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.