Off the beaten tracks on the outskirts of L.A.
Swaying down Highway 29
through the hills of Topanga
Swaying to the music at iconic rooted festivals
rock bands and more, ladies of the canyon
The characters are abound
artists and ecclectics
This sacred ground
Like most places on earth, you can discover a rich historical background which makes any old place come alive, so what makes Topanga Canyon so special? Beyond its rustic beauty, which is just a short drive from sprawling Los Angeles, Topanga Canyon, a small community in the Santa Monica mountains is iconic in being a hub for some of our country’s most beloved musicians. In the early years of Topanga Canyon, it was the land of settlers and homesteads in the rugged land of mountains of sage and chapparal. The Native Americans were there before anyone, notably the Tongva tribe, which is how Topanga got its name, and the Chumash tribe. Europeans came in the early 1800’s, and by the turn of the century, with jazz being the musical craze, many jazz musicians settled in Los Angeles and Topanga became a refuge for artists. Throughout the decades many musical genres had their periods in Topanga, notably classical and folk artists. A book that is very interesting to check out is The Topanga Story. There you will find a history of everything Topanga, with a section dedicated to the musicians who fluctuated there throughout the eras…..There were musicians such as Donna Curry, Esther Merkle Adams and Suzanne Teng. There were the musicians who started the folk craze of the 50’s and 60’s such as Joni Mitchell and Peete Seeger. There’s Neil Young, who had a recording studio in Topanga, and the band Canned Heat, with members who still live in the area. Bob Dewitt, an artist and real estate agent in Topanga, helped musicians find cheap property. He had a place called Pat’s Top Grill where he would run a hootenanny that attracted many outstanding musicians. The blacklisted actor Will Geer settled in Topanga with his wife, folk singer Herta Ware, and they had music flowing on the property which later became the Theatricum Botanicum, a place of music and plays. Relatives still run the theater, and Peter Alsop who is married to Will Geer’s daughter Ellen Geer, specializes in children’s songs in the area. Woodie Guthrie came out in 52’ and lived with the Geers and ended up buying his own property, which attracted his friend Ramblin Jack Elliot. Bess Hawes, the daughter of archivist Alan Lomax ended up staying in the canyon and teaching guitar to many people, including Mary Ellen Clark, who I got to spend time with in her home looking through the archives of the rich musical history that is Topanga. Too much history to talk about, but there are many online resources to learn more about the goings on of the area. Here is a really great article from W Magazine.
So let’s meet a few folks that Music Emerging has come across on the Topanga journey……
Tony Selvage-The “Godfather of Topanga”
Tony Selvage was born and raised in Los Angeles and has lived in the canyon for many years. You can read about his extensive musical activity at his website.
Tony...medicine man, art collector, jewelry maker, musician...his home...an eclectic living and breathing work of art. So many beautiful and unique items-Janis Joplin's roach clip, Native American art work, old family photos, instruments, rocks and shells. Bent spoons-"I used to bend spoons"-I got to take an unusual flashlight tour, unlike anything I had ever experienced. He sings to me...
“I love my heart and soul
I love all humanity
join hearts and souls together
Love peace and harmony
Love peace and harmony"...
"Tuvanga-“don’t go there” has four meanings-Indian burial pits, where the “mountains meet the sea”, “land of uncertainty”, and the dividing line between the Chumash and Shoshonean Indians. It’s really heavy here….it’s good.
When I first came here I went to Powerhorn Ranch, where Barry Mcguire wrote Eve of Destruction. I wrote a lot of songs at Powderhorn Ranch. I started the Topanga Association for Scenic Community and am still a member; I’m a member of TASK-the Topanga Peace Alliance that I pioneered with Julie Levine, back when we were trying to keep the canyon clean with hotels coming in and ripping out oak trees and building golf courses. I dated Ultra Violet-she was one of my singers. She came here and lived with me at Powderhorn Ranch-we gave Cal Arts their first environmental concert.
“From Powerderhorn, the clouds roll in like marshmallow dust”.
I was born in Los Angeles at St. Vincent’s. My mother played keyboards and sang, and my dad played trumpet at the Roosevelt Hotel in the Blossom Room. She was an actress too….they got divorced. My stepfather had an orchestra and played the drums. My mother was going to the Cornish School of Music and that’s where she met my stepfather. I lived in Humphrey Bogart’s house until I was 10.
I’m a musical warrior. First musician to play for Green Peace and for Peeta on Sunset Blvd. I used to play for Wayne Dyer, Buckminster Fuller, Euri Gellar, Dr. Kubra Ross, Anthony Robbins and John Paul Jones Digarrio. Fred Tackett, from Little Feat, and I-we broke Skyline Recording and I helped built the Theatricum Botanicum with Will Geer, and went on his tours in Vegas. I’ve known Ellen and Peter Alsop for years. I played at the Corral (historic music venue in Topanga which burned down) with Canned Heat-Big Brother, and Spirit used to be there, and Black Oak Arkansas, and Supertramp; and the Eagles…Black Maria did all the catering at the Corral. I used to play for Tim Leary and started with the whole Life Expo. I pioneered healing music-did seven albums with Steven Halpern. I played gospel with Andraé Crouch...
My music is basically a prayer I define as “cosmic classical jazz”. Cosmic because it comes from god, and classical because I have the training, and jazz because it’s improvisational."
Scott is a local Topanga musician who shared some of his memories of musical venues and the people who frequented them...
"My thing with what we affectionately called the Stop and Fight, which was really called Marco Polo’s-The building, as a rough neck bar, had been around forever…There was this guy named Shelby-Shelby was an interesting character-turns out I knew him as a kid-his parents had a hobby shop in Brentwood-back when Brentwood was a sleepy little town. I used to go in there and Shelby was a few years older-he was a big guy that wore black t-shirts and had a big beard-he kind of looked like a pirate. I was a little bit afraid of him because we were kids, and he turned up here in Topanga and he had a girlfriend named Sherry and they had a store-across from the General Store here in Topanga called Sherry’s Jubilee, and out of that store he sold all kinds of weird stuff; picks and strings, music equipment... and he loved music-so he put together this thing at Marco Polos that started out as a kind of rock thing which morphed...that’s when I came on board...There was me and Christy Collins, Scott Gruesome and other people, and Rich Ryder came and went a few times. It was a neat little concept, because after we got going –we did sometimes three nights-Friday, Saturday and Sunday and people could come and do anything they wanted-if they wanted to play a solo thing-we’d do a set and then we would back them up, or if they wanted to play one of our instruments with the band or they wanted to do a song the rest of the people knew and they wanted to come and play bass-I’d give them a bass-stuff like that. One guy got up there one night and made up a rap song about Topanga right on the spot-that’s how it kind of got started-and then it drifted from there….Then I went away for a year and during that time Marco Polos was no more-and then Wendy bought it and they had all sorts of problems with the neighbors with sound, and parking, and when I came back, Christy called me up and said, “we can’t have amplified music anymore, but I’m gonna sneak my amp in-and maybe you can sneak your bass amp in and we can play real quiet or something”-so we did, and started playing in the back-which was basically outside-so we played real soft and everything was fine. Then we started cranking it up little by little and after awhile this guy Kevin Slag joined us-real good guitar player, so it was the three of us, then Scott Gruesome would show up every once in awhile and for 3 years we played Sunday and Monday nights-then one night, rumor has it that the cook went after Wendy with a butcher knife and that was the end of it. After that, Scot Gruesome and I would do the cooperative art gallery in Pine Tree Circle (the center of Topanga) -they would have twice a year an art festival in the summer it would be at the part and the winter in would be at the elementary school auditorium. and for several years we used to put together a weekend of music for it-whoever we could get to play for free-that was around in the late 90’s.
There was a guy named Wally High who unfortunately is deceased-he had a voice made out of honey-he lived here and in the early days for me of Topanga Days in the 90’s-he had a band called the Grateful Dads and many of the Grateful Dads are still around and playing in fact-John Cannon and Herbie Englehart……
Topanga Days when I was first here was a big barbecue that they would set up and Randy would cook and that was the food, and then the Grateful Dads played all day-all three days and they were great-it was such a rich and big time for me personaly. I loved their music; I loved Wally's voice, and all the songs. Herbie played mandolin and Wally played guitar and sang and He wrote Highway 27-which is the Topanga Highway and one of the last times I saw him was performing that song at Froggies, which was an elementary school, then a gay bar, then an American Legion Hall, then a restaurant called the Shamrun before it was Froggies."
Linda Vaccaro and Dana Wood
I met Dana and Linda (LV) at a charming café in Topanga. The two have been friends for many years and are multi talented musicians. Linda is also an accomplished artist, constructing huge paintings of lush floral designs. I saw them perform together at Topanga Days and found their musical energy and friendship charming and inspiring...
DANA “We’ve been friends for 8 or 9 years-I grew up in Santa Monica and then I lived in Santa Cruz for a long time, then came back. I met LV because my boyfriend has a band and she plays in his band as well as her own-and I also play in his band-"Jim Crawford and Friends."
Here in the canyon, you kind of get sucked in-it feels so comforting-it’s small and everyone knows each other-then you get out, and as soon as you get to the Pacific Coast Highway, then you’re in “big L.A."
L.V. “I’m a New Yorker- I grew up on Long Island, but I’ve been in Los Angeles since 83”. I came to Topanga in 94’-I used to sing with bands in NY- I had a band called the “Pin Ups”….well-they had me! That was fun-with Marshall Chess from Chess Records-he put it all together-making us into a kind of …..they called us the “clean ABABA-it was fun”.
DANA “I was in a band called The Porch Girls which was really fun-bluegrass Americana-but it’s hard when things got into business, and someone has to take the lead-it gets a little heavy."
L.V. “When money comes into it, and contracts, things change-that’s what happened to the Pin Ups. Now we have the “no drama” band here in Topanga, LV and the Lovedogs, and it’s fun and pure-and we played Topanga Days-it felt really good"….
DANA “It feels good to play in Topanga-it’s our home, and people support you because it’s a big supportive community."
L.V.- “We inspire each other”.
DANA “There’s so many musicians and artists-it’s kind of like a roving party here in the canyon-there’s a lot of nooks and crannies."
L.V.-"We support each others bands and inspire each other."
M.E.-“There’s a big history of music here”.
L.V.-“We wish Neil Young was down the street, but we were just kids when he was around here. The studio is here, where they did After the Goldrush; now it’s a house, but it has the big double pane walls, and it’s so cool being in there."
DANA “Willie Nelson’s son Lucas was here recording for awhile-they had some great parties….
And John Dunsmore from the Doors played with us quite a bit. Ryan Bigman used to play a lot here-he was a doll….and The Corral had Canned Heat, Linda Rondstat and Little Feat to name a few"….
M.E. “When you moved here, what was the music scene like?”
L.V.-"It was all about Henry Ridge, an area of Topanga-lots of musicians, and big on cowpunk and bluegrazz/Americana. We had “Old Bowl” and the "Topanga Mountain Trio", and Jim’s Band was an 11 piece band-big fun-everyone dances-he’s got the biggest band in Topanga, and 3 girls-I’m on the keyboards, and there’s guitar, bass and drums-Jim’s just kind of “balls out”-he’s like a guy who turns it up-He sings a little like Leon Russel-very funky-We still play with him, but then we have other bands and projects."
L.V.-“and then there were different things like Topanga Film Night, and we would always play there, which is no longer."
DANA "They would show films on the Topanga Community house on the ball field and bands would play-it was really sweet-like Harold and Maude-that was a few years ago and they haven’t done it again”.
L.V.-“The musical activities and festivities changed slightly, except for the big ones"…
M.E. “LV-How did you get into blues music?”
L.V. "I started singing pop and other peoples songs, and then I wrote a bunch of songs in 2003 and recorded them-and they just came out like blues. There wasn’t a plan-I worked with Marshall Chess and he’s the Chess blues guy-I didn’t really listen to a lot of blues-I guess I just had it in my soul-but in my record, it’s not all blues-I have a waltzy tune, and a rock song-they’re all flavored a little bit differently-I recorded it in North Hollywood-in a very cool studio"...
M.E. "What’s the collaboration process with all these different bands you two are in"?
L.V. "We are starting to collaborate with LV and the Lovedogs-This year for Topanga Days, I incorporated 4 of Dana’s songs in the band, and I loved it, but we’re just starting to write together. We have a lot of good meshing. We gather all of our ideas and put them together and allow them to evolve."
DANA "I have a hard time writing with people because I get so attached to my ideas-I have to really step back from it and not get too emotionally involved."
L.V. "I think if we start with a concept, and then just start playing-sometimes I’ll play the drums-it’s fun and then we get the guitar and piano going and add some vocal stuff, and then record it and listen and say, “Ok-let’s do it like that, but not a, b, c or d…etc…recording and listening becomes a major part of the process"...
Check out LV and the Lovedogs on CD Baby
And check out a closer look at Dana's song "Save the Fishes" in this issue...