Brit Offers 'Notable' Insight Into California Pop Music Epoch

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Barney Hoskyns

British music-lovers have been drawn to the sounds of their American cousins ever since Yankee Doodle picked up a fife.

Some of the first scholars of America's jazz and blues were English. United Kingdom acts including the Animals, the Beatles, Van Morrison, and the Rolling Stones gave U.S. listeners a heightened awareness and appreciation of their own rhythm-and-blues and soul artists of the 1960s.

Now the English journalist and author Barney Hoskyns has written a comprehensive account of a near-mythical epoch in Southern California pop music history: Hotel California: The True-Life Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, the Eagles, and Their Many Friends (Wiley), a July Book Sense Notable.

"From the very earliest age," said the London-born Hoskyns recently by telephone from England, "I'd always been intrigued by America -- American movies, American fiction ... Eventually, American music became my great thing -- whether that was soul music, or country-rock, or the great singer-songwriters, or funk. It just captivated me."

Hoskyns, 47, made his first trip to the States in 1977. "From then on, every opportunity or excuse I had to go to America, I seized it," he said. "I lived in Los Angeles in the early '80s, and then I lived in New York State in the second half of the 1990s.... I feel now that I probably have kind of got my America-phelia out of my system, but it's the bed that I've made for myself, so I do seem to end up still writing mainly about American music and culture."

Son of an artist-mother and a father who started a computer company in the 1960s,

Hoskyns began writing about pop music around 1979, while still at university. "It was a combination of wanting to be a writer," he said, "and being in love with music from a very, very early age." He did his earliest pieces for the music-papers Melody Maker and New Musical Express, and the first of his several books, a study of American country-soul music (Say It One Time for the Brokenhearted), was published in 1987.

For Hotel California, the author interviewed some 150 people -- including this writer, a former L.A. music-journalist. Several of his sources had spoken with Hoskyns when he researched a previous work, Waiting for the Sun (St. Martin's, 1996), a decades-spanning, well-received history of "the sound of Los Angeles." One chapter in that book ("Ladies and Gentlemen of the Canyon") was in a sense the starting-point, he said, for this new one.

"Hovering around my consciousness was this idea of doing a book [that] focused on that subset ... Crosby Stills Nash and Young and -- company.... There aren't that many organic kind of homogenous scenes that you can really point to, in the history of rock'n'roll ... but this seemed like a real scene that almost created itself as a scene, and that was very much fostered by people like [David] Geffen and [Elliot] Roberts in particular. What amazed me was the way that Geffen managed to turn 'non-commercialism' into a compelling product, if you like. You know, he took these sort of 'dropout' characters -- and within five, six years, some of them ... were in Lear jets. And the arc of that, through that story, was interesting to me.

"And of course, it had this idea of the L.A. canyons: it offered the sort of perfect landscape and backdrop.... It offered the perfect environment for musicians to 'turn inwards,' to use Joni Mitchell's phrase."

The L.A. scene was inherently suited to singer-songwriters and laid-back rockers, thought Hoskyns. "You know you can't really be too contemplative in a city like New York, because it's just so in-your-face, so insanely bustling and noisy. It's not a place to take a deep, searching look at yourself. And I think somehow Los Angeles did offer that -- not the freeway Los Angeles, but the canyons in particular. They enabled people to be in a kind of thriving music hub, [and] at the same time, they could kind of kid themselves that they were getting away from it all."

The myth and reality of Southern California in the 1960s and '70s was a magnet for young musicians from all over. "I even knew what the air would smell like," J.D. Souther, formerly of Texas, told Hoskyns: "It was ozone and ocean and automobile exhaust and eucalyptus."

For the most part, Hoskyns found, his interview subjects were "quite, quite candid. I think they were quite pleased to speak with some of the wisdom of hindsight. They had a perspective [now] on the era that perhaps they wouldn't have had ... 10 or 15 years before."

What he learned, he said, more or less verified his original perceptions of the canyon scene. "By that I simply mean that there was something quite crafty and even perhaps disingenuous about the way that crop of talent was marketed and promoted; how that whole conceit was quite cannily shaped and sold to the consumers of the counterculture," explained Hoskyns. "A figure that's obviously really interesting in this is Neil Young, in particular -- the 'lone-wolf' kind of troubadour, off on his ranch or in his Topanga Canyon cabin. At the same time, there's a Neil Young who's actually really quite -- manipulative and ambitious?... Maybe I learned some stuff there, about Neil. It doesn't lessen my admiration for his talent in any way, and I think the way he's used the machine, if you like, is fascinating."

Hoskyns himself continues to be fascinated by the American sounds he's loved since he was a child. In the month Hotel California is published in the States, and as an earlier book of his on the Band (Across the Great Divide) is being prepped for U.S. republication, Barney Hoskyns is beginning work on a biography of singer-songwriter Tom Waits.

"Like many music writers," he said, "I sort of stumbled into [this job]. Then, kind of like a fly, you get sort of caught in the web.... I think I've struggled trying to get out of it for about 20 years now -- and failed, because I think ultimately music is my great passion; and therefore, it is ultimately what I want to write about." --Tom Nolan