Saturday, September 29, 2012

byrdsongs, lix

When I was a college undergraduate, I walked on the outskirts of a social circle that included a coterie of attractive, smart women who were heavily into Gram Parsons.  The only way, it seemed, to get them pay any attention to me was to make it known that I owned the GP / Grievous Angel two-for-one cassette (Nice Price). But I’ve never really much liked Gram Parsons. I’ve talked about this before, but he’s way too much of a country music purist for my taste.  It’s often said that his so-called Cosmic American Music is a perfect blending of c&w and rock, but to me it just sounds like c&w. If a hippy makes c&w music, the fact that he’s a hippy, in and of itself, doesn’t magically transform the music into rock ‘n roll.  And so it was, or wasn’t, with Gram Parsons. His music’s not bad, it’s just not my taste.  But he was a decent songwriter, I’ll give him that. …I know it’s not good form to speak ill of the dead, but the other thing about Parsons’ vibe that's always put me off is the way it feeds so readily into the college girl mentality. It’s probably envy on my part as much as anything else. I remember how those girls would swoon at the sound of his voice, the dreamily handsome bad boy sensitivo who no doubt pollinated every flower he flew past. He was the opposite of me, both in his day-to-day experience of the world and in the music he cherished most.  There’s nothing there for me to grab hold of. Plus he fucked up the Byrds. After Parsons came into the Byrds and left just as fast, the last threads of the original band – Hillman and McGuinn – were torn apart, and the music was never as good... So let’s review: Parsons was a c&w singer who ruined my favorite band and got laid a lot in the process. Tell me what exactly there is for me to identify with in this package?

byrdsongs, lviii

Gene Parsons’ Kindling is a nice 'n quiet country/ folk/ bluegrass record.  It’s not my thing, really, but I appreciate its pleasantly relaxed vibe, and I understand where Parsons is coming from. I think he was always more of a country and bluegrass guy than a rocker.  He just happened to be a very good rock ‘n roll drummer, but his real musical passions lay elsewhere. And secondly, there’s some ‘let’s get back to the country and back to what’s really important’ sentiment expressed intermittently throughout the album, which leads me to believe (without knowing for sure) that Parsons wanted to make mellow, down-home music in the aftermath of having toured continuously with the Byrds for close to five years. Fair enough. You’ve gotta give the guy credit for not making a corporate rock record. 

But the best thing about Kindling might be the sleeve. The front shows Parsons, presumably at his cabin someplace, standing with an axe in front of a huge pile of chopped wood. And on the back we see the cozy kitchen inside the cabin, replete with wood burning stove, natch. You can practically smell the firewood burning and the biscuits baking. It all oozes with rustic authenticity, the simple pleasures of country living. I wish I were the kind of person who could buy into this stuff. I guess I can appreciate it in a detached way. It’s neat that people are into rural lifestyles where they subsist off the land and chop their own firewood and live in cabins and what have you. But the idea that country living is somehow more real than life in the city, and that it’s superior because it’s less superficial and less wedded to material things, that’s the part I can’t accept. It’s silly, and it’s conservative. Plus, I grew up in a penthouse apartment in Manhattan and I tend to get frightened when I’m in the woods…  

Thursday, September 27, 2012

byrdsongs, lvii

As much as it hurts me to say anything critical about Roger McGuinn, I think he lost the plot in the 70s and never really found it again. But this is totally understandable when you stop and consider how profoundly he affected rock ‘n roll. He had the misfortune of having his biggest impact relatively early in life, in his 20s, and so the rest of his work thereafter doesn’t measure up to the five or six years during which he was a brilliant innovator. His first solo album, released in 1973, is ok, nothing spectacular. Several of the songs were collaboratively written with Jacques Levy. The problem as I’ve diagnosed it here before is that corporate rock is beneath Roger McGuinn. He was trying to make his talents fit into the CHM* mold when really, in a more just world, he would have been rejecting the mold and doing what he does best, adding his signature jangle and distinct vocal warble to tight, three-minute folk-pop songs.  Then again, perhaps continuing to do so in the 70s would have seemed retrograde and as if he were resting on his laurels. But maybe he could have innovated further if he hadn’t been locked into in the FM radio straitjacket. The unfortunate irony here is that I don’t think any of his solo material received much radio airplay anyway. It seems like he became increasingly obscure as the Byrds faded from recent memory. Even now, you don’t hear much talk of McGuinn’s solo material outside a small circle of obsessive fans.  …The personnel on Roger McGuinn reads like a page out of the 1973 edition of Who’s Who in the LA Rock Scene, and the players tellingly include several of the most egregious purveyors of CHM: Leland Sklar (bass); Daivd Crosby (vocals, guitar); Graham Nash (vocals, guitar); Chris Ethridge (bass); Jim Gordon (drums); Chris Hillman (bass); Bruce Johnston (piano, backing vocals); Hal Blaine (percussion); Michael Clarke (drums); Bob Dylan (harmonica); and so on. In other words, the same old gang, with a growing emphasis on the old part, not necessarily in terms of literal age but certainly in the somewhat dispiriting way in which the music these guys were all involved in by this time stuck to a formula that was so settled in its ways…

*Corporate Hippy Music, the basic characteristics of which were more fully elaborated in yesterday's post.  

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

byrdsongs, lvi

As the 70s progressed, the former Byrds were involved in quite a bit of lackluster stuff. A lot of it – not all of it, but definitely a lot of it – is just tired sounding corporate hippy music. Call it CHM, a slightly more inclusive category than CCR (corporate country rock). What are the basic characteristics of CHM?  CHM is frequently very sleepy sounding because it’s performed by musicians taking Quaaludes to come down from cocaine binges…  CHM is bloated sounding on several fronts. The songs and records tend to be longer because drugs make every fart that comes out of your ass seem absolutely fascinating...  

Many if not all of the practioners of CHM are and always have been corporate hippies, though for reasons having to do with shrewd marketing they make music expressing sentiments opposed to the corporate machine, even as said machine enriches them, enabling the purchase of multiple mansions in the various socialist enclaves south of Ventura Boulevard… CHM often sounds lost and lacking of any real focus. This is another factor contributing to the length of the songs. The songs are longer because they’re lost in the woods, so to speak, and can't find their way home, so they just noodle around and around and around in a druggy haze, searching for something convincing to latch onto, and failing to find it, so that what ends up finally bringing the songs mercifully to a conclusion is nothing other than pure exhaustion... CHM often has conceptual pretensions, issuing forth in things like concept albums, lengthy songs with several distinct (bowel) movements, and music with melodic structures that are too complicated for their own good. Once again, drugs have a lot to do with this because they make every utterance seem meaningful and, in connection with this, they expand one's ego and inspire a degree of megalomania that leads rock stars to imagine themselves to be doing important things. ...We would do well to remember the ‘C’ in CHM.  That is to say, CHM is completely and utterly and totally corporate. The records sound processed – mechanically (re)produced – even when they’re trying to sound rough and ‘in the moment.’ A good way to think of this is that the records are overproduced, not in the Marxian sense of there being more supply than the market demand can bear, though this certainly happened often enough (hence the cutout bins that men and women of a certain age mined for bargains), but rather that they sound cluttered, overly manufactured and murky, sometimes even a bit fussy and claustrophobic.  The irony here is that this is often carried out in an effort to make the record sound more ‘real.’  But you know right away that you’re not listening to something real but instead something that’s trying to be real.  Baudrillarad calls this the hyper-real.  I call it shitty music. 

By the time you get to the late 70s, the pretend/real has gotten so unreal/hyper-real that the records sound like they’re recorded in a cramped closet made of aluminum foil. But it all starts in the 70s with records like Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night and Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything, both of which include ‘mistakes’ as a way of making listeners think they’re hearing something authentic and intimate. But make no mistake: the mistakes are not mistakes… There are other aspects of the ‘C’ in CHM that are worth pointing out. For instance, CHM records are usually entirely commodified.  Technically speaking, anything traded in the open market is a commodity. But CHM records have a kind of gloss to them, not just in the way they sound but in the way they appear physically. They’re meant to look like records that you absolutely have to have or you’ll be out of it. This actually dates back to the 60s. Sgt Pepper’s has the look of an album that you have to have, as does (paradoxically)the White Album, as does Beggar’s Banquet. 

But in the beginning, the artistically conceived glossy sleeve had at least a certain amount of aesthetic integrity as an end in itself, beyond the market.  Only in the 70s does the sleeve become entirely a marketing device, and CHM paves the way for this development, along with progressive rock, which is more closely related to CHM than you might think, being a product of many of the same social forces… To the extent that CHM expresses a political vision, it’s vaguely against the man. But it’s against the man in a way that the man himself can use to contain the generalized anger and resentment against him.  CHM is, in other words, ‘co-opted,’ a term I used with a fair bit of regularity in my former life as a Trot, and by which I mean here that the corporate hippy has a stake in the system. As a result, CHM doesn’t really offer an alternative to the existing order of things. It merely makes a show of wanting the order to be more inclusive and less oppressive. What does that actually mean? Your guess is as good as mine.  But I do know this:  Love is an important idea in the CHM conceptual lexicon.  And here I’m not talking about romantic love but rather something like familial love qua social solidarity, i.e. 'we’re all brothers and sisters (with the exception of the angry blacks that would steal our TV sets and burn our suburban homes to the ground if it weren’t for the fast-response paramilitary security services we have at our disposal). Can’t we all just love each other and do away with our greed? Love is all we need...

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

byrdsongs, lv

Muleskinner, the bluegrass supergroup featuring Clarence White and David Grisman, is not music I’m ever gonna wanna listen to. It might be different for you if lightning-fast mandolin yee-hah is your thang. When I hear the stuff I feel like I’m being asked to squeal like a pig, from a voice behind me. But the music does afford me one last chance to say a few things about Clarence White, who died about seven months after tonight’s clip was taped. His death wasn’t a needle-in-the-arm rock ‘n roll suicide passing. He strikes me as having been far too much of a southern gentleman for that sort of thing. But it was a terrible death nevertheless. On a summer night in 1973, out in Palmdale, which is a stop along the Sierra Highway on the way out to the Mojave, White was struck by a drunk driver while he and his brother were loading equipment into a car after an impromptu Kentucky Colonels reunion gig. Poor guy was only 29, but he’d already lived such a rich life. He was a child prodigy, a founding member of the Kentucky Colonels, a member of Nashville West, and a session player for tons of Country and pop music, including sessions for the Monkees and for the Byrds as early as Younger than Yesterday. Roger McGuinn finally invited him to become a full-time member of the reconstituted Byrds in the latter half of 1968. Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons asked White to join the Burrito Brothers but he said in interviews that he’d always wanted to be in the Byrds. And it’s easy see/hear why. His guitar chemistry with McGuinn was incredible.
And this is really what I wanted to say about Clarence White. I am not at all a lover of country music, even when it’s fused with rock ‘n roll.  On the one hand, then, I have a certain degree of ambivalence about the Byrds in the Clarence White era.  If it’d been up to me, the Byrds never would have made Sweetheart of the Rodeo and would have continued making pop records, perhaps with some country fried textures here and there. But on the other hand, Clarence White is a once-in-a-lifetime talent, though it’s not his technical virtuosity that wins me over. You don’t really notice his technical prowess because he never noodles or wanks. His playing is restrained. He understands the importance of being an accompanist. This is the best kind of virtuosity, at least in my book. What makes White so distinct is the sound and tone he coaxes from his guitar. It’s absolutely perfect and says what a player can’t otherwise say in a million pyrotechnic solos. I hear that Tellie twang of his, razor sharp and sugar sweet (flies like a butterfly, stings like a bee?), and all my reservations dissolve. And when that sound and that tone are layered over the chiming beauty of McGuinn’s 12-string, forget it, I’m hooked. Slap a 10 gallon Stetson on me and dress me up in leather chaps…  White was taken away from us far too soon, but he left behind so much bliss, and he'll always have a place in my heart...

Monday, September 24, 2012

byrdsongs, liv

I came of age during a massive wave of generalized cultural nostalgia. I saw American Graffiti in the theater. I watched Happy Days and Sha Na Na. I listened to the Beach Boys’ Endless Summer and Spirit of America collections. I saw the first commercials on TV for mail order Golden Oldies records... The message radiating out from all this stuff was that things used to be so much cooler, so much more innocent, so much freer, and so much easier. This thinking must’ve seeped into my bloodstream because I’ve always had a powerful nostalgic streak in me. I didn’t know it then, but now I realize that the backwards looking tendency in culture at the time was a symptom of post-60s malaise. Cultural stagnation reflected not only economic stagnation but also a need for escape from the depressing aftermaths of Watergate, Viet Nam, and the fighting in the streets. All this being said, though, nostalgia is not uncomplicated, by which I mean that it’s not entirely negative. I say this somewhat defensively because I am a romantic at heart, and my cultural tastes are firmly planted in yesterday’s world. I’m a (mid) 20th century guy living in a 21st century world. For this reason, I have to believe that there’s good nostalgia – good simulation – that can be separated out from bad nostalgia. The pop revivalist movement that began in the early 70s was an example of good nostalgia because it was, in a sense, corrective.  Rock had become so bloated and gassy, heavy and conceptual. But then along come the Raspberries, Blue Ash, Pezband, Liverpool Echo, the Pop, Shoes, Artful Dodger, the Rubinoos…and so on.  Most of these bands didn't sell too many records, but at least they tried, with some success, to move music away from the three-record set, and back towards the three-minute pop song. It was a positive development even if it represented a form of conservative restoration...

And this is why I think the Byrds reunion album is almost uniformly awful. I like to tell people that it’s the Byrds playing the music, but they’re not playing Byrds music. It’s nostalgic in the sense that the original five are back together, but it’s otherwise stuck in the cultural quicksand of 1973. I don’t really understand what the thinking was here. David Crosby produced the record, so who knows how lucid he was at the time. But if you’re gonna get the original five back together again, why wouldn’t you try to make the music sound like a slightly updated edition of the kind of music for which you’re known? Do we really need two Neil Young covers, neither of which adds anything to the originals?  Gene Clark was the only guy who came to the table with halfway decent material. The rest of the album sounds like slapdash corporate rock, conceived and executed for money and no other reason. McGuinn’s chiming 12-string goodness is almost entirely MIA. He doesn’t seem to have been invested in this project at all. Maybe the bitterness and resentments between the guys were so deep and hurtful that they couldn’t be bothered to do anything other than something entirely mercenary. The record opens with Clark’s Full Circle. It’s a nice enough song, but he’s fooling himself if he thinks the band has come back to where they started. He couldn’t be farther from the truth, and the Byrds couldn’t be farther from the brilliant band they were. It was only a few years earlier, really, but this record serves as a stark reminder that it was also several lifetimes ago...

Sunday, September 23, 2012

jingle jangle mornings, twelve

When it comes to 60s pop, I tend to prefer Los Angeles and London to San Francisco.  But Frisco's Beau Brummels made some great jangly music that's on par with almost anything from either the Southland or the UK.  Don't Talk to Strangers is one of their best.  The song's charming garage band primitivism makes for a simple vibe that allows the guitars to ring out, pure and unencumbered by any unnecessary adornment. The harmonies and tambourine are quite lovely, too. If you want proof that the British Invasion was the best thing to ever happen to American music, here you go...

byrdsongs, liii

Is it Nash and Crosby or Crosby and Nash?  Either way, I had their first album when I was a kid. I bought it for Immigration Man, a song in fairly heavy rotation on WNEW, 102.7 FM in New York. Hearing the song now, I can see why I liked it. To a ten year old, the song will sound like it has a serious message that imbues the music with an air of importance. I can't really remember what that message was for me back then, quite possibly because now, more than three decades later, I still can't really figure out what they're on about. I'll bet you a soda Nash and Crosby (or vice versa) don't know either. Is it a song about immigrants, how difficult it is for them to get into the USA, and/or how difficult it is for them once they get here? I know Nash had a very difficult time up in the hills, with two cats in the yard.  Apparently they don't even carry Marmite at the Laurel Canyon Country Store. Or maybe the song is one of those coming into Los Angeleeeez things, hippie paranoia in which the customs guy at LAX asks you to open your bags, then finds your stash, then throws you in the hole, quite possibly with a lot of other immigrants. I guess what I'm trying to say is that Immigration Man is an ersatz protest song, as vague as it is heavy handed, just the kind of thing that Crosby and Nash excelled at after very promising early careers as creators of perfect little boy-meets-girl pop songs.  The song is catchy enough, but it's also heavy, in every sense of the word. Just listen to how the organ weighs the music down, degrading it considerably in the process. What the song does more than anything is make you pine for the days when music was lighter and the main thing was to have fun...

Saturday, September 22, 2012

byrdsongs, lii

Those of you who've been reading me for awhile now - thank you, btw - probably know that I have certain rules for music... Harmonica always makes a song sound bad... Tambourine always makes a song sound good... The shorter a song is, the better... Double albums can and should always be pared down to two sides... Avoid saxophone, horns, and flute...  Politics don't mix well with music... Covers are never as good as the originals... If faced with a choice between heavy and light, go with the latter... And Steve Stills made everything he participated in worse than it would otherwise have been, including Buffalo Springfield...  There are, of course, exceptions to some if not all of these rules.  For instance, I love Bud Shank's hep cat flute solo in California Dreaming. I also love a few of the covers of Chet Powers' Get Together, particularly those by the Youngbloods (their's is a guitar-spangled anthem with cross-generational appeal), HP Lovecraft (their's is another exception to the flute rule), and the Jefferson Airplane (their's shows how great the Airplane were in the beginning, when they were just a simple beatnikish folk rock band)...  As far as Steve Stills goes, he did a pretty good job with Manassas.  Their music was ccr with pretensions of being something better than that, but I think one has to accept that ccr was simply the coin of the realm within a particular milieux of early 70s rock. I'm not really sure why Chris Hillman wanted to be in Manassas. I guess he'd grown tired of the Burritos and needed a new outlet. And when one of the biggest rock stars in the world - if not the biggest - invites you to join his band, I imagine it's hard to refuse.  The first Manassas album is way too long and does that pretentious 'conceptual' thing where each of the four sides has its own supposedly unifying theme (The Raven, the Wilderness, Consider, and Rock 'n Roll is Here to Stay...Oy vey). But there's some good music in there if you're willing to put in the work required to find it.  I think I might even have two or three good Manassas tracks buried somewhere within the deepest recesses of my iTunes, to say nothing of my unconscious...

Thursday, September 20, 2012

byrdsongs, li

Time redeems everything in popular music. That’s what I’ve learned.  Once upon a time, David Crosby’s If Only I Could Remember My Name was a hippie relic and a running joke. The scorn Christgau heaped on the record in his Consumer Guide review was fairly typical: “This disgraceful performance inspires the first Consumer Guide Competition. The test: Rename David Crosby (he won't know the difference). The prize: One Byrds LP of your choice (he ought to know the difference). The catch: You have to beat my entries. Which are: Rocky Muzak, Roger Crosby, Vaughan Monroe. D-  …I never thought the album was that bad. I've always kind of liked it, to tell you the truth. I mean, Crosby’s got the Grateful Dead and Neil Young and Stills and Nash and Mitchell and the Airplane and seemingly every other member of the West Coast hippie rock aristocracy sitting in with him. It’s pretty cool. Sure, it’s a bit of a ridiculous show of pious countercultural communality, but the music is groovy and swings with off-the-cuff open-endedness. I normally don’t go for stuff that meanders without a tightly conceived plan. I like my music to have its sphincter squeezed shut with vice-like force. But there's always exceptions, and the music on If Only works. Why shouldn't it work? There was tons of talent laboring underneath the dense cloud of reefer smoke that undoubtedly hung over the proceedings. It's not a record I’m gonna wanna hear all the time, but I never thought it was anything other than a fun West Coast jam session with some freely associated words attached to the music as it emerged spontaneously. So I was quite pleased when Barney Hoskins spoke of the album favorably in his books on Los Angeles music.  And then the other day I found the record on Spotify, and it came with an attached review by one Stanton Swihart, who says (rather breathlessly) that If Only is “among the finest splinter albums out of the CSNY Diaspora (and) one of the defining moments of hungover spirituality from the era.”  Maybe not quite, but it’s definitely worth hearing…

byrdsongs, l

There's not much more I can say about Gene Clark and heartbreak. All I can do is ask you to listen to the music, if you can go there, and marvel at it's beauty. Today's song feels like a conversation with a close friend who's just lost the love of his life. It's not thrown-off sounding, but it's casual, yet somehow it's also intense and intimate, almost a private rumination. For me, Clark's self-titled 1971 solo album, which later came to be known as White Light, is patchy, though there are quite a few commentators who consider it a lost classic.  I guess it's not quite my cup of tea because I like Clark best when he does the poppy happy/sad juxtaposition I've talked about a few times over these past few weeks.  But even after he veered away from pop in the 70s, Clark continued to make very good music, emotionally intense without trying to be.  That's something very few people can pull off, the mark of a truly gifted artist, and in this case one who was largely and unfairly forgotten until after he was gone...

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

byrdsongs, xlix

It’s not as bad as I had remembered, but Farther Along nevertheless has the unmistakable sound and feel of a band that’s hung on for too long, well beyond the sell-by date. This was my impression as I listened to the record last night for the first time in probably 15 or 20 years. It’s a shame that the Byrds went out so tepidly with back-to-back dud albums, each a rather dispiriting attempt to shoehorn their music into the domain of ccr*. Their concerts were great up to the end, so maybe the albums were just a pretext for going out on the road, I don’t know…  Tiffany Queen is one of the bright spots on Farther Along, but even here you can detect the problems. It’s one of the most muscular songs in the band’s catalogue, but it’s not muscular in the same way as Eight Miles High or 5D or Draft Morning. The muscularity here is weighted down with a certain processed heaviness that reflects the corporate albatross chained to the band in the form of the struggle for presence on the FM radio dial. The canned sound is there in spite of the fact that the record was self-produced by the band and basically recorded live in a London studio over five whirlwind days. The era of the artist with a modicum of independence from the ruthless dictates of  the market(aka the age of Aquarius)was giving way to multinational holding companies and their insatiable appetite for profits. Don’t let the shaggy hippies on the record sleeve fool you. The Chuck Berry-ish guitars in tonight’s song sound great, for instance, but no amount of rootsy revivalism can mask the way this stuff conforms to marketing formula...

*corporate country rock.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

byrdsongs, xlviii

With Gram Parsons gone, the Burrito Brothers crossed the fine line separating country rock from M.O.R. I don’t use the M.O.R. appellation derisively, mind you. I dig the stuff when it’s good, like Sunshine Pop good, and AM Gold good, and Jimmy Webb good, and Laura Nyro good. And I’m ok with Gordon Lightfoot, Linda Rondstadt, America, Bread, Jim Croce...all that light 'n fluffy stuff I used to hear wafting out of the ceiling at the grocery store when I was a kid. And this late-period M.O.R. staple happens to be one of my favorite songs ever. It may be a boomer midlife crisis put to music, but yuppiedom had its sensitive side, the lawyer in love, clad in the colors of Benetton, fighting the traffic on the 405 in her shiny new beamer. Don't hate her. She read a few feminist books in college and probably voted for Mondale.  …So M.O.R. isn’t necessarily bad. Just don't make me listen to Jimmy Buffet. His Hawaiian shirt schtick, and especially the drunken meatheads who go to his concerts, are almost as nauseating as "Long Island’s answer to Bob Dylan," who was the epitome of low-end M.O.R. But good M.O.R. has its place, and this extends to the Gram-less third Burrito Brothers album. It’s countrified M.O.R., and it’s a template for ccr (see yesterday’s post), but it’s not terrible. It’s unremarkable, sure, but the music is pleasing as background noise, perhaps when you’re folding the laundry or doing the dishes. Sneaky Pete’s weepy pedal steel will lull you to sleep on your feet, which was the whole point of this stuff, was it not?

Monday, September 17, 2012

byrdsongs, xlvii

The final two Byrds records, and really the last three if you count the official reunion album of 1973, are not good. Each of them has some worthwhile nuggets for those of us who are obsessive fans, but there’s no need to bother unless you’re a freak. What makes Byrdmaniax and Farther Along so depressing is that they sound like bad corporate country rock. Call it ccr, not to be confused with CCR, who were cr-ish but not ccr, if you can dig what I’m sayin’. Don’t get me wrong. There’s been some good ccr. The Eagles have their moments, in small doses. Same goes for Poco, and Manasas. And then there's this, of course, with its crunchy riff that takes you by surprise. But those last two Byrds records are bad ccr. The music sounds tapped out and aimless. Roger McGuinn should have packed it in after Untitled, or at least he should have stopped making records and just toured (they were still an amazing live band up to the end). I know this is probably not realistic as tours are generally in suport of records, unless you’re the Grateful Dead. And, let’s face it, there’s only one Grateful Dead. The point is moot in any case. Byrdmaniax and Farther Along were released, and both were critically panned, rightfully so.  But I try to put a positive spin on things when it comes to the Byrds, and I chose to interpret those two records as follows: The Byrds were compelled to make ccr records because ccr was the thing at the time. But they were not capable of making records that would sound corporate and convincing. That’s the thing about the Eagles. There isn’t a shadow of self doubt in their music. Love ‘em, hate ‘em, or tolerate them on occasion, you’ve gotta admit that they make supremely confident music. That’s the problem with them, really. There’s a douchey arrogance there that grates after awhile. And there’s never any question whatsoever that the Eagles’ number one priority is to make shitloads of money. Even when they’re self-conscious, it’s not a self-consciousness that warms you to the band at all. It almost seems like the opposite is true, that they’re actively trying to alienate you from their world. But the Byrds were better than that (remember this is my interpretation of things and may or may not bear any resemblance to reality). So when the marketplace demanded ccr, they sounded like they were phoning it in...because they were phoning it in.  That’s my story and I’m sticking with it… Jamaica Say You Will is one of my favorite Jackson Browne songs. He made some pretty good (and hyper-self-conscious) ccr-ish records, btw. I much prefer his version of the song, but the Byrds do an ok enough rendition. Such is the degree to which the Byrds had fallen from grace by 1971. The one song I like from Byrdmaniax is merely ok enough…

Sunday, September 16, 2012

jingle jangle mornings, eleven

Can't believe I found Liverpool Echo on Youtube. It's nice to know that there are actually some pop lifers scattered out there in the world. The band's one eponymous LP came out in 1973 but - by design - it sounds like a collection of songs from ten years earlier. Call it neo-Merseybeat. LE's Martin Briley ended up having a fairly obscure career, but he did have his 15 minutes with an MTV video for Salt of my Tears, a nice (if also acerbic) little power pop diddy...  Music like Liverpool Echo, along with contemporaneous records from the Raspberries, Flaming Groovies, Badfinger, Big Star, Dwight Twilley Band, etc, show that pop music was already grappling with its limitations in the mid 70s. I love stuff like this, but I recognize it as a simulation, as an admission that there's only so much you can do with guitar pop. It's a strange paradox: The possibilities aren't limitless, but the addictiveness of the music makes you want to hear more, more, more.  I don't care if I've heard it all before, just give me more, and give it to me now!

byrdsongs, xlvi

She's the Kind of Girl is the other tune from the 1970 reunion of the original Byrds. It hits all my pop life buttons and is pretty much a perfect song. I typically don't like flute in my music (or any wind instrument, for that matter), but Bud Shank's flute here adds just the right little bit of melancholic goodness. This is another one of those songs that makes me feel a special kinship with Gene Clark. He just has a way of expressing feelings that are so familiar to me. God bless him. Once again, though, it's not just the sentimentality of the She's the Kind of Girl that makes it a great song but the way that sentimentality comes across when you add the chiming magnificence of McGuinn's 12-string and Crosby's angelic harmony. 

She takes the time and understands
She makes no judgements no demands
But she makes you feel the fool
When you wonder how she slipped right through your hands

The song is so sad, but the sadness is so good, so blissful, and it leaves you wanting to hear it again...

Friday, September 14, 2012

byrdsongs, xlv

Even as Roger McGuinn continued to tour with the Clarence White version of the Byrds, the original iteration of the group, including McGuinn, came together in 1970 to record what were ostensibly two tracks for a forthcoming Gene Clark solo album. But listen to the songs and there's no denying that what you're hearing is essentially a Byrds reunion, the first and best of several. Both tracks - She's the Kind of Girl and One in a Hundred - are outstanding. As much as I love Clarence White's guitar playing, nothing can compare to the pleasure that courses through my body when the band's classic lineup is setting Clark's romanticism to the sound of McGuinn's 12-string magic and David Crosby's lovely high harmony.  Neither song appeared as a single or on a record until Clark's Roadmaster (a collection of odds and ends) was released in 1973.  Whenever I hear these songs, I wonder why they weren't included on the record released for the much higher profile Byrds reunion album of '73. They would easily have been the two best songs on that otherwise dreary affair.  Maybe therein lies the answer. It wouldn't shock me, in other words, to discover that egos were involved...

byrdsongs, xliv

As the 60s drew to a close, the Byrds’ music began to evince little flashes of nostalgia here and there. The general thrust is still of the LA cowboy variety, with rustic western vibes sanding down the rough edges left behind after the death of the two-minute pop song. But within this broad and, to be honest, somewhat depressing sweep of things, there are momentary pockets, gaps where McGuinn in particular seems to look back, yearning for those heady neon nights at the Trip and Ciro’s Le Disc, when everything was new and fresh and reality felt infinitely malleable. Child of the Universe on Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde is an instance of this reflection backwards, as is the cover of It’s All Over Now Baby Blue on The Ballad of Easy Rider, a song McGuinn had covered in a poppier and more energized time signature during the sessions for Turn Turn Turn… All the Things, another product of the collaboration between McGuinn and Jacques Levy, falls under the heading of nostalgia as well. It’s far too mellow, languid and stretched out to ever be mistaken for something recorded in the mid 60s, but the main riff and harmonies will remind you of the Bells of Rhymney and the halcyon days of teenage utopianism. The song is very much in line with the material that comes out of a quick original Byrds reunion in the same year (1970, not to be confused with the more muddled and corporate reunion of 1973)… Along with its nostalgic streak, All the Things is undeniably mournful, coming from the point of view of someone who only appreciates what he had after it’s long gone.  Perhaps that someone is meant to be the personification of an entire generation.  All the things I want today, all the things I wasted on the way…

Thursday, September 13, 2012

byrdsongs, xliii

The late Jacques Levy was one of the truly enigmatic figures lurking in the shadows of 70s rock, and certainly one of the most unique. How does a trained clinical psychologist with a background in theater end up in songwriting collaborations with Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn? I’m a little fuzzy on the particulars, but after directing the all-nude Broadway show Oh Calcutta! in the late 60s, Levy teamed up with McGuinn and the two began work together on a country rock musical with the working title Gene Tryp, which was intended to be an Americanized interpretation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.  Mercifully, the musical never saw the light of day, but several songs from their work together ended up on Untitled, including Chestnut Mare, arguably the best late-period Byrds song. It’s a great tune, and it’s also strikingly bizarre in the way it creates a surrealistic dreamscape where a man becomes romantically fixated on a horse.  That the horse is merely Levy’s vehicle for a Freudian/Jungian sexual conquest fantasy doesn’t make the song any less strange.  The phallic symbolism comes hard and heavy, so to speak: ‘I got my rope out, and I flung it in the air.’ … ‘A sidewinder all coiled and ready to strike.’ … 'I’m going to catch that horse if I can, and when I do I’ll give her my brand.’ … Levy uses the same songwriting concept – a sexual odyssey – in his collaboration with Bob Dylan on Isis, with equally satisfying results...

In musical terms, Chestnut Mare was the most assured studio recording McGuinn was involved in since The Notorious Byrd Brothers. His intricate arpeggiated rhythm guitar playing holds the song together beautifully and provides the perfect backdrop for Clarence White’s deft little flourishes.  The live version I’m posting tonight leaves out the complex (and super-surrealistic) middle section of the song, but you can hear it here if you’re so inclined.  I just thought the live footage was too good to pass up, and the pretty German girl hovering over the band at the beginning seemed so appropriate to this material.  Das Byrds indeed!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

byrdsongs, xlii

I’ve never been a big Little Feat guy because their music calls to mind Republican frat boys in flip flops and Bermuda shorts. To be fair, their self-titled first album is quite good, but I have very little time for Creole-inflected blues boogie. I don’t understand its appeal. Apparently youngsters on the college campuses like to smoke reefers and do the Dixie Chicken. I’d rather take my tasty bowl of gumbo and go have a prostate exam. But that’s just me... Lowell George and Bill Payne wrote some good songs for other artists, including Truck Stop Girl, which is included with the studio material on the Byrds’ Untitled. If you hate the Eagles’ brand countrified mellowness, then Truck Stop Girl probably isn’t for you. But I don’t mind a bit of commercially-accessible vanilla now and again, and this song has a few things going for it. I like hearing Clarence White sing lead vocals. His voice is thin and weedy, but it’s also vulnerable sounding and serves this material quite well. The song tells the story of Danny, who drives a rig and falls for a truck stop girl. When the girl rebuffs him, he’s so distraught that he drives off recklessly and gets into a fatal accident… Usually when I think of a truck driver, the (admittedly classist) image I have in my head is of a grizzled 50-something hop head. Perhaps he even has an impacted colon. But Truck Stop Girl destroys my stereotype. I see the driver in the song as a handsome young romantic, dark hair and deep blue eyes, rugged, sensitive, volatile, and wearing a faded denim jacket with a Byrds patch sewn in at the small of his back.  He was so young, and on a ten-city run, in love with a trick stop girl… The tragedy hits you momentarily, but the lightness of the music is such that it doesn’t linger for too long...

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

byrdsongs, xli

Untitled would have made a kick-ass single LP, as opposed to the overstuffed double LP it became. I’ve said this before but double LPs never turn out well, or at least there’s never an instance I can think of - whether the record in question is a live or studio recording - where the two record set wouldn’t have been better as a single LP.  Perhaps it’s just that I have a short attention span, but my hierarchy is as follows: The 45RPM single is preferable to an LP; an LP is vastly preferable to a double LP; and a double LP greatest hits collection is superior to a box set, especially one that’s loaded with bad outtakes, and farts, and everything else the record companies use to extract maximum value out of back catalogues. But now that everything is digitized, these issues are all pretty much moot.  And yet I continue to get exercised by them, as if arguing with a windmill, or an empty chair.  …If it had been my choice to make, I would have cut out all the live stuff on Untitled, with the exception of tonight’s track, and I’d have additionally cut out the dull-as-a-doorknob seven-minute Skip Baitin song that closes the album, and then you’d be left with a really great record, solid and tight.  As it is, Untitled is still my favorite of the Clarence White-era Byrds albums.  The studio material is generally a pleasing fusion of folk and country rock, giving off a relaxed vibe perfect for staying in and rolling a number on a Saturday afternoon.  Lover of the Bayou is the one live track on the record I like and is actually one of my all-time favorite Byrdsongs.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard two guitars blend more exquisitely. McGuinn’s rhythm guitar chimes out with its usual loveliness.  I could listen to his Ricky everyday and never get enough of it. But it’s really the passion and fury of White’s slithery Telecaster that makes the song sizzle and pop.  Ladies and gentlemen, let’s have a fine hand for the Byrds!