The acclaimed singer/songwriter, and now, filmmaker reveals the heady California music scene of the mid-1960s in the new documentary, "Echo in the Canyon."
If you have ANY interest in music, do all you can to catch the film, “Echo in the Canyon,” a stunning documentary about the birth of the California sound in the mid-1960s. Directed by Andrew Slater, the film masterfully weaves together insightful interviews with many of the artists of the time, modern renditions of some of the biggest hits of the era, and classic film footage from original performances.
The conductor in all of this is the film’s executive producer, the acclaimed singer/songwriter Jakob Dylan. Dylan thoughtfully dives into the story through his interviews with the likes of Tom Petty, Brian Wilson, Eric Clapton, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Jackson Browne, Michelle Phillips and Ringo Starr.
And Dylan brings real life to the project with his versions of some of the most recognizable hits of the time. Performing with him are Fiona Apple, Norah Jones, Beck, Regina Spektor, Cat Power and Jade. The renditions by the Dylan gang will stop you in your tracks. Apple’s performance with Dylan of The Beach Boys’ “In My Room” is hauntingly beautiful.
The arrival of The Beatles to America set the stage for the coming music writing revolution. Many young artists were mesmerized by The Beatles’ sound.
“They were looking to be in bands,” explained Dylan, “because everybody from what I’ve learned all saw The Beatles and that’s what they wanted to be. They wanted to be The Beatles. They wanted to be in a band like that.”
And so they dared to plug in the folk songs they were writing into electric instruments like the 12-string Rickenbacker guitar. Next, they joined up with like-minded artists in Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon and on the streets of the Sunset Strip and Ventura Boulevard.
Folk rock was born.
To get a sense for what was happening, listen to the original version of “The Bells of Rhymney” by Idris Davies and Pete Seeger, and then give The Byrds’ remake of it a listen.
“A whole different group of people started living there, and they were exchanging ideas and they were learning how to write these songs, and things were becoming more poetic and more interesting. They hadn’t really discovered themselves yet,” said Dylan. “It’s really in this moment – 1965/1966 – that that happened in Laurel Canyon. This is about an innocent time in the exchanging of ideas.
“Maybe that dream was very short-lived before things got a little psychedelic and crazy. I do think it’s short. It was a magical moment because I think maybe there wasn’t much knowledge. I don’t think people knew what was coming next. So I think that things were very genuine.”
Music artists today share their music with other artists through online sound files and thumb drives. Back then, though, singers and songwriters just showed up at one another’s homes to show off a new song or just jam. A lot of cross-pollination of music was happening.
The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” album, for example, was a significant influence in the making of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album.
“I believe this was all friendly competition,” said Dylan. “But they were blowing each other’s minds. I think they were just trying to keep up with one another.”
The place itself – L.A. – made perfect sense for such a monumental change in music. As Dylan explained, while the City of Angels might have lost much of its early luster, back then it must have been a magical place where you could do anything; where anything was possible. There were the beaches, forever summer days, pretty people and Hollywood glamour.
Most importantly, several major recording studios and record labels had set up shop there: Western Studios, Capitol Studios, Sunset Sound, Gold Star, RCA Studio, Columbia and United Western.
All of these ingredients worked together to form the perfect pot of music soup.
“They wrote great songs,” said Dylan. “These people were architects and masters of harmony. Brian Wilson and John Phillips – both – if you’re going to call anybody in music brilliant, you’d have to give those two people that tag.
“I don’t think that the idea that you could fake it until you make it had really emerged yet. I think they had to learn their instruments; learn how to write songs. I think they really studied that craft. Being on records was an honor.”
That’s not always the case today.
Said Dylan, “I wish people would pay more attention to their songs. Not that songs have to be important. That’s not it at all. But just transferring some kind of image and something that is provoking into a song. Right now we have a lot of bands going into studios without songs and just jamming for hours and just hoping one pops out. These people, you couldn’t go into the studio without a good song. I think that’s still the way you should be doing it.”
Tom Petty fans will be thrilled to know “Echo In The Canyon” is dedicated to him. Dylan’s interview with Petty for the film proved to be the legendary rocker’s last on-camera interview before his death on Oct. 2, 2017.
“He was a great inspiration to me,” said Dylan. “He was so magically touched by that music as a teenager. And he was a very generous person. I’ve known him quite a while, and it seems fitting that it be dedicated to him. I’d dedicate it to him if he was here as well. He was just that important and impactful.”
“Echo In The Canyon” is the kind of film that will likely lead music enthusiasts on a pilgrimage to Laurel Canyon and beyond to search out the homes of the songwriters and landmarks in the movie. Many of the monuments still exist, including the Canyon Country Store and the famous nightclubs such as The Viper Room, the Troubadour and the Whiskey a Go Go. Some of the studios are also still there, but they exist as one-story buildings, and that’s not good in a place like L.A.
“Someone’s gonna knock ’em down and put up high rises eventually,” explained Dylan. “If you want to check them out, I would say sooner rather than later.”
With the film project behind him, the Wallflowers founder is looking forward to getting back to his music career. No doubt he is happy with his decision to take on such an unexpected detour to make the film.
“It’s a long road making a documentary,” Dylan said. “Now that it’s done, I think it’s terrific.”
And that it is.
Find out more at EchointheCanyon.com.
William J. Purpura is the editor of AAA Magazine.