Prologue: West Saugerties, NY. Summer 1967
The instruments and recording equipment are set up in the basement of the big pink rental house on a rural woodsy road, just as they had been for several weeks. The intention is to make demo tapes, and the recording rig is simple — a Nagra tape recorder, an Ampex mixer, and three microphones (although many decades later this set-up will be hotly disputed by audiophiles on internet forums.) One by one, the band wanders in. Garth Hudson settles in behind his Lowrey organ, Richard Manuel parks himself on the piano bench, or maybe the drum stool. Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson strap on a bass and electric guitar, respectively. At the center of the group of informally arranged musicians, with a short haircut and a 12-string acoustic, is Bob Dylan. Dylan has not recorded or toured since the previous spring. A motorcycle accident sidelined him, and the enigmatic songwriter decided to use his injuries (the extent of which is shrouded in mystery) as an excuse to go off the grid for awhile. Now he’s ready to dip his foot in the water again, but he’s going to do it his way. Not with a new tour, or album, but with a batch of original songs…intended to be given away to other artists.
Hudson hits “record” on the tape recorder, and Dylan begins tentatively strumming. The musicians, who were Dylan’s backing band on his last tour, try to anticipate where this brand-new composition is going. The bass and organ start fumbling along. Dylan doesn’t seem too sure, either. He leans into the microphone, and lets loose a stream of nonsense…
“Now look here, dear soup, you’d best feed the cats/The cats need feeding and you’re the one to do it/Get your hat, feed the cat/You ain’t goin’ nowhere…”
The real lyrics are soon filled in and the song eventually comes together, as do several others…Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman strategically “leaks” the final tape of fourteen finished demos (out of dozens recorded) to various artists and producers that autumn, and gets his adding machine ready to tally the song publishing windfall that’s sure to come.
The backing musicians (with the addition of drummer Levon Helm) become known as The Band and are soon signed to Capitol Records.
A copy of the tape ends up in the possession of one Chris Hillman…
The first song from these “basement tapes” to be made public is “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo),” recorded by the British group Manfred Mann and released on January 12, 1968. It goes to #10.
Dylan, in the vanguard as usual, sends up the signal flare that is the first indication of a sea change in popular music. Psychedelic excess would soon be old hat, and the traditional sounds of American pre-rock roots music from the first half of the 20th century would be the guiding inspiration for many well-known acts in 1968, and into 1969 and the 70s. Dylan finally breaks his public silence by putting out an album, with no publicity, in the final days of 1967 — a modest collection of archaic-sounding original folk and country songs called John Wesley Harding that sounds nothing like the speed-freak rock of his previous few albums. None of the tracks were from that summer’s basement tapes.
The Byrds’ Notorious Byrd Brothers drops a mere two weeks later… still steeped in trippy experimentation and sonic fripperies, and if Roger McGuinn has his way, more of the same is to come…a precocious Georgia millionaire’s son and Harvard dropout named Gram Parsons would change all that…
The Byrds had changed management in the autumn of 1967. Jim Dickson was out, Larry Spector (no relation to the gun-happy record producer) was in. Larry Spector also managed a band called the International Submarine Band, led by Gram Parsons. The visionary Parsons was a walking music encyclopedia (especially country), and had a dream of creating the perfect blend of old-school country and gospel-inflected soul/R&B. He called it, somewhat loftily, “Cosmic American Music.” The ISB recorded an album that was currently sitting in the vaults of LHI Records, waiting for release. The ever restless Parsons, like David Crosby the indulged son of an immensely wealthy family, ran out of patience and bailed on the band, looking for his next big opportunity.
Roger McGuinn had an ambitious vision, too. He wanted to explore the more experimental path indicated by some of the material on the last few albums. His interest in modern jazz was joined by a fascination with the possibilities of the newly-invented Moog synthesizer. If McGuinn followed his muse to its full fruition, the Byrds would be pioneers of a new genre — a spacy, science fiction-influenced blend of electronic music and jazz. But fate had other plans.
McGuinn knew the recently reduced Byrds couldn’t pull off his new ideas as a trio. He wanted to add a keyboard player, and asked manager Larry Spector if he knew of any. Gram Parsons, wasn’t a keyboard player per se, but he could handle almost any instrument passably, and Spector felt he would be a good fit for the band. Parsons joined the Byrds in February 1968. McGuinn wasted no time in explaining his ambitious plans for the next recording project — a massive double album, two dozen songs, following a musical chronology. The first few tracks would be the old-time string band music of 1920s Appalachia, then the material would gradually morph into modern folk and country, and the album would close with a sequence speculating on the future, featuring space-age electronica.
Gram Parsons didn’t care a fig for McGuinn’s electric space jazz, and instead raised the idea of a start-to-finish traditional country album. He managed to keep a straight face while convincing McGuinn that country audiences were incredibly loyal, and would provide a hardcore fan base for years to come. McGuinn, blasted by the full force of Parson’s enthusiasm (which could be formidable while it lasted), swallowed the whopping mistruth and agreed to put his concept album on hold for the time being. The Byrds would turn totally country. Hillman, the old bluegrass hand, gave the idea his full support. The 12-string Rickenbacker was put aside, Parsons mostly ditched his planned role on keyboards and joined McGuinn on acoustic guitar, and the group booked time in a Nashville studio to commence recording almost immediately. The only issue: McGuinn and Hillman had not written any new songs since Notorious, certainly none in their recently-chosen genre. No problem! Parsons had a couple of stellar originals in his back pocket. Traditional country and bluegrass covers could also fill the some of the space. And they had a secret weapon: the tape of Dylan demos, all of which could be easily adapted to the new style.
Over the course of six days in early March, in the sterile confines of a usually regimented, disciplined song-factory studio in the heart of the country music capital, the Byrds burned their previous incarnation to the ground, and built a new one. With the sometimes-puzzled help of a few crew-cutted Nashville session pros (they didn’t know what to make of these shaggy, mystic West Coasters who seemed to take forever to pin down a take), the core of their new album came together. The session players went from bemusement to admiration, and all of them recall it as a happy experience. They remember the stodgy, fluorescent-lit Nashville studio growing hazy with pot smoke, red wine being passed around, and everyone having a grand time. In a surprise move, the Byrds capped off the week with a live appearance on none other but the famous Grand Ole Opry radio show, broadcast on WSM from the hallowed Ryman Auditorium. (You have to say “hallowed” before you mention the Ryman. It’s a rule of music writing, like using “jangly” for the Byrds, “enigmatic” for Dylan, and it’s always “the great” Hal Blaine.)
Before the appearance, the group had to grit their teeth through a hostile radio interview with WSM DJ Ralph Emery, who made clear his distaste for “hippies” and the counterculture movement, and was the mouthpiece for all the conservative Southerners who resented this long-haired rock group for invading their territory. He refused to play the just-recorded “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” on the air. The song is done in a solid country arrangement, but because it was penned by left-wing hero Bob Dylan (who applied his usual lyrical surrealism) and performed by a group of freaks, Emery received it with condescending disdain. “What’s the song about?” demanded Emery. McGuinn was honest: “I don’t know.” The Byrds could not leave the radio station fast enough. McGuinn and Parsons took their revenge by writing “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” about Emery, holding him up as the epitome of every piss-ignorant racist redneck stereotype they could devise. (The song wouldn’t make it onto the new album, but it didn’t go away.)
They nervously took the stage at the Ryman on March 15, 1968, joined by pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Green. Kevin Kelley was denied the use of his full drum kit as per Opry tradition, and had to make do with a pair of brushes and a single snare. As they were introduced to a smattering of applause, there were some boos, jeers, and catcalls (“Tweet, tweet!” “Get a haircut!”). They launched into their first number, and actually won a large portion of the audience over with their sincere performance and clear affection for their newly-adopted genre. They had agreed ahead of time to cover Merle Haggard’s “Life in Prison” as their encore, and the MC announced that number to the live audience and over the airwaves. But then, in a Crosby-like display of hubris, Gram Parsons stepped to microphone and announced a change of plans — they would close with the Parsons original, “Hickory Wind.” The Opry brass were furious, and the group destroyed whatever goodwill they had earned with the rest of their performance. They were banned from future performances.
The newly-recorded album was also facing a crisis. Evidently, Gram Parsons was still under contract to LHI Records. There was a possibility that the tracks on which he sang lead might have to be re-recorded by McGuinn. The process to do just that began, then the legal disputes were suddenly settled. McGuinn cannily decided to trim Parson’s lead vocal appearances anyway. The newest Byrd originally sang lead on six of the eleven tracks, and McGuinn reduced it to three. The Byrds would not become the Gram Parsons Show on McGuinn’s watch. Despite being granted freedom to dictate the creative direction for a short while, the upstart had been schooled as to whose band it really was.
There was good news, though, as the new Byrds left Nashville and hit the road all that spring and early summer. They had finally stabilized as a live act, and turned in solid sets night after night. After ignoring their early hits during the last year with David Crosby, they reintroduced material like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Eight Miles High” as highlights of the first half of their concerts. Their country material, augmented by touring musicians Jaydee Maness on pedal steel and Doug Dillard on banjo, would be featured in the later portion. Parsons, so recently the dominant force in the recording studio, seemed to now accept his secondary status on stage, bouncing between electric piano and acoustic guitar, happily harmonizing on all the stuff that predated his time with the band, and only taking two or three lead vocals for himself. Perhaps he already had his eye on the door…
On a short U.K. trip that July, the Byrds socialized frequently with the Rolling Stones. Gram Parsons developed something of a man-crush on Keith Richards, trailing after him like an over-eager puppy and babbling non-stop about the virtues and sub-genres of country music. When word reached the Stones that the next stop on the Byrds’ touring itinerary was South Africa, Mick and Keith explained to the somewhat naive Parsons that playing to segregated audiences in an apartheid country was not cool. McGuinn, who had at various times worked closely with South African musicians such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, was encouraged by them to see the situation firsthand, and ignored the Stones’ judgement. When the plane left London for Johannesburg on July 9, 1968, Gram Parsons was not on it. He quit after having been a Byrd for less than five months.
But what a legacy he left them! The album he willed into existence through sheer force of personality came out on August 30. Sweetheart of the Rodeo not only signaled the birth of the second phase of the Byrds, it became the founding document of the country rock of the 70s and the alt-country movement of the 90s.
The album opens with the first song recorded. “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” dominated by Lloyd Green’s pedal steel guitar, is a strong opening statement of purpose. They double down on the second track, “I Am A Pilgrim,” a totally traditional number, the origins of which are lost to time. The Byrds eschew rock instrumentation entirely. McGuinn plays a fluid banjo, and the group is joined by Roy Husky on stand-up bass and John Hartford on fiddle. If their counterculture/rock underground audience was a little surprised up to this point, the third song caused total bafflement: a seemingly sincere, straightforward version of the Louvin Brothers’ “The Christian Life,” extolling the virtues of living clean and loving the Lord. No hint of irony was betrayed. The next track is a good example of what Gram Parsons intended his “Cosmic American Music” to sound like. “You Don’t Miss Your Water” was a 1961 soul song, recorded for the Stax label by R&B shouter William Bell, and later covered by Otis Redding on his classic album Otis Blue. The Byrds capture the gospel-inflected essence, but render it with rustic hill-country instrumentation, and a touch of Floyd Cramer-style piano from Earl Ball. Closing out side one is “Pretty Boy Floyd,” a slice of Dust Bowl-era folk (“Come gather ‘round you children, a story I will tell…”) from Woody Guthrie, and featuring Hillman picking up his long-abandoned mandolin again. Other cover versions are Merle Haggard’s “Life in Prison,” “Blue Canadian Rockies,” (an old hit for singing cowboy Gene Autry), and George Jones’ barroom jukebox staple “You’re Still On My Mind” (orignally written and peformed by Luke McDaniel). One of Parson’s two originals, “One Hundred Years From Now,” is quite good and features gorgeous harmonies, but it is dwarfed by his classic “Hickory Wind,” which opens side two. As beautiful a meditation on homesickness as you’re likely to hear, if Parsons had done nothing else, he would be remembered for this track. The album closes with another cut from Dylan’s basement recordings, the ominous “Nothing Was Delivered.”
As a whole, this material convinced many die-hard rock fans over the next several decades (the Holy Bee included) to give country music a chance, and opened minds and ears to discovering George Jones, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, and many others. Parsons originally sang lead on “The Christian Life,” “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” and his own “One Hundred Years From Now,” but as noted above, those lead parts were replaced by McGuinn. (Parsons’ lead vocals were retained on “Hickory Wind,” “You’re Still On My Mind,” and “Life in Prison.”) This landmark album has been re-issused several times over the years, with the last few editions growing increasingly elaborate, and containing all of the alternate vocal takes. The recent availability of these unheard versions has sparked some debate among latter-day Byrds fans. Parsons or McGuinn? With modern technology, you could make your own version of the album favoring one of the other. Native Southerner Parsons could sing the country material with a little more conviction, but with McGuinn as the dominant voice, Sweetheart retains its identity as a true Byrds album. As big a Parsons fan as I am, I have to say I prefer the album as originally released. (McGuinn admitted he was basically doing an imitation of Parsons when he re-recorded those vocals, and he lays on the fake Southern accent pretty thick.)
NOTE: After Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the Holy Bee can’t “recommend” the the Byrds’ discography quite as heartily, even though there’s still much to admire. Let’s finish the story.
To this day, Chris Hillman and others insist that the apartheid issue was just a convenient excuse for the easily-bored Gram Parsons to keep hanging out with his new friends in the Rolling Stones and avoid a long plane flight. (“The only black people he knew were his family’s servants,” snorted Hillman.) Parsons remained in the Stones’ orbit for several more years, and inspired the venerable British band to create more country-leaning material. “Wild Horses,” “Dead Flowers,” and “Sweet Virginia,” among several others, can be directly credited to Parsons’ influence on Keith Richards. The Byrds’ jaunt to South Africa was as dismal and depressing as predicted (with a roadie pressed into service on second guitar), but at least the band got to tell the South African press to their faces that their country was “sick, backward, and rude.”
Upon their return to the States, the Byrds replaced Parsons with Clarence White, a country music veteran and guitar virtuoso who had played in dozens of bands (he had crossed paths with Hillman many times in their pre-fame years) and recorded hundreds of sessions as a hired gun, including appearances on the last three Byrds albums. McGuinn must have breathed a sigh of relief that his band was finally free of troublemakers, as unlike Crosby and Parsons, White was modest and unassuming — not a boat-rocker. Or was he?
The idyll didn’t last long. Chris Hillman, unhappy and disillusioned since the South African trip, had been meeting secretly with Gram Parsons, who had charmed his way back into Hillman’s good graces and was still full of ideas. New member Clarence White immediately began nitpicking Kevin Kelley’s drumming, and pushing to recruit his old friend Gene Parsons (no relation) for the drum stool. Kelley, whose light, jazzy playing had never been called into question before now, was suddenly axed right after Sweetheart came out. The circumstances were murky, and no one ever offered a good explanation beyond White’s agenda of just really, really wanting Gene Parsons (who also played guitar, banjo, and a mean harmonica) to join. Kelley disappeared, and the new Parsons was in.
Less than two weeks later, Chris Hillman quit. He and Gram Parsons soon formed the Flying Burrito Brothers and began an epic quest to finally pin down the elusive Cosmic American Music Parsons could hear in his mind’s ear. Roger McGuinn was now the sole original member of the Byrds, which consisted of him, Clarence White, Gene Parsons, and new bassist John York, who had played with the Sir Douglas Quintet, and had backed the Mamas & the Papas, Johnny Rivers, and Gene Clark’s solo performances.
Retroactively revered as a classic, Sweetheart of the Rodeo was a costly flop in 1968. Their live audiences were shrinking, and the venues getting smaller and shabbier. They had little choice but to troop back into the studio in October and hope for a hit. After several albums produced by Gary Usher (known primarily in the early 60s for his work with surf-rock acts), the group was excited to work with Bob Dylan’s producer, Bob Johnston.
The result, Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde, came out in March 1969, and was an attempt to re-create The Notorious Byrd Brothers’ back-and-forth joyride between country rock and spacey psychedelia. The sound is heavier (Parsons thumps a little harder than Clarke or Kelley), and the 12-string Rickenbacker is back, though somewhat muted. The dual sides of McGuinn’s nature could once again be indulged, reflected by the album’s artwork, which depicts the band in cowboy gear on the front cover, and spacesuits on the back. The strongest material here, besides the lovely country ballad “Your Gentle Way of Loving Me,” is the dark, grinding “Bad Night at the Whiskey,” the similarly-toned “King Apathy III,” and the poison pen takedown of Ralph Emery written the previous year, “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man.” Clarence White’s formidable guitar skills gets a workout on the instrumental “Nashville West.” The Dylan basement demos were no longer a secret weapon, but had been out there awhile. The Band got to “This Wheel’s On Fire” first on their debut album, but the Byrds dial up the echo, distortion, and the song’s inherent spookiness on a rendition that edges out the Band’s statelier version. Unfortunately, two songs originally recorded by the Byrds for the soundtrack of the even more unfortunate 1968 sex farce Candy were used to pad out the album, and at least one sticks out like a sore thumb. (The title song “Candy” is not unpleasant, but the incredibly clunky “Child of the Universe,” sounds like the long-gone David Crosby at his LSD-addled worst.) Opinion is sharply divided over “Old Blue,” a corny ode to a beloved hound dog. All told, for being the first album on what we all now know is the Byrds’ downward trajectory, I feel like this album could sit next to their earlier ones and hold its head up.
McGuinn was making sporadic attempts to branch out beyond the Byrds. Early in 1969, he taped two songs for the upcoming independent film that would cause a revolution in Hollywood — Easy Rider. Backed with his own acoustic guitar and old friend Gene Clark on harmonica, McGuinn covered Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and performed his own composition, “The Ballad of Easy Rider.” The first song underscored a climactic moment in the film, and the title song was played over the closing credits. The film and its soundtrack (which also featured the Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born To Follow”) became a sensation that summer. McGuinn also had been working off and on for the past year on songs for a stage musical with theatre director Jacques Levy. Gene Tryp (based on Ibsen’s Peer Gynt) would never be finished, but several of the McGuinn-Levy songs would be repurposed for Byrds albums over the next four years.
Despite good reviews, Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde didn’t sell. It was becoming a familiar story. The next stand-alone single, an ill-conceived cover of Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” backed by a syrupy female choir, also tanked. A change of game plan was now needed. The next time the group went into the studio, they reunited with the producer that had guided them through their first two albums, Terry Melcher, and made the commercially savvy decision to piggyback onto the success of Easy Rider by re-recording McGuinn’s title song, and naming the album after it.
The Ballad of Easy Rider was released in November 1969, and is kicked off by the full-band version of the title song, which retained the original’s stark poignancy in spite of quickening the tempo and adding some tasteful strings. “Tulsa County” is a throwback to the straight country sounds of Sweetheart. The breezy New Age gospel of “Jesus is Just Alright” was quite a contrast with the dour fundamentalism of “The Christian Life.” The old Baptist hymn “Oil in My Lamp” is performed fairly faithfully, but enlivened with a gritty electric guitar, and the even older sea shanty “Jack Tarr the Sailor” is performed reverently in traditional English folk style (similar to Fairport Convention. It all just sounds like “Greensleeves” to me.) A Dylan song on a Byrds album is a semi-tradition, and they finally get a version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” they deem acceptable. It’s slow to the point of sonambulism, and oddly lush for a song that’s supposed to be a bitter kiss-off. I prefer the version the original line-up recorded back in ‘65, but left unreleased. (It’s a bonus track on the Turn! Turn! Turn! CD.) The new Byrds members also get to show off some writing skills. John York’s “Fido” becomes the second song in the band’s “dog trilogy,” and Gene Parsons creates a minor gem with the meandering story-song “Gunga Din.” Even the lesser tracks are exquisitely-performed country rock of the super-smooth variety that was now gaining popular momentum (and would reach its apogee with the Eagles and similar bands in the following decade.)
Comfortable and only occasionally bland, the album had none of the cosmic-cowboy experimental spirit of Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde, which ended up being their lowest-charting album. The public rewarded the band for playing it safe by sending The Ballad of Easy Rider into the Top 40 (over a hundred places higher than Dr. Byrds.)
One person who was not there to celebrate their newfound success was bassist John York, who was let go not long before the album’s release. He was replaced by Skip Battin. Battin was several years older than the rest, had had a few minor hits with his 50s duo Skip & Flip, and boasted the usual lengthy resume of bar bands and session work. The McGuinn-White-Parsons-Battin grouping lasted almost three years, the longest of any of the Byrds’ incarnations.
The Byrds’ reputation as an unsteady concert act still dogged them. They decided to kick off the new decade by releasing their first live album to prove the naysayers wrong. They had the additional brainstorm of including a second disc of studio material, figuring listeners lured by exciting live versions of old favorites would then be exposed to the band’s new stuff, and maybe become repeat customers. The genius part: the two-record set would be offered for the price of a standard single LP. It ended up with the enigmatic moniker (Untitled).
The live material was drawn from two concerts. The first, at the Queens College Colden Center auditorium in Queens, New York, on February 28, 1970 provided most of the oldies: “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Mr. Spaceman,” and an epic, jammed-out “Eight Miles High” that would end up filling an entire side of the record. The second performance, on March 1 at the Felt Forum underneath Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, provided the newer material: “Nashville West,” “Lover of the Bayou” from the on-hold musical play Gene Tryp, and the last Dylan cover to appear on a Byrds album, “Positively 4th Street.” The live material delivers on its promise, showcasing a solid concert act, McGuinn’s Rickenbacker fusing neatly with White’s string-bending country licks on his Telecaster as they roar through the set.
In the studio later that year, McGuinn raided his backlog of songs written with Jacques Levy for their now abandoned stage production. “Chestnut Mare” may stand as the last of the true Byrds classics, the kind that make it onto greatest hits albums (or at least second volumes of greatest hits albums.) Its sound is something of a throwback to the 1967 Byrds, but why they felt the need to include a spoken narrative piece, I’ll never know. The other McGuinn-Levy collaborations found here, “Just A Season” and “All the Things” (featuring a surprise harmony vocal from none other than Gram Parsons), come pretty close to reaching “Mare”’s heights, and these three tracks justify the album’s existence. Of the six other songs that make up the studio portion of the album, newest member Skip Battin is responsible for writing or co-writing four, and they range from the passable (“Yesterday’s Train”) to the pretty bad (“Hungry Planet”). The remaining two songs both feature Clarence White’s thin, strained lead vocals: the tragic tale of the “Truck Stop Girl” penned by Lowell George of the recently-formed Little Feat, and folk-blues legend Lead Belly’s cocaine anthem “Have A Whiff On Me,” which became a latter-day concert staple. The album closes with a ramshackle seven-minute Battin jam “Well Come Back Home,” a commentary on the still-raging Vietnam War, featuring eerie chants from Battin, a practicing Buddhist.
Once again, a few shrewd ideas pay off. (Untitled) hit stores in September 1970 and made a Top 40 showing again. Despite some clunkers, it was the last good Byrds album, thanks mostly to the live stuff.
Which means their next release, June 1971’s Byrdmaniax, would have to be the first truly bad Byrds album. Sadly enough, that’s true. After hitting the road with a vengeance in 1970-71, they were burned out and bereft of good ideas. McGuinn felt the country angle had been played out. “I don’t care if I never play another country song in my life,” he announced. But the exhausted bandleader had come up with very little material. So, three of Byrdmaniax’s tracks are turned over once again to Skip Battin and his writing partner, noted rapist and all-around sleazebag Kim Fowley. “Citizen Kane,” “Tunnel of Love,” and “Absolute Happiness” are all completely worthless. Hoping lightning would strike twice, they picked another gospel song from the Art Reynolds Singers, the group who had first performed “Jesus is Just Alright.” The result, album-opener “Glory, Glory,” has energy, but it’s forced energy, and the track never really catches fire.
McGuinn scrapes the barrel for the final remnants of his work with Jacques Levy. The facile, overly-theatrical “I Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politician” may have worked in some context within the stage musical, but its need to exist on a Byrds album is highly questionable. His attempt at an earnest anthem, “I Trust,” could have provided a pleasant moment, but it’s destroyed by its production (see below.) “Pale Blue” suffers similar issues, but it showcases some very nice harmonica from Gene Parsons. The Dylan cover recorded for the album, “Just Like A Woman,” was never completed and left to gather dust in the vaults, even though a finished version may have given the project a lift.
Despite McGuinn’s country fatigue, he can’t seem to think of anything better, and the sub-par songs amble along by muscle memory in the usual latter-day Byrds style. The only bright spots are the White/Parsons zydeco-influenced instrumental, “Green Apple Quick Step” and a fairly solid soft-rock version of up-and-coming songwriter Jackson Browne’s “Jamaica Say You Will.”
Producer Terry Melcher tried to save the whole mess by slathering it with overdubbed orchestration and overdubbed choirs after the main recording had wrapped, but like any instance where that happens, he only succeeded in turning something dull into something almost unlistenable. Compare the released version of McGuinn’s slight “Pale Blue” with the unadorned version included as a CD bonus track and you’ll be ear-witness to a song being murdered. Another acoustic ballad, “Kathleen’s Song,” originally recorded for (Untitled), was similarly brutalized. (Seek out the outtake version included on the reissue of the earlier album.) Melcher was not invited to produce the next album.
As hard to believe as it is if you read its reviews, no one hated Byrdmaniax more than the Byrds. Feeling the need to save their reputation, they were bound and determined to get another album to the listening audience before the year was out. Knowing from past experience that audiences respond to the familiar (eg., Ballad of Easy Rider), McGuinn accepted the need for the Byrds to stay in their country rock niche, so the new album would fall comfortably into that groove. But the same problems that dogged Byrdmaniax had not been solved in such a short time — lack of material, lack of energy, lack of inspiration. They didn’t bother to even attempt a Dylan song at the sessions that took place over a few rushed days in London. (A good snapshot of their live act at the time can be heard on the album Live at the Royal Albert Hall 1971, recorded on May 13 and released many years later. This live document is well worth a listen, as is the sketchier Live at the Fillmore — February 1969.)
The Byrds limped into the barn with the half-baked Farther Along, self-produced and released a mere five months after its predecessor in November 1971. We get the conclusion of the “dog trilogy” with “Bugler” written by Larry Murray, a Hillman crony that was one half of the obscure folk act Hearts & Flowers, and sung by Clarence White — and it turns out to be a surprising highlight, which doesn’t say much for the rest of the album. The two Battin/Fowley collaborations, as usual, can be disregarded, even if the really fucking dumb “America’s Great National Pastime” was chosen as the single. Another sprightly but totally unnecessary instrumental, the banjo-driven “Bristol Steam Convention Blues,” follows in the footsteps of “Nashville West” and “Green Apple Quick Step.” The album is lifted above total failure by the title song, a classic Southern gospel number that’s so well-crafted it’s almost impossible to screw up in performance, McGuinn’s “Tiffany Queen,” the churning slab of retro 50s-style rock ‘n’ roll that opens the album…and good ol’ “Bugler.” Everything else on the album is the textbook definition of “filler.”
Farther Along became their second-lowest selling album. Even Byrdmaniax shifted more units. With a collective sigh, the Byrds trooped back out onto the road. But the end of the road was beckoning.
Gene Parsons was fired in July of 1972, and replaced by someone else. No one cared.
Skip Battin was fired in February of 1973, and replaced by someone else. No one cared. Roger McGuinn disbanded the Byrds later that month. No one cared.
The five original Byrds — Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, David Crosby, Michael Clarke, and Gene Clark — reunited and put out an entire album together later that year. No one cared, and it was their own damn fault.
Rather than attempting to re-capture the joyous, chiming, jangling sound of their heyday on the reunion album — titled simply Byrds — the five original members opted for making the album a showcase for their solo-album rejects with the dullest arrangements possible. Sessions were held in the fall of 1972, before the touring Byrds had even folded, but McGuinn could see the writing on the wall, and surreptitiously picked up the phone to his former bandmates. What should have been magical, however, was just short of a disaster.
All the members (again) refused to check their egos at the door. David Crosby swaggered into the producer’s chair, and did a mediocre job at best. The dominant instrument was Hillman’s mandolin. McGuinn barely touched his iconic Rickenbacker 12-string (despite getting people’s hopes up on the album cover photo). He pulled yet another Jacques Levy collaboration from the compost heap (“Sweet Mary”), and re-wrote “Tiffany Queen” into something called “Born To Rock ‘N’ Roll.” Two Neil Young covers (“Cowgirl in the Sand” and “See the Sky About to Rain”) couldn’t save the project, though Gene Clark’s “Full Circle” offered a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been. The result was a limp-noodle album full of disjointed, country-ish yacht rock that sounded like Loggins & Messina outtakes.
The album came out, no one liked it, least of all the band, and plans for a tour were shelved. The Byrds passed into history.
After 1973, all members of the original Byrds intermittently played with one or more of the others on various projects through the 1980s, with little commercial impact, even as superstar Byrds-worshippers like Tom Petty and R.E.M. took their style to the top of the charts. The last time all five original Byrds were together was for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in January 1991, where they maintained group tradition by playing a sloppy, under-rehearsed and over-amplified two-song set while barely looking at each other.
Gene Clark spent the late 60s and 1970s recording several solo albums in the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter vein that received enormous critical praise (and are absolutely worth checking out), but sold about three copies each. He died four months after the Hall of Fame ceremony of a heart attack triggered by a bleeding ulcer, the result of years of substance abuse.
Michael Clarke dabbled in painting and toured the county fair/auto show circuit with the tribute band (meaning no other original members) “The Byrds featuring Michael Clarke” from the mid-80s to his death in 1993 from liver failure. He was occasionally joined by John York and/or Skip Battin. After years of bouncing around the fringes of the music industry, Battin died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2003. York still earns a living as a session bassist and guitarist, expanding his repertoire to include various forms of world music.
The quiet, good-natured Kevin Kelley remained present in obscure corners of the L.A. jazz and country scene, never attempting to exploit his identity as a former Byrd. He died in 2002, another victim of alcoholism.
Gene Parsons is credited with co-inventing the “B-Bender” guitar accessory with Clarence White (which allows a standard guitar to replicate the sound of a steel guitar), and remains busy running his custom guitar workshop in rural California. Clarence White was killed when he was struck by a drunk driver in July 1973, five months after the Byrds were disbanded.
Gram Parsons, along with Chris Hillman, enjoyed some artistic if not commercial success with the Flying Burrito Brothers. Their lone masterpiece, The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969), is fondly remembered as the classic example of the Cosmic American Music Parsons had been chasing for years. Its follow-up, Burrito Deluxe (1970), reflected the steep drop-off in Parsons’ creative interest after he had achieved his goal. Hillman briefly took over the struggling group after dismissing Parsons. Parsons recorded two excellent solo albums of more straightforward country material before dying of an overdose in September 1973.
Buffalo Springfield flamed out not long after the original version of the Byrds, for similar reasons, so David Crosby never got the chance to join up. But he and Buffalo frontman Stephen Stills founded “supergroup” Crosby, Stills, and Nash, with Graham Nash of the Hollies. (Neil Young occasionally sat in with them when he had nothing better to do.) He alienated collaborators, committed hit-and-runs, and waved handguns around, all the while freebasing enough rock cocaine for two Richard Pryors. Crosby never reformed his behavior until a stint in state prison forced him to do so. After his release, his past excsesses caught up with in the form of a destroyed liver, which required an emergency transplant. Semi-annual motorycle accidents and a heart attack followed. The Holy Bee has always found Crosby’s whole persona off-putting (even in recent interviews he comes off as a self-obsessed pompous asshole), and most of the CSN catalog insipid, boring, or both. But the man’s a survivor, and no one can take away the fact that he was once an original Byrd.
And to be honest, I may actually have more in common these days with Crosby than with Hillman or McGuinn, both of whom have aged into cranky old conservative Republicans. Pete Seeger is surely spinning in his grave.
After The Flying Burrito Brothers folded, Chris Hillman was welcomed into several bluegrass/folk/gospel bands over the years — Manassas, The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, Down Home Praise, Ever Call Ready, The Desert Rose Band, and others. He continues to tour and record as a solo artist and with fellow folk musician Herb Pedersen.
Roger McGuinn moved on from Subud and became a born-again Christian in the late 1970s. Like Gene Clark, he released a handful of well-regarded but low-selling solo albums. Since 1995 he has been the webmaster and curator of the Folk Den, a massively in-depth website dedicated to preserving and promoting folk music.
Hillman faced DJ Ralph Emery one more time in an interview promoting his work with the Desert Rose Band in the 1980s. The clueless Emery had not been keeping up with things.
“How’s Gram Parsons these days, Chris?”
“Still dead, Ralph.”