Sex, drugs and the billion-dollar rise of David Geffen

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The Independent Culture

1. On a baking day in August 1971, five naked young men sit in a sauna in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles. Four are musicians, three on the cusp of unimaginable success. Two are out-of-towners, come to sunny southern California to find fame, glory, girls. All are lean, rangy, good-looking - "like Jesus Christ after a month in Palm Springs", in the words of their friend Eve Babitz.

The fifth naked man in the sauna is the one who owns it: a short, skinny agent who's moved to LA from New York and established himself as a talent broker of fearsome repute. Among his clients are Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. As the sweat pours off their sun-tanned limbs, David Geffen tells the four musicians - Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Jackson Browne and Ned Doheny - about his plans for his record label. "I want to keep Asylum very small," he avers. "I'll never have more artists than I can fit in this sauna."

Twenty years later, Geffen will sell his second label - one he modestly names after himself - for a cool $550m (£290m). At the same time, the first greatest hits album by The Eagles - the group formed by Glenn Frey and Don Henley - will officially be pronounced the biggest-selling album of all time. "David took the crème de la crème from that scene," says Eve Babitz, "and signed them on the basis of their cuteness." Not bad work for an afternoon's Nordic ogling.

The story of the incredible journey from the dawn of the singer-songwriter era in the mid 1960s to the peak of The Eagles' success in the late 1970s is an epic tale of songs and sunshine, drugs and denim, genius and greed. It is also the story of an unparalleled time and place, the scene that swirled around the denim navel-gazers and cheesecloth millionaires of the Los Angeles canyons. It's about the flighty genius of Joni Mitchell, the Janus-like volte-faces of Neil Young, the drugged disintegration of David Crosby, Gram Parsons, Judee Sill and others. It's about the myriad relationships, professional and personal, between these artists and the songs they wrote; about the love affairs between Joni and Graham Nash, Joni and James Taylor, Joni and Jackson Browne, Stephen Stills and Judy Collins, Linda Ronstadt and JD Souther. More than anything it's a narrative of rise and fall - from "Take It Easy" to "Take It to the Limit" , from the hootenanny innocence of boys and girls with acoustic guitars to the coked-out stadium-rock superstardom of the mid 1970s.

At a time when the influences of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and The Eagles have never been more pervasive, the moment has come to reappraise this remarkable group of artists - and the remarkable group of powerful movers and shakers who shaped their careers.

In 1960 the music business was still centred in New York, whose denizens regarded LA as kooky and provincial at best. Between the years 1960 and 1965 a remarkable shift occurred. The sound and image of southern California began to take over, replacing Manhattan as the hub of American pop music. Producer Phil Spector took the hit-factory ethos of New York's Brill Building songwriting stable to LA and blew up the teen-pop sound to epic proportions. Entranced by Spector, local suburban misfit Brian Wilson wrote honeyed hymns to beach and car culture that reinvented the golden state as a teenage paradise. Other LA producers followed suit. In 1965 singles recorded in Los Angeles occupied the No 1 spot for an impressive 20 weeks, compared to just one for New York. It was no coincidence, perhaps, that record companies in New York were waking up to what snobs called the "Left Coast". Paul Rothchild, a hip A&R man with Jac Holzman's classy and eclectic Elektra label, flew out to LA to scout the 1964 folk festival at UCLA. Smitten with what he found, Rothchild began to commute regularly between the East and West Coasts.

"We'd picked over the East Coast pretty well," said Holzman. " LA was less the promised land than the untilled field." No one harvested that field better than David Geffen.

2. Geffen had grown up in blue-collar Brooklyn, a skinny kid with dreams of mogulism. He was 17 when his pattern-cutter father died and left him with an adoring mother who sold girdles and referred to her son as "King David". He first visited Los Angeles in 1961, staying with his brother Mitchell, a student at UCLA. "From the day I arrived," he says, "California seemed like an enchanted land."

Back in New York in 1964, David landed a mail room job at the William Morris talent agency. After lying about UCLA references of his own, he steamed open a letter from the university denying that he'd ever studied there. He regularly embellished his CV to enhance his standing. Elliot Roberts was an agent who witnessed Geffen steaming open other letters in order to get jump-starts on what was happening in the company. The guy's drive and ruthlessness, appalling to others, thrilled Roberts. It didn't take David Geffen long to rise up from the mail room.

As pop music became bigger business in the mid 1960s, William Morris opened its doors to long-haired musicians that it might have disdained two years before. Geffen was perfectly placed to deal with this emerging talent. "Stay with people your own age," senior agent Jerry Brandt counselled him. "Go into the music business."

In truth, Geffen knew little about music. When the television director Steve Binder turned him on to a remarkable singer named Laura Nyro, he'd never heard of her. Nyro was a Gothic Cass Elliott, a boho Barbra Streisand in black. Her swooping voice and street-operatic songs were starting to be covered by successful pop/MOR acts. Geffen eagerly seized the opportunity to offer his services. Nyro was quickly won over by his infectious enthusiasm, especially after she bombed at the Monterey Pop Festival and he rushed to her side to comfort her.

"She was a very strange girl," Geffen told Joe Smith [who would take over at Elektra-Asylum when Geffen departed]. "She had hair down to her thighs. She wore purple lipstick, Christmas balls for earrings, strange clothes. But [she was] very talented." David Crosby believed that Laura was "a window into something in [Geffen] that was not primarily about money". The fact that Nyro and Geffen were both primarily gay helped: those who weren't in the know even thought they'd become a couple. "People said, 'You know he's gay,'" says Judy Henske [the blues and folk singer]. "And I thought, 'Well, you don't get a really gay hit from him, but whatever.' In any case he was great, and the reason that he was so great was that he was so smart. He was really, really fun and really, really smart."

The journalist Ellen Sander, who'd written about him in the New York press, also failed to get "a gay hit" from Geffen. She even seduced him one night in her apartment on East 20th Street. According to his biographer Tom King, "[David] credited Sander with helping him to conquer his fear of sex with women."

For at least two years, Geffen was jetting back and forth between New York and Los Angeles. He lived in a chic apartment on Central Park South and stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel when he was in LA. On one trip he pressed a demo of Laura's songs into the hands of Bones Howe, producer of pop-soul group The Fifth Dimension.

Subsequently they recorded several Nyro tunes, notably the smash hits "Stoned Soul Picnic" and "Wedding Bell Blues". To Geffen's delight, the value of Laura's catalogue increased exponentially as a result. Brazenly disregarding rules governing conflict of interest, he worked as both her agent and her publisher, forming Tuna Fish Music in partnership with her. "David was an opportunist," says Joe Smith. "He was very quick and very smart."

Geffen's energy was formidable. "He never stopped," says Essra Mohawk, an aspiring singer-songwriter adopted by Nyro. "I called him 'the elf on roller skates'. He seemed gay to me, so I never bought that he and Laura were a couple. I liked him a lot. He was very friendly."

In May 1968 he quit William Morris and joined Ted Ashley's agency. His responsibilities were now almost entirely musical. When he wasn't in California himself he would receive at least one phone call a day from Elliot Roberts. Usually it involved Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.

Before a year was up, Geffen was scheming to form not just his own agency, but his own label and personal management firm, too. With unprecedented audacity he suggested to Clive Davis that he leave his job as president of Columbia and partner him, Geffen, in a new label. Davis declined. In February 1969, turning 26, Geffen launched David Geffen Enterprises. First, however, came a major challenge: the disentanglement of Crosby, Stills and Nash so they could form a new group.

Taking a break from LA in early 1969, Crosby, Stills and Nash honed their new material in a house that Paul Rothchild kept on Long Island. While there they went into New York City to formalise their relationship with David Geffen. Elliot Roberts flew out from LA to be present.

What CSN proposed in Geffen's Central Park South apartment was a straight no-paper handshake deal. Geffen hesitated for a split second and then agreed. Clive Davis, who thought highly of Geffen's shark-like talent, released David Crosby without a whimper; if anything he was delighted to be rid of "the Bad Byrd". In exchange, Davis would get The Buffalo Springfield's Richie Furay and his new group Poco. A tougher sell was Jerry Wexler, who fiercely resisted Geffen's request that Atlantic release Stephen Stills. When Geffen came to see him, the meeting sparked a decade of bad blood. Jerry, a well-read jazz fan who scorned agents as parasites, physically threw the smaller man out of his office.

"I knew [Jerry's] accomplishments and went to him with great respect, " Geffen later protested. "I'm not saying I was completely in control of my emotions, because I wasn't. But Wexler wouldn't even listen to me. He treated me like dirt. He screamed and yelled and acted like I was looking to rob him." Altogether wilier was the response of Ahmet Ertegun. The legendary co-founder of Atlantic thought a few moves ahead of Wexler. What, he asked himself, can I get out of this arrogant kid? "I saw in him a potential genius entertainment executive or entrepreneur," Ertegun said in 1990. "He was very bright and very fast. He was younger than me and he had a keen sense of where youth was going in America."

Turning on all his Park Avenue charm, Ahmet seduced Geffen, who left thinking the goateed Atlantic prez was "the most sophisticated, amusing, and encouraging man I had ever met in my life". Within weeks, Crosby, Stills and Nash was an Atlantic act. "Later I saw [Geffen's] devotion to his artists," Jerry Wexler would concede. "His group of California rock poets worked for him without a contract - that's how deep their trust ran."

With the CSN deal inked, Geffen decided to make Los Angeles his base. "There was so much going on in California that it was the only place to be," he says. With Elliot Roberts already based there and building a stable of talent, David knew it was the right time to strike. The two men cemented their partnership as they drove to Carl Gottlieb's house on Gardner Street one afternoon [Gottlieb, a Hollywood screenwriter, was a long-time friend of Crosby's]. "David stopped the car," said Roberts. "Then he turned to me and said, 'Listen, let's just do this.'" When Elliot faintly protested that he'd done most of the hard work himself, David told him to shut up. "You know you'll make twice as much money with me," he said.

Installed in a fancy new office at 9130 Sunset Boulevard, the two men plotted to shape the destinies of the canyon ladies and gentlemen. "The word got around that there were these music-industry guys who were also human beings," says Jackson Browne. "Crosby told me that Geffen was really brilliant but you could also trust him. And you could. David and Elliot would have done anything for their artists. In an industry full of cannibals, they were like the infantry coming over the hill."

Geffen-Roberts clients were under no illusions about the duo's master plan, however. "Elliot Roberts is a good dude," David Crosby told Ben Fong-Torres of Rolling Stone magazine. "However, he is, in his managerial capacity, capable of lying straight-faced to anyone, any time, ever." And if Roberts didn't rob you blind, the grinning Crosby continued, "We'll send Dave Geffen over: he'll take your whole company. And sell it while you're out to lunch."

But it wasn't all about money for Geffen. There was a part of him that fed off the egos and insecurities of his stars, compulsively trying to make everything perfect for them. Staying sober and focused while the talent indulged, Geffen was driven not just by his own insecurity but by his own ravening co-dependency.

"David may have wanted to have a successful business," says Jackson Browne, "but he also wanted to be part of a community of friends. He became our champion, and years later - after a lot of therapy - he finally got over his need to caretake people to the detriment of his own life." In the meantime there were plenty of fragile egos to caretake - and much remarkable talent to exploit.

3. Up on the Strip, the live scene was hurting. Name bands were now too big to play small clubs like the Whisky: they'd be booked into bigger venues like the Kaleidoscope or the Shrine Auditorium. And the Strip itself was hardly the bustling beads-and-bells mecca it had been in 1965-66. It was a different story down on Santa Monica Boulevard, where Doug Weston's Troubadour was now the de facto clubhouse for LA's denim in-crowd. " Sunset Strip sort of shut down after Monterey," says the rock writer Domenic Priore. "But Doug managed to ride the storm out. He had the place, and the people that had been involved with the folk-rock scene on the Strip gravitated to the Troubadour."

"When the Troub came along, that was right up our alley," says Linda Ronstadt. "It was small enough that you could really hear the music well and get close to it. Of course we were all so self-centred that to us it was already the centre of the universe."

On any given night one might see the angelic Jackson Browne emerging from the kitchen with a bottle of Dos Equis. Arlo Guthrie, newly signed to Reprise by Lenny Waronker, would flirt shamelessly with any girl who worked at the club. In a corner would be the comedian/banjo player Steve Martin, who, in the recollection of the Troubadour mainstay Eve Babitz, sat with "a single glass of white wine in the midst of all that cigarette smoke", unwilling "to look on the bright side of total debauchery". Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison might be holed up with a small entourage and a bottle of Jim Beam. Later they would be poured into a Red & White cab after becoming belligerent and abusive.

"If you sold out the Troubadour, that was it," says Tom Waits, who played the club early in his career. "At the Troub they announced your name and picked you up with a spotlight at the cigarette machine, and then they'd walk you to the stage with the light. Then Doug would go out onstage naked and recite [TS Eliot's] 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'."

At the Troubadour the waitresses - Reina, Black Sylvia, Big Tit Sue - and the bartenders - Ray, Kevin, Gatt, Jim Maxwell, John Barrick - were almost as famous as the entertainers who hung out there. "There was Big Tit Sue and Bigger Tit Sue, and there was Black Sylvia behind the bar," recalls Robert Marchese, a tough-talking former football player from Pittsburgh who produced Richard Pryor's first album at the club in September 1968. "The Troub nearly brought the Whisky to its knees. Everybody started hanging out at the bar on Monday night hoot night. They would all get together, get drunk, talk about how great they were, and go home."

Few went home alone. Fornication was on tap at the Troubadour. Eve Babitz said you could smell the semen on the street. Drunk or wired, boys and girls fell into bed with each other and retained scant recollection of their couplings the next day. "It was such a sexual experience being in that place," says the photographer Michael Ochs. "You could fall asleep there and wake up in bed with some woman."

For fastidious executives such as Jac Holzman there was "too much posturing and moving around" at the club, but for good-time guys like Doug Dillard the place was heaven. On one deeply cherished occasion Doug broke into the opening lines of "Amazing Grace", joined moments later by a lustrous Linda Ronstadt harmony - and then by David Crosby, Gene Clark, Harry Dean Stanton and Jackson Browne, all pitching in a cappella. Dillard was also the chief protagonist in umpteen extra-musical legends. On one occasion a frenziedly jealous Suzi Jane Hokom - the singer whom Doug had stolen away from Lee Hazlewood - attempted to run the banjo player over in the street, instead missing him and crashing into the karate studio next door.

"The Troub was the only place where you could go and showcase for record companies," remembers Jackson Browne. "If you were lucky you might get to sing three or four songs that night." Most importantly, the club was the crucible for LA's burgeoning country-rock sound - the HQ for "the people who had grown their hair long but who still loved country music and wanted to play it", in the words of the Texan pedal steel player Al Perkins.

Sweetheart queen of the scene was Linda Ronstadt, whose latest backing band was the Corvettes, a group formed by Chris Darrow and ex-Dirt Band member Jeff Hanna.

"Linda was the most underrated of all the country rock people because she was female," Darrow says. "I think she was one of the most naturally gifted singers I've met in my life, and she had impeccable taste." Towards the end of 1969 Ronstadt was living with her producer John Boylan on King's Road above Sunset Strip. Boylan was a well-to-do East Coast preppie who'd worked with The Lovin' Spoonful before moving west to work with Rick Nelson and the Dillards. Galvanised by LA's new country rock sound, he was determined to make Linda more than the one-hit wonder of "Different Drum ".

Ronstadt herself had become fanatical about getting her music right, especially given the lack of understanding from her manager, Herb Cohen, and her label, Capitol. "Linda was relentless about trying to find great songs, because she didn't write herself," says Bernie Leadon, who replaced Jeff Hanna in her band. "If someone said he was a songwriter, she'd have them over in the corner with a guitar and she'd say, 'Right, play me your songs.'" At the Troubadour, Linda was at the heart of a clique of lean and hungry youngbloods. Most were male. "It's like the musician pool and the sex pool, you know?" Ronstadt said in 1974. "Like, if you needed a new player there was this big tank full of whoever's not busy at that point, so you just reach in . . . and get one. Or, 'Gee, I just broke up with my old man, I need a new honey' - reach into the same tank."

Among those splashing around in the Troubadour "tank" were Jackson Browne, Ned Doheny, and a lean and good-looking duo - Glenn Frey and John David Souther - who performed under the folksy appellation Longbranch Pennywhistle.

Souther was a reddish-headed Texan who'd drifted out to California from Amarillo in the spring of 1967. "I think I knew exactly what I would find there," he said. "I even knew what the Californian air would smell like. It was ozone and ocean and automobile exhaust and eucalyptus." Frey hailed from Detroit, where he'd played guitar with Bob Seger but secretly hankered for the fantasy land conjured up in Beach Boys records. "I saw copies of Surfer magazine," Frey reminisces. "I took acid and bought the first Buffalo Springfield album and got chill-bumps and had to lay on the floor and stuff. I got into this whole 'California consciousness'. "

In a sign of things to come, the early California adventures of these denim desperadoes were entwined with women. "I came out here chasing my girlfriend from Detroit," Frey told Rolling Stone. "John David was going out with my girlfriend's sister and I met him my first day in California."

Souther was already a country fan, obsessed with Hank Williams. Though he knew little about Bakersfield, moving to California broadened his musical education to encompass that hot, dusty city. Frey said that Souther taught him "to sing and play country". The two men combined forces as a neo-Everly Brothers folk/country duo and snagged a deal with Amos, an independent label launched by the ex-Reprise A&R man Jimmy Bowen. The following year they recorded their first and only album. Unfortunately Longbranch Pennywhistle, released in September 1969, was lacklustre, despite featuring such session men as James Burton, Jim Gordon and Ry Cooder. When Frey and Souther came to Bowen and suggested making a more stripped-down record with Neil Young's producer David Briggs, Bowen asked who Young was. It didn't bode well.

When Amos refused to release a second album, Glenn and JD did what any other broke country rockers did in LA in 1969: hang around the Troubadour bar. At a benefit concert down in Long Beach, Frey and Souther bonded with local hero Jackson Browne. When the two men split up with their girlfriends, Jackson stumbled on a two-apartment house in Echo Park and the three amigos moved in together. 1020 Laguna Avenue was a long way from Laurel Canyon, but the rent was dirt cheap, with Jackson occupying the downstairs studio apartment and the Pennywhistle boys holed up above him. The neighbourhood was predominantly Mexican, dotted with funky eateries like Barragan's, which served killer huevos rancheros and lethally strong coffee.

Glenn and JD would slob around the apartment waiting for success to knock at the door. At night it got scarier, especially when The Fugs' Ed Sanders - researching a book on Charles Manson - stayed with them. "A couple of times," Jackson Browne remembers, "Glenn had to throw milk bottles through the window to discourage what Sanders called 'the sleazo inputs' who were after him." Unlike Frey and Souther, Browne worked assiduously at his songs, repeating and reworking phrases on an old upright piano until he'd got them right. For the Longbranch boys it was a lesson in application. One of the songs floating up through the floorboards was "Rock Me on the Water", inspired by the mythologist Joseph Campbell. Another had a chorus about taking life easy: it caught Frey's ear and lodged itself in his subconscious.

By night, more often than not, the trio would bundle themselves into a clapped-out car and head over to West Hollywood. Life at the Troubadour was mainly about posing. For those on the outside of its in-crowd, the Troubadour wasn't necessarily the friendliest place. On hoot nights, aspiring bards lined up along Santa Monica Boulevard like cattle, waiting for gatekeeper Roger Perry to give them the nod or send them on their way. "There is no room for compassion here, or pity," LA Free Press columnist Liza Williams wrote in 1970. "It's a voluntary slaughter, it is self-induced agony, and it rubs off and it corrupts." In a song about the club written almost a decade later by Glenn Frey's band The Eagles, the Troubadour "seemed like a holy place/ protected by amazing grace". But the song was entitled "The Sad Café", its clientele described as "a lonely crowd". "[It] was and always will be full of tragic fucking characters," Frey told Cameron Crowe, then a rock writer. "Sure, it's brought a lot of music to people, but it's also infested with spiritual parasites who will rob you of your precious artistic energy."

None the less, the scene was now set. Los Angeles had drawn these disparate characters to its bosom and they in turn would reinvent the California dream. "It was the scene that attracted them," says Ron Stone, who would help to manage Souther, Frey and Henley. "The sound may have originated in Michigan or Texas, but it was brought to southern California and then identified as the sound from southern California. These people found their way to California because that's where this particular music was being prized. You may be in Michigan writing Californian songs, but there comes a time when you actually have to go there."

4. The release of Crosby, Stills & Nash in May 1969 marked the true dawn of post-hippie California. It announced that jangly bands with Rickenbacker guitars were over, offering in their place a loose triad of alpha males in denim jeans. It also flew in the face of power rock and heavy blues. "When we first came out it was Marshall time," Graham Nash remembered. "It was Jimi, Free, Cream, loud rock 'n' roll, whereas our music had this fresh, sunny vibe which cut right through." Hendrix himself took due note. "I've seen Crosby, Stills and Nash," he said. "They're groovy. Western sky music. All delicate and ding-ding-ding."

Crosby, Stills and Nash acted as a kind of salve at a point when the hippie revolution was in serious danger of overheating. "There were too many people dying and breaking up," says Robert Marchese. "People were like, 'OK, we're gonna calm this thing down.' They didn't really calm down. They were doing just as many drugs, but it became more sophisticated."

Crosby, Stills & Nash was Top 10 by July 1969, remaining in the charts for over two years. But some Byrds and Buffalo Springfield fans were turned off by the supergroup packaging of CSN, mourning the loss of the innocence that lit up Sunset Strip in the mid 1960s. "It all started to become like a big business deal," says Tom Nolan, the first local rock writer of note. "By the time they started putting these supergroups together, it all started going downhill." Nolan wasn't alone in noting the influence of the men pulling the strings behind Crosby, Stills and Nash. What set David Geffen and Elliot Roberts apart from the agents and managers that preceded them was that they looked exactly like their artists. They behaved like them, too: if Geffen was parsimonious in his drug use, Roberts may have smoked more pot than all his clients put together. "The first major change that happened in this era was people like David Geffen and Elliot Roberts becoming powerful," says David Anderle [the musician, producer and writer]. "These were people from the folk dream period of the 1960s but they had their feet in both camps."

Holding down a new day job as a vice-president with Creative Management Artists, Geffen simultaneously co-managed Elliot Roberts' roster of artists. Effectively, Elliot was a kind of front for Geffen. "When I worked for Elliot, David was never there, but it was very clear that he had influence," says [the actress] Allison Caine. "They were very careful about the propriety of his role as an agent. David never had his fingerprints anywhere. "

"The association was as complex as anything in the music business," Gottlieb noted in David Crosby's autobiography. "By California law Elliot couldn't directly negotiate for the services of his clients while acting as their personal manager. As an agent David couldn't properly take a management commission on clients he was managing in fact if not in name." The issue of whether Geffen was only in it for the money or whether he actually cared about the music is one that divides people to this day. " I think he loved the music," says Caine. "I can't believe that he did it strictly for the money. It was the emotional attachment - the love of the artists and the music." For David Crosby the mitigating factor when it came to Geffen was Roberts. Elliot, he figured, was the good cop to David Geffen's bad. "Even though we knew David was smart and would do a good job," Crosby told the CSN biographer Dave Zimmer, "I never thought he was that nice a guy and I didn't trust him all the time. So we needed an insurance policy. A watchdog. That was Elliot Roberts. [He] was more of a mensch. So he balanced things out."

"Elliot was shrewd," says Caine. "He fitted in with the scene while being the guy that had to do the business. He always protected his artists, always. That was his focus, at whatever cost and whatever names he got called." Geffen himself was empathic enough to understand that the key to this new style of management was people. "I quickly figured out [that] the one ability I'd better have is to create relationships," Geffen says of his time in the William Morris mail room. "It isn't about how tall you are or how good-looking you are or whether or not you can play football. It's about whether you can create a relationship."

Geffen wasn't tall or good-looking, and he certainly hadn't played football. Indeed, his fanatical drive to succeed was fuelled by his considerable insecurities. With chutzpah, David figured he could beat just about anyone at the entertainment game. The key, though, was to earn the trust of an inner circle of artists and then wage war on everybody else. "There are two schools of personal management," says Carl Gottlieb. " One is the manipulative Svengali school, the other is the nurturing protective manager who erects a Chinese wall around the client and indulges the client's every whim and wish. Geffen-Roberts was the latter."

"I never felt I was too protective," Geffen says today. "I felt I was functioning as a dam against the river of shit that comes pouring down on artists, and it was a job that I took very seriously." Geffen was prepared to use any means necessary to get the best deals for his artists. "He was extremely intense and preternaturally focused," Gottlieb says. "He could also exploit any insecurity you had about yourself and make you feel you weren't worthy."

An early victim of Geffen's ruthlessness was Paul Rothchild, who'd produced the first CSN demos but was unceremoniously squeezed out of the frame before recording began at Wally Heider's. "That was the beginning of the end of the love groove in American music," Rothchild says. " To me, that's the moment. When David Geffen enters the California waters as a manager, the sharks have entered the lagoon."

One of Geffen's unlikeliest allies was Stephen Stills, whose craving for success belied the self-loathing that lingered from his love-starved boyhood. Stills saw Geffen as his ticket to megastardom, and with good reason. Uptight and politically conservative, Stills hid his uneasiness about Geffen's sexual orientation and often stayed at his apartment on Central Park South. One night in the late spring of 1969, Geffen and Stills took a taxi up to Ahmet Ertegun's swanky place on the Upper East Side. Over dinner the three men discussed ways to make Crosby, Stills and Nash the biggest band in the land. When Stills expressed doubts about CSN going on the road as an acoustic trio, Ahmet Ertegun scratched his goatee beard. "Stephen," he asked, "did you ever think about getting Neil Young in the group?"

Famously, Joni Mitchell never made it to Woodstock but composed its anthem, "Woodstock", anyway. David Geffen, more concerned about her TV appearance on The Dick Cavett Show the next day than about the festival, urged her to remain in New York. "I picked up the New York Times at the airport," Geffen remembers. "It said '400,000 People Sitting In Mud', and I said to Joni, 'Let's not go!'" In the event, CSNY flew out of the festival in a helicopter and appeared on the Cavett show themselves.

When Joni Mitchell opened for CSNY in Chicago in August 1969, Neil Young took his fellow Canadian aside and whispered that they should be opening for her. It was a generous sentiment and one that Joni appreciated. "I feel very kindred to Neil," she later told Musician. "We're caught between two cultures - we're neither-nor."

Young, though, was secretly shocked by the confessional transparency of Mitchell's songs. "[Joni] writes about her relationships so much more vividly than I do," he told Cameron Crowe. "I guess I put more of a veil over what I'm talking about." It was ironic, therefore, that Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" was a song about the end of Mitchell's affair with Graham Nash. Maybe it was easier for him to observe the relationship problems of others than to confront his own.

That said, the Nash-Mitchell break-up affected everybody in the immediate Geffen-Roberts circle. The two singers had loved each other deeply and respectfully, but now Joni felt torn between her love and her art. Notes the photographer Nurit Wilde, "A monster talent like Joni's wasn't going to be kept down by being someone's old lady."

Mitchell's torment dramatised the struggles many female artists faced as the 1960s folded into the 1970s. Haunted by the conformities of the 1950s, when women stayed at home and stifled their ambitions, the folk generation became part of the feminist uprising. But for Joni this came at a painful cost. Just as she had suffered dreadful loss after giving up her baby in 1965, so now she forsook her best shot at conjugal happiness. "Graham is a sweetheart, and we didn't part with any animosity," Joni told the rock writer Dave DiMartino. "[He] needed a more traditional female."

One afternoon in the summer of 1969, Frank Zappa was sitting in the living room of the Log Cabin - at the intersection of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Lookout Mountain Avenue - with Wild Man Fischer and an assortment of GTOs, the group of girls who used to hang out there. Suddenly a scary-looking man burst through the open front door and introduced himself as "the Raven". Zappa rose, uncertain and scared, to his feet. The Raven handed Zappa a small bottle of stage blood, announced that he had "isolated the specimen", and pulled a gun from his pants. Wild Man Fischer, himself a fairly loopy individual, turned visibly white with fear. Zappa managed to placate the intruder by encouraging him to hide his gun. Fischer, the GTOs, and Frank's comely wife Gail joined in: "Help the Raven hide his gun!" Eventually he was persuaded to stash the weapon in a hole in the back yard. The Raven went on his way but Zappa decided it was time to find a less accessible residence. "[Frank] was afraid of the very thing that bit the hippie movement in the ass," says Billy Payne of Little Feat. 'That was the craziness of what would happen to people when they got fried on drugs."

The fact that Zappa was one of the most prominent rock-star residents of Laurel Canyon didn't change the fact that he viewed the flower-power underground with amused contempt. "It was like Frank had X-ray vision and could see into the future," says Pamela Des Barres, then Miss Pamela of the GTOs. "He could see where all the hippie bullshit was going. And when everybody else got weirder, Frank got less weird. I think one of the main reasons he moved to Laurel Canyon was to make fun of it."

"I live in the middle of the great hallucinogenic wasteland - Laurel Canyon," Zappa told Teen Set magazine, "on one of the hot streets with the rest of the stars...lotsa action, having a wonderful time, wish you were here." In a Guitar Player column some years later, Zappa was even more cynical about Laurel Canyon and its "folk-rock 12-string swill".

"There were a lot of weird people around," says Joni Mitchell. "There was one guy who had a parrot called Captain Blood, and he was always scrawling real cryptic things on the inside walls of my house - Neil Young's, too." The times they were a-changin' again. The heady sexual and narcotic experiments of the 1966-68 period had freed some minds but damaged many others. Laurel and other Los Angeles canyons were now crawling with weird wannabes and unhinged hangers-on.

In LA, a kind of malevolent decadence took root in the rock scene. The drugs were getting harder. The exploitation of the scene by dealers of all kinds was rampant. "Sunset Strip got really ugly," says the writer Jan Henderson. "Let's face it, we were all doing shit we weren't supposed to, but the sharks moved in. I remember going to parties and seeing people screwed out on secanols and nembutals - the heavy sleepers."

"LA was a dangerous environment at that time," says Phil Kaufman, who tried in vain to keep Gram Parsons on the straight and narrow [he was his road manager]. "It was blatant drugs." By the end of 1969, the slaughter of Sharon Tate and her friends by Charles Manson and his followers and the spectacularly bad trip of the Rolling Stones at Altamont brought a decade's psychedelic frenzy to a shocking climax. The time had come to chill out - to take it easy.

5. David Geffen was now a millionaire. Three Top 10 smashes in a row for his protégée Laura Nyro had added huge value to her Tuna Fish Music publishing catalogue. In November 1969 Columbia's Clive Davis took control of the fledgling company in a deal worth over $3m. Now everybody wanted Geffen to represent them. He acquired Johnny Rivers' house at a knockdown price high above Sunset on Alto Cedro Drive. On hoot night at the Troubadour, people sidled up to him to pay homage. "Geffen was always at the Troub," says the former music-business lawyer Bill Straw. " He was this very straight guy, dressed in chinos and very preppie-looking."

From their adjoining offices at 9130 Sunset Boulevard - once the base for Phil Spector - Geffen and Elliot Roberts built their musical empire with remorseless drive. Yet the vibe was low-key and folksy. Guitars were casually strewn around. Neil Young's piano sat in a corner. "You could walk into that office any time and there would be Crosby or David Blue," says Henry Diltz, court photographer to the scene. "You could stop by and use the phones, say hello to the secretaries, get a Coke." Too impatient to deal with the on-the-road machinations of band life, Geffen left Roberts to massage the egos of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell and company and instead concentrated on the next phase of empire-building: launching his own label. Yet it was those temperamental, self-preoccupied artists who gave Geffen the leverage to go for the big kill. "We were very fortunate in that Joni and Neil drew great people to them like magnets," Elliot Roberts reflects. "David was quite brilliant on the business side of it," says Ron Stone, "but it was Elliot's intuitiveness about the music that was the key. He had an uncanny ability to see through to the heart of the issue, which was the creative nucleus of that particular group." Peter Asher [brother of Jane, and formerly part of the band Peter and Gordon] claims that first impressions of Roberts - as some kind of glorified pot-head - were misleading. "Elliot actually had a mind like a steel trap," Asher says.

Together, Geffen and Roberts plotted their route to world domination. Crucial to their strategy was the creation of an insulated élite, a pampered aristocracy of Geffen's significant artists. "Geffen-Roberts definitely changed the tone of things," says John York. "It created this whole stratum of stardom that was complete nonsense but was a great way to market the music."

"You have to remember we came out of the early 1960s and the whole Brill Building mentality," says Ron Stone. "Dylan and the singer-songwriters came along and changed the dynamic. We were all reinventing the business." Stone was constantly astonished by Geffen's all-consuming ambition. When he arrived in the morning David had already been in the office for three hours. When he left at night, Geffen would remain there for three more. It was as though he had no life outside of 9130 Sunset.

Geffen discovered that he possessed an important weapon: he could shout louder than anyone else in the business. The sound of Geffen on the telephone - screaming the terms of a deal or haranguing some hapless lackey - was relentless. "I met David at a Top of the Pops taping in London," says artist manager Tony Dimitriades. "He was standing outside the studio in a call box and shouting at the top of his voice, 'I need to speak to Ahmet Ertegun!!'I was awestruck. Here was this young guy, probably 25 years old wearing dirty jeans and a T-shirt, and he was talking to the suave head of this legendary record company."

Geffen was a ruthless schemer. Invariably the first victim of his insatiable need to win was the truth. After manipulating Richard Perry into producing Barbra Streisand's album Stoney End, Geffen urged Nyro to tell Streisand that "Wedding Bell Blues" had been personally written for her. Nyro was appalled and refused. "It's not a big lie," Geffen sulked. Not yet 30, he hungered to be a heavy-hitter, a colossus like Mo Ostin or Ahmet Ertegun. His dream would come true in an interestingly circuitous way.

In June 1969, Warner-Seven Arts - of which Atlantic Records was now a part - was sold to the Kinney Corporation in New York. Miraculously, Kinney was headed up not by a soulless mogul but by a CEO named Steve Ross, who saw that the way to grow was to empower talented executives. As a result, Ertegun's power base would mushroom. It was he who urged Ross to replace the mediocre Mike Maitland with Mo Ostin at the helm of Warner/Reprise. "We got the break of our lives," said Joe Smith. "Steve believed that the management of creative companies was the key. The artists will come and the artists will go, but Mo and Joe and Ahmet and Jerry will always be there. " David Geffen observed the power shifts with rapt attention. Though Ertegun was mildly irritated by David's pushiness, he saw him for the formidable force he was. The two men had conspired to make CSNY happen. Now Geffen wanted more of Atlantic's money in order to develop a young artist he'd taken a particular shine to.

David Crosby had suggested Jackson Browne mail a tape to Geffen in late 1970. After several years in the business, always somehow about to make it, Browne was still deal-less. "Geffen had helped a friend of mine, Essra Mohawk," Browne recalls, "and I hoped he could do something to save me the misery of traipsing round to record companies staffed by people who shook hands like a trout and then kept you hanging for weeks because they wouldn't take any responsibility."

"The letter said, 'I'm writing to you out of respect for the artists you represent,'" remembers Geffen, his desk already cluttered with tapes by hopeful troubadours. "And it went on and on and on and on and on. I figured, 'My God, this guy can't be any good,' so I threw it in the garbage pail." When Geffen's secretary Dodie Smith retrieved an 8in by 10in glossy of the doe-eyed 22-year-old from the bin, David was persuaded to give Jackson's tape a spin. "It was the only tape we ever took that was unsolicited," Elliot Roberts remembers. "We put it on because we had nothing else to do one morning. It was 'Song for Adam'."

Geffen was quickly smitten by the singer's good-looks. "Jackson was very pretty," he told the writer Michelle Kort. "[He] is classically good-looking, matinée-idol good-looking.' Similarly taken with Browne's looks was Laura Nyro, who was introduced to him by Geffen and whom Browne supported on a short tour through the winter of 1970-71. The singers embarked on a brief and tempestuous affair that surprised their mentor - Nyro's taste usually leaned to rugged Italians. Geffen was as taken by the soothing grooves of Browne's songs as he was by his beauty. There was a fresh, ardent quality to them, a graceful kind of wisdom. For the coalescing Laurel Canyon community, Jackson was the scene's emotional boy scout. " He was a real soulmate," says Bonnie Raitt. "There was something so truthful and at the same time so heartbreaking about his songs."

Geffen went to Ertegun and urged him to sign Browne. Ertegun, unconvinced, declined. When Geffen pushed harder, Ertegun protested. He suggested Geffen start his own label and sign Jackson himself. Geffen decided he would do just that, if only to prove how short-sighted his mentor had been in turning Browne down. But Ertegun did more than encourage his disciple. He offered to be Geffen's 50 per cent partner in the label, then to be called either Benchmark or Phoenix, with Atlantic handling distribution and covering all expenses. "It was an astonishing deal that would not cost Geffen a cent, " the latter's biographer Tom King wrote.

The name Asylum spoke succinctly of David's desire to create a talent sanctuary that would give artists the freedom to create without music-industry pressure. "We were looking at A&M, which was a small boutique record company at the time," Geffen says. "Fortunately there were a tremendous amount of talented people floating around at that time, and the big record companies didn't seem to have any interest in them. Elliot and I had our pick, practically, of everybody that was around then."

"They somehow created their own stable of artists and plucked some of the best artists from larger labels by offering them more creative control," says Ben Fong-Torres. "It was just a more personalised management style that created kind of a hip vision."

"I was young and naive," Geffen says. "When we started Asylum we never expected it would turn into the company it became. We were as excited and thrilled as it unfolded as the artists were when their records came out and succeeded." Geffen's impact was felt throughout the West Coast music industry. Where Lou Adler had been the tall dark godfather of Hollywood pop in the previous decade, now this short, slim New Yorker was running rings around everybody in the business. It was a wake-up call for anyone growing lazy and complacent. "If you want to talk about what happened to the LA scene in the first half of the 1970s you can sum it up with one name," says David Anderle. "David Geffen happened. A bunch of hippies had become major players and were now calling the shots. All of us stopped smoking pot and got serious."

6. In 1979, as Linda Ronstadt moved to New York, Los Angeles was finally losing its allure. "LA is real comfortable," she said, "but the B-side of that is that things tend to get a little too laid-back and mellow. There was a direction that friendships could have gone in...that was enormously complicated by drugs. It made us all less responsible."

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Ronstadt had one eye on the musical rebellion fomenting on the East Coast and on the other side of the Atlantic. Impressed by Elvis Costello in particular, Linda chose to cover his " Alison" on Living in the USA (1978). She was stung when he lambasted her reading of the song. "It was strange when you heard something you really liked, knowing that these people hated you," said Peter Asher, who produced the track. "In terms of press perception, LA went from being a hotbed of the newest, coolest music to being all the old-fart dinosaurs in their limousines."

When punk rock finally showed up in LA, it was too close to home for the exalted stars of Elektra/Asylum. "Suddenly you become out-of-touch - the person who can't go to see punk rock," says Domenic Priore. " When I started seeing punk shows at the Whisky I don't think I saw anybody f rom the Roxy crowd there, or vice versa. The Roxy by 1976-77 was almost like old Hollywood exclusivity." The mainstream LA record business, for whom the Roxy was home from home, barely acknowledged The Ramones, let alone local punk bands like The Germs.

This was a threat? Tell that to The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. For Joe Smith at Elektra/Asylum, the pickings were still rich. "I had a couple of years where it all exploded," he says.

One night in mid-1976, Smith went to see The Section play a show at the Whisky. Talking with the band after their set, he told them that the record industry had to change. It was outrageous, he said, that Peter Frampton had been No 1 for ten weeks with Frampton Comes Alive! and no one had seen it coming. "Joe said that all the corporations needed to get together to prevent this from happening again," says The Section's Craig Doerge. "He said, 'This is just product. There should be no difference in selling music from selling anything else.'" To Doerge, Smith's concept seemed to be: we need to know in advance. "Corporate rock became the name of the game in the mid- to late 1970s," says Lenny Waronker. "The business became very sexy - a cash cow business. And when you become a good business, look out."

7. Los Angeles remained the unholy grail for every fame-hungry dreamer, and the city of the angels boasted more than its fair share of people falling from grace and plunging into the spiritual void. Where once Sunset Strip and Laurel Canyon had represented the movement for change and social justice, now they were merely part of the vortex of money and celebrity.

Some struggled more than others with this loss of meaning. The most honest account of the hollowness at the heart of late-1970s rock came on Jackson Browne's Running on Empty. Recorded on the road during Browne's tour of 1977, the album was about being a rock star - about sex, drugs and tour buses, and the feeling that rock 'n' roll had become an empty ritual. On the title song he looked back down the many roads he'd travelled - "In '65 I was 17 and running up 101" - and asked himself where "the road" was leading. On the middle eight, with admirable honesty, he yelped, "I don't know about anyone but me!" - a disarming postscript to the era of self-realisation.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, Browne was one of the few major stars to stay true to the 1960s commitment to social and political change. His close involvement with movements such as MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) showed that "Mr LA" had the capacity to think beyond Self.

Browne was horrified by the state of his old mentor David Crosby. The fact that he had shared so many political ideals with Crosby made it even more painful to watch the walrus-moustached one, in the company of his similarly addicted girlfriend Jan Dance, degenerate into chronic cocaine addiction.

Waddy Wachtel, who'd first seen the drug up close in Crosby's company, now observed the full denouement of the cocaine adventures. At a Crosby recording session, the ex-Byrd sat in his vocal booth with a freebase pipe, refusing to share his drugs with anyone. "I opened the door and it stunk of ether," Wachtel remembers. "I thought, 'Woah, who the fuck are you?' Later that day I walked back in there and David had this pile of blow on the table. I said, 'Can I steal a little bump?' And he went, 'I dunno, man, I don't have enough.' I said, 'Excuse me? There's a small mountain here!' He said no. I said, 'OK, let's both remember this.'"

"Between 1975 and 1980 there was still something of a hippie hangover where you shared your drugs," says Carl Gottlieb. "But by the early 1980s you were locking the door and keeping it all to yourself. You couldn't blame the drugs, they were just symptomatic. Someone like Jackson did retain some of the hippie ideals and still has them, but everyone else just lapsed into the yuppie greed of the 1980s."

8. David Geffen had all but left the entertainment industry in late 1976. By then he was vice-chairman of the Warner's movie division, but, hating the job, he quit - and learnt quickly how fickle friendships were in Hollywood, and how unpopular his arrogance had made him. At Clive Davis's post-Grammys breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the music business lawyer Brian Rohan physically attacked him and was widely applauded for it. To say that Geffen was burned out would be an overstatement, but when in August 1977 he was diagnosed with bladder cancer - mistakenly, as it turned out - he decided it was time to slow down. "I had had enough at that moment," he says. "I'd had too much of the music business, and I needed to get away from it for a while." For three years, based in New York, he taught and lectured on business. By night he cavorted with Calvin Klein and the Studio 54 crowd. But in 1980 he was ready to make a comeback - including a new label, Geffen Records. "The people I was competing against in 1970 when I started Asylum Records were the same people I'd be competing against in 1980," he told the writer Fredric Dannen. "They were considerably older, and I was still pretty young. I thought, 'If I could do it then I can do it now.'"

Handsomely backed by Steve Ross and Mo Ostin, Geffen Records took off slowly, with flops by Elton John and Donna Summer. But Geffen parlayed his friendship with John Lennon into a deal that paid off handsomely after the ex-Beatle was shot dead in December 1980.

With the former Warner VP Eddie Rosenblatt as his president, he brought in a formidable A&R staff. "By then I had a very different approach to the record business than I'd had with Asylum," he says. "I wasn't starting off with that deep personal involvement with the artists. I also figured that I was no longer the guy who could be the A&R person and pick the music, so I picked other people that I believed in and decided to be a complete businessman."

"At some point David said, 'I'm not really the finder of talent any more,'" says Mel Posner, who headed up Geffen's international department. "He said, 'Let's get the best people.' That's what he did. He got John Kalodner and Gary Gersh and Tom Zutaut, and they became stars in their own right."

Over the ensuing decade, that troika of talent-finders would bring a host of multi-platinum artists - from Cher and Aerosmith to Guns N' Roses and Nirvana - to Geffen. Yet he himself managed to antagonise the very Reprise/Asylum artists (Young, Mitchell, Henley) who'd brought him such success in the 1970s.

Any notion that he would recreate the "boutique" ambience of Asylum in the new decade was quickly dispelled when Young's and Mitchell's albums failed to sell. "David started feeling real pressure," Elliot Roberts recalls. "[He felt] that he wasn't as good as Mo."

Infamously, Geffen in 1983 took the unprecedented step of suing Young for making "musically uncharacteristic" records. At a time when his label was notching up bland hits by Asia and Quarterflash, he accused Young of making deliberately uncommercial albums such as the electronic Trans (1982). This time he made a foe not only of Young but of Roberts, his oldest ally. "We stopped hanging out at that point," Roberts says. " I couldn't trust him any more, and he couldn't trust me. Horrible. It ended our friendship."

Mitchell, meanwhile, blamed her commercial failure on Geffen, alleging that he'd failed to pay her publishing royalties. On at least one occasion the former Bel Air housemates got into a screaming match in Geffen's office, with Joni demanding to be released from her contract.

In 1994 she returned to Reprise and Mo Ostin. "If I didn't talk to her for the rest of my life," Geffen bluntly told his biographer Tom King, "I wouldn't miss her for a minute."

"David Geffen used to care about music," Don Henley said sourly. "But he's not in the record business any more. He's in the David Geffen business."

9. In the fall of 1977, as The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt played to vast crowds in coliseums, their old watering hole the Troubadour was in trouble. So much so that Doug Weston was forced to ask Jackson Browne to play a 25th Anniversary benefit show to help it survive. "The bartenders there were all fucked up on pills and coke," says Robert Marchese. "It became an ugly scene, and that was one of the reasons Doug eventually had to close it the first time. At the anniversary show, Jackson came but a lot of the others didn't. And they should have." Adapting to the times, Weston even sanctioned the booking of punk bands at the Troubadour. But after fans of The Bags rampaged through the club overturning tables, the club's waitresses petitioned Doug to ban such rowdy sounds from the former oasis of singer-songwriters and country rock. The Troubadour did survive, thanks in part to power pop and heavy metal, but it was a sad place haunted by the ghosts of its glory years. In "The Sad Café", the elegiac finale to The Long Run, The Eagles mourned the club where they'd first convened but typically wondered whether those whose "dreams came true" were really any more fortunate than those who stayed behind.

Laurel Canyon itself was no longer the rock sanctuary it had been for 20-odd years. The Troubadour stars whose "dreams came true" were now ensconced in more affluent canyons like Stone and Benedict and Coldwater and Mandeville. "The people who were successful got away from the lousy streets and the homes that leaked the wind through the boards," says the Warner executive Stan Cornyn. When Joni and friends moved to Bel Air and Beverly Hills, and bought their plush beach homes in Malibu, it was less out of love for pseudo-rural living than out of a growing need for exclusivity. For all the egalitarianism they'd espoused in the 1960s, they were now distant stars like the silver-screen idols whose old mansions they were buying.

"The real impetus of this movement to the hills is no longer love of the great outdoors or frontier rusticity," Mike Davis wrote in his book Ecology of Fear. "But, as critic Reyner Banham recognised in the 1960s, the search for absolute 'thickets of privacy' outside the dense fabric of common citizenship and urban life."

"Before we all had nice houses we lived in crummy apartments and it was so depressing that we all went out to clubs every night," Linda Ronstadt reflected in 1980. "And the clubs provided a surrogate family. But then we all got record deals and money and big houses and that surrogate family changed. [The family] became the staff - you know, the people who help run your life - because our lives became so complicated with all the travelling."

"When we started out, it wasn't quite the claw-your-way-into-the-business thing that it is now," Don Henley reminisces. "The whole country-rock movement was even connected to environmentalism, to the earth, and everybody was wearing earthy clothes and celebrating the outdoors."

Laurel Canyon is still comparatively funky and unmanicured, but real-estate values have shot up to the point where only rich bohemians and SUV-driving yuppies can afford to live there. The canyon's life as a rock 'n' roll haven may have ended symbolically when Frank Zappa's old cabin burned down on Hallowe'en night in 1981. "By then any notion of community had passed," says Ron Stone.

Even David Geffen, for some the bête noire in the story, waxed nostalgic for the singer-songwriter era. "It was the greatest ride that one could possibly imagine," he says. "Artistically, financially, fulfilling dreams and aspirations and making friends with incredibly talented people and watching them grow and succeed, it was thrilling. The 1980s, which were considerably more successful for me, weren't nearly as magical."

Extracted from Hotel California by Barney Hoskyns, published by Fourth Estate at £14.99. To order a copy at the special price of £13.99 with free P&P call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897, or order online at www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk ©Barney Hoskyns 2005

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