T+L reflects on its love of Los Angeles music—and the unshakable pull of California.
Credit: Jessica Sample

There are cities you love for the way they look, the way they move, the way they talk, the way they taste—and then there are cities you love for the way they sound, for the music coursing through them like so much crosstown traffic. I don’t know if I would have the same feelings for Los Angeles had it not come packaged with its particular sound track, but I know it was music that first sold me on the place, and it’s music that keeps me forever circling back.

Other cities may have equally impressive music scenes, but they lack the peculiar imprint of geography that’s stamped on every bridge and chorus made in Los Angeles. Hell, with most bands you can hardly guess where they came from. I grew up in the thrall of Boston acts like the Cars and Mission of Burma, but none of their songs made me think, “Man, I want to go to Massachusetts!” Certainly none ever name-checked Faneuil Hall.

L.A. bands, however, were always calling out their turf. Their music wasn’t simply of Los Angeles but about Los Angeles. From “Ventura Highway” to “MacArthur Park”; Tom Waits (“Crawling down Cahuenga on a broken pair of legs”) to Ryan Adams (“La Cienega just smiled, ‘See you around’ ”); “California Girls” (1965) to “California Gurls” (2010)—has any other city mapped itself out so completely in song?

I got hooked on Cali pop hard and early, like any kid coming of radio age in the 1970’s, when the gooey-sweet harmonies of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac were stuck like syrup on the dial. They were the gateway for archetypal L.A. bands like the Byrds, Love, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and for singer-songwriters like Waits, Rickie Lee Jones, and Joni Mitchell. For these and so many other acts, “Los Angelesness” was essential to their image, projected on album sleeves and magazine covers—whether it was the Beach Boys riding a woody at Paradise Cove or the Eagles with their cow skulls, denim, and fringe. More than movie stars, it was musicians who brokered the homegrown dream of California, selling us the promised land in 4/4 time.

To a wide-eyed boy from New England, it all seemed impossibly exotic, this wild frontier of deserts, salt spray, and warm-smelling colitas (whatever those were). From my vantage—where the only salt spray was crusted on snowbanks, left over from the plow—Los Angeles sounded like more than a nice place to vacation; it sounded like the solution.

I mention all this having just returned from L.A., where I spent most of my time riding around listening to music at peak volume. There is no better place to do so. I keep a playlist for such occasions—419 songs, from Joseph Arthur to Warren Zevon—that, as the backing track for a long drive through the city, speaks to the many moods and muses of Los Angeles.

1. PCH to Zuma

There are no bad words for the coast today. —Rilo Kiley

No matter how often I drive the Pacific Coast Highway, something always happens to my spine the instant I cue up Rilo Kiley’s “Spectacular Views.” On this crystalline morning I’ve got the top down on my rented Mustang and am bound for Zuma Beach. Somewhere, the 15-year-old me is wearing a mad grin.

Though I spent my boyhood under the spell of L.A.’s siren song, at no point in my youth did I visit the actual Los Angeles, the one north of San Diego. Music took the place of travel: through records and the radio, I conjured my own L.A. Over my bed was a poster of the skyline taken at sunset from Griffith Park—you know the one. I’d gaze at those twinkling lights and imagine myself on a golden beach whose name I couldn’t yet pronounce, perhaps with a girl who looked like Stevie Nicks.

2. Malibu to Mulholland

I wanna glide down over Mulholland. —Tom Petty

After a dive into Zuma’s bracing surf—and a walk down the beach with Neil Young’s Zuma on my headphones—I head south. Soon I’m 20 stories above the Pacific, winding up among the live oaks of Topanga Canyon, before I reach Mulholland Drive and turn east, with Petty singing me over the ridge.

The L.A.-ness of L.A. music wasn’t just in the lyrics and album art. California infused the music itself, like a whiff of hot asphalt, pot smoke, and eucalyptus. Harmonies wove together like lanes on a freeway, soaring up hills and winding down canyons; Pacific-bright melodies crested into choruses frothy as surf. This was music calibrated for car stereos, made for singing along to while breezing along Mulholland in a convertible.

I pull over and look down on the Valley. Petty joins me: “It’s a long day, living in Reseda/There’s a freeway running through the yard.” The grid below stretches out for miles, its rigid angles a stark contrast to the swoops and curves of Mulholland.

3. Laurel Canyon to Lookout Mountain

But I couldn’t let go of L.A./City of the fallen angels. —Joni Mitchell

I was 17 when I finally made it to L.A., with a head full of songs. Every road sign spurred a sense of déjà vu. Having little interest in tar pits or Chinese theaters, I went in search of musical landmarks. I skulked outside the doors of the Roxy, Whisky, and Troubadour clubs. I paid my respects to the Tropicana Motel, former flophouse of Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, and Tom Waits (not all together). And I combed the length of Laurel Canyon, storied cradle of L.A. folk-rock, where Jackson Browne and Gram Parsons once strummed guitars on front lawns and David Crosby would pop by for a cup of cocaine. I kept my ears peeled for the wail of coyotes and pedal-steel guitars. Alas, this was the eighties, when L.A.’s music scene was more Poison than Parsons. But I did track down the oak-shrouded bungalow on Lookout Mountain Road where Graham Nash wrote “Our House” for Joni Mitchell.

Mitchell’s own L.A.-themed masterwork, 1974’s Court & Spark, was like a grown-up rebuttal to “California Dreamin’” and the naiveté of the Canyon scene. Draped in a marine layer of fuzzy horns and drowning guitars, the album found its heroine descending from her hilltop redoubt into the city’s star-maker machinery—only to wind up “breaking like the waves at Malibu.”

Four decades on, Laurel Canyon still resembles that forest-ed hippie idyll, but for all the Sotheby’s realty signs. Tree roots burst from the sidewalks; sun flares glint through foliage like on seventies album covers. And as far as I’m aware, Joni Mitchell still holds the deed on that house.

4. Sunset to Gower

I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel/I was staring in my empty coffee cup/I was thinking that the gypsy wasn’t lying/All the salty margaritas in Los Angeles/I’m gonna drink ’em up. —Warren Zevon

As I grew older and listened closer, it struck me that even the happiest-sounding California songs were tinged with regret. Angeleno pop has always trafficked in a certain bittersweet melancholy, from the Turtles (with the major-to-minor mood swings of “Happy Together”) up through current-day canyon rockers Dawes (“You’ve got that special kind of sadness...That only comes from time spent in Los Angeles”).

But few expressed ambivalence so profoundly as the late Warren Zevon, a piano-banging heir to Raymond Chandler and Nathanael West. While his compatriots sang of tequila-soaked parties in the hills, Zevon’s oeuvre was the pale, grubby dawn, populated with dope fiends stranded in Echo Park. The opening lines of “Desperadoes Under the Eaves” (1976), quoted above, capture that peaceful uneasy feeling in the City of Night.

The final verse has the narrator back at the same hotel, “listening to the air conditioner hum”—a plaintive melody that builds into a glorious, hymnlike refrain: “Look away, down Gower Avenue/Look away…” Gower! Of all the boulevards in Los Angeles, Zevon chose that one. Never was such a gorgeous melody attached to such a humdrum street. But tonight, as I turn from Sunset onto Gower, the tune of that air conditioner keeps ringing in my ears.

5. Sunrise on the 405

Six in the morning/Gave me no warning/I had to be on my way. —Tom Waits

Daylight breaks as I head to LAX to catch an early flight home. Like always, I cue up “Ol’ 55,” from Tom Waits’s 1973 debut, Closing Time. (The Eagles scored a hit with their version, but the original is way better.) As I merge onto the 405, Waits’s bar-room piano rubs the sleep from its eyes and staggers toward the chorus: “Now the sun’s coming up/I’m riding with Lady Luck/Freeway cars and trucks/Stars beginning to fade.”