Sunday, July 13, 2008


Having my abscessed wisdom tooth pulled a couple of days ago has to be one of the most miserably painful experiences of my life despite the use of so-called "painkillers," the reason, at least in part, why I haven't been the most diligent blogger the past few days. However, today I pulled myself up by the proverbial bootstraps in order to compose this blog, prompted by this being--so I learned this morning--Roger McGuinn's 66th birthday. The daily paper carries a column, “Today in History,” followed by a short column listing "Today’s Birthdays" (meaning the birthdays of celebrities). While perusing the paper this morning, between occasional sips of my Slim Fast (when I shall eat solid food again I have no idea), I read that Roger McGuinn turned a mere 66 years old today. I say "mere" because, for some reason, I thought he should be older in age, making me realize that all those great Byrds albums were made when he was a young man in his 20s. To put things in perspective, he’d barely turned twenty-six years old when the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo was released in July 1968, forty years ago this month. Roger McGuinn (born James Joseph McGuinn III in Chicago in 1942) was always the understood leader of the Byrds, the band whose debut single, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” was recorded in January 1965, when McGuinn was a mere twenty-two years old. Former Byrds member David Crosby is on record as calling Roger McGuinn a “genius,” and perhaps he is. Most certainly he is an individual possessing an indomitable spirit, a deeply resilient and persistent individual, with great musical instincts, which is why the Byrds lasted as a band as long as it did.

Perhaps because of my age at the time, the Byrds’ earliest hits—“Mr. Tambourine Man” “All I Really Want To Do,” "Turn Turn Turn"—while undeniably powerful, influential songs, now seem to me to be the most dated, the most “stuck in time.” Recorded late in the folk era and after the Beatles’ annus mirabilis of 1964, they are folk songs played as the Beatles might have played them, distinguished by their marvelous harmonies (the lingering influence of folk harmonies) and McGuinn’s uniquely amplified Rickenbacker guitar. For me personally, the Byrds really took flight with Fifth Dimension (1966); with all due respect to their earlier hit singles, I think “Eight Miles High” is more sonically interesting than these earlier tunes, a song that in retrospect reveals the band’s willingness to experiment, to push themselves and at the same time push musical boundaries, and not to continue on with more of the same. I cannot say with certainty that Fifth Dimension is my favorite Byrds album, nor can I say it is their “best,” but then nothing about the band or its distinguished career compels me to make such claims. Put on any album from Fifth Dimension onward and there’s nothing at all dull or uninteresting happening musically; each one is unique in itself, a thoroughly engaging musical soundscape that makes listening to their albums one after the other a grand and fascinating musical adventure—a claim that, no doubt, is made by fans of the the most adventuresome bands—The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and so on. Make no mistake, the Byrds do not pale beside these legendary bands, but stand side-by-side with them as a peer.

I must be one of those few fans and admirers of the Byrds who don’t think they missed a proverbial beat between Younger Than Yesterday (released February 1967) and The Notorious Byrd Brothers (released early January 1968 but recorded for the most part in August and November 1967), the latter album being the one made during the departure first of David Crosby and then Michael Clarke, both original members of the band (Gene Clark had left earlier, in the spring of 1966). I agree with David Fricke, who wrote about The Notorious Byrd Brothers, “Falling apart as a rock band, they became an art project, a brilliant, intrepid studio entity abetted by a fine complement of hired hands (guitarist and soon-to-be Byrd Clarence White, electronic music pioneer Paul Beaver, steel guitarist Red Rhodes, future Eric Clapton drummer Jim Gordon) and a sympathetic and imaginative young producer . . . named Gary Usher” (liner notes to the 1997 Columbia/Legacy Super Bit CD reissue). I think Fricke is exactly right: in Gary Usher the Byrds could not have found a more sympathetic producer, and the result, issued the first week of 1968 but recorded primarily in August and November 1967, is a record of great beauty and originality, if entirely a product of the studio.

I hardly need mention the record that followed, Sweetheart of the Rodeo (released 40 years ago this month) is now considered one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time by Rolling Stone. Previously consuming the Byrds through confiscation of singles purchased by my older sister, and borrowing LPs from friends, I’m proud to say that the first Byrds album I ever purchased with my very own stack of quarters was Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde (1969) which—this again according to David Fricke—“has the humiliating distinction of being the lowest-charting album in the group’s original studio catalog.” I’m delighted to know that at the time, unbeknownst to me, of course, I helped out the album’s meager sales by +1. To this day I think the musically schizoid “King Apathy III” is one of McGuinn’s best avant-garde compositions, and “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man,” co-written by McGuinn and Gram Parsons, a classic, a satire of the sort matched only by Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee.” The album also has the distinction of including both “Candy” and “Child of the Universe,” both written for the utterly byzantine (and now "cult") film Candy (1968), although only the latter song was included on the soundtrack, the former having been rejected by the producers. Indeed, I bought every Byrds album subsequently released, all made with the line-up of McGuinn, Clarence White, Skip Battin, and Gene Parsons: Ballad of Easy Rider (1969); Untitled (1970), which, as everyone knows, contains one of McGuinn’s greatest compositions, "Chestnut Mare"; Byrdmaniax (1971)—the death masks qualifying it as one of the great LP covers of all time--and Farther Along (1971), the band’s warm and serene final album (before, ironically, the 1973 over-hyped reunion album made by the original line-up, which bombed). I still possess all these vinyl LPs, and know them as well as old friends.

Thanks to CD technology, recordings from the late 60s period of the Byrds have emerged, such as Live at the Fillmore—February 1969, issued on CD in 2000, recorded—putatively—at the band’s commercial nadir, and more recently, Live at Royal Albert Hall 1971, featuring the McGuinn-White-Battin-Parsons lineup—just simply a great live band—issued by Sundazed about six weeks ago. One can hope that more such releases shall be made in the future. Outside of the Byrds albums themselves, I recommend, for those interested, McGuinn's Live From Mars (Hollywood Records, 1996) as an excellent place to start, as it serves as a sort of musical autobiography, as McGuinn takes the listener on a musical journey, discussing and playing his own music, its sources and inspirations, as well as the music which influenced him, beginning with Elvis's rendition of "Heartbreak Hotel."

And so, as of today, Roger McGuinn is 66 years of age and--who knows?--a member of the AARP. Perhaps so, but I hope not. I think not. Occasionally I have met a person in my life whose attitude and behavior makes me wonder if that person were ever really young, "young" as in youthful, having experienced the excitement and newness of the world through young eyes. (I must be thinking of "youth" because the experience of the past few days has made me feel, physically at least, old.) This meaning of "young" is the meaning of the word that Dylan sings about when he urges one to be "forever young." Perhaps it is only appropriate, therefore, that at 66, one should offer Roger McGuinn the birthday wish of being "forever young," or perhaps, phrased another way--to remain younger than yesterday.

1 comment:

Bent said...

Good post, albeit that I find you somewhat idiosyncratic in your Byrds canon ;-)

Feel free to stop by at my cultural studies blog if you are curious. I write about music and film, occasionally.

or the American Studies community at America Adrift...

Or my TumbleLog for visual stuff. I do birthdays, too... :-)