Timeless flights

The Byrds soar though the changes

This gemstone of musical history is nicely enhanced by the eight bonus tracks (five of which didn't make the Byrds box set, which also has alternate takes other than those here--a sad move of marketing over music). Annotator Johnny Rogan suggests programming the CD to include all the original Gram Parsons vocals (recut by McGuinn when Gram's former record label threatened legal action) in an alternate version, but I think Sweetheart of the Rodeo still sounds as sweet as heaven just the way it is.

Jumping back from Sweetheart to Notorious as I did may seem abrupt; but, oddly enough, it's easier this way to unlock the true nature of this pivotal fifth album by the Byrds. At that time, they were only three: Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, and the soon-to-depart Michael Clarke on drums, at least according to the album cover. The trio peer out of three windows; a fourth window frames a horse, reputed to represent David Crosby, whose work is present on the album though he'd already been fired from the band by the time it came out.

At first glance, and indeed many to follow, Notorious felt like the most modernistic page yet in the Byrds book, an album saturated by McGuinn's fascination with advancing technology and steeped in the narcotic and psychedelic spirit of the day. To wit: Its opening track, "Artificial Energy," the disc's most dated moment, is about an amphetamine high. But if you program that track and McGuinn's Moog-synthesized closer "Space Odyssey" out of the mix, you end up with a nine-song meditation on the hypnotic powers of guitars (once again, six-stringer Clarence White shines, along with steel guitarist Red Rhodes) and voices (wisely, Crosby wasn't totally expunged), each song eliciting some sort of musical dream state. (The bonus tracks here are far less essential, apart from Crosby's famed but overrated "Triad.")

As with every Byrds album, what shimmered with modern electricity over time revealed the glow of tradition's deep embers. Though the public-at-large never perceived the album to be as definitive as any of the four preceding Byrds albums, The Notorious Byrd Brothers now sounds like the truest sort of folk music for the era in which it was made, bridging the neon-colored promise of a brave new world with the patterns, themes, and rituals from musical and literary folk traditions. If you want a pot- and peyote-tinged whiff of that spirit, rent Easy Rider and marvel at how "Wasn't Born To Follow" epitomizes the mid-film hippie idyll of that definitive late-'60s cinematic statement (though, oddly enough, the tune was written by the Brill Building pop duo of Carole King and Gerry Goffin).

The third reissue of this quartet, Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, felt aptly titled as it appeared in the wake of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. In a reassertion of authority, McGuinn plays Mr. Spaceman once again on the lead track, a processed-rock take on Dylan and Rick Danko's "This Wheel's On Fire." But in his benign despotism, he's already letting the Byrds absorb the continuing country and string-band influences of new members Clarence White (finally a member after years of Byrds sessions) and Gene Parsons. And it's those strains that inform the best stuff here, tracks like "Old Blue," "Your Gentle Way Of Loving Me," and "Nashville West"--moments that helped define the 1970s country-rock explosion to come.

Dr. Byrds may not be a classic, but it's a milestone for at least two good reasons: the first recorded appearance of the Parsons-White Stringbender, which took six-string twang guitar into the mind-warping realm of pedal steel note-bending, and the inclusion of one of the ultimate rebel county rabble-rousing anthems, "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man," McGuinn's response to country DJ Ralph Emery's put-down of the Byrds. In a neat piece of symmetry, it was revived last year with awesome fury by Jason & the Scorchers, one of the many fledgling acts to fly from the nest of the Byrds legacy, themselves the target of a televised Emery rant early in their career.

Ballad of Easy Rider confused us with its title, bearing the Dylan/McGuinn song of the same name (a lush number that enchants even more over time), but it's neither the soundtrack to nor a theme album associated with the Peter Fonda flick. An uncertainty over the continuing mission of the Byrds carries over from Dr. Byrds, though it trips up things far less here. Similarly, McGuinn's ongoing experiments with band democracy serve for both better and worse moments.

But again, there are those golden, shining gems--the title track, an obscure but heavyweight song brought in by drummer John York in his brief tenure titled "Tulsa County" that I'd all but forgotten, and McGuinn's stunningly sympathetic reading of Woody Guthrie's "Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)." And there's at least one benchmark to boot, this time the rocked-up gospel of "Jesus Is Just Alright" that the Doobie Brothers later plundered to considerable chart success with a far lesser version. Even "Armstrong, Aldrin And Collins" may be McGuinn's best (and sweetly briefest) space-rock Moog excursion. (I've always wondered why McGuinn isn't the popular music star most actively trying to get into space, rather than local Fort Worth-boy-made-gooey-Aspen-folk-popper John Denver.)

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