Morrison Hotel Photographer Henry Diltz on living in Laurel Canyon at the right time

Musician-turned-photographer Henry Diltz made a name for himself by taking photos of his friends. Luckily, his friends turned out to be music legends. Joni Mitchell. Jim Morrison. David Crosby. Eric Clapton, to name a few. They were 1960s folk-rock stars who lived in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon. Now, Henry Diltz is on tour with his photos alongside fellow photographer Patti Boyd. Diltz spoke with KCRW before his show in Santa Barbara.

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Joni Mitchell Laurel Canyon 1973 ©Henry Diltz/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery

KCRW: You used to get together on the weekends with your musician friends and project your photos on the wall. Is that what this tour feels like to you?

Henry Diltz: It does. It’s hearkening back to my very beginnings in 1966 when I was a musician on the road with the Modern Folk Quartet. We stopped at a second hand store and bought cameras. We took pictures for a few weeks until we got back to L.A. We gathered all our hippie friends together in a room and started projecting these past moments, and were amazed. I said to myself, “wow, I need to do more of this.”

KCRW: What was it like living in Laurel Canyon during the 60s and 70s?

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Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Eric Clapton at Mama Cass’ home Laurel Canyon ©Henry Diltz/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery

Diltz: At the time, it was just a really cool place to live. You’re out in the country with owls, coyotes and raccoons. It was quiet and songwriters could write songs. I think it was just a case of everyone being in the same place. It was very idyllic and laid back, so it was possible to get these shots just hanging out with your friends in an afternoon.

KCRW: How did the Door’s Morrison Hotel album cover photo come about?

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The Doors Morrison Hotel, Los Angeles, CA 1969 ©Henry Diltz/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery

Diltz: I worked with a graphic artist named Gary Burden, and the Doors called us one day because they’d seen the Crosby Stills Nash cover where they’re sitting on the couch and wanted us to do their next cover. So we had  a meeting, and the keyboard player spoke up randomly and said, “my wife Dorothy and I were driving through downtown L.A. the other day and we saw this funky old hotel called the Morrison Hotel.” We said, “that sounds great! Let’s go look!” So we jumped in the Volkswagen van, drove down and there was the window with the arc of letters on it. A couple days later we came back with the band, and the guy behind the desk said “no, you can’t take any pictures here!” So we walked outside, and at that moment I saw a light go on. I looked through the window and saw the guy had left the desk and got in the elevator so I said, “Quick, run in there you guys!” We took one roll of film. Five minutes and we were out of there.

The funny thing is then Jim said “let’s go get a drink.” So we drove a couple blocks to Skid Row and didn’t know where to stop until somebody saw a place called the Hard Rock Cafe on the corner. So we stopped there to get beers and talked to the guys inside. I took some photos and on the back of the Morrison Hotel album was a picture of the Hard Rock Cafe. And as soon as that came out, the Doors got a call from England. The voice on the phone said, “do you mind if we use that name? We’re going to start a cafe in London. We’d like to call it the Hard Rock Cafe.”

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Hard Rock Cafe, Los Angeles, CA 1969 ©Henry Diltz/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery

KCRW: Many of your photographs depict parts of L.A. that aren’t around anymore. There are some apartment buildings on Barham Boulevard in Hollywood, but those weren’t always there, right? 

Diltz: Right, it used to be just a huge vacant lot that went way back. In the trees was a little musical artistic commune. There were a couple buildings, outbuildings, barns, tents and teepees. Various people lived there. I took the Sweet Baby James cover there. I photographed America there. John Sebastian lived there in a tie-dye tent. Many people came through there because it was so friendly. That all got torn down and the Oakwood Apartments were set up.

KCRW: And there was a wading pool at the Hollywood Bowl, right?

Diltz: Yeah, right in front of the stage was a big wide open expanse full of water and fountains. Jimi Hendrix was playing there one night around 1968 and while I was crouched down there shooting, suddenly I saw somebody’s feet next to me. They had jumped into the wading pool, and then all these people starting jumping into the pool and wading into the stage. They had to quickly stop the show, because one microphone or electric guitar falling into the pool and everyone would be electrocuted. It’s not there any longer.

KCRW: You come up to the Santa Ynez Valley several times a year to photograph a singer songwriter series called Tales of the Tavern. What makes those shows special?

Diltz: It’s an intimate setting and they’re some of the best singer songwriters around. It’s a listening audience. You can hear a pin drop. They want to hear every note and every word these people say. We call it Tales of the Tavern because we like to hear the tales. When you hear someone talk about how they wrote the song, it makes the song come alive.

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The Eagles in Santa Barbara 1978 ©Henry Diltz/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery
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The Eagles in Santa Barbara 1978 ©Henry Diltz/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery