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.

SO WHAT WAS 1960 REALLY LIKE?….I MEAN, JUST MUSICALLY SPEAKING.

“Nineteen hundred and sixty was probably the worst year that pop has been through. Everyone had gone to the moon. Elvis had been penned off in the army and came back to appal us with ballads. Little Richard had got religion. Chuck Berry was in jail. Buddy Holly was dead. Very soon, Eddie Cochran was killed in his car crash. It was a wholesale plague, a wipeout.”

(The always prone to understatement, but undeniably trenchant, Nik Cohn’s opening paragraph to the chapter titled “Rue Morgue, 1960″ in Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, 1970)

When Cohn wrote these words he was basically summing up what a lot of third-rate romancers–mostly male, mostly white, mostly collegiate whether or not they had yet been to college (or would ever go)–had been saying and writing since, well, 1960.

1960 sucked and blew. Well, really that whole 1958 (the fall!) to 1963 (waiting for the Beatles to save us all!) period had sucked and blown.

But 1960?

That was the worst, the nadir (good collegiate word), the pits (as the actual greasers might have put it).

1960 was spiritual death. The bottom that had to be reached some time before the resurrection (Beatlemania!…or more accurately, the highly inventive new-chord-progressions-and-the-truth music and supremely witty collective style of the Beatles demonstrated in their respective persons, since mania was a highly unstable state, particularly redolent of suspicion as it was likely to be the specific province of screaming girls, who collegians and greasers both knew could give you cooties) could properly occur.

So the story goes. Give Cohn credit. He nailed the entire ethos in a few clipped lines.

Like I said. Trenchant.

That’s what you call controlling the narrative.

Well, you know I like to put these little narratives under a microscope once in a while, so I can’t really say if it was entirely a coincidence that–having just completed a re-read of Cohn’s classic account of rock’s early years–I took the occasion of my weekend drive (itself, the occasion for laying a Mother’s Day rose on a headstone) to pull out the mighty Bear Family’s Blowing the Fuse: 31 R&B Classics That Rocked the Jukebox In 1960 for company.

Let me just say that if 1960 was the bottom of the pop barrel (as opposed to the political barrel, which really was dire in many respects) I wish we could go back there.

Bobby Bland, Jerry Butler, James Brown, Etta James, Fats Domino, Brook Benton, Ike and Tina, Gary U.S. Bonds, Jimmy Reed, Jackie Wilson, one-offs the likes of “Stay,” or “Something’s On Your Mind,” or “Let the Little Girl Dance,” or “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” (wait til the spell checker get’s hold of that one!).

And all of that’s before you get to the real kicker, which involves Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful” (the only cut here that wasn’t an R&B hit, and virtually the only one that didn’t cross over to the Pop charts) running straight into the Shirelles’ “Tonight’s the Night,” followed by a teen-ager named Jimmy Charles giving a perfect imitation of the era’s white teen idols on “A Million to One” and a young woman who called herself Sugar Pie DeSanto (whose then producer/hustler husband went on to become a bank robber after they divorced–baby that was rock and roll) doing a straight cop, arrangement wise, on the Everly Brothers (who, of course, were still crossing over regularly to the R&B charts, though these sort of collections never acknowledge such things–not even when they are done by the Bear Family. The Nik Cohn’s of the world have had their effect).

1960, incidentally, was the year Cash Box, the other major trade magazine that competed with Billboard, suspended it’s R&B Chart for a time because the overlap between R&B and Pop, barely noticeable before rock and roll, was by then so great there seemed little point in keeping them separated. (Billboard would follow with a similar experiment in late 1963–that experiment lasted a bit longer than Cash Box‘s but was  nonetheless ended a little over a year later once the Beatles and the British Invasion had safely re-segregated the charts and more or less ended the post-racial dream which had caused so much panic sweat to rise from the thin, tender skin of Nik Cohn and the Future of Rock Criticism in the dread days of 1960, when black people and girls and, well, black girl people, were starting to litter up the pop charts and the hallways of the Brill Building like nobody’s business.)

Oh well. I guess one man’s “worst year that pop has been through” is another man’s extremely interesting times.

But the next time you hear that America needed the Beatles because of the Kennedy assassination or some such rigmarole (or better yet, to “rediscover” the black music which the British Invasion in fact shoved back to the sideline), just remember the carefully modulated warning later rendered by Pete Townshend, that most British of all prophets, when he said something to the effect of not getting fooled again.

Sugar Pie DeSanto “I Want to Know” (Studio recording…Reaching the bottom no doubt.)

APRIL BOOK REPORT–O.J. SIMPSON, ALAS and ROCK FROM THE BEGINNING (4/13)

American Tragedy: The Uncensored Story of the Simpson Defense (Lawrence Schiller and James Willwerth, 1996) and Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O.J. Simpson Got Away with Murder (Vincent Bugliosi, 1996)

I actually ended up reading these side by side–a few chapters of one then a few of the other–because a couple of hundred pages into Shiller’s massive tome, I felt the need for an antidote. The way Schiller saw it from the inside, O.J. Simpson’s defense attorneys–not to mention Simpson himself–were precisely the slick pieces of central-casting crapola they seemed at the time. Whatever Bugliosi is–and I find it hard to have a completely positive view of anyone so convinced of his own righteousness and general superiority to the rest of humankind–he isn’t slick.

Anyway, this is the first month of my life I’ve devoted to the Trial of the (Last) Century and rest assured it will be the last. Of the two, I would probably actually recommend Schiller’s book. Bugliosi makes his main points in about fifty pages worth of real argument scattered here and there throughout a book that (when footnotes and appendices are included) stretches well over four hundred. Beyond that you end up reading a lot about how much smarter Vince is than the rest of us poor incompetents and wishing he had chosen to transport some of that erudition through his typewriter or expend it on something other than the prosecution’s generally mind-boggling incompetence (viable as that point is, it does wear thin after a bit). Guy put the Manson family away so I cut him a lot of slack, but he’s pushing the limits of a commoner’s patience here.

As for the Schiller version…well, to be fair, he came up with an interesting angle.

With Simpson’s guilt in little doubt, the verdict already well-known to all at the time of publication, and little to be gained by heading in Bugliosi’s direction of excoriating a team of prosecutors evidently grown so fat and lazy on the high conviction rates guaranteed by a system that routinely stomps those who can’t afford “dream teams” into the ground that they couldn’t get out of their own way, he decided to make his 700 page opus about the souls of the lawyers!

On the surface this might seem, er, implausible as a subject of interest in a case where the defense team’s highest moment was the inspired decision to replace pictures of Simpson’s nude girlfriend with a picture of a Norman Rockwell print of a young black girl overcoming segregation on the occasion of the jury’s visit to Simpson’s home.

Don’t laugh, though.

It kind of works. Schiller’s real protagonist–who would be completely forgotten now if not for the strange, source less, perfect-in-its-disturbing-way celebrity of his insidious offspring–is Robert Kardashian. Mostly this is because the now deceased Kardashian was the guy who drew him into the case as the kind of “journalist” who could help shepherd the defense through the technical difficulties of transcribing Mark Fuhrman’s infamous, game-changing tapes (a “favor,” designed to increase trust and access for the improvement and/or existence of this very book, a service which one LAPD detective attached to the case deemed crucial to the single most important element in setting Simpson free, though one could, of course, argue that Fuhrman’s own vileness was more important still), all while believing fervently in Simpson’s guilt.

Certain kinds of journalists are, like certain kinds of lawyers, a special breed.

In any case, Schiller stumbled onto the one really interesting angle. Namely, what did Kardashian–the only lawyer in the case who was genuinely close to Simpson either before or during the trial, the only one who had a material role in Simpson’s cover-up, the only one who renewed his license to practice criminal law so that he specifically could not be called to testify about that role, and, oddly, the only one who seemed to possess anything a normal person might recognize as resembling a conscience–know and when did he know it. And Schiller the journalist milks this for all it’s worth, right down to never letting us know the answer but giving us all the information we need to make an educated guess.

Like I say, not a place I ever care to go again, but together, these two books certainly tell any moderately interested person everything they will ever need to know about this particular bit of madness.

Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock, aka Rock From the Beginning (Nik Cohn, 1970, revised 1973)

A re-read.

Whoo boy.

One of the first “histories” of rock and roll. On the surface Cohn is pretty much a constant fingernail on the chalkboard of my particular sensibility. Whatever I like least in a smart-ass he tends to represent in spades:

Desire to be at least as important as his subject? Check.

Not too keen on the facts, especially if they interfere with his own reality? Check.

Literary pretensions sans literary discipline and training? Check. (He got past Tom Wolfe on talent alone, but I suspect he was aiming for the D.H. Lawrence of Studies in Classic American Literature at the very least, even if no torture has ever been devised that would make him admit it.)

Dismissive of anything he doesn’t like but weirdly (by which I mean, not quite sincerely) apologetic about what he does like? Check.

Hipper than thou, even when (or especially when) he’s pretending to anti-hipness? Check. 

Professional huckster? You bet! (His other main claim to fame is writing the story for New York Magazine upon which Saturday Night Fever became based. Turned out he made it up. Of course he did.)

Women problems? The rock critic’s ever-abiding occupational hazard–or perhaps job requirement?

Check and double-check.

I mean this is a guy who, privileged with a sharp brain and a front row seat–make that a Front Row Seat!–to the madness of the sixties, makes it very clear that the only two things which truly frightened and disoriented him were Brenda Lee’s pipes and Tina Turner’s butt.

Admittedly, two cosmic forces, but still….

So, with all that going against him, why is this still an essential read?

Well, for one thing he could write. Boy could he write.

Among English language critics who have covered the arts in the last hundred years, he and Lester Bangs are the only ones who I would ever recommend reading for style. Whether there is any significance to the two men being so close in age and both covering rock and roll–at least in those days, the red-headed stepchild of “the arts”–is a discussion best left to shrinks and sociologists. And I don’t mean to really compare the two. I mean, Bangs is what Cohn might have been if he hadn’t been a huckster.

All that said, he was often insightful in spite of himself and his commentary on the London scene from which he sprang is probably unparalleled, (and he was particularly good–not to mention almost eerily prescient–on both the Beatles and the Stones, not a bad trick for 1970, when seeing them clearly could not have been easy).

And believe me, for this sort of description, I can easily put up with having every single one of my buttons frequently and fervently pushed:

“I remember seeing them [Ike and Tina Turner] in a London Club one time and I was standing right under the stage. So Tina started whirling and pounding and screaming, melting by the minute, and suddenly she came thundering down on me like an avalanche, backside first, all that flesh shaking and leaping in my face. And I reared back in self-defence, all the front rows did, and then someone fell over and we all immediately collapsed in a heap, struggling and cursing, thrashing about like fish in a bucket.

“When I looked back up again, Tina was still shaking above us, her butt was still exploding, and she looked down on us in triumph. So sassy, so smug and evil. She’d used her arse as a bowling ball, us as skittles, and she’d scored a strike.”

Forget Tom Wolfe, even D.H. Lawrence himself never beat that.