Jonathan Wilson has turned Laurel Canyon into rock 'n' roll's most famous neighborhood once again by Juliette Dominguez / photographs by Antonin Kratochvil
Witching hour is upon us, and we’re winding our way up Laurel Canyon Boulevard, surrounded by a sea of dark slopes and twinkling homes. Parking at the foot of one small hill, we make our way up a steep, candlelit walkway that leads to a wooden cottage perched at the summit. The boom of music emanates and draws us closer. Tonight, our master of ceremonies and host is Jonathan Wilson, a 33-year-old singer-songwriter from Spindale, North Carolina. He is hippie handsome, soft-spoken and humble, despite being responsible for the resurgence of the city’s most famous folk-rock neighborhood. The Wednesday-night jams held at Wilson’s Laurel Canyon cottage have begun a revolution among both established and emerging local artists, who come together to experiment, play their hearts out and remind themselves why they’re musicians in the first place.
As we pass into the interior of Wilson’s house, where a jam is unfolding, I can’t help but think of the Laurel Canyon of 40 years ago, when there was a stream of gifted musicians living, collaborating and playing freely, including Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Carole King, James Taylor and the Eagles. After all, it was in Mitchell’s Laurel Canyon living room that Crosby, Stills and Nash are said to have first sung harmony together.
“Ask anyone in L.A. where the craziest people are, and they’ll say Laurel Canyon. And what was the craziest street? Lookout Mountain,” Mitchell told L.A. disc jockey Jim Ladd, as recounted in Michael Walker’s Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock-and-Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood. “So there we were... a whole lot of us strung all the way through the canyon. The Eagles came in later, and it was quite a neighborhood.”
Graham Nash, who lived with Mitchell (and penned “Our House” at her Lookout Mountain home), told Walker, “When I got there and actually immersed myself in that Laurel Canyon culture, it was amazing to me. It was very much like, maybe, Vienna was at the turn of the century, or Paris in the ’30s, where something happens and you don’t know what it is, and it’s catching fire, and there’s more music coming out and more people making music and more people discovering each other and discovering the fact that love is better than hate, and peace is better than war, and really trying to emphasize those kinds of things that we all truly believed in.”
Laurel Canyon was a magical place then and still is now—thanks to Wilson, who is both an earnest and supportive host and active jam participant. One of Wilson’s regulars is award-winning musician Barry Goldberg, a longtime LC resident and a friend to Neil Young’s band Crazy Horse. For him, the jams are a revelation and reminder of the LC of 40 years ago, when the neighborhood was like a “musical vortex.”
“It’s like a flashback to 1967, when we’d be hanging out at Danny Whitten’s LC house,” says Goldberg. “Whitten was a guitarist for Crazy Horse, and it was the place to jam and listen to records. Then déjà vu—here I am at Jonathan’s. It was for fun then, and it’s for fun now.”
Goldberg relishes the element of surprise. “You never know who’ll show up—it might be members of Oasis, Pearl Jam or Wilco. And I’ve brought friends, like Gary Mallaber [Steve Miller Band, Van Morrison] and Elliot Easton [The Cars], who both jumped at the chance.” Indeed the all-nighters have become legend among a who’s who of contemporary indie and veteran folk-rock musicians, including Maroon 5, the Black Crowes, Jakob Dylan and Rilo Kiley.
Music historian Harvey Kubernik, whose history of LC’s music, Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon, is being published by Sterling this fall, was impressed enough by Wilson to feature him in the book. “Jonathan’s at the epicenter of what’s happening in today’s LC,” says Kubernik. “He reminds me of how musicians were in the ’60s, providing loving, supportive environments to make music in, like Doug Weston’s club, the Troubadour, which Weston nicknamed the Womb Room. Jonathan’s jams have that same incubation-style feel. And I love that he integrates old-school people, like Jim Kweskin and Van Morrison’s Gary Mallaber—who I saw play 25 years ago—and now here they are in Jonathan’s living room, jamming with contemporary musicians like Chris Robinson and Jenny Lewis. I see all these past and present musician rivers colliding... it’s like the connective tissue between the LC of the ’60s and the LC of today.”
Wilson’s DNA is steeped in music, coming from a family of musicians, with a Baptist preacher grandfather and a father who was a bandleader for 35 years. In 1995, Wilson and Benji Hughes started Muscadine, which scored a major-label deal with Sire. After they disbanded in 1999, Wilson continued to work as a musician, moving to Georgia, California and New York before settling down in LC in 2005. “When I moved to Laurel Canyon,” he says, “I was not seeking some ideal of ’60s rock culture. I moved because my North Carolina buddy and drummer, Husky, was here, and he nicknamed it Handshake Canyon. I was aware of the lore but did not realize the depth and breadth until I’d been here a while. It makes sense to me why it has been an artist and musician mecca, because it still has that spirit. Music made in the canyon sounds different—it has a ‘natural’ sound that effortlessly emanates. Vocals are enhanced, and drums have a certain eucalyptus woody scent to them. It’s a special place—I envy the days when the canyon was crawling with like-minded musicians. The fact that some of my favorites happened to live here is not surprising.”
Wilson’s cozy rented house sits across from producer Rick Rubin’s studio, the Mansion, where the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Maroon 5 and Linkin Park have all recorded. His collection of analog equipment—including a Hammond B3 organ, a Mellotron, vintage guitars and Leon Russell’s mixing board—is impressive. Music is his raison d’être. Producer Thom Monahan agrees: “Jonathan is an enthusiast: a recording enthusiast, a jamming enthusiast, a music enthusiast. He’s fearless in his playing. And the jams are an extension of his persona. He seamlessly transitions it from his home—it’s not really his living room, it’s a live room. The jams are about trading energy, and that’s the basis of everything you do when you create music—exchange energy and try to create something that’s spontaneous and real and honest. The jams are one day going to be something [about which] I’ll be happy to say, ‘I was there,’ ”
Maroon 5’s Jesse Carmichael feels it, too: “There’s such an emotional connection to everything Wilson works on, and it’s the same with the vibe he creates for his jams. The beautiful thing is they feel so cathartic and transcendental. It’s a joy to play with other experienced musicians with no pressure attached, as everything flows through you better. I’ve had some peak musical experiences there, and they’re good training for when we go back to the studio. We’ve got the memory of that magic moment under our belts, and when the red light is on, we can draw from that.”
We go outside to join Maroon 5’s James Valentine and Monahan, who laughs as he recalls one wild night: “I watched Maroon 5’s drummer, Matt Flynn, kicking complete ass. The rest of the band watched him, mesmerized. They couldn’t believe it was the same guy, as he probably never gets let off his leash. Adam Levine just stood there, jaw hitting the floor, because he’s never seen a guy in his own band play like that. There’s a definite feeling of freedom released in that environment.”
Wilson has his own reasons for starting up the jams. “The scene is in my blood. For 20 years, my father has hosted a Wednesday night ‘pickin’—as it is called in the mountains of North Carolina—for his buddies. So when I moved to L.A., I looked around for a jam scene and couldn’t find it, although there were absolute multitudes of beautiful musicians there—so we just created it!” Wilson doesn’t just helm the jams, he guides the music and the vibe. “I’ll take a Woody Guthrie song and do a spontaneous thing on it,” he says. The musicians sometimes play covers to fill in any uninspired moments. “The biggest thing for us is to keep the spirit of improvisation intact. The real goal is to not play any songs, to only improvise.” The jams don’t, as a rule, cover any individual’s new material. “There have been some who tried to play their own songs, and it always makes it a little awkward.”
Musician Johnathan Rice, who has attended the jams with his girlfriend, Rilo Kiley songstress Jenny Lewis, agrees: “Back in a ’60s Laurel Canyon sing-along, you would have had Mitchell, Crosby, Nash and Stills, and everyone would be playing each other their new songs. At Jonathan’s jams, it isn’t so much a presentation of new material as a celebration of older material and improvisation.”
The jams have served not only as an essential release valve but as a creative petri dish that has even spawned new bands, inspired new sounds and helped birth some notable albums, including Jenny Lewis’ Acid Tongue, Gary Louris’ Vagabonds and Elvis Costello’s Momofuku. Lewis, known among the locals as the songbird of the canyon, recruited some of the regular jammers—including none other than Elvis Costello— to contribute to her 2008 solo album, Acid Tongue. Costello was so inspired by the sessions on Acid Tongue that he returned the favor for Lewis and recruited her and many of the Wednesday-night jammers to collaborate on his own 2008 album, Momofuku. The point is, everyone’s playing on everyone’s records. It’s incestuous creativity at its best.
In spite of Wilson’s cultural goodwill, he is having serious trouble with his landlady. She has heard about the jams and all the famous people he’s hosting, and now Wilson, who originally got a sweet deal on the tiny house, is facing eviction. He says something that was probably said a thousand times in an era before he was born: “It’s not even about me; it’s just what I represent. And that’s freedom—freedom to do whatever the f--k I want in my own home.”
One thing is for sure: Wherever Wilson goes, the jam and its musicians will move, like the fabulous, enigmatic, twisty dragon that it is. For among his peers, Wilson is universally loved and revered. Rice, who lives nearby with Lewis and had Wilson play guitar on his album Further North, says, “Wilson is a gentle and generous spirit. He’s one of the most talented people I’ve come across in my life. Jams at Jonathan’s have been some of the happiest times of my recent years. Willie Nelson put it best: ‘The life I love is making music with my friends.’ ”