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California Dreaming

Road tripping the California way

Simon Lewis takes a drive through California's rock and roll past

It's called the Golden State for its famous gold rush, its golden poppies and the light that film-makers love. But what about the golden age of rock and roll? I set out on a two-week road trip to find the California places made famous by classic album covers and legendary rock a Ford Mustang.

First stop on my journey was the petting farm at San Diego zoo, instantly recognisable as the place the Beach Boys fed the goats on the cover of Pet Sounds. The zoo itself is vast with its own cable car to speed you between the polar bears, pandas, elephants and goats. There's a huge appetite for rock in San Diego. Its Gaslamp Quarter is teeming with blues bars, restaurants, clubs, cool shops and other hipster hangouts.

The Joshua Tree National Park

Next stop was the Joshua Tree, best known as the name of a U2 album but in fact a must-see national park at the meeting point of the Mojave and Colorado deserts.

Those weird volcanic formations have made Joshua Tree a beacon for rock visionaries. Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg came here in 1969 on a trip with their friend Gram Parsons, the country singer who co-wrote Wild Horses. There's a guitar-shaped shrine to Parsons at the Joshua Tree Inn, where he died aged just 26.

Nearby Palm Springs has always been a haven for the famous. I took a tour of Elvis Presley's honeymoon home, where he shacked up with Priscilla in 1967.

Elvis's manager Colonel Tom Parker lived round the corner, as did Frank Sinatra whose favourite bar was Melvyn's. Martini-loving locals and celebs still lose all inhibitions there around midnight.

There's a sense in Palm Springs that there's always a wild party happening somewhere behind electric gates or out in the desert - which is very much the kind of landscape where people get abducted by aliens.

The Sunset Strip was arguably where heavy rock was born. The Who, The Kinks and Led Zeppelin all played their first US shows at The Whisky a Go Go, turning what had been a hippy hangout into a more raucous affair.

Tucked just off the Strip is the Sunset Marquis, a perfect hideaway for rock stars including Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith and Black Sabbath. Villa 41 was Keith Richards' favourite. He wrote two Rolling Stones albums here and allegedly paid $5,000 for a new carpet each time because he liked to drop his cigarettes on the floor.

Beverly Hills Hotel

The Eagles wrote Hotel California after a disorienting stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel ('You can check out, but you can never leave') and its roof can be seen on the album cover.

Paul McCartney and John Lennon both holed up here in the 1970s, having discovered its charms in the days of Beatlemania. Elvis's car is still parked in the private garage. The same hotel indulged Elizabeth Taylor's order for a bottle of vodka at breakfast during her six honeymoons there. So naturally that's where newly-minted rock millionaires looked for luxury with no questions asked.

It's a long drive from LA to San Francisco, but if you stick to the coast road it's one of the most scenic drives on earth. 

From the hazy neon and palm trees of Los Angeles, the scenery soon becomes vineyards, salad farms and, around Big Sur, redwood forests that stretch up the coast to Canada. There's a section where the Santa Lucia mountains plunge into a Pacific teeming with whales that's so beautiful it's almost a religious experience.

Ashbury Street with its wooden Victorian townhouses

They call San Francisco's Fillmore the 'Vatican of rock' and its equivalent of the Sistine chapel is the poster room, lined with all the psychedelic flyers for legendary gigs there by Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Led Zeppelin, The Who and Pink Floyd.

The nearby Matrix, where Jefferson Airplane debuted, is still a music venue but the iconic Winterland Ballroom is now luxury flats. The old hippy neighbourhoods are long since gentrified, you see.

The Grateful Dead house on Ashbury Street is a beautiful wooden Victorian townhouse and the Jefferson Airplane house on Fulton Street is a gleaming white mansion in the style of a Greek temple.  Scenes of wild bacchanals in their day, both are now private homes. Fans scratch their tributes on nearby railings.

Where do rock stars stay in San Francisco today? There are no bungalow-based hideaways to compare with LA's. So instead stars seek out the best views. None compare to the view from the top of the Mark Hopkins, the tallest building on San Francisco's highest hill. When the Rolling Stones stay, they rent two entire floors of this regal 1920s hotel.   

First published in the Mail Online -  May 2016

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