My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The most controversial parts of this book touch little on the central question it asks: Was the culture of the time we know as the “Sixties” really just one massive government psy-op intended to derail opposition to the Vietnam War and popular calls for real social change?
If the answer is “yes,” this book would be a shocking revelation suggesting our entire world isn’t what we’ve long thought it to be. Bummer.
But far more likely to offend are McGowan’s assertions that bands like The Doors and The Byrds weren’t real bands at all, and almost none of the musical “greats” of that era were substantially different from those fakest of all fakers, The Monkees. Ultimate outsiders like Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart were undercover toadies working for the status quo. Most of the legendary bands sucked at live performance, and owed their popularity to a troupe of outrageous dancers paid to show up at gigs.
What GAUL! Who the hell does he think he is? It was a legendary time of peace and freedom, man! The Doors! The Doors! I could hear the baby boomers keeling over and falling on their favorite bongs as I paged through the most provocative chapters.
It was with some personal interest I read this tapestry of biographical sketches, historical vignettes, digressions, and leading questions asked with dramatically-raised eyebrows. My mother and father were almost — though not quite — part of the “scene.” They were living only one canyon over from Laurel when I was born in 1968. They long remembered the massive influx of unwashed and drug-addled young searchers and the resulting Sunset Boulevard riots in ’66. At the time, my father was an impresario trying to get a young ingenue (my mother) into the LA music free-for-all. They spent time in the clubs McGowan profiles — places like Whiskey a Go-Go and Pandora’s. Hell, they might have crossed paths with some unsavory characters like Vito Paulekas and Elmer Valentine — or even Charles Manson himself. It was a wild time, though the real wildness lasted for only two years or so.
What McGowan does best is dig. Here, he’s dug up a stunning set of coincidences where bloodlines and story arcs intersect in stupefying ways. What’s the likelihood so many of the heroes of that scene came from patrician families with backgrounds in military intelligence and weapons research? Why were obvious murders swept under the carpet as suicides? Why no major drug busts in the Canyon? Why so many home fires conveniently destroying all evidence? Who was paying the bills for the extremely-rough or even talentless before they rose almost inexplicably to near-instant fame? How did the “counterculture” get national TV and radio exposure during a time when media was at least as tightly controlled as it is today, and at least as beholden to “the establishment?” Why so many “activist” figures who toted handguns and had a history of traveling from one global hot-spot to another before suddenly picking up guitars and singing about peace and love?
McGowan’s assertion: This can’t all be explained away with the dreamy word “serendipity.” It was all too weird. Someone — or a group of someones — was pulling the strings, and with some end in mind.
Weird Scenes is a document of a time when an unprecedented convocation of young people from elite military and intelligence backgrounds gathered with their poorly-tuned guitars in one small part of Southern California, concentrated in a single canyon beneath mountaintop covered by a secret, self-contained government movie studio, and changed the music world forever. This much we know to be objectively true. And in itself, it’s stranger than fiction.
Some annoyances: McGowan uses satire and sarcasm to excess. It’s enough to undermine his serious argument. There are too many Oh yeah. Right. Uh-huh. Surrrrre . . . flourishes in response to the “official” accounts. Such things are at best seasonings, not a full course. He tends compare the artists’ lifestyles to that of an average American-Joe strawman. Musicians aren’t average Joes. Even the ones who aren’t presumed CIA assets tend to do things Middle-America would see as “weird.” Also, McGowan’s digressions are charming and entertaining but often don’t really support the main premise. What they really do is add page count. It’s OK, Dave: As a fellow author I’ve been there myself.
Nowadays — just as back then — all of mass media is an ad for something. The sudden, inexplicable rise of the Laurel Canyon phenomenon should force anyone to question what it was really advertising, and who was paying the tab.
I’d recommend Weird Scenes to the conspiracy-minded as well as those interested in the culture and music of the time, though readers in the latter group should be prepared to witness a few sacred cows slaughtered.
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