For years word of a secret ranch home and recording studio in Malibu—where Dylan, Van Morrison, Scorsese, and Adele have all supposedly recorded and used—has echoed clandestinely through the gossip avenues of Los Angeles—a sort of fabled musical monastery simply called Shangri La. TREATS! treks to Malibu in search of the lost magical music hideaway. What did we find? Well, for one you definitely need an appointment. by Joe Donnelly
This story may end in Malibu, but it begins in two unlikely places—England and Mexico City. And, of course, around these parts no story is ever complete, it seems, without Hollywood having its say.
I’m speaking of the fabled Shangri La, the ranch home and recording studio where Bob Dylan and The Band woodshedded in the early 70s. This is where The Band recorded Northern Lights-Southern Cross, Martin Scorsese filmed parts of The Last Waltz, Van Morrison put the finishing touches on his Wavelength album and where, more recently, Rick Rubin recorded key parts of the monster of all contemporary monsters, Adele’s 21. The video for the chanteuse’s “Rolling in the Deep” was also filmed there.
LOST HORIZON: A UTOPIAN TALE
But the rambling ranch house on top of a hill overlooking Zuma Beach, just a stone’s throw from Malibu High School, has its origins in literature and film, not music, and in geographies far from Malibu. The concept of Shangri La—a place of peace, love and prosperity—comes from Lost Horizon, the 1933 pocket-book classic by English writer James Hilton. The novel’s protagonist, an enigmatic British diplomat in Afghanistan named Hugh Conway, is a veteran of the World War 1 trench warfare who has gone missing. He turns up in a Chinese hospital with amnesia and a utopian tale of his time at Shangri La, a monastery high in the mountains of Tibet.
A few years after the novel’s release, legendary director Frank Capra cast Margo Albert (wife of Eddie Albert for 40 years until her death of brain cancer in 1945) as Maria for the movie. Margo was born as María Marguerita Guadalupe Teresa Estela Bolado Castilla y O’Donnell in Mexico City in 1917. Margo built the ranch house and named it after Hilton’s paradise, which presumably became hers. For a while, anyway.
Legend has it the property served various purposes before finding its niche as a storied recording studio. It was rumored to be a hideaway for Hollywood’s A-list to consummate illicit trysts in the 1950s. In the 1960s, according to the Shangrilamalibu.com, Mr. Ed himself was stabled there while the show about a talking horse shot on location. One can’t help but wonder what Mr. Ed would say off the record.
In the 70s, Shangri La became a sanctuary for musicians transitioning out of the hectic 60s. A new back-to-basics vibe epitomized by Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, The Byrds’ Sweethearts of the Rodeo, and The Band’s Music from Big Pink was changing the pop-music landscape. Mellow Malibu had just the right blend of rural and rocking to match the tenor of the times.
The recording studio was designed and built by Rob Fraboni to the specifications of Dylan and The Band. Levon Helm, The Band’s legendary drummer and spine-tingling vocalist, reportedly described Shangri La as a clubhouse and studio where we and our friends could record albums and cross-pollinate one another’s music.”
During those halcyon early days it wouldn’t have been unusual to see Ronnie Wood and Pete Townshend hanging around the kitchen while Bob Dylan slept in a tent near the rose garden (his preferred hang for awhile). Meanwhile, Eric Clapton, who took up residence there for several months, might be found slow handing his Stratocaster in the studio.
The property could accommodate all comers. The 4,449 square-foot main house has four bedrooms and three bathrooms on one and three quarters acres. There’s a formal game room with fireplace and the pool table where Rick Danko shot a game of cutthroat in The Last Waltz. The property has a detached guesthouse and two recording studios: one in the main house and one in a converted airstream out back.
Rick Rubin, who since 2007 had been using the place to record the likes of Weezer, Metallica and ZZ Top, bought Shangri La in August 2011 for a reported $2 million. Considering the property’s legacy, location and his success with Adele, it’s hard to imagine him not making his money back.
The place has existed so entirely in legend, I almost expected it to not be there when I recently pulled up, unannounced, to a guest parking lot at the bottom of the driveway. Moms and maids in SUVs streamed into the street to pick up their kids from nearby Malibu High. The driveway gate was locked. A less intimidating fence with an unlocked gate leading to a walkway up to the front of the house could have been breached, but a security cam deterred potential trespassers. Luckily, one of the gardeners came down the driveway with trashcan full of lawn clippings and merrily offered up the driveway gate code.
My companion and I sauntered up the driveway to the back entrance and a door open to the kitchen. A few engineer types quickly intercepted us at the door and asked after our business. When I explained the nature of my visit, they cheerily suggested they would give me a call back to make an appointment for a formal tour. They weren’t interested in giving me their number.
“Don’t call us, we’ll call you?” I joked. The men laughed and said, well, yes…exactly. They explained they were in the middle of a recording session.
“Who?” I asked.
“I’m afraid we can’t say,” said the younger, blonder and thinner of the two, while the old, darker and beefier one remained stoic.
Then, they both politely suggested we be on our way and cautioned not to wander back here unannounced at night or anything like that because, “security here isn’t as nice as us.”
For many of us, I suppose Shangri La shall remain a dream. And, just like it was for Hugh Conway, maybe it’s better that way.
Joe Donnelly is an award-winning journalist and short-story writer. He is the former deputy editor of the LA Weekly and currently the publisher/founder and co-editor of Slake: Los Angeles, the award winning and bestselling Los Angeles journal.