David McGowan - The very strange but nevertheless true story of the dark underbelly of a 1960s hippie utopia.
David McGowan, Weird Scenes Inside The Canyon: Laurel Canyon, Covert Ops & The Dark Heart Of The Hippie Dream, Headpress, 2014.
The very strange but nevertheless true story of the dark underbelly of a 1960s hippie utopia. Laurel Canyon in the 1960s and early 1970s was a magical place where a dizzying array of musical artists congregated to create much of the music that provided the soundtrack to those turbulent times. Members of bands like the Byrds, the Doors, Buffalo Springfield, the Monkees, the Beach Boys, the Turtles, the Eagles, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Steppenwolf, CSN, Three Dog Night and Love, along with such singer/songwriters as Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, James Taylor and Carole King, lived together and jammed together in the bucolic community nestled in the Hollywood Hills. But there was a dark side to that scene as well. Many didn’t make it out alive, and many of those deaths remain shrouded in mystery to this day. Far more integrated into the scene than most would like to admit was a guy by the name of Charles Manson, along with his murderous entourage. Also floating about the periphery were various political operatives, up-and-coming politicians and intelligence personnel – the same sort of people who gave birth to many of the rock stars populating the canyon. And all the canyon’s colorful characters – rock stars, hippies, murderers and politicos – happily coexisted alongside a covert military installation.
As a native Angeleno who was born in 1960 and came of age in the 1970s, the music produced by the artists who populate this book provided the soundtrack to my youth, so it is a subject matter that is close to my heart. But what really set the hook was discovering, early on in my research, that there were a number of aspects of the Laurel Canyon scene that didn't really seem to fit in with the prevailing image of a hippie utopia that was ostensibly all about peace and love. Having grown up right alongside this scene, I was shocked to learn that I didn't even know that it had existed at all! And after asking around, I discovered that no one else that I know in this city did either. After the passage of nearly 50 years, it seemed that this was a story that was long overdue for greater exposure. Even more overdue, it seemed to me, was an expose of some of the hidden truths of Laurel Canyon. Though a few books exploring the scene have popped up over the last several years, all of them have a certain sameness to them, with the same stories told in much the same way. I felt it was time to tell a different version of the story - the one that can be found hiding in the details that are usually left out or glossed over.
Back in the summer of 2008, a few weeks after writing a 40th anniversary review of the psychedelic cult film Head, featuring The Monkees, I got a weird email from a reader who suggested I check out a website by a guy named Dave McGowan and his recently-launched online investigative series Inside the LC: The Strange But Mostly True Story of Laurel Canyon and the Birth of the Hippie Generation.
Naturally curious, I checked it out and fell into the proverbial “rabbit hole” from which I have yet to return. McGowan’s research on the rock music scene that artificially “sprang” from the countercultural Los Angeles-area enclave of Laurel Canyon was absolutely shocking.
“The story of the scene that played out in Laurel Canyon from the mid-1960’s through the end of the 1970’s is an endlessly fascinating one” and that while most folks know about San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury scene, Angelenos, of which McGowan is one, “remain ignorant of the even larger music and counterculture scene that played out in the Hollywood Hills.”
And a 2008 radio interview I conducted with McGowan on a local pirate radio station proved even more revealing for me. Rock stars like Frank Zappa, John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, Arthur Lee of Love, Jim Morrison of The Doors, Peter Tork of The Monkees, David Crosby (The Byrds) and Stephen Stills (Buffalo Springfield), who collaborated with Crosby, Stills & Nash and many others get a serious look. So do the actors and directors who hung out and lived and partied in Laurel Canyon – a place that also happened to be home to the military’s Lookout Mountain Laboratories, a place that was a studio that created classified motion pictures involving atomic-bomb tests and – likely much more - between 1947 and 1969.
While that may not seem so unusual in the midst of the Cold War, many of the names above were linked or directly involved in the military, through family members or personally.
As McGowan notes: “How is it possible that not one of the musical icons of the Woodstock generation, almost all of them draft age males, was shipped off to slog through the rice paddies of Vietnam? Should we just consider that to be another of those great serendipities? Was it mere luck that kept all of the Laurel Canyon stars out of jail and out of the military during the turbulent decade that was the 1960’s? Not really.”
McGowan suggests that these Sixties-era megastars weren’t touched by “The Establishment” because they proved to be useful tools in their efforts to water-down or co-opt any efforts of a truly grassroots movement that could have emerged and brought real change and an earlier end to the meat grinder in Southeast Asia. Perceived anti-war anthem "For What It's Worth" takes on a whole different meaning - figuratively and literally.
McGowan notes how so few of the Laurel Canyon artists really demanded an end to the war, killing so many of their peers. Jim Morrison? ‘Fraid not. Mr. Mojo Risin’s dad, U.S. Navy Admiral George Stephen Morrison was the man in charge of the naval ship, the U.S.S. Bon Homme Richard, which was involved in the very Gulf of Tonkin incident that led to escalation of the Vietnam War. In fact, McGowan includes a photo of a clean-cut Jim Morrison on the bridge of the infamous ship with his dad in early 1964. Just a few years later he would be asking the world to ‘break on through to the other side” and to “light his fire.” All the while, he largely ignored the politics of the day and had seemingly no musical training or interest. How convenient.
And while Peter Tork, for instance, worked the coffeehouse folk scene in Greenwich Village and was friends with folkie Stephen “The Sarge” Stills, a guy who boasted he had spent time in Vietnam, likely before troops were sent there in the mid-1960’s.
And Tork? What was he allegedly doing before landing a gig as a doltish, bass-playing Monkee on the hit NBC TV series in 1966?
Tork, writes McGowan, “’migrated to Connecticut then Venezuela,’ which was, I suppose, a typical migratory route for folkies in those days.”
I looked into this and sure enough, Tork (then known as Peter Thorkelson) was in South America for a month or so, allegedly visiting family. But was he really? Or was he on some sort of “secret mission” as his pal Stills has implied in the past? Oddly, I have found no official biographical book on Tork and he is decidedly the most mysterious Monkee of the quartet.
And while the mid-20th century spawned many creative people who came from military-linked families, primarily due to the World Wars and the ongoing Cold War, it is strange to see how many of these Laurel Canyon musicians (Zappa, Stills, Phillips and others) and actors (Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda and others) directly descended not only from military families from the East Coast but in some cases from elite families who first settled early America and/or were involved in secret societies.
And sure, we’ve heard rumors about Charles Manson and his songwriting abilities. All true. And members of the Beach Boys (primarily surfer/drummer Dennis Wilson) were among Charlie’s besties. This Wilson brother would die under mysterious circumstances as well, dying while swimming in 1983. Indeed, the canyon has some dark and winding roads – many of them leading to mysterious “suicides.”
… or possible human sacrifices to the Dark Lord. McGowan, in his chapters “Vito and His Freakers: The Sinister Roots of Hippie Culture” and “The Death of Godo Paulekas: Anger’s Infant Lucifer,” we are introduced to debauched guru and self-described “Freak” Vito Paulekas, along with his wife Szou and his disturbing companion Carl Franzoni. These guys helped get The Byrds (a largely untested, musically-limited band which was as much or more of a manufactured act than the derided Monkees, at least in the early years) off the ground by doing spasmodic, freakish dance moves on the dance floors of clubs that sprouted overnight on the Sunset Strip. That freewheelin' behavior cloaked something far more ominous.
Paulekas shows up in the underground film Mondo Hollywood and likely had allowed Satanist and suspected snuff-film creator Kenneth Anger to feature the three-year old Godo as his “Lucifer” in a film he was working on. It is then that Mansonite and former Grass Roots (a different “Grass Roots,” later renamed Love) guitarist Bobby "Cupid" Beausoleil becomes the Luciferian replacement.
“Calling themselves Freaks, they lived a semi-communal life and engaged in sex orgies and free-form dancing whenever they could," writes McGowan, describing Vito and the Freakers.
And when Vito split, Manson happened to show up in his place, because, as McGowan writes, “It makes perfect sense, in retrospect, that Charles Manson and his Family came calling just as Vito fled the scene, and that a Mansonite replaced the freak child (doomed Godo Paulekas, said to have died after falling through a skylight while tripping on acid) as the embodiment of Lucifer. For the truth, you see, is that in many significant ways, Charles Manson was little more than a younger version of Vito Paulekas.”
Hollywood being Hollywood, is it really all that much of a surprise that all the signs point to the Laurel Canyon “peace and love” folk-rock and singer-songwriter scene was likely entirely manufactured? We know drugs were rampant, occult activity commonplace and a bloody trail of corpses that shocks to the core.
Chapters on The Byrds’ troubled Gene Clark and (later) Gram Parsons, along with iron-fisted tyrants like Frank Zappa, Stephen Stills, Arthur Lee and Captain Beefheart; and sex maniacs (and likely incestuous pedophiles) including various Beach Boys and “Papa” John Phillips, all seem to point to something much more hidden and sinister going on in Laurel Canyon. After all, these perceived peaceful hippies had a rather violent, authoritarian streak about them - quite counter to the image one usually conjures when imagining the happy vibes emanating from the Mamas and the Papas as they perform "California Dreamin'" on a TV variety show.
Even the death-obsessed and positively evil Process Church of the Final Judgment played a role in Laurel Canyon and surrounding areas. Just ask one-time cape-wearing David Crosby or any number of lesser-known “musicians” who came even later. For all the ocean breezes, bikini babes and daisies and so forth, the ever-present Southern California sunshine couldn’t possibly pierce the darkness hanging over Laurel Canyon.
Later chapters touch upon New Wave and punk music’s Copeland brothers (which includes Police drummer Stewart Copeland) and the family’s connection with intelligence agencies and another (inexplicably, perhaps) going into illusionist Harry Houdini’s possible link to the early days of Laurel Canyon.
Sure, there could be a lot of coincidences (the writer of The Association's '66 cult-and-drug-flavored hit "Along Comes Mary," Tandyn Almer, just so happens to split L.A. and die in the spooky D.C. suburb of McLean, Virginia, where Morrison, John Phillips, Mama Cass Elliot, Peter Tork and others hung out in their early years), with all these covert ops, serial killers running around and funding that seems to come from nowhere. After all, who paid for all of this for so many years?
McGowan, I should note, is a very personable writer with a breezy and even humorous writing style. I would be giving Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon an excellent rating if it were not for a few editing and spelling errors. I did like the inclusion of a foreward from conspiracy writer Nick Bryant (The Franklin Scandal) and his comments on this book having a healthy sprinkling of the "military/intelligence complex."
And McGowan puts you there in the canyon. I only wish all the photographs he used in his online series, featured at The Center for an Informed America, were here as well. While I was quite familiar with McGowan's wide body of conspiracy research and I had already read a lot of this Laurel Canyon information before, reading it again – and some new nuggets – was well worth it, particularly as I continue my research on my book focusing on the rock music created and/or released in 1966.-
The standard modus operandi of a work of “conspiracy theory” is fairly straightforward. The author/researcher takes some commonly accepted historical narrative, and lavishes scepticism upon it, while simultaneously maintaining an alternative understanding of what “really” happened, one that ostensibly better fits the considered facts.
While Dave McGowan’s Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon : Laurel Canyon, Covert Ops & The Dark Heart of the Hippie Dream, indubitably follows this approach, its focus is utterly unique. Not to put too fine a point on it, the book is no less than the Official Classic Rock Conspiracy Theory, with individual chapters tackling the unlikely subjects of Frank Zappa, the Doors, Love, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Gram Parsons and more, the careers of which are scrutinized for the fingerprints of the secret state.
What you make of McGowan’s criteria in and of itself (which ranges fairly widely, and at times wildly, from a “tell-tale” preoccupation with the occult to heavy military-industrial family ties), to my mind the virtue of Weird Scenes dwells in the ensuing atmosphere of incredible fairy-tale strangeness—not unlike Joan Didion’s own famous look at California in the late sixties, The White Album. On almost every page, movie-star mansions, knitted with secret passages, spontaneously combust; murders, suicides and overdoses spread through the celebrity populace; cults spring up peopled with mobsters and spies… and all the while, this timeless, intriguing music keeps on geysering away. I contacted McGowan about his bizarre book earlier this week…
Thomas McGrath: Hi Dave. Could you begin please by telling us something about your previous work?
David McGowan: My work as a political/social critic began around 1997, when I began to see signs that the political landscape in this country was about to change in rather profound ways. That was also the time that I first ventured onto the internet, which opened up a wealth of new research possibilities. I put up my first website circa 1998, and an adaptation of that became my first book, Derailing Democracy, in 2000. That first book, now out of print, was a warning to the American people that all the changes we have seen since the events of September 11, 2001 – the attacks on civil rights, privacy rights, and due process rights; the militarization of the nation’s police forces; the waging of multiple wars; the rise of surveillance technology and data mining, etc. – were already in the works and just waiting for a provocation to justify their implementation. My second book, Understanding the F-Word, was a review of twentieth-century US history that attempted to answer the question: “if this is in fact where we’re headed, then how did we get here?” Since 9-11, I’ve spent a good deal of time researching the events of that day and looked into a wide range of other topics. My third book, Programmed to Kill, was a look at the reality and mythology of what exactly a serial killer is. For the past six years, I have spent most of my time digging into the 1960s and 1970s Laurel Canyon counterculture scene, which has now become my fourth book, Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon.
Thomas McGrath: Am I right in presuming that you take it as a given fact that power networks are essentially infected by occultism? Are these cults essentially Satanic, or what?
David McGowan: Yes, I do believe that what you refer to as power networks, otherwise known as secret societies, are occult in nature. The symbolism can be seen everywhere, if you choose not to maneuver your way through the world deaf, dumb and blind. And I believe that it has been that way for a very long time. As for them being Satanic, I suppose it depends upon how you define Satanic. I personally don’t believe the teachings of either Satanism or Christianity, which are really just opposite sides of the same coin. I don’t believe that there is a God or a devil, and I don’t believe that those on the upper rungs of the ladder on either side believe so either. These are belief systems that are used to manipulate the minds of impressionable followers. In the case of Satanism, it is, to me, a way to covertly sell a fascist mindset, which is the direction the country, and the rest of the world, is moving. Those embracing the teachings think they are rebelling against the system, but they are in reality reinforcing it. Just as the hippies did. And just as so-called Patriots and Anarchists are. I don’t believe there has been a legitimate resistance movement in this country for a very long time.
Thomas McGrath: Tell us about Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon. What is this new book’s central thesis?
David McGowan: To the extent that it has a central thesis, I would say that it is that the music and counterculture scene that sprung to life in the 1960s was not the organic, grassroots resistance movement that it is generally perceived to be, but rather a movement that was essentially manufactured and steered. And a corollary to that would be that for a scene that was supposed to be all about peace, love and understanding, there was a very dark, violent underbelly that this book attempts to expose.
Thomas McGrath: How convinced are you by it and why?
David McGowan: Very convinced. It’s been a long journey and virtually everything I have discovered – including the military/intelligence family backgrounds of so many of those on the scene, both among the musicians and among their actor counterparts; the existence of a covert military facility right in the heart of the canyon; the prior connections among many of the most prominent stars; the fact that some of the guiding lights behind both the Rand Corporation and the Project for a New American Century were hanging out there at the time, as were the future governor and lieutenant governor of California, and, by some reports, J. Edgar Hoover and various other unnamed politicos and law enforcement personnel; and the uncanny number of violent deaths connected to the scene – all tend to indicate that the 1960s counterculture was an intelligence operation.
Thomas McGrath: You propose that hippie culture was established to neutralise the anti-war movement. But I also interpreted your book as suggesting that, as far as you’re concerned, there’s also some resonance between what you term “psychedelic occultism” (the hippie counterculture) and the “elite” philosophy/theology? You think this was a second reason for its dissemination?
David McGowan: Yes, I do. Hippie culture is now viewed as synonymous with the anti-war movement, but as the book points out, that wasn’t always the case. A thriving anti-war movement existed before the first hippie emerged on the scene, along with a women’s rights movement, a black empowerment/Black Panther movement, and various other movements aimed at bringing about major changes in society. All of that was eclipsed by and subsumed by the hippies and flower children, who put a face on those movements that was offensive to mainstream America and easy to demonize. And as you mentioned, a second purpose was served as well – indoctrinating the young and impressionable into a belief system that serves the agenda of the powers that be.
Thomas McGrath: One thing your book does very convincingly, I think, is argue that many if not most of the main movers in the sixties counterculture were, not to put too fine a point on it, horrendous, cynical degenerates. However, one might argue that a predilection for drugs, alcohol, and even things like violence and child abuse, does not make you a member of a government cult. You disagree?
David McGowan: No. I’ve known a lot of people throughout my life with a predilection for drugs and alcohol, none of whom were involved in any cults, government or otherwise. And I don’t believe that a predilection for drugs makes one a degenerate. The focus on drug use in the book is to illustrate the point that none of the scene’s movers and shakers ever suffered any legal consequences for their rampant and very open use of, and sometimes trafficking of, illicit drugs. The question posed is why, if these people were really challenging the status quo, did the state not use its law enforcement powers to silence troublemakers? I do have zero tolerance for violence towards and abuse of children, which some people in this story were guilty of. But that again doesn’t make someone a member of a cult – though it does make them seriously morally challenged.
Thomas McGrath: You say in the book that you were always a fan of sixties music and culture. Weirdly, I found that, even while reading Weird Scenes, I was almost constantly listening to the artists you were denouncing. I mean, I found albums like Pet Sounds, Forever Changes, Return of the Grievous Angel,et al sounded especially weird in the context, but I still couldn’t resist sticking them on. I was wondering if you still listen to these records yourself?
David McGowan: Yes, I do. The very first rock concert I ever attended was Three Dog Night circa 1973 – a Laurel Canyon band, though I did not know that until about five years ago. To my mind, the greatest guitarist who ever lived was Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin was arguably the finest female vocalist – in terms of raw power and emotion – to ever take the stage. I don’t know that it is accurate to describe my book as “denouncing” various artists. Brian Wilson, who composed Pet Sounds, is described as the finest and most admired composer of his generation. The guys from Love, architects of Forever Changes, are presented as among the most talented musicians of the era. Frank Zappa is acknowledged as an immensely talented musician, composer and arranger. And so on. It is true that I believe that some of the most famed artists to emerge from Laurel Canyon are vastly overrated, with Jim Morrison and David Crosby quickly coming to mind. And it’s true that on some of the most loved albums that came out of the canyon, the musicians who interpreted the songs weren’t the ones on the album covers. And it’s also true that, unlike other books that have covered the Laurel Canyon scene, Weird Scenes doesn’t sugarcoat things. But the undeniable talent and artistry of many of the canyon’s luminaries is acknowledged. And the book also shines a little bit of light on some of the tragically forgotten figures from that era, like Judee Sill and David Blue, which could lead to readers rediscovering some of those artists and the talents that they had to offer. - dangerousminds.net/comments/classic_rock_conspiracy_theory_weird_scenes_inside_the_canyon
David McGowan was born and raised in Torrance, California, just twenty miles south of Laurel Canyon. He graduated from UCLA with a degree in psychology and has, since 1990, run a small business in the greater Los Angeles area. Currently single, he is the proud father of three daughters. He is also a lifelong music fan who still frequently keeps his radio tuned to classic rock stations. McGowan's books include Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon: Laurel Canyon, Covert Ops & The Dark Heart of the Hippie Dream, Programmed to Kill: The Politics of Serial Murder, and Understanding the F-Word: American Fascism and the Politics of Illusion. Still at home in LA, he can be reached at email@example.com.