He’s long seemed the George Harrison of the Byrds – intense, mysterious – the quiet one. Even John Lennon, during the first momentous meeting of The Byrds with this band on which they modeled themselves, The Beatles, said to everyone assembled about Chris: “Does he ever talk?”
That embarrassed Hillman, but not so much he left it out of his book.
It’s that kind of genuinely human, humorous, humble and historic memory that distinguishes this great memoir from Chris Hillman. A founding member of The Byrds, who defined the meaning and sound of “folk-rock” by blending their love of traditional folk music and harmony singing with the new expansive electricity coming from England via The Beatles, he also went on to collaborate with many great musicians, as detailed herein. This is a great journey directly into the magic and madness of the time, when great talent merged with delicate personalities, producing results both great and awful.
The Byrds were a band of five, led mostly by Roger McGuinn. They other Byrds were David Crosby, Gene Clark and, on drums, Michael Clarke. Hillman, who played bass, brings us much insight into the varied, intense personalities of the Byrds and their famous friends and peers, as well as historic details that paint this picture vividly, placing us firmly in the context of the early 60s music business.
In many ways he comes off as a Zelig of this era, the quiet observer taking in this cultural shift in Hollywood and the world itself at this moment in time – 1965 – and quietly taking it all in, including a vast range of remarkable characters. Dylan, The Beatles, Hendrix, Gram Parsons, Lenny Bruce, Stephen Stills, The Rolling Stones, Henry Fonda and even Miles Davis all take part. It was when the old glamour guard of Hollywood – the movie stars who had always been the royalty of this town, intersected with this new guard, and not always easily.
The Byrds would play Ciro’s on the Sunset Strip – now the Comedy Store – but then the preeminent nightclub for the glitterati to assemble, where this shift from the old Hollywood (the movies) to the new Hollywood (TV, rock & roll) was most pronounced. At one table was Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn and at the next Sonny & Cher.
They would also play private parties for stars, and attend many recording sessions, so that a dizzying integration of unlikely icons wander through this story.
There’s Lenny Bruce at a recording session, whose mom, Sally Marr, gets them a gig.
There’s Lloyd Bridges, one of the many members of the old guard hip to the new music, and an early Byrds fan, who ran into Hillman having a cigarette outside the club, and said, “I love your music. You guys have a great career ahead of you.”
There’s a great moment with Henry Fonda even which is poignantly emblematic of this cultural shift. The Byrds were hired to perform at a Malibu birthday bash for Jane Fonda, hosted by her beau Roger Vadim, and attended by many Hollywood icons, including Steve McQueen, Sydney Poitier, Lauren Bacall and others.
Early into the Byrds’ set, Hillman felt a tugging on his pant’s leg. It was Henry Fonda, who “politely” requested that the band turn down the volume:
“Fabulous!” wrote Hillman. “Here’s the great Henry Fonda talking to the shy guy in the band. We didn’t turn down the volume.”
There’s also the music icons, , new and old, who they met. Attending a gig by one of their idols, Little Richard, they were blown away by the playing of his guitar player. It was Jimi Hendrix.
Even Miles Davis figures into the story. When Byrds manager Jim Dickson was working to get his band a record deal, he brought their demo of “Mr. Tambourine Man” to everyone he knew in the industry. This included Benny Shapiro, who owned The Renaissance, a jazz club on the Sunset Strip. When Benny played the demo, his pre-teen daughter bolted out of her bedroom to discover what it was. She loved it.
Her enthusiasm inspired him to call up his friend Miles Davis. Miles, although he never heard the music, called Goddard Leiberson, president of his label, Columbia. Thanks to Miles, Leiberson offered The Byrds a single deal, which allowed them to record “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
That’s right. Miles Davis helped launch The Byrds.
It was Roger McGuinn (then Jim McGuinn still, prior to his name change), whose resonant folk purity on 12-string guitar was perfectly transposed to the new sound when following George Harrison’s lead – as seen in the Lads’ first film, A Hard Day’s Night, to purchase a Rickenbacker electric 12-string. Merging the folky acoustic fingerpicking style he’d employed for years in folk clubs on this electric instrument created a beautiful sound.
It was new and old at the same time, and ideal to bring the gentle “jingle jangle” spirit of Dylan’s “Mister Tambourine Man,” which was their first single. They had recorded a demo of it prior to getting signed.
It was their manager Jim Dickson, who introduced The Byrds to “Mr. Tambourine Man.” This was before Dylan had recorded it himself. Dickson was pals with Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager. Looking for material for his band, Dickson asked Albert if Dylan had anything new that might suit The Byrds. He did.
It was a demo record of a new song more than five minutes in length, with four long verses and a chorus, performed by Dylan with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. It was “Mr. Tambourine Man”
All five Byrds listened. None of them loved it. It was in 2/4 time – which sounded to them more like bluegrass than rock and roll. As Hillman wrote, they all knew they song would need some serious arrangement to make it work.
McGuinn got to work. Knowing no radio station will play anything longer than three minutes, he cut out all of the verses but one, which is Dylan’s second verse. McGuinn gave it a 4/4 feel, and composed the beautiful Bach-like guitar intro.
For the vocals, he and Gene Clark sang the melody in unison, with Crosby adding harmony on the chorus.
When the time to make their record of it came, Columbia teamed them up with a producer who himself represented this merger of the Hollywood guards, Terry Melcher. The son of Doris Day, he was already famous for his work with The Beach Boys and others. He had the right blend of hipness and commercial knowhow. He recognized their new foray into electric folk music was valid, but didn’t trust the band’s ability to cut the track. So instead of The Byrds playing on their first record, he brought in the legendary studio musicians who played on most of the current American hits of the day, the ones who later became known as The Wrecking Crew. Hal Blaine was on drums, Larry Knechtel on bass, Leon Russell on piano and Jerry Cole on guitar.
The one exception was the inclusion of a Byrd playing on the
track was McGuinn, who played his fingerpicked Rickenbacker, a sound and style so
distinctive that only he could play it. With his guitar intro, they made a
tight track which sparkled with McGuinn’s jingle-jangle playing. McGuinn,
Crosby and Clark sang the vocals. Neither Hillman or Michael Clarke are heard
on the song at all. But this didn’t bother Hillman at all, who wrote that just
getting to hear great musicians like Larry Knechtel play made it exciting for
The record went to number one on the charts, and The Byrds, most of whom did not even play on it, became one of the biggest bands in the world, and the first real pioneers of electric folk.
They led the way for Dylan to famously go electric. He loved The Byrds. Although they cut out almost all of his verses, Dylan was thrilled with their record of his song. “You can dance to it!” he said.
For a new single, McGuinn thought it was a great idea to record a beautiful song by Pete Seeger which he heard Judy Collins sing, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” He’d been playing it a lot on tour, and everyone loved it, and found harmony parts. Everyone but Dickson, that is, who felt it was too religious – as Pete adapted it from a chapter in the Bible. McGuinn pushed for it, and it became their next single.
Again McGuinn created a delightful electric 12-string arrangement for the introduction, and the entire song. But this time The Byrds played on their own record. Though it didn’t go all the way to number one, it did become a hit.
From then on, the story enlarges to the world stage, as The Byrds became known as an American Beatles. Like The Lads, they went on The Ed Sullivan Show, although their performance was not as triumphant as that of The Beatles. It also marked one of the first signs of dissension in the band as their big personalities began to emerge.
When told in rehearsal for the show that their song was a little long, and needed trimming, David Crosby got pissed off and proclaimed that nobody told The Byrds what to do with their music. He then proceeded to castigate and curse at the producer, who, unfortunately, was also Sullivan’s son-in-law. He blew up at Crosby, and told him his band was fired and needed to leave immediately.
Dickson leapt in, and begged and pleaded for his band to be given a reprieve. Ultimately, he relented, and they performed. The sound, however, was not good, which Hillman suspected was intentional by the crew.
Even so, the Sullivan appearance amplified their fame, and
The Byrds were huge.
But with fame came more dissonance in the band, and egos already large and/or troubled became more so. Again David Crosby’s fiery intolerance famously flamed up, when shooting what was to be a promotional film of their single “Set You Free This Time.”
Directed by the photographer Barry Feinstein, the shoot was on the beach in Malibu. For some reason Hillman didn’t know, Crosby got angry and decided he wouldn’t participate. Somehow he convinced Michael Clarke to join him, and they both started to leave.
Dickson, though, who could also be tough when necessary, would not allow this, and stood in Crosby’s way. Suddenly a punch was thrown, and a fight ensued. They were down in the sand, punching each other as Gene Clark, the gentle one, pulled Crosby off their manager.
Hillman, at this point, called out to the director, “Barry, keep shooting; this is the video. This is The Byrds!”
But although the first cracks in the surface of this
enterprise became impossible to ignore, They Byrds kept flying higher. They
started writing their own songs for the band, including one which reflected
their trajectory. It was on an airplane flight that someone informed them the
usual altitude for a plane was about seven miles high up in the sky. McGuinn
started writing a song called that – “Seven Miles High” – which Crosby worked
on, also. It was Gene Clark, though, who suggested, in homage to The Beatles
“Eight Days A Week” to call it “Eight Miles High.” It became the next single.
Being at that altitude, though, did not appeal to Gene. His gentle soul was more troubled then anyone knew. It was After boarding a flight with the band from L.A. to New York that he began to panic, and insisted on getting off the plane. Though the band attempted to change his mind, he was freaked out. He walked off the plane, and as Hillman wrote, walked out of the band. They went to New York without him and performed as a quartet, with Chris singing Gene’s part. It was only 1965 still, and The Byrds were coming undone.
It is a remarkable exploration of the realities of this historic band, and the perpetual problem of personalities growing up and clashing when success sets in. The Beatles, as is well known, were not impervious to the same dynamic.
It’s funny that in recent documentaries and books about this
era, Crosby has revised his own history to be more truthful. At first it was
said that he left The Byrds because they didn’t not approve of how provocative
and artistic his new songs were, especially “Triad,” about a three-way romance.
Recently, though, he’s amended that explanation by adding, that the truth is he was fired mostly “for being an asshole.” That angle is affirmed in this memoir.
Hillman loved The Byrds, but when they flew separate ways he
was not grounded for long. He teamed up with many other great and incendiary
artists of the time. He joined Stephen Stills’ band and became good friends
with Stills forever.
Other brilliant, troubled souls came into his life. There’s Jim Gordon, the great drummer who performed with Eric Clapton and on countless albums, who he played with often. Hillman affirmed that Gordon was maybe the greatest drummer of his time. But he had some kind of a breakdown as well, which led to him murdering his own mother. He’s been in a prison for the mentally ill ever since.
And there’s also the charming, brilliant, mysterious Gram Parsons. A talented singer as well as songwriter, he and Hillman met in 1968 in L.A. This was before the break-up of The Byrds. Still needing another member to replace Gene Clarke, he invited Gram to a session to play keys and sing. The singing was great, and the keyboard playing okay, and he became part of the team.
Gram’s behavior, though, began to get strange. His enthusiasm for country led them to do more Country-oriented songs. This led to an appearance on the Grand Ol Opry at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium. Unplanned, Gram emerged from sideman role in mid-set to lead the band on the song “Hickory Wind.” This was not okay, and was another signal that great charisma and music talent doesn’t equal an untroubled soul.
Parsons, as Hillman writes, became good pals with Keith Richards, and when ejected by The Byrds went to live with his girlfriend at Keith’s chateau in France. Though he played the part of the honky-tonk rambler, always on the move, living in the homes of different friends, he was actually wealthy. He had a substantial trust fund in his name which enabled his meandering ways, but, as Hillman wrote, also denied him the opportunity to become functional in the world.
Still they worked together a lot, and made a lot of music together. For a while they became The Flying Burrito Brothers and wrote songs and performed together. Hillman made a profound impact on Parson’s life by suggesting he team up with a singer he thought was great – Emmy Lou Harris. Though initially resistant, Gram realized she would be an ideal musical partner, and they teamed up.
But Gram became more dissembled, and gradually had to go. From the band, and from the world. They went on without him as did The Byrds without Gene Clark. It was at the Joshua Tree Inn that Gram’s journey ended in overdose. He was only 26.
It’s all only part of this remarkable book. The quiet Byrd
is an exceptional writer, able to easily capture and reveal all these disparate
personalities in his narrative. He also is great at bringing us the spirit of
the times, the cultural shifts that affected these musicians, who in turn
impacted the culture. Yet throughout it all, his own voice is a humble,
grateful one, a guy who got knocked down by the industry and its troubled
denizens many times. But never stayed down for long.