Friday, February 2, 2018

The Byrds

In 1965, The Byrds had a worldwide smash with Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," opened for The Rolling Stones in the U.S., hung out with The Beatles, and capped off the year with a second U.S. chart-topper "Turn! Turn! Turn!" Over the next few years, they released the groundbreaking "Eight Miles High" and a canon of classic albums, enduring regular line-up changes that would have been the end of most bands but in The Byrds case, fuelled leader Roger McGuinn’s innate capacity for reinvention. The Byrds were one of the 60s most influential bands. After virtually inventing folk-rock, they pioneered psychedelia and country-rock, and were also the first guitar rock band to use synthesizers. Their influence endured in the mainstream rock of R.E.M. and Tom Petty, a multitude of jangly indie bands from the last 40 years, and just about every alt.country and Americana act on the scene.

Originally called the "Beefeaters," the Byrds formed in early 1964 with members, McGuinn, David Crosby and Gene Clark playing guitar and providing vocals, Michael Clarke on drums, and Chris Hillman on bass. The Byrds' "jangly" sound was derived from McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker guitar. This trademark sound was in full evidence on their first album, Mr. Tambourine Man (1965). The album opens with the title track, a rocking hit version of the Bob Dylan classic. Dylan songs would be covered often by the Byrds and be infused with that unmistakable Byrds sound. The Byrds next recorded the solid, Turn, Turn, Turn LP in 1965.

Two excellent albums came next: Fifth Dimension (1966) and Younger than Yesterday (1967) spawning hits with "Eight Miles High" and "So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star," respectively. It was at this point, seemingly at the peak of the band's commercial and critical success, when Gene Clark and David Crosby departed to pursue solo careers (Crosby essentially fired). For their next project, The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968), the band was reduced to a trio. The album is inspired from start to finish, especially on numbers like, "Draft Morning," "Wasn’t Born To Follow," "Natural Harmony," and "Get to You."
Now a trio, the Byrds added new members, country-hippie Gram Parsons from the International Submarine Band and the superb country guitarist Clarence White. With the overt country influence of its new members, the Byrds produced the first true country-rock album, the iconic Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968). Parsons soon left the band to form the Flying Burrito Brothers. Our introspection really focuses on Crosby, so this is where we will leave the history, yet with an interesting aside about McGuinn:

In entertaining biography Testimony, Robbie Robertson tells a short story about a conversation he overheard Bob Dylan having with The Byrd's Roger McGuinn concerning John Coltrane's influence on McGuinn when he wrote "Eight Miles High."

The setting was Los Angeles, 1966, during a Dylan tour that employed Robertson and, among others, bandmates Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, from the then unnamed The Band.  The "Levon" in the story was the drummer Levon Helm, who left the tour after a month out of frustration of playing with Dylan during his "electric" sessions; when folk music purists routinely heckled Dylan and the band.  

     During our next trip to California for a run of shows, Bob and I stayed at a house called the Castle in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles.  It was a big, classic, Spanish-style house with a huge window that offered a view for miles, smog permitting.  One fascinating thing about this place was that it sat right across the street from Ennis House, the classic Frank Lloyd Wright building that had been home to Bela Lugosi, the original Dracula in movies.  He had a reputation for being a morphine addict, and you could imagine him holed up in this spooky fortress of a house for weeks at a time, peeking out the long, narrow windows to scan for police or intruders.     After getting settled in a downstairs bedroom that opened onto the garden, I went over to the Hyatt Hotel on Sunset, where the other guys were staying.  We'd had word that Levon might be out in L.A, and Richard asked me if I’d heard from him.  I’d tried calling him the day before and again that morning, but no answer.     "If he wants to see us, he'll get in touch," Rick interjected.  "Otherwise, I say leave it alone.  Maybe he’s not in a very social place right now."     Jim McGuinn of the Byrds came by to visit Bob and play a new track his group had just recorded called "Eight Miles High," which would be released as a single next week.  You could tell he was excited about it, and he certainly stirred up my curiosity with his space-age description of the song.  He took off his little rectangle-frame shades, wiped them on his shirt, and put the disc on the record player.  He was right – it was spacy, quite a departure from their earlier folk-rock sound.  Bob didn’t seem overly impressed.     "How'd you come up with that?" he asked Jim.     "Been listening to a lot of Coltrane.  Trying to interpret that in my own way on the twelve-string guitar."     "Why?"     "I don’t know,” Jim answered.  “Probably because I like it.  Don't you like John Coltrane?”     Bob laughed.  "Sure, but I don’t try to copy his stuff."     Jim smiled.  "Well, maybe you should.  It’s pretty good."

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