Pop music’s Terrestrial Paradise: Joel Selvin’s ‘Hollywood Eden’

Many authors have sought to chronicle the cultural ferment that gave rise to the Southern California pop music explosion of the 1960s. And while some efforts have yielded worthwhile books, Hollywood Eden: Electric Guitars, Fast Cars, and the Myth of the California Paradise stands apart. The newest book from Joel Selvin – author of nearly 20 music and pop culture books, and music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle for nearly four decades – Hollywood Eden presents a narrative of the late ‘50s and early-to-mid 1960s that reveals the interconnectedness of key figures.

“My books tend toward these ensemble pieces,” says Selvin, who notes that his own personal musical axis has long been based in part on the Beach Boys. He says that the genesis of Hollywood Eden can be traced back to a meeting with his longtime friend Kevin P. Walsh, a 1958 graduate of University High School in West Los Angeles.

“He showed me his yearbook collection,” Selvin recalls. “And the University High yearbook blew my mind.” Students at the time included Jan Berry and Dean Torrence, later to find fame as Jan and Dean; Frank Sinatra’s daughter Nancy; scenester Kim Fowley; drummer Sandy Nelson, future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, and Kathy Kohner, the real-life Gidget.

For many, high school spans the most formative years in their lives. And greater Los Angeles of the late ‘50s marked a time when producer Terry Melcher (future producer of the Byrds, Paul Revere and the Raiders and others), Lou Adler (co-organizer of Monterey Pop), Brian Wilson, Herb Alpert, Phil Spector and others were all heading toward graduation. The manner in which their stories interweave and color each others’ development is expertly showcased in the pages of Hollywood Eden.

“The locus of the book was this University High class,” Selvin says. “That was what tied everything together: discovering that all those people not only went to school together but knew each other and started their careers together, right there.”

While the book – and its author’s accompanying curated music playlist – features a dazzling cast of familiar characters, Selvin believes that Hollywood Eden is about much more than that. “It’s really more of a time and a place,” he says. “It was a totally different world from now: there was no 405 freeway, and the Sunset and Sepulveda intersection [had] a four-way stop sign.”

In those days, the high schoolers profiled in Hollywood Eden were facing a future ripe with possibilities. Selvin emphasizes, too, that “the whole American phenomenon of ‘teenage’ was coming into its own in the prosperity of the post-war [period]. These were golden opportunities to be a teenager on the west side of Los Angeles in the late ‘50s.”

There are many ways for a writer to tackle the sort of subject matter explored in Hollywood Eden. Selvin’s chosen method is to write in a style that reads like a novel, yet steers clear of the kind of manufactured dialogue (between Brian Wilson’s great-grandparents in the 1920s) that characterized Timothy White’s similarly-themed 1994 book, The Nearest Faraway Place.

Some of the characters in Selvin’s book – Brian Wilson, in particular – have been the subject of illuminating biographical works before now. But Selvin’s storytelling adds depth, nuance and – most important of all – context to their stories. And he shines a light on several figures whose names – but not their stories – are well-known. A prime example is Dunhill Records founder Lou Adler. “He’s this figure who has loomed over music history for years,” Selvin says. “But because of his own personal distaste for publicity, nobody has researched or revealed his story at all. And it’s consequential.”

Also of cultural consequence is the story of Kathy Kohner; her experiences hanging out with members of the then-nascent surfing community would inform the cultural lexicon of a generation when her father, novelist-screenwriter Frederick Kohner wrote Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas in 1957.

Another character whose tale serves as a kind of connective tissue uniting seemingly separate stories is Jill Gibson. For much of the period covered in Hollywood Eden, Gibson was dating Jan Berry. “But Jill Gibson was anything but ‘somebody’s girlfriend’” Selvin explains. Drafted as a replacement for Michelle Phillips in the Mamas and the Papas, Gibson was an accomplished songwriter and photographer as well. “I was really proud to bring Jill out of the background,” Selvin says. “I think she’s an archetypal California personality.”

Selvin’s gravitas as a journalist and writer means that he gained up-close access to key people whose stories inform the richly textured Hollywood Eden. He laughs as he acknowledges that Bruce Johnston “is constantly busy and not too interested in participating in somebody’s book project.” Nonetheless, Selvin says that the Beach Boy – who had hits of his own before joining that group in 1965 – granted interviews for the book. And his perspective proved valuable, Selvin laughs again, “because he’s the only guy I met who liked Kim Fowley!”

Fowley was ubiquitous in the L.A. scene of the era covered in Hollywood Eden. “He was also a creep,” Selvin adds. “His talent, such as it was, had to do with being able to see things and making things happen. He didn’t write any songs we care about, and he didn’t really produce any great records. But somehow he always had his finger in the pie somewhere.”

Selvin admits that during research, he made the occasional discovery that wouldn’t find its way onto the pages of the book. He provides an example: “When Sandy Nelson crashed his motorcycle into that school bus, 13-year-old Bonnie Raitt was on the bus.” But including that detail would have distracted from the larger story. “It would stick out of the narrative like some kind of extraneous spoke,” he says. “So I just left that fascinating little tidbit on the cutting room floor.”

Fortunately, Hollywood Eden is full of relevant detail, bringing a kind of order to the disparate stories of its young cast of characters. And the book makes much of what would eventually happen in Southern California music seem preordained, in a way. Because as Selvin notes, “in 1958, teenagers understood rock ‘n’ roll better than the people who owned the record companies.”