Timeless flights

The Byrds soar though the changes

The last two years of the sixties were a time of awesome transition in music, the nation, and popular culture, as well as the sound and personnel of the Byrds, the Los Angeles-based folk-rock band once touted as America's answer to the Beatles (by Derek Taylor--the Fab Four's own flack--no less). Between 1965 and '67, they'd cut four timeless albums and hit the pop charts with songs like Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" and their own quasi-autobiographical "So You Want To Be A Rock 'N' Roll Star," but real superstardom had eluded the tempestuous outfit. By the dawn of 1968, the group had shrunk from a quintet to a trio, and the common wisdom was that they'd already reached the far side of their creative peak.

But the recent release by Columbia/Legacy of the "expanded editions" of the next four albums by a rapidly mutating group still calling itself the Byrds doesn't just invite reconsideration of such notions. It throws the point your way like a roaring twister of American music, verse, and culture, an eerie, potent, and fascinating collection of musical explorations whose accumulated profundity, like well-aged vintage wine, is stunning even to someone like me who grew up with the original discs as personal hallmarks.

In the not-quite two years between The Notorious Byrd Brothers (released January 1968) and The Ballad of Easy Rider (October 1969), the Byrds would make perhaps their most cogent and subtle folk-space-raga-rock-pop statement ever on Notorious, then all but invent country-rock and neo-traditionalism seven months later with Sweetheart of the Rodeo (August 1968). But the real thrill of rediscovery comes on the next two discs, Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde (February 1969) and Easy Rider, both of which I'd considered marginal Byrds albums at best (even though I'd listened to them for countless hours during my 1970s college years). Each remains a flawed work, but their glories and the ultimate impact of the music cannot be underestimated. Trust me--I even underestimated their impact on my tastes and being.

In the non-linear way one sometimes explores musical passions, Sweetheart was the first of this quartet of albums I came to own and know. I'd been an ardent fan of the Byrds from the folk-rock hits into the space-rock of Fifth Dimension and Younger Than Yesterday, but then the first of many blues revivals (this one led by Americans like Paul Butterfield and Brits like John Mayall) diverted my interest. It wasn't until the very end of the 1960s that I returned to the Byrds and found my aesthetic radically (and happily) shifted. Sweetheart of the Rodeo provides an appropriate point of entry to these four albums in more than just my own personal discography, being the one universally acknowledged classic of the bunch. Surprisingly, the universalism of that status came only with time and the tide of history.

To a Yankee who grew up thinking he hated country music--even though (oddly enough) Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers were for me the mother's milk of pop music, and I've been gaga for the oaken voice of Johnny Cash since well before Rick Rubin was born--the opening steel guitar of "You Ain't Going Nowhere" remains one of the most beautiful and revelatory sounds I've ever heard. The splendor only grows as the album plays (especially with the 20-bit remastering making it all sound like the stuff sung by angels). Sweetheart is the burning bush on my own musical road to Damascus, a conversion and pilgrimage I share with countless other musicians and listeners. Simply put, more than any other one record, it reunited rock and country at a time when they were in almost polar opposition, though the process of rejoining took some time within the album's aftermath.

In its day, Sweetheart not only befuddled the Music City fathers, but also confounded the rock audience with its pure, old-time Nashville radio country sound, echoing like a church, or--maybe better--a session at Bradley's Barn. Thanks to this album, I've come to know genuine country music fairly well. Yet I'd still easily rate Sweetheart one of the 10 greatest country albums ever made, up there among anything by the natural-born masters of the music. In sheer stylistic breadth, instrumental reverence and song quality (Dylan, the Louvins, Merle Haggard, Woody Guthrie, and the emerging Gram Parsons, as well as a masterful soul transplant with "You Don't Miss Your Water"), it's the most heartfelt prayer ever dedicated to the continued vitality of country music's finest roots. And it's an invocation that worked.

One can't discount the centrality of Gram Parsons in all this, especially in how his subsequent work with the Flying Burrito Brothers and as a solo act furthered the mission. But Sweetheart is just as informed by the continuing emergence of founding Byrd Chris Hillman's bluegrass and country roots (he followed Parsons in the Burritos and kept the flame burning right on through his 1980s Nashville run with Desert Rose Band). Roger McGuinn, the capstone Byrd, remained a staunch presence in this revolutionary endeavor as well, while guitarist Clarence White's signature abilities became more distinct even prior to his official membership in the band.

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.)

Though it's anything but a statistically significant survey, I spent much of the 1970s perusing any rock fan's album collection I came across, and the latter-day Byrds albums you generally found were Dr. Byrds, Easy Rider, and the two-album studio and live set Untitled (which followed Easy Rider, but has yet to come out on CD, though the album that came after it, Byrdmaniax, the last Byrds release and the group's nadir, is available--go figure). Sweetheart and Notorious, though far more pivotal works, were far less frequently found, which leads me to believe that the post-Sweetheart country-rock Byrds, who were also a vigorous touring act, may deserve more credit for what that lineup spawned than previously believed.

But then again, maybe that's the essential enigma of the Byrds, whose overall influence is perhaps far greater--or more pervasive--than casual inspection suggests. Although the Beatles Anthologies stoked greater hype, the continuing upgrade and enhancement of the recorded legacy of the Byrds would seem to theoretically merit similar degrees of passion--that is, if the measure were genuine (current) impact rather than totemic cultural stature.

Sure, the Beatles were the pop group to end all pop groups, and the Byrds a rather internally strained group of obvious acolytes. Yet for all their undeniable influence, the Beatles probably exert far less of an active, discernible impact on today's musical palette than the Byrds and what they wrought.

From R.E.M. to Kurt Cobain, Roger McGuinn's overdriven Rickenbacker roar still echoes in contemporary rock. In the far different realm of country music, striking an ironic note, one can trace back the soft suburban country-rock that drove country radio's blandness boom over the last decade to the marriage of rock and country the Byrds fashioned on Sweetheart (the ashes of Gram Parsons probably stir angrily at the thought, but it's the same perversely Hegelian process by which the Sex Pistols ultimately begat Duran Duran). At the same time, the first words for any alt-country convert are "Gram Parsons," no matter how little of his music they've heard, and you can barely hear anything that calls itself folk-rock without the Byrds fluttering through there somewhere.

For a group who hit the pop charts with a folk ditty cribbed from the Bible about the turning of seasons, the Byrds themselves went through the changes of 1968-'69 with what looked like abruptness, confusion, turmoil, and restlessness. But then again, wasn't that just characteristic of the age? Looking back, one can now see the bright contrails of the Byrds' innovation tracing a variety of American musical slipstreams that still flow through what we hear today.

But what really counts in the test of time isn't just stature or influence; it's achievement. By that measure alone, even through the confusion, the Byrds continued to soar out over the far side of their peak, making music that sounds as uplifting today as it ever did.

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