TRACK-BY-TRACK: THE BYRDS PLAY DYLAN

The Byrds Play Dylan (2002)

“What really got me most was Dylan coming up to me and saying, ‘They beat you man,’ and he lost faith in me. He was shattered. His material had been bastardized. There we were, the defenders and protectors of his music, and we’d let Sonny & Cher get away with it.”

Roger McGuinn  (on Dylan’s response, circa 1965, to Sonny & Cher’s version of “All I Really Want To Do” besting the Byrds on the American charts–interesting insight into the spirit of the times!)

Playing Dylan was only a fraction of what the Byrds did, but there’s no denying Roger McGuinn, especially, had a knack for bringing something new and exciting to Dylan’s music almost every time he touched it. This compilation, released decades after their heyday and years after the final Byrds’ studio recordings in the early 1990s (occasioned by their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the release of a box set), is one of my favorites in a genre I sometimes affectionately, sometimes sardonically, refer to as Grab Bag.

Such albums are usually assembled for only the most cynical purposes–record labels looking to exploit familiar product one more time. But every once in a while the approach bears fruit.

This is one of those times.

At twenty tracks, The Byrds Play Dylan is expansive enough to include some illuminating live performances, alternate tracks and obscurities which manage to re-contextualize the familiar anthems from their early days (and to be re-contextualized themselves for Byrds fanatics who may have experienced the obscurities in less convincing circumstances elsewhere–that’s what a record company can do for you).

It’s not perfect–such things never are. But it’s been my go-to album by my favorite band in the Age of Trump. I wouldn’t suggest it’s as mind-blowing as their first five albums, as epochal as Sweetheart of the Rodeo or even Ballad of Easy Rider (an album McGuinn made with his third best band that’s worn better than the movie that inspired it or that movie’s fine soundtrack) or any sort of replacement for The Byrds’ Greatest Hits (nothing could be).

But it is a statement worth hearing.

“All I Really Want To Do”–Dylan was being a little harsh. (And why did Lonesome Hobo Bob* care so much about the charts anyway?) “All I Really Want To Do” is a long way from either his most inspired tune or their most inspired interpretation. But it’s a nice opening day curve-ball for a collection that throws a lot of them (“Mr. Tambourine Man” would have been the obvious choice). And you can measure how great he and they were by listening close and realizing how far past nearly everything else it still is.

“Chimes of Freedom”–As great as any cover of Dylan or anyone else. This album could also have been titled McGuinn Sings Dylan. His voice was always the one best suited for Dylan (hell it was often better suited for Dylan than Dylan, a claim that can me made by exactly no one else). But they were also inventing a new kind of harmony and, considered as a clarion call, this might be their pure pinnacle (the competition is stiff). It remains a mystery how they, and they alone, managed to intertwine so much passion with so much detachment. They really did sound like they were soaring above the earth, catching a glimpse of something over the horizon that was not yet visible to ground control–and, given what’s happened to ground control in the half-century since, still isn’t.

“It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”–Recorded in the sessions for the band’s second album, this version wasn’t released until 1996, as a bonus track for a reissue of Turn, Turn, Turn. It’s inclusion here is a little odd, since McGuinn’s later band did a superior, beautifully re-imagined version for the official release of Ballad of Easy Rider. This is fine. It sustains the collection’s developing mood and gains by the company. But I think the later version would have done the same, only better.

“Lay Down Your Weary Tune”–This, on the other hand, is a track that always struck me as pedestrian on Turn, Turn, Turn. Here, though, it takes hold. The lyric still sounds like Dylan learning to imitate himself, but there’s no better example of McGuinn’s early Rickenbacker magic and his disorienting technique of plying dissonance under the verses, then ringing out rhythmic, anthemic chords in the fills (the opposite of what everyone else does, then and now). After a while (okay, a long while, but still), the lyrics even start to sound….inspired?

“Lay Lady Lay” (Single Version)–A single from the Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde sessions which didn’t make the album (which ought to say something). In many ways misbegotten–a female choir that doesn’t work, overbearing late-sixties uber-production style, jarring juxtapositions between the lyric and the chorus. Notable for one element: A dry, pleading McGuinn vocal which makes it sound as though he sees the lady laying across the big, brass bed in human, rather than mystical, terms, as though he might be speaking to someone specific with whom he had been through a lot of changes. That quality alone guaranteed it wouldn’t be a hit up against Dylan’s lovely original, but gives it a poignance not found in any other version, including the one below, which, for all I can tell, is the same vocal with a different, more conventional backing. In this context: Odd and disorienting, as I’m sure was intended.

“Mr. Tambourine Man”–The first official Byrds’ single, a natural Number One and one of the most important records of the twentieth century. Here, it sounds almost off-hand, as though the startling new thing were no more spectacular than breathing. The marriage of Dylan and the Beatles was nowhere near as inevitable as McGuinn (the only Byrd who played on the track due to the record company’s lack of faith–soon rendered laughable–in the young band’s musical prowess) made it sound. As always happens when some visionary renders the far-fetched inevitable, the world–including Bob Dylan, who laid down Highway 61 Revisited as this sat atop the charts–went “Of Course!” (And it’s a fine segue: straight from the human-scale “Lay Lady Lay,” to the era-defining anthem that made this album’s concept possible in the first place.) Why should you wait any longer for the world to begin, this record asked, years before Dylan wrote the words to that other song.

“My Back Pages”–Another in competition for Greatest-Ever Dylan cover. It has–impossibly–grown with the years, precisely because those years have failed to catch up to it.

“Nothing Was Delivered”–A highlight from Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It’s worth remembering that Sweetheart inspired reams of musicians, not one of whom ever came close to sounding like the original–maybe because no one else really thought Dylan and country music belonged together, no matter that Bob made the greatest albums of his life in Nashville.

“Positively 4th Street” (Live)–This is where the concept comes in handy. This isn’t the kind of song where Roger McGuinn or anyone else could go toe-to-toe with Dylan and come out ahead. And McGuinn, in particular, never did anger (or spite) well. But, here, his ability to turn the concept around is put to the test–and passes. Suddenly, I hear You got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend as a plea, even a world-weary sigh of regret. I’m not saying I like it better, or even as well, but who else could come so close to Dylan’s timbre and completely reverse his meaning?

“Spanish Harlem Incident”–Back to the beginning and a reminder of how rife with possibilities it was. This sounds like they did it on their lunch break–and fifty years haven’t worn it out.

“The Times They Are A-Changin'”–From their second album, where, like “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” it came across as a bit of a letdown. One wonders if they were being careful not to become too tied to Dylan’s material as he matched, then eclipsed, their fame. Then again, this wasn’t the only take–see below! This one is saved, barely, by the usual impeccable harmonies and McGuinn’s witty guitar licks, which made it sound like Dylan was Stephen Foster’s natural heir (amplified by his take on “Oh Susanna”…but that’s what the original albums are for).

“Wheel’s on Fire”–The opening cut from Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, their weakest album from the sixties (and if you want to know how great Roger McGuinn was, listen to Dr. Byrds sometime and consider he made seven better albums with three different bands in five years). I prefer it to the Band’s contemporaneous version. Still, the era-bound production tricks don’t really work and this lumbers more than it should. The concept wavers a bit….

“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”–And then snaps right back in place. I’m among those who think the real strength of Sweetheart of the Rodeo (from which this is the opener) is the juxtaposition of McGuinn and Parsons’ sensibilities. Of course, that’s not at play here, so this is a completely different context…which works every bit as well.

“It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” (Live)–It took a while but this one has grown on me. This is one case where Dylan’s original is so definitive it doesn’t seem to leave any room for anyone else to breathe. McGuinn’s voice isn’t nearly as commanding….but once more a human, conversational tone lets the song gain a new dimension. It isn’t the prophet proclaiming. It’s the poor boy figuring things out without being the least bit certain he likes what he sees. Plus some fine harp work.

“Just Like a Woman”–Nice enough. Maybe too nice. All the qualities I mentioned before about McGuinn cutting down the scale are present, but, somehow, the song doesn’t offer the same rewards. Until you notice the country phrasing of her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls is right where you least expect it. At which point, I believe it’s time for us to quit offers a reward all its own.

“Lay Lady Lay” (Alternate Version)–Straightforward alternative to the tricked up version above. More tasteful without necessarily being more effective. Somewhere in the middle, a great version might have been waiting. For the purposes of this collection, a tease that doesn’t distract.

“The Times They Are A-Changin'” (Early Version)–I like the charge they put into this version better than the tongue they put in their cheek on the released master (which nonetheless had its values, see above). Still not as good as the Beach Boys’ complete subversion on Party! and, oddly enough, it doesn’t sound like anything is changing at all.

“Mr. Tambourine Man” (Live)–From ’70. The old anthem sounds tired, the new guitar dynamics show-offy. And it’s a lesson in how much those harmonies in the original group really meant and how rarefied they were that their absence speaks louder than anything present here. Still, if you wanted to hear this as a symbol of how things had gone astray, I wouldn’t argue with you.

“Chimes of Freedom” (Live)–From ’69 and the harmonies are still missed. But McGuinn at least sounds committed and, while it’s almost too bad they didn’t substitute the more poorly recorded, but near-desperate version heard here, this still pushes back hard enough for what comes next to feel like a setup they earned.

“Paths of Victory”–After listening to later versions of the band wander around a bit, perhaps even lose the plot, this summoning of the old magic by the survivors, harmonies intact one last time, puts a smile on my face every time. A tired smile maybe, but at this point in the American Experiment, I’ll take what I can get.

More than that, it always makes me want to go back and listen from the beginning and maybe ask one more time just what it is I see flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight?

God bless them, every one. Yes, David, even you.

*Hat tip Nik Cohn and Rock Dreams.

WELL, WE MUST TAKE WHAT WE CAN GET (MORE NOTES FROM THE STORY THAT NEVER ENDS)

So NPR compiled a list of the 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women (since 1964). You can read the rationale for the list here. It covers–or, if you like, CYA’s–the usual caveats for such lists. They were a little vague on why a list designed to put women “at the center” should have its starting point defined by the Beatles (Why not Julie London (as great an album maker as Frank Sinatra in the fifties)? Or Billie Holiday? Why not be really transformative and shake up the whole narrative, if it’s the whole narrative that needs shaking? And, if it doesn’t, why not just say so?).

But I’ll leave hashing all that out for some other day.

Today, I’m not gonna carp. Because the Shangri-Las made the list!

I only kind of wish (and I’m not complaining–that album cover above you hangs in my den, framed) they had made it with their other, stronger album (the even better version of Shangri-Las ’65*)

…which I like to say has cast a longer shadow than Rubber Soul or Highway 61 Revisited.

Or Blue (the Joni Mitchell album that tops the NPR list–like all corporate lists, it’s not long on surprises).

Of course, I say that with tongue in cheek.

Mostly.

But it’s funny what happens in shadows. I just saw Wonder Woman win WWI at the multiplex last week…and she did it looking and acting a lot more like a Shangri-La than anything her original comic-strip creators envisioned.

If you see Bob Dylan’s shadow hovering over the multiplex, where the genuine, authentic, one hundred percent true-life fantasy America persists in re-creating itself these days, be sure to let me know.

I’m not saying it’s a good thing either.

Just that it’s a thing.

An overwhelming thing.

That Wonder Woman, she’s fifty feet tall.

For now, though, I’m gonna let all the caveats go, and just use this as a reason to smile in a grim world.

[*–Shangri-Las ’65 was released before “I Can Never Go Home Any More” became a big hit. Their label then released a new version of the LP, re-titled after the hit, with “I Can Never Go Home Any More,” one the era’s greatest sides, replacing “The Dum Dum Ditty,” one of the few Shangs’ sides that isn’t great. I should probably add that “this has probably cast a longer shadow than Rubber Soul or Highway 61 Revisited” is something I first scribbled about Shangri-Las ’65 in one of those notebooks all writers keep about thirty years ago, before I knew I Can Never Go Home Any More, the album, existed. I’ve repeated it a few times since, including on this blog. But I ask again–who else joins the Ramones and Madonna at the hip? And what’s more “influential” than that?]

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Temptations Fill In the Blanks)

MEETTHETEMPTATIONS

At the end of his first published “Record Guide,” which came out in 1981 and was devoted to the seventies, Robert Christgau added a list of his “essential” albums of the fifties and sixties. The lists were heavy on comps because, in Christgau’s words, “outside of the fab five–Beatles-Dylan-Stones-Who-Redding–great albums-as-albums were rare before 1967.”

When I first read that in the early eighties, I already knew it was a little hidebound not to at least include the Beach Boys and the Byrds. In the decades since, I’ve realized I would also, for starters, add James Brown, the Impressions, Elvis, Charlie Rich, the Everly Brothers. Once you get to that number, the whole concept of pretending great albums were the province of a benighted few in rock’s “rock and roll” phase, is pretty silly. Christgau was both parroting and shaping conventional wisdom so he was hardly alone in his assessment–he just had an unusually high profile. Effectively parroting and shaping conventional wisdom, i.e., telling us what we want to hear, is maybe one of the ways we collectively decide who gets to set the standards. For better and worse–and I can definitely see it both ways–nobody was more suited to standard setting than the Dean.

So, with that for a long-term back drop, this week (or rather, since I’m a day late posting this, last week), I was able to add the Temptations.

I found their first five LPs in a package on Amazon for fifteen bucks and decided even my budget could accommodate that. I certainly thought I’d add a few stellar tracks to the storehouse and I needed long time favorite The Temptations Sing Smokey on CD anyway.

TEMPTSSINGSMOEY2

So far I’ve only listened to the first three albums in the set (the fourth and fifth are a live album and The Temptations In a Mellow Mood, which is one of Motown’s supper club LPs). I’m sure I’ll like the others, but three is enough to set me straight on the old “Motown doesn’t do albums” canard. Thirty-six original tracks plus two bonus cuts and there’s nothing resembling a weak or pedestrian side. I mean, not everything can be this…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IUG-9jZD-g

or this (my own favorite Tempts, with the quiet man, Paul Williams, out front)…

But the rest doesn’t ever fall much below something as semi-obscure as this…

or completely obscure as this…

And, as fine as any individual tracks may be, what’s really remarkable is that all of this “product,” despite the Smokey LP being the only one that is anyway thematic or even more than a grab bag, coheres beautifully.

That shouldn’t be really surprising. It’s not like Berry Gordy or Smokey Robinson (who wrote and/or produced most of the tracks on all three albums) were exactly devoid of the Vision Thing.

But what really struck me, listening to all three albums in succession, with about an equal mix of familiar-as-familiar-can-be and completely-new-to-me tracks, was how much some of the expansive vocal groups of the mid-sixties are still slighted as creative entities.

Let’s face it, even the critical love given the Beatles or Beach Boys or Byrds, is mostly rooted in their songwriting or some level of hip iconography.

But nothing was more important to rock’s exploding cultural and musical reach in the mid-sixties than the incredible expansion of the great vocal traditions, an expansion which repeatedly reached limits that have not been challenged in the five decades since. And it’s obvious on these three LPs that the Temptations, along with the Impressions, were changing and challenging the black gospel and doo wop traditions just as radically and thrillingly as the Beatles and Beach Boys were the pop tradition, the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas were the folk tradition and the Four Seasons were the bel canto and white doo wop traditions.

Sorry, but that’s as “creative” as anything that was happening on Highway 61 Revisited or Happy Jack.

Of course, the received point of singing this good is that it sounds so easy and natural it couldn’t possibly have anything like a thought process behind it. I mean, after all, you can’t even copyright it, can you?

Too bad. Because, believe me, every one of these sounds is built from years of sweat. And every one of them is something no one could ever steal.

TEMPTINTEMPTATINOS

 

WHY IT REALLY IS IMPOSSIBLE TO RANK ART (Why I Need Rock and Roll, Session #10)

This week I did something I used to do on an almost obsessive basis and rarely do at all anymore.

Amidst a lot of exhaustion and hurly-burly, I sat in my den and listened to four straight albums.

Just like that.

Propped up a chair some time after midnight, set a coke on the coaster behind me (that’s the way the den is set up…to have the coaster behind me when I’m sitting in front of my speakers…it’s best not to inquire too closely into why, but one of the main reasons is because, well, I don’t sit and listen to four albums in a row much anymore.)

There are practical and impractical reasons why I used to do it a lot–the salient one being that I was chasing both healing and understanding, two concepts that are not necessarily bound to cooperate with each other.

And there are practical and impractical reasons why I don’t do it much anymore–the salient one being that, at my age, I’ve probably given up on understanding as much as I once hoped to and achieved as much healing as is likely to occur on this particular plane of existence.

The four albums I ended up listening to were not chosen entirely at random. I really did listen after the old fashion. I picked the first one because something (I honestly don’t recall what) had brought it up this week (oh, wait, now I remember, it was Dave Marsh’s appreciation of Lou Reed in the latest, far-too-long-in-coming edition of Rock and Rap Confidential) and made me want to do that thing I do far too seldom anymore, which is grab a great record and JUST SIT AND LISTEN.

So I pulled out the Velvet Underground’s Loaded (that was Reed’s final album with his original band for those who might be wondering) and, like I said, pulled up the chair and let myself feel the music and enjoy it after the style of days gone by.

It definitely helped that Loaded is an album I know front to back. I could sing along or pick a little air guitar or tap my thighs to the rhythm (bass or drums….or both) as the mood struck me.

And the whole while, I’m thinking what I always think (what I assume most people think) when I’m in the presence of something that is both bottomless and perfect–something that reveals itself anew after hundreds of encounters and which forges (and then constantly reinforces) a logic so powerful it’s hard to conceive of a moment when it didn’t exist or a moment when anyone would imagine wanting to change a single small element of it.

By all of which I mean I’m thinking: “What could possibly be better than this?”

But I was also thinking (again after the old fashion): “Oh man, what’s next?”

So my mind, which barely operates on one track these days, was suddenly alive enough to run on two tracks and somewhere in there it became completely obvious that the next album I had to listen to was Fairport Convention’s What We Did On Our Holidays (a record I know pretty well, though not nearly as well as Loaded) and the album I had to listen to after that was Bob Dylan’s Blood On the Tracks (an album I really only got into in the last year or so and don’t know that well at all).

And some time during What We Did On Our Holidays, it became obvious that the album I wanted to listen to after Blood On the Tracks was that one by the Isley Brothers I got not too long ago that starts with a stunning medley of Neil Young’s “Ohio” (which, in its original, sounds like a Neil Young record and was released under the aegis of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) and Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” and ends with a stunning cover of Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” (which, in its original, sounds like a Crosby, Stills and Nash record and was released as a Stephen Stills’ solo), the journey–any journey–between those two things amounting to my idea of a “concept” record all by itself.

I had to look up that last one because I got it in a box set of five cheap Isley Brothers LPs from the late sixties/early seventies and–I cannot tell a lie–I can’t yet tell one title from another.

Turned out it was called Givin’ It Back.

I went ahead and dug it up between Holidays and Blood on the Tracks–you know, just in case I forgot and then had to spend the rest of the night trying to remember which album I knew I wanted to listen to next!

Having pulled it out of its little 5-LP box (guessed it on the second try) I almost put it on first (sorry I still use record player terminology–I know the proper phrase for the digital age is to put it “in”). Then I resisted the temptation to mess with my preconceptions and played the albums in the order I had originally thought I would.

And what did I learn, exactly?

Or, more accurately, of what great, standing truth was I thus reminded?

The fragility of both Fate and Judgment, I’m afraid.

See, if you asked me to “rate” or, better yet, “rank” these four albums, I would put them in the order I played them:

1. Loaded
2. What We Did On Our Holidays
3. Blood On the Tracks
4. Givin’ It Back

And I would know–after listening to them all running together in one night–that such a ranking is arbitrary if not downright silly.

I’d put Loaded first because it’s the one I know best. I know it best because I’ve known it longest. I’ve known it longest because I happened to be in the mood to try it one night thirty years ago (or so) and picked it over any one of dozens of other records I could have chosen that same night.

Simple as that.

If some trick of fate–some impulse in that record store (or some other) thirty years ago had caused me to pick up Blood on the Tracks instead (I doubt the others would have been available in any record store I was likely to visit back then–I’m pretty surprised Loaded was) and I had put off picking up Loaded on CD until a couple of years ago because every time I was in a mood to try it, it wasn’t available (or was available in the far less than pristine, though definitely cheap, vinyl copy of Tracks I did pick up five or six years ago but then played only once because, well, it was cheap and used and I got what I paid for) and every time it was available I wasn’t in the mood for more Dylan–well then, there’s a real good chance (though by no means a certainty) that I would rate Blood On the Tracks higher now.

Simply because I knew it better.

I mean, I’ve heard it enough these last couple of years to know it’s a great album. Maybe no Highway 61 Revisited (not much is) but darn close.

And generally speaking, that’s what value comes down to–our very particular experience.

In a perfect world, I’d live long enough, have time enough, to let all these other albums I know less well than Loaded acquire the same sort of weight through repetition. In a perfect world, there would be enough time to know these four albums–and a few thousand others–well enough to know how they really stacked up against each other.

In a perfect world, I might know for certain whether or not the presence of “Who Loves the Sun?” (answer: “not everyone” of course) on the first album I listened to on a particular night led me not-so-coincidentally to an album which contained among other items (like “The Lord Is In This Place, How Dreadful Is This Place?” and “Nottamun Town,” the sound of the latter being way scarier than the title of the former), a song called “Tale In Hard Time” which begins with the line “Take the sun from my heart, let me learn to despise.” And that listening to a couple of albums filled (along with some good old rock and roll) with those and many other, rather similar sentiments, might lead me to an album which I know just well enough to know contains a song called “Shelter From the Storm.”

Yes, in a perfect world, I’d certainly have the kind of time on my hands required to figure all that out.

Then again–if the world was perfect–I probably wouldn’t need lists that ranked things or notions that linked things and neither would you (assuming you are, like me, the unenviable kind that has ever needed them at all).

These thoughts aren’t exactly new even with me–and they aren’t even close to new with lots of others.

But this week, they hit me a little harder than usual.

Maybe because, after all that, what came bleeding through with the greatest possible urgency and clarity wasn’t even Ohio native Ronnie Isley singing about the dead bodies at Kent State as though he’d been invited to their funeral (i.e., not at all the way Neil Young sang it, which was as a call to arms and appropo enough in the moment), but his singing–immediately after and maybe not by coincidence–James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.”

It bled through–and kept on bleeding–even though the first minute and half is misconceived from a production standpoint and the final bit repeats the misconception. Misconceptions didn’t matter when I heard it this week. I don’t mean I was able to set them aside (as sometimes happens). I mean, they just plain didn’t matter.

Robert Christgau reviewed Givin’ It Back when it was released in 1970 and opined that “soul is wasted” on “Fire and Rain” and that the song was more powerful in its “understated” original.

That’s a very reasonable judgment, as long as you assume that Ronnie Isley was after the same thing James Taylor was after.

The judgment is less compelling if you suspect that Ronnie might have been after one of the things James Taylor couldn’t hope to reach for (or, very probably, even imagine).

That “thing” doesn’t necessarily have to be the voice of a freed slave searching for a lost relative after Appomattox, which is what I keep hearing in it, but it almost certainly isn’t the kind of expiation of purest self-pity Taylor intended (and which he, incidentally, very much achieved–I’ve been close enough to where Taylor reportedly was when he wrote the song to know how thoroughly he achieved it, though, believe me, my reasons were no better than his and I’m not nearly as proud of ever having gone there, let alone of having come back).

And it’s no knock on Christgau–or anyone–if they don’t hear that in the song.

But I think it does speak to just how fragile the notions of “what we hear” really are.

I mean, if Blood On the Tracks had been the first thing I reached for the other night–as it well might have been if I had started living with it thirty years ago instead of a year or two ago–I might not have played Givin’ It Back at all.

And who knows what I would have heard in “Fire and Rain” some other time?

And who knows if I’ll ever get close enough to either album (or even to What We Did On Our Holidays, which I am, in fact, already a lot closer to than I had previously thought) to move one or the other up on some ranking chart where I can call it an all-time favorite and sing every word?

You know. Like Loaded.

All I can say for certain is…I should live so long!

In sequence then: