The Farm: A “Ramshackle Semi-Commune” In The Hollywood Hills, up the road from Burbank

By on March 17, 2016

Today is John Sebastian’s birthday, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to tell you about a wonderful conversation I had with him, many moons ago, in 2001, and in particular some of his memories he had about living on The Farm, which Rolling Stone magazine once referred to as a “ramshackle semi-commune.”

The Farm was a community in the Hollywood Hills, near Burbank, that became home to a number of influential people in the counter-culture, in the late 60s and early 70s, including musician John Sebastian, photographer Henry Diltz and record producer Cyrus Faryar, among others.

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John at Anaheim Stadium, 1970, opening for The Who © Jerry de Wilde

John Sebastian came to live at The Farm in September of 1969, immediately after his unplanned but memorable appearance at Woodstock a month earlier.

In an interview I conducted with him in 2001 for the liner notes for Faithful Virtue (the Rhino Handmade collection of his solo albums and additional recordings for Warner Bros., including his entire performance from Woodstock), he said this:

“At the the same time I was recording John B. Sebastian [his first solo album for nearby Warner Bros. Records], I was living at a place called The Farm, but there were a lot of places called The Farm at that time, so I don’t want to confuse it with others. This wasn’t the Hog Farm, or any of the really ambitious communal situations. The Farm in L.A. was on Barham Boulevard, about halfway down as you go into Warner Bros.’ TV studios in Burbank. Nowadays, where the gateway to where the property was, there’s a huge condominium [the Oakwood Toluca Hills Apartments and Condos].

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John at the Troubador which was used for the John B. Sebastian record cover © Jerry de Wilde

“This property had originally been Lady Barham’s hunting lodge, something probably in the teens or twenties. There were a few buildings and a few out buildings and a few little garages that had sprung up, and very artistic types were living in these different houses. It started off as the actual rental property of a guy named Cyrus Faryar, who was a member of the Modern Folk Quartet.”

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© Henry Diltz, 1969
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Henry Diltz

In addition to John Sebastian, Henry Diltz, who was also a founding member of the Modern Folk Quartet, was a frequent figure at The Farm.

Diltz is, of course, the oft-celebrated photographer who has captured iconic shots of some of our favorite artists from the 60′s and 70′s — including bands like The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Mamas & The Papas, America, Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and The Monkees to name a few. He has more than 200 LP cover photos to his credit, including the Doors’ Morrison Hotel, James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, and Crosby, Stills & Nash’s debut LP.

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John Sebastian, © Henry Diltz, 1969

Henry Diltz, in Rolling Stone, remembers the story behind this photo:

“John Sebastian wrote that fantastic Nashville classic, ‘Nashville Cats.’ I love that song. I had met John when I photographed Lovin’ Spoonful in ’67. I spent a whole summer traveling around on the road with the Lovin’ Spoonful. Then a few years later, they had broken up and John moved out to L.A. and lived on the Farm. He moved there and set up a tent. Among the people that lived at the Farm was a lady named Tie-Dye Annie. She taught John how to tie-dye. He got so into it that he ended up tie-dyeing every single piece of clothing that he owned, including his sheets, his pillowcases, even the sheets he hung inside the tent he lived in.”

Diltz told me a similar story in 2001: “There was a lady called Tie-Dye Annie [Annie Thomas, who lived in a dwelling called the “Chicken Shack”] who made the most beautiful, colorful, bright tie-dyes, which she taught John to do. He got so into it that eventually he tie-dyed every piece of clothing he owned, including his socks, his sheets and the walls of his tent. You should have seen his clothes line on laundry day. There are photos of John wearing these clothes on his album, John B. Sebastian, on Reprise Records, including a picture on the back that I took of him on stage at Woodstock.”

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The Four of Us album and tie-dye (photo by Catherine Sebastian,1971)

In the Faithful Virtue liner notes, Sebastian mentions the various dwellings on the Farm property. There were the two main houses: the “Upper Farm” and the “Lower Farm”. The Upper Farm, where Phil Austin (of the Firesign Theatre comedy troupe), as well as musician Cyrus Faryar and his wife, Renais Jean Hill, lived, was actually part of the original hunting lodge, and featured a huge stone fireplace.

FARM 3 Cyrus, Renais and John, The Farm, Los Angeles, CA 1970

Cyrus Faryar, Renais Jean Hill and Sebastian © Jerry de Wilde, 1969

Faryar — who Elektra Records president Jac Holzman has referred to as the “Persian minstrel of Barham Boulevard” — was also a record producer and he’d built a home recording studio in one of the lodge bedrooms, and it’s in this studio that a lot of music was made.

All kinds of people were dropping by, all the time, including Linda Ronstadt, members of the jazz group Oregon and many others. Ike Turner recorded several albums there, and Cass Elliot did, too, recording tracks for her Dream A Little Dream Of Me album in 1968.

Incidentally, Cass Elliott’s album was produced, in part, by John Simon, who had produced the Band’s Music From Big Pink LP, among many other classics, and it featured performances by John Sebastian, Graham Nash, Steven Stills and John Hartford. The Firesign’s Phil Austin adds his voice between tracks and performing as a carnival barker on “Jane The Insane Dog Lady.”

Sebastian told me that the “Lower Farm” was where Anton Green lived (Green directed a lot of the Firesign’s short movies) — and it’s in the living room of this dwelling where the Firesign Theatre wrote a lot of their material, including their album Nick Danger (the photo of the Firesign Theatre on the back cover of that LP was taken in the driveway of the Upper Farm, incidentally).

Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him was the first comedy album recorded by The Firesign Theatre. It was originally released in 1968 by Columbia Records. It was no doubt inspired by life at The Farm.

One track, “W. C. Fields Forever,” in fact, satirized much of then-current hippie counter-culture and philosophy in general — taking drugs, eating “natural” foods, gurus and Eastern religions, love children — through a mad parade of characters at a commune called “The Lazy Ol’ Magic Circle Dudes Ranch and Collective Love Farm.” Their spiritual leader, “Tiny Doctor Tim,” is no doubt a parody of Dr. Timothy Leary.

John Sebastian: “Cyrus actually invited me, after I had visited them for a few days, to pitch a tent on the top of the hill where there was sort of a flattened-out spot. It was a leftover eight-by-eight tent that actually used to come with the purchase of a Volkswagen bus. This one belonged to the Volkswagen dealer who was sort of enamored with the lifestyle that was happening on this property. He would sell Volkswagens all day and then come by. Eventually he donated this tent. I think it might have been an extra that somebody didn’t pick up when they bought their bus.”

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The name of the VW salesman was Jack Poet — the Firesign Theatre recorded several TV commercials and tracks for their albums for “Jack Poet Volkswagen,” which were actually broadcast on KCOP, Channel 13 in Los Angeles, and radio ads aired on KMET FM.

Sebastian says that Jack Poet lived in a teepee on the Farm.

For the rest of the Firesign Theatre Jack Poet commercials, go here:

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The “flattened-out spot” Sebastian is referring to above was, in actuality, the middle of a dirt trail cutting through a field known as “chicken flats.” There were many trails up in those Hollywood Hills, just up the road from Burbank, and they’re mostly still accessible today; there’s the Cahuenga Peak trail, in Aberdeen Canyon, starting from Commonwealth Canyon Road, and Aberdeen Trail, Hogback Trail, Mulholland Trail, and an access road called Mt. Lee Road, which leads up to the Hollywood sign, the famous sign on top of Mount Cahuenga (or is it Mt. Lee?) created to promote a housing development (originally “Hollywoodland”).

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© Henry Diltz, 1969

John Sebastian: “The Farm was full of wonderful mythology. There had been, within a month or two of my arrival, an Indian get-together on this hill. There was a mountain on the property that was considered a very sacred power point by certain Indian tribes [Mt. Cahuenga, or sometimes Cahuenga Peak]. I don’t know which tribes, but the fun part of the story was that the Indians came to hold this meeting and, of course, all these European and American folks were absolutely fascinated by this. They ended up sleeping in the tee-pees and the tents that were brought in for this occasion while the actual Native Americans slept downstairs in the houses.”

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John Sebastian, Waterbaby Dye Works, The Farm © Jerry de Wilde, 1969

John Sebastian: “So, this little California hideaway kind of really supported me, just as far as the friendship and continuity and family, for about a year and a half. It was mostly musicians and actors and comedians, photographers and artists, and these are not the same kind of people who, you know, really dug in and hold hands every night and that kind of thing. In fact, we barely ate together. It was very informal, but it was somewhat of communal situation in that we had to pool our money for the rent, and stuff like that. I met my wife there, in fact, the woman I’ve had both my children with, the woman I’m still married to.”

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© Jerry de Wilde, 1969

Henry Diltz has dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of unpublished photos taken at The Farm, which we may get to see someday, either in a coffee table book (I’d love to write text to go with that, if you’re out there listening, Henry), or a documentary film.

BONUS:

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The famous cover of James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James was also accidental. Although the bucolic photos seem to have come from a photo session at a pastoral Massachusetts farm, in fact they’re the product of an afternoon session in Burbank with Henry.

Diltz: “[James’s manager] Peter Asher asked me to come to his house,” Henry said, “to take black & white promo shots. But the light wasn’t good there, so I suggested we go to Cyrus’ place – he lived them at the Farm on Barham Boulevard [no longer standing, it was situated on the ground behind what is now the Oakwood Apartments] . There were sheds and barns there, and I love shooting around barns, because there’s that old weathered wood. And the way the light comes in the windows is so good. [James] was wearing a blue work-shirt. He was leaning against stuff, we were talking, but not too much.

Diltz: I didn’t really know his music then–nobody did. When he leaned on that post, that looked perfect, and I took a few black & whites, and I said, ‘Wait a minute, James, I wanna get a few color shots,’ and reached down in my bag for my other camera. I just did that because I wanted to put that in my slide show, so I took half a dozen color shots. And those were the ones they used.”

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James Taylor and Peter Asher at The Farm, © Henry Diltz, 1969

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.