It’s been a few weeks since the last installment of the Clarence White Chronicles, so here’s a capsule review of events from the summer of 1968:
The Byrds played South Africa in July without Gram Parsons, who decided that shooting smack with Keith Richards was better than playing segregated Johannesburg, so he essentially fired himself. While GP’s political motives were undoubtedly more expedient than heartfelt, to his credit he flew the coop on a tour that was, by all accounts, “Custer-esque.”
Back on home turf — and without the motivating force behind their just-released album, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo — Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman recruited Clarence White into The Byrds, then fired drummer, Kevin Kelley, and replaced him with White’s former mate in The Reasons, Gene Parsons. Hillman then reconciled with Gram, left The Byrds, and formed the Flying Burrito Brothers. GP and Hillman then asked White and Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram) to join the Burritos, but the new Byrds, upon deeper reflection, decided to remain new Byrds. Are you getting all this?!?! We’re having a quiz at the end of the post, so I hope you took notes.
Anyway, with Hillman now an ex-Byrd, McGuinn and White brought in John York to play bass. Here’s Gene and John recollecting about this turn of events.
Hillman Leaves The Byrds; York Joins
With York’s hire in late summer, the cavalcade of personnel turnover came to a merciful end. On September 28, the McGuinn-White-York-Parsons version of The Byrds debuted on, of all things, Hugh Hefner‘s Playboy After Dark TV show, performing a pair of Bob Dylan songs, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “This Wheel’s On Fire.” Not only was this one of the first shows for the post-Hillman Byrds lineup, it’s the first documented performance, to my knowledge, of Clarence playing his StringBender, which you can hear him work to great effect at the beginning of “Nowhere.” I’m reasonably certain this was also the only gig in the band’s career in which scantily clad go-go dancing and brandy snifters figured prominently. So you wanna be a rock ‘n’ roll star, indeed!
Byrds – You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
Playboy After Dark
September 28, 1968
Byrds – This Wheel’s On Fire
Playboy After Dark
September 28, 1968
While Clarence’s guitar work is characteristically brilliant, his playing during the Genghis Khan verse of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” is subtly spectacular. I also love his playing on “Wheel’s,” especially in the solo (2:09-2:42), because it’s almost like he’s arc welding space-rock guitar effects on top of bluegrass picking. More on this in a bit. “Wheel’s” also shows why enlisting the services of Gene Parsons was a wise decision. He and Clarence were both able to play around the beat and melody, but because of their peculiar telepathy — no doubt earned after hundreds of hours playing together — they rarely stepped on each other’s toes.
AN ALL-NIGHT MUSICIAN IN A ROCK ‘N’ ROLL BAND
A few weeks after the Playboy shoot, The Byrds returned to the studio to lay down tracks for their new album, Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde. In the producer’s chair was Bob Johnston, whose resume at the time included Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde, and John Wesley Harding as well as Johnny Cash‘s Folsom Prison record. Needless to say, The Byrds were geeked for the sessions. Unfortunately, when the album was finally released in February 1969, it would prove to be a commercial, critical, and even intra-band disappointment.
Sales aside — mainly because I’m not sure there’s much connection between good sales and high quality — the perception of disappointment is revealing. For four decades now, critics have heaped abuse on this album as if it were a collection of duck farts and whale songs. At best, it gets a kind of backhanded praise, as if it was some sort of achievement that the record didn’t totally suck. Sure, “Child Of The Universe” is pure filler, the closing medley is nothing special, and the loss of Chris Hillman’s songwriting, harmonies, and ear for melody is undeniable. But, even taking all these demerits into account, Dr. Byrds wasn’t much different than any other Byrds album to date: There’s a few great songs, some good songs, an instrumental, and a couple of whiffs. Why single this LP out? Also, Hillman’s instrumental prowess notwithstanding, John York was a killer bass player and the upgrade at guitar and drums was substantial. As a working unit, this incarnation of The Byrds was miles ahead of any previous ensemble. How does that not figure into the critical equation.
If there is a villain in the Dr. Byrds saga, someone whose potential wasn’t matched by his performance, it’s Bob Johnston (pictured left with Johnny Cash). His impressive credentials aside, the greatness of those Dylan and Cash records is their decided lack of production. Those albums didn’t need anything more than the dry sound typical of a stripped-down country band. His job was essentially mic placement, maybe a little EQ, and hitting the ‘Record’ button.
The Byrds, by contrast, offered some unique challenges. They had multiple vocal parts, including three and four-part harmonies, counterpoint guitar parts, and enough layering and overdubbing that the producer needed to be attentive, if not totally hands-on. But alas, as Gene explains in the video below, that producer was nowhere in evidence. Not only that, Johnston’s final mix was painfully unsympathetic. I think Byrdwatcher hits the nail on the head regarding the original album’s sound: “None of the eight Byrds reissues has benefitted from remastering more than Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde. In its original version, the murky production of Bob Johnston obscured many of the new band’s strengths. The whole album was a muddled mess; the reverb was so thick that even the acoustic songs sounded like they had been recorded in a tub of goo. The band members themselves expressed disappointment with the album’s sound, blaming Johnston’s laissez-faire production style.” Indeed they did. From the DVD, Under Review, here’s a video overview of Dr. Byrds with Gene Parsons and John York expressing their intentions going in and their disappointments coming out.
Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde – An Overview
Leaving aside sales, the original album’s production values, and the lukewarm critical reception, Dr. Byrds — especially in its remastered form — is a strong, if flawed, document of a band entering its latest phase, led by new guitar player and rhythmic focalpoint, Clarence White. Let’s focus on a few of the album’s high points.
This unassuming country cover is a quietly significant chapter in the Clarence White Chronicles. “Gentle Way” was a Bakersfield International single for Gib Guilbeau and Gene Parsons only a year earlier, co-written by Gib and Gary S. Paxton, and featuring The Reasons as backing band. Like “Nashville West,” which also appears on Dr. Byrds, the song functions as an implicit homage to the nearly two years of intense camaraderie forged by The Reasons, when they were studio and road warriors through many “late evening hours.” And on a purely mercenary level, it was a financial boon in the form of publishing credits. If there were lingering doubts about leaving The Reasons, the Dr. Byrds sessions should’ve quelled any misgivings. Like I said last time, Clarence and Gene were gonna be playing “Nashville West” and “Gentle Way” regardless. By doing so in the context of The Byrds they were getting paid decent money and allowed input into fundamental artistic decisions. This was emphatically true in Clarence’s case, as the new rhythm section was assembled largely upon his recommendation.
Gib & Gene (The Reasons) – Your Gentle Way Of Loving Me
Gib & Gene (The Reasons) – Your Gentle Way Of Loving Me
I’ve included the Gib & Gene version of “Gentle Way” for compare-and-contrast purposes. Ironically, while Gib & Gene were at heart a no-frills country act, it’s The Byrds that really accentuate the song’s country flavor. In fact, Paxton’s production gives the G&G track a kind of folk-pop flavor, as if Glen Campbell were being produced by Phil Spector. Meanwhile, The Byrds’ version is almost textbook country-rock, if not simply straight-up country. Clarence clearly benefits from the remastering on Dr. Byrds, as his superlative StringBender work, panned hard right, is far higher in the mix than on the Paxton version, where his acoustic picking is buried. It’s also interesting to compare Gene’s harmonica. Where his playing with Gib is more train-like, his playing on Dr. Byrds (also panned right) is almost a second lead part meant to complement Clarence’s picking. Both versions also feature Paxton’s beloved fuzztone guitar, so I’m pretty sure that’s White in the coda of The Byrds’ version.
“He’s been like a father to me
He’s the only DJ you can hear after three
I’m an all night musician in a rock ‘n’ roll band
And why he don’t like me I can’t understand.”
This McGuinn/Gram Parsons co-write was inspired by the band’s 1968 visit to Nashville, where they received contemptuous on-air treatment from hallowed Nashville disc jockey, Ralph Emery. Mr. Emery didn’t truck with no damn hip-eyes toying with his beloved country music — let alone playing the Grand Ole Opry! — and he let them know he didn’t approve. This open-faced suspicion no doubt fuels this masterwork of satire and sarcasm that, to these ears, stands up against any country song from this era. While my first inclination is to compare the song’s byrd-flipping sentiment to a Dylan song like “Positively 4th Street,” I think Byrdwatcher makes an apt comparison: “The song’s broad humor is reminiscent of the work of Ray Davies. Not the subtle wit that characterized his more sympathetic character sketches in the late ’60s, but the heavy-handed mockery in early Kinks songs like ‘Well Respected Man’ and ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion.'” Word.
Musically, “Drug Store” is a straight country waltz, with Nashville steel ace, Lloyd Green, in the left channel, and Clarence White’s steel-esque StringBender in the right. York mostly plays the bass parts close to the vest, but there’s a few nice McCartney-esque swoops (2:42, 3:22, 3:36). And while McGuinn often gets criticized for the ironic detachment of his country singing, his singing on “Drug Store,” including the high tenor part where he’s harmonizing with himself, totally works for me. I think the personal nature of the material helps. Where it’s safe to say he probably didn’t feel “The Christian Life” in his bones, his dislike for Ralph Emery — or, at least profound displeasure at the way he was treated — comes through. Hey, if bitter resignation ain’t a hallmark of country music, I don’t know what is!
SESSION MAN … AGAIN
The basic tracks for Dr. Byrds were cut during a handful of October and December sessions. In between, Clarence sat in with some familiar faces.
On October 10, White recorded three songs with Wynn Stewart, two of which would appear on Stewart’s 1969 Let The Whole World Sing It With Me LP. One of those, “Run Away,” is a textbook two-step, written and arranged with the dance floor in mind, and the kind of throwback honky-tonk song that established Bakersfield as the original “Nashville West.” The song is distinguished by superior interplay between Clarence and Ralph Mooney, Wynn’s longtime steel guitarist. The White-Moon exchanges between :45-1:14 are a high point, but throughout the song they showcase their impeccable sidemen credentials, accenting and coloring with respect for each others space and always in service to the song.
It’s probably worth noting that Moon was one of the architects of the Bakersfield Sound and outlaw country, having served in Stewart’s band in the ’50s and ’60s and in Waylon Jennings‘ band in the ’70s and ’80s. Oh, and in between all those gigs were sessions with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Yeah, I guess that’s a decent country résumé.
Late in ’68, The Byrds’ rhythm section hooked up with Gib Guilbeau, in what basically amounted to a reunion of The Reasons (with York replacing Wayne Moore). In fact, depending upon your perspective, it was also an alternative version of The Byrds, with Guilbeau in the McGuinn role. John York recalls, “I remember doing some sessions with Clarence White, Gene Parsons, and Gib Guilbeau in a studio in Hollywood in late 1968. On the north side of a group of offices called ‘Crossroads Of The World’ on Sunset Boulevard. The song that sticks in my mind was called ‘Louisiana Woman.’ There were others that I don’t recall at the moment.” As it happens, the studio York refers to here is Darrell Cotton’s Ion Records, the same place where a couple years earlier Clarence met Gib and Gene during Darrell’s “Don’t Pity Me” sessions. You may recall this from the beginning of my Clarence White and the Rise of Nashville West: 1966-67 post.
“Louisiana Woman” could’ve easily fit on any Byrds album between Dr. Byrds and Untitled — which we’ll get to in a few weeks. A laid-back, almost textbook country-rock song, it’s distinguished by CW’s StringBender riff and forms a nice companion piece to Ballad Of Easy Rider‘s “Tulsa County” in form and Untitled‘s “Lover On The Bayou” in cajun-centrism.
THIS WHEEL SHALL EXPLODE
If songs like “Gentle Way” and “Drug Store” — not to mention “Old Blue” and “Nashville West” — represented the album’s Dr. Byrds, it was songs like “Wheel’s” that represented its Mr. Hyde. Conceptually, the idea made sense. Sweetheart was a country album, Clarence White and Gene Parsons were excellent country players, and on a fundamental level, they’d cast their lot with country and it was too late to back out now. On the other hand, The Byrds cut their teeth on rock music. Folk-rock, psychedelic-rock, country-rock, and yes, space-rock were all part of the band’s colorful history and there was no reason to alienate their fanbase by moving away from that sound. So, the album was a self-conscious acknowledgment of the band’s bipolarity and it was borne out in the packaging, which included photos of the band as both cowboys (Dr. Byrds) and spacemen (Mr. Hyde).
In this context, I think no song better reflects the Hyde portion of their personality better than “This Wheel’s On Fire,” sonic kin to some of Creedence’s heaviest, swampiest material circa 1968-69 (“I Put A Spell On You,” “Born On The Bayou,” “Keep On Chooglin'”). If The Byrds are to be faulted for anything, it’s that they chose the weaker, slower version of the song to leadoff the album. The first version is leaner, has a clearer separation of instruments, and McGuinn doesn’t sound like he’s fighting a cold. But the difference-maker in Version One is Clarence White, especially in tandem with York, whose whiplash basslines work perfectly with Clarence’s guitar to give the song a swirling, moody tension. There’s two guitar parts, with White obviously in the right channel, and another, heavily-reverbed guitar in the left that could either be McGuinn or White. I suspect it’s McGuinn for no other reason than it doesn’t have any of Clarence’s hallmark stylings.
Regardless, as with the Playboy filming, White’s right-channel playing is the perfect synthesis of Byrds and Hyde, of space and cowboy, of country and rock. His picking features the syncopation and behind-the-beat phrasing that was a cornerstone of his electric playing from the start, but had its roots in bluegrass with The Kentucky Colonels. And while he’s playing through a fuzzbox like many rock guitarists, the development of the StringBender added a totally unique pedal steel dimension to his playing. Its effect is apparent throughout “Wheel’s”, especially from 1:33 on, and in the solo from 1:56-2:10. In a sense, the creation of the StringBender merely accentuated White’s tendency to work around a song’s basic rhythm, playing with dynamics even more dramatically than he did before, giving him greater melodic and harmonic freedom. This is why early on in the Chronicles I compared Clarence to bebop icons, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, though I could have also compared him to guitar innovator, Charlie Christian. Dig this passage about Christian in Wikipedia:
“(Charlie) Christian commonly emphasized weak beats and off beats, and … experimented with asymmetrical phrasing, which was to become a core element of the new bop style. Swing (pre-bop) improvisation was commonly constructed in two or four bar phrases that corresponded to the harmonic cadences of the underlying song form. Bop improvisers would often deploy phrases over an odd number of bars, and overlap their phrases across bar lines and across major harmonic cadences. Such new rhythmic phrasing techniques give the typical bop solo a feeling of floating free over the underlying song form, rather than being tied into the song form.”
–From “Bebop History”
If Clarence’s country-rock bebop was hinted at in his recorded output, it was astonishingly evident on stage. So, when The Byrds finally hit the road in late January 1969 — about a week before the release of Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde — CW’s live prowess quickly grew in legend and guitarists everywhere soon joined the Clarence White Fan Club. Here’s John York commenting on this hilarious, if understandable, phenomenon.
Clarence White and the “Wall of Guitar Players”
“The greatest thing about Clarence was that he never played anything that sounded vaguely weak or like a mistake. He was always driving — INTO the music — and that pulled the whole band up. He had that conservative thing from bluegrass, where you underplay it on stage, where everybody pokerfaces it. He would do these truly outrageous things on guitar, but hardly move a muscle, aside from his hands. But, he was very conscious of his showmanship. He was evolving into his own kind of Jimi Hendrix flamboyance.”
–Roger McGuinn, from the Live At The Fillmore West liner notes
On February 6, The Byrds pulled into San Francisco for a four-night stand at Fillmore West. They didn’t realize it then, but they were embarking on what would turn about to be an almost uninterrupted 3 1/2 year tour of clubs, ballrooms, concert halls, armories, field houses, high schools, colleges, and festivals in most of the continental United States, Canada, and Europe. Their transformation from innovative studio band into rode-hard touring band was a remarkable act of artistic redefinition, one which has been almost universally ignored by rock historians. Read their biography in All Music Guide or Wikipedia and you’ll have zero idea that beginning in early ’69, The Byrds were a live band first and foremost. If anything, you get AMG’s casual dismissal of anything post-Sweetheart Of The Rodeo: “Although McGuinn kept the Byrds going for about another five years with other musicians (most notably former country picker Clarence White), essentially the Byrds name was a front for Roger McGuinn and backing band.”
Granted, the setlists weren’t varied all that much from night to night and even at their best, it wasn’t like anyone would mistake The Byrds for high-wire acts like The Who, MC5, or hell, Jerry Lee Lewis. But, the band was doing their formidable catalog justice, evolving into a tight-knit working unit, and besides, it wasn’t like Merle Haggard and George Jones were playing guitars with their teeth and knocking over drumkits. Cut these dudes some slack!
Take away Clarence White’s explosions of inventiveness and The Byrds sound like any number of country outfits playing the southern California honky-tonk circuit in 1969. However, when you factor in White on StringBender — let alone McGuinn on 12-string — you have one of the finest distillations of country tradition meeting rock futurism ever committed to tape. There’s CW’s fearless solo in “You’re Still On My Mind” (:37-1:10), his elastic command of the space-time continuum in “Close Up The Honky Tonks” (1:10-1:41), and the wild chicken pickin’, quirky accents, and syncopation throughout “Buckaroo,” including the trusty old nut pull (1:30). Also, if you recall my previous CW Chronicles post, the idea of the StringBender was hatched at the Sanland Brothers’ session for “Vaccination Of The Blues.” Clarence actually plays that song’s staccato intro riff at 1:40 of “Buckaroo.” So good.
To address the band’s binary tendencies in one fell swoop — i.e. Byrds and Hyde — here’s a Dr. Byrds song that masterfully mixes 4/4 rock verses with 2/4 country bridges, similar to “Change Is Now” from Notorious Byrd Brothers. I like David Fricke‘s description of Clarence’s intro in the Fillmore West liner notes as “an opening slalom break lightly ringed with distortion.” “Slalom break” is a vivid description of so many CW guitar parts, and it’s probably not a coincidence that it echoes Wikipedia’s description of the typical bop solo as “a feeling of floating free over the underlying song form.” Needless to say, White’s floating, slaloming, and applause-inducing solo from 1:27-1:57 is one of the album’s many Clarence White highlights.
This song was famously inspired by John Coltrane’s modal jazz piece, “India,” which was itself inspired by the saxophonist’s earlier work with Miles Davis. All Music Guide describes the structure of modes as such: “Modal music had a subtle tension produced by the fact that the solo lines, while melodic, didn’t always progress or resolve exactly as the listener was accustomed to hearing; plus, every time a new mode was introduced, the tonal center shifted, keeping the listener just off balance with a subtle unpredictability.”
While the “Eight Miles High” medley on Fillmore West is almost 10 minutes long and there’s really no need to occupy that much cyberspace, this 1:29 excerpt distills the essence of its greatness. With McGuinn’s 12-string improvising around the song’s main riff in the right channel, Clarence hypnotically riffs in the left channel, until unleashing a firestorm of a solo at the :44 mark. When McGuinn says that White “was evolving into his own kind of Jimi Hendrix flamboyance,” his playing on “Eight Miles High” had to be what he had in mind. If Hendrix was taking chitlin circuit R&B to Neptune, Clarence White was bringing the Bakersfield Sound to Mars.
NEXT TIME: EASY RIDING IN ’69
Next time in the CW Chronicles, we’ll finish out 1969, including work on Ballad Of Easy Rider, more touring, a gig with some special friends, and much more session work.