The Folk in California
Echo In The Canyon: The rise and influence of folk rock in America
Echo in the Canyon (2019)
Directed by Andy Slater
Cast: Jakob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Beck, Regina Spektor and others
The West is indeed the best, as director Andy Slater and executive director Jakob Dylan prove—note after note, song after song and frame after frame—in their lovingly detailed examination of the ’60s counterculture in action, Echo In The Canyon. The work hinges upon a triumphant concert directed by the younger Dylan, meant to glorify and perpetuate a genre that has proven to be as potent and as reliable as California sunshine.
But mostly, the action takes place in a toney area of El Lay called Laurel Canyon. It consists of a study of the music performed and recorded by a group of brave souls—and their sonic descendants—who took the advice of the century and headed West. Of course The Beach Boys were always there, a mythological conceit and nod to the true nature of Cali’s pop music hierarchy. The film touches on that fact gracefully while telling the story of the creation of some of the most influential and enduring popular music of the 20th century.
Jakob drives around New York, Los Angeles, and in particular, la vecinidad se llama Laurel Canyon. Even Ringo has a house there, it turns out. Jakob also gets to hang out quite a bit with Tom Petty, who provides an apt generational link betwixt the aging Boomer rockers and aging Gen X rockers interviewed in the film. Everyone has aged well, except for Petty, who tragically is lately dead from an accidental drug overdose.
The only sad part of this joyous musical celebration of American musical culture comes with the realization of how intensely authentic and how appropriately immersed Petty was as a rock musician, bridging the gap between The Byrds and Beck with classically tuned aplomb.
Musicians talk, play, collaborate with each other, laugh and blame The Beatles for spreading their beautiful and delicious rocanrol virus throughout the East Coast amid the early ’60s folk explosion. It was at the epicenter of that movement in New York when folkies like Roger McGuinn heard the strangely intoxicating guitar stylings of the Fab Four.
McGuinn was one of the first of a group of folk players to move to California and take up rocanrol. During a rehearsal session for The Byrds’ tune “Wild Mountain Thyme” featuring Beck, Regina Spektor and Cat Power, Dylan tells the ensemble, “The Byrds came out here first and everybody else followed.” It was in California that McGuinn started working with Gene Clark and David Crosby. In 1965 The Byrds had landed and folk rock became a huge, poetic, radio-saturating thing, notes a gleeful, Santa Claus-style David Crosby early in the film.
Of course musical hijinks ensued and history was made. Ringo Starr tells Dylan—whilst the two chat casually amongst California greenery—that The Byrds “introduced us to a hallucinogenic situation.”
I wanted to get a clearer idea of why this particular subcultural phenomenon was so important to the past and future of American music. So I phoned up Jakob Dylan. He was busy fixing a headlight or something like that, so the film’s PR people connected me with the director himself, Andy Slater, who happens to be the former big cheese over at Capitol Records. Whoa.
Weekly Alibi: Hey, am I talking to Andy Slater?
Andy Slater: [Laughs] I think so, last time I checked.
What an unexpected honor!
Serio, you’re one of the big names in the backstory of American rocanrol!
Why is this film important?
It’s about those moments that change everything, musically, in America, forever. Roger McGuinn sees A Hard Day’s Night, he buys a twelve-string Rickenbacker and he electrifies folk music. Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” drops. George Harrison hears that and writes “If I Needed Someone” for Rubber Soul. Brian Wilson hears that and records Pet Sounds. The Beatles spin that and Sgt. Pepper’s is the result. Right there is the bedrock for everything in rock music for the next 50-plus years. The idea that the echo of people’s ideas from one time and one place are capable of reverberating worldwide and across decades is an interesting concept to explore.
Why is that narrative particularly relevant now? Why should it be of interest to millennial viewers?
Like any art or cultural movement, it’s important to know the context. Where things come from is important. To appreciate that, whether in fine art or cinema or literature, it’s important to know the foundation, to at least have a cursory overview.
You’ve made a film that will resonate with completists as well as gentle fans. Discuss.
I appreciate that. We all came to a place of love and respect to make this film. People love these songs. So much of what was created in those moments is magical. They were moments in time that shaped us [Americans] in more ways than one, musically and culturally.