigger and bigger houses, more and more drugs and moving farther away from their supposed humble beginnings.

It is this confused spirit of the times that Hoskyns captures so well. He is smart enough to know that the industry was just that, an industry – selling the idea of peace and love just like any other product. Frank Zappa took a particularly harsh view of the scene, saying

the horrible fake-sensitive type artist/singer/ songwriter/suffering person, posed against a wooden fence provided by the Warner Bros Records art department, graciously rented to all the other record companies who needed it for their version of the same crap.

Others weren’t just a cynical, but when the record industry (like any other) sees a winning formula, it tends to churn out more of the same until the essence of what has been created is eventually diluted.

Jackson Browne

The overarching demon here was undoubtedly drug use, both amongst the stars and the management who worked with them. This was a world where preppy, clean-cut and sensitive James Taylor was in fact a hardened heroin user and the casualties were many. For every Joni Mitchell, there was a Judee Sill – someone just as talented who didn’t make it. Performers like Sill, Gram Parsons and Mama Cass appeared to have everything but were pulled under by drug use and the vagaries of the music scene where entry to the in-crowd was hard to gain and even harder to maintain. As Linda Ronstadt said

Cocaine made people deaf, it made people dead and it made people real obnoxious

An even darker side to this scene is hinted at but, sadly, not explored further. The riots at the Altamont Festival are mentioned only in passing, as are the murders of Sharon Tate and friends by Charles Manson and his acolytes. Manson’s links to the Laurel Canyon scene are now well documented, from auditioning for the Monkees to his anger at not being able to get a record deal. That artists such as Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys and Neil Young were championing Manson’s music shows the darker side of this supposed sunshine drenched scene.

What Hotel California does best is to show that idealism will eventually be bought and money will eventually win out and at the end of the day, these stars were just ordinary people caught up in a world of self-regard, money, drugs and sex and that it couldn’t possibly last. By the end of the book, Rumours is one of the best-selling albums of all time and The Eagles are playing enormo-domes across the US. Asylum Records, the small family label has been sold to Warner Brothers and the Troubadour Club is closing.

Hotel California captures a mythical era – one which appears sun-dappled, open-minded and creative, but which ultimately became too big for its own good. Hoskyns account is an authoritative and entertaining look at the names and stories behind the music that came to define a generation.

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16 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Wow – these are all the musicians I listened to in the 70s. Of course, I knew about a lot of what was going on behind the scenes, but it’s interesting thinking about how their images are so separate from the real story. Great review!


  2. ‘Mythical era’ sums the ’60s up well according to my contemporary historian partner. That said, this does sound fascinating. I’d loved to think that Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt linked arms, stomped into Southern’s house and told him what they thought of him.


  3. Wish I had time to read all the books you recommend but alas, there are only so many hours in the day and so much reading that my eyes can take. Nevertheless, I religiously write these down in my “to read” book, even order some of them (I have nearly3 shelves full of “books to read” which I hope to get around to one day – if I can stay away from the Library, that is) and maybe, who knows, I will eventually skip through them all. Thanks for your brilliant reviews.


    • I love Judee Sill too! her story is so tragic though. He does focus on those performers who got sucked in – like Judee and Gram – but those wider tensions are skimmed over a bit. Still, there was a lot of material to cover so maybe that’s why.


  4. Much of this background was only a distant echo as, apart from a handful of artists you mention — Joni Mitchell, James Taylor for example — I only had ears for the music, and that mostly this side of the Atlantic. But what you describe doesn’t surprise me at all — what does surprise me are the number of musicians who actually got past all this and survived when by the nature of the poisons they shouldn’t have.


  5. The mindset people had during this time period is so foreign to me that I forget they are people. I mean, I can’t even imagine the sheer amount of drugs snorted and sexual encounters and still think, “Yes, they have bodies and limbs and thoughts the same as me.” It’s just a super weird time. I feel more connection to people who got into covered wagons and traveled across the U.S. into the unknown to start anew than that generation.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. t would be hard to read this without being tempted to dig out all those old tunes.
    I loved the idea that the art departments for the record companies would go and scout out a suitably distressed/rustic gate or fence just so they could prop up the artist. I wonder if some owners of these much sort after gates made any money from renting them out?

    Liked by 1 person

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