“By the time I got up there, it was Wackoville” – David Anderle, head of A&R, Elektra Records
This is a bit of a long story, but stay with me.
In 1967, on the Sunday of the Monterey Pop festival, record producer Barry Friedman convinced Jac Holzman, the founder and boss of Elektra Records, to fund a pet project of his to the tune of $50,000. Friedman told Holzman that the promising young singer-songwriters of his acquaintance needed a West Coast version of Big Pink – a clubhouse-style, non-traditional studio environment in which his charges could write and record and develop musically, away from the time constraints of LA’s network of established studios, with their day rates and wall clocks.
Wild and mercurial, and evidently persuasive, Friedman sold Holzman on his vision, and took singer-songwriters Jackson Browne, Ned Doheny, Jack Wilce, Rolf Kempf and Peter Hodgson, as well as drummer Sandy Konikoff and engineer John Haeny up to Paxton Lodge in Northern California.
The experiment yielded almost no musical or commercial return (just two albums, neither by the big hope of the group Jackson Browne), and it took a substantial toll on its participants. During the year at Paxton Lodge, Friedman restyled himself Frasier Mohawk, started taking heroin and began orchestrating increasingly bizarre scenes for his charges, involving drugs, women and intra-lodge politicking. “It was certainly dysfunctional,” he later admitted. “It was a very strange place, and the people were a bit crazed. Plus there were a lot of evil drugs around.”
The Paxton Lodge experiment took a darker turn when an increasingly crazed Mohawk, angry at Doheny’s refusal to be drawn into the weird mind games he was playing with the young musicians, manipulated Browne into sending Doheny away on his behalf. After Mohawk had a nervous breakdown and engineer John Haeny fled, Elektra eventually pulled the plug. Browne, Doheny and the rest stumbled home to LA to try to make sense of what had happened there. (Similar scenes would play out at dozens of California communes in the decade to come.)
After they got back, Doheny and Browne were soon reconciled, and what the latter did in the years after Paxton Lodge is well known. But what of his friend and sometime rival Ned Doheny?
I first came across Doheny’s name around 10 or 12 years ago, when reading Barney Hoskyns’s Hotel California, upon which the BBC based a 90-minute documentary, called Hotel California: From the Byrds to the Eagles. Doheny was interviewed for both, and was a valuable contributor. Doheny knew everyone, was well liked and respected within the scene, his recall was sharp and his judgements acute. Not much was made in either the book or documentary about his own music, and he was presented as more of a friend-of-the-stars than a serious musician in his own right, but in the decade since then, Doheny’s had something of a revival of interest in his music, to the point where he even undertook his first UK tour in 2014.
Doheny’s 1973 debut album stood out a little from its peers by virtue of its author’s obvious interest in R&B – evident in his occasionally jazzy vocal phrasing, his syncopated strummed acoustic guitar and bluesy lead (an impressive player, Doheny handled all the guitars on the record), as well as arrangements that included a bubbling rhythm section and the tasteful electric piano of Jimmy Calleri. Released on David Geffen’s Asylum label, Ned Doheny won some positive reviews, but failed to take off commercially.
Doheny wasn’t the only white singer-songwriter in LA trying to interface with R&B, jazz and funk. Tim Buckley’s Greetings from LA had emerged in 1972. But while Buckley was undoubtedly a better singer than Doheny, his priapic R&B/rock albums are (for me, anyway) a dispiriting listen. Melodically impoverished next to his best work, they’re also off-puttingly grubby; he sounds like a dirty old man. I’d certainly not want to hear Buckley sing a song called Get it Up for Love.
Doheny, though, somehow gets away with Get it Up for Love, the first tack from 1976’s Hard Candy, around which a sizeable cult has grown in the last 10 years. Musically akin to Boz Scaggs’s contemporaneous records, and even sometimes recalling Steely Dan, Hard Candy saw Doheny achieve an even more seamless acoustic/funk fusion than he had managed on his debut.
The finest moment on the record is A Love of Your Own, co-written and here co-sung with the Average White Band’s Hamish Stuart (AWB would cut their own version of the song in 1976). It’s a very credible falsetto soul ballad, of the sort that fans of Hall & Oates circa Abandoned Luncheonette might appreciate. Doheny deserves a lot of credit, I think, for following his own path rather than doing what Jackson Browne, John David Souther, the Eagles and countless other Canyon cowboys were doing at the time.* It’s pretty heartwarming that, while that put him at odds with the commercial consensus at the time, eventually his records have found their place.
*Perhaps, his financial autonomy played a part in his elliptical career path, which seemed less about concertedly trying to make it big, and more to do with pleasing himself. Doheny was born into oil money; his great-grandfather was Edward L Doheny (after whom Doheny Drive and many other places are named) and upon whom There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel “I drink your milkshake” Plainview is based.