Byrds – Lover Of The Bayou
The live LP kicks off promisingly with one of the Gene Tryp numbers, “Lover Of The Bayou.” This foreboding tale of a voodoo houngan man is swamp-mojo braggadocio in the great tradition of Bo Diddley‘s “Who Do You Love.” The music is threatening, and tense, like the rant of its witch-doctor narrator.
—Byrdwatcher on Untitled
It’s been awhile since I tackled the Clarence White catalog, so let’s dive back in with the song that turned me into a Clarence fan. I first heard “Lover” in 1994 when a friend bought a used copy of Untitled. At the time I was a very casual Byrds fan. I had the requisite Sweetheart Of The Rodeo LP, which I loved, and the Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, a hit-and-miss affair that I bought mainly because it had “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man.” I grew up in Southern California in the ’70s and was inundated with the classic Byrds jingle-jangle and soft harmonies. I thought I knew all I really wanted to know about The Byrds. Wrong.
Within :20 of the needle dropping on Untitled, it was clear that ‘soft’ and ‘jingle-jangle’ were being touched inappropriately by hell-raising rock fury. Panned hard left, Clarence White announced his presence with an Eddie Hazel-esque wall of superfuzz. Nowhere in my synapses was I prepared for the heavy sludge being heaped upon me. And singing about the Lousiana bayou? Who did The Byrds think they were … Creedence?!?!?! And it wasn’t just White. Bassist Skip Battin was pistol-whipping his way through the low end, with drummer Gene Parsons locked right in, busy, but funky. Roger McGuinn, a guy I’d considered the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of a turtleneck sweater, sang about cooking a bat in a gumbo pan and drinking blood from a rusty can, and somehow pulled it off! His voice was a raspy snarl, like he’d recently taken up smoking Camel non-filters, and his 12-string sound was equally surly. Inexplicably, everything worked.
It was Clarence, though, who pushed “Lover” into Vesuvian territory. His coiled intensity perfectly evoked the song’s sinister mojo and, if anything, he underplays throughout. Battin and Parsons are moving around way more than CW. The B-Bender and distortion pedal — variously described as a Fender Blender, Gibson Maestro, Valley Arts fuzz box, and Mosrite Fuzzrite — were used to expert effect, but it was Clarence’s safecracker’s touch that made the difference. Tone ultimately comes from the fingers, not gear, and like all great guitarists, Clarence’s fierce tone on “Lover” displayed brain-fingertip coordination not available to lesser players. I love his searing entry into the solo (1:25), but my favorite part is from 2:57 to the final gun, when it sounds like he and Gene are riffing off each other. What could’ve been a good, moody setpiece was elevated into one of the band’s last outright classics. Needless to say, my journey with The Byrds was just beginning. Thank you, Clarence White.
“It’s contemporary, like country-rock oriented. It’s got hard rock; it’s got country. They’re going to do rear projection films and slides and tapes — mixed media. (It’s a) McLuhanistic musical idea with a pit orchestra — cause you have to have that, the union says you have to have 26 pieces at least but we want that anyway. We have a cat who’s going to orchestrate the whole score. I just wrote the tunes and he’s going to put it to fiddles and celli and so on.
–Roger McGuinn discussing Gene Tryp in 1970 interview with Vincent Flanders [read full interview]
I’ll discuss this more during my proper overview of Untitled, but I’ll mention now that “Lover” was composed for the Broadway musical, Gene Tryp. Co-written with Jacques Levy — later to be Dylan’s foil on Desire — Tryp was an unwieldy behemoth that never saw the light of day. But, McGuinn wasn’t about to let these songs go to waste, so several ended up on Untitled. According to Flanders’ interview, “Lover” was set in the bayou “where Gene Tryp, the main character, was selling guns to the Confederates and rum to the slaves. The slaves find out about it and Big Cat sings this song to Tryp to scare him.” Put that in your gris-gris bag and smoke it.
IT WAS NOT LOST ON ME
Jayhawks – Waiting For The Sun
Hollywood Town Hall, 1992
Another factor in my re-evaluation of The Byrds was my appreciation for The Jayhawks (pictured below). I got turned onto their 1992 album, Hollywood Town Hall, after seeing “Waiting For The Sun” on 120 Minutes. This was way back when MTV included ‘M’ as an essential part of their programming. Anyway, “Waiting” was manna from country-rock heaven. Great vocal harmonies, crunchy guitar sound, Nicky Hopkins on piano (there he is again), it should’ve been played to death on classic rock radio, what with it being, you know, both classic and rock.
What struck me on the day of my Untitled deflowering was how much “Lover Of The Bayou” sounded like a menacing precursor to “Waiting For The Sun.” Given The Jayhawks’ obvious appreciation for The Byrds, I realized the connection between the two songs went beyond their common Am-G-F chord progression. It was a passing of the bird band torch, if you will. You can probably extrapolate further and say that The Jayhawks picked up where both the late-period Byrds and early-period Eagles left off. Of course, inspiration goes both ways. “Lover” has the same chord structure as “All Along The Watchtower,” with the live released version drawing on Hendrix‘s furious cover, and the studio outtake featuring prominent harmonica like the Dylan original. Thus, in SAT form: The Byrds are to The Jayhawks as Bob Dylan is to The Byrds.
While Louris’ phenomenal guitar playing probably owes more to Jimmy Page than it does to Clarence, the White influence is apparent in his use of string bends and tremolo bar to achieve steely textures. I think this is heard to brilliant effect in the ascending runs from 2:46-2:53, the deep bend at 3:05, and throughout the final half-minute. Like Clarence’s playing on “Lover,” it’s not virtuosic, just a wondrous, gnarled guitar tone that makes the denizens of The Adios Lounge giddy like little schoolgirls.
GOTTA KEEP MOVIN’ ON
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – Mary Jane’s Last Dance
As it turns out, there was a subplot to the subplot in the form of Tom Petty (pictured left with Mike Campbell). Petty, of course, owes a huge debt to The Byrds and perhaps a small, though significant debt to The Jayhawks. Or it could be coincidence. Either way, in late 1993, Petty released his gajillion-selling Greatest Hits CD, which included the new track, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” It was the first single, the hit-in-waiting, and a pretty good song. However, from the first few notes of the opening riff, it sounded pretty clearly like a certain someone was ripping off a certain “Waiting For The Sun.” Sure, the Byrds and Jayhawks (and Dylan) go Am-G-F, while Petty jukes us with the Am-G-D and a Dark Side Of The Moon chorus, but come on. It’s not like I’m Charlie Manson with the White Album mad libs over here. The songs sound alike.
Before you think the peyote has finally driven me loco, please note that there are several connections between The Jayhawks and Tom Petty. Rick Rubin. The Jayhawks were on Rubin’s label, Def American, and he co-produced “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” with Petty and Campbell. Also, I didn’t mention this before, but there’s a subtle organ part wafting its way through “Waiting For The Sun.” That isn’t Nicky Hopkins. It’s Benmont Tench from The Heartbreakers.
So, if anyone was in a position to turn Tom Petty onto The Jayhawks circa 1993, it was Rick Rubin. Perhaps not coincidentally, The Jayhawks toured with Tom Petty in 1995 and the results … well, they were not good. The band typically played a perfunctory 45-minute set for an arena full of empty seats, after which Gary Louris (pictured above) would gather the group in the dressing room for their nightly cry. By the end of the year, Mark Olson was an ex-Jayhawk and Louris and Co. headed into more pop and less country waters.
Interestingly, since I began work on this post, news has arrived via carrier pigeon that The Jayhawks are reuniting for a series of summer shows. So, chin up Olson/Louris fans. Help is on the way.
I’m actually gonna let Tom Petty have the last word. While he may have lifted inspiration from The Jayhawks, guess what? That’s how music works. Good musicians listen to other good musicians and they try and repurpose quality ideas for their own thing. Maybe it’s a riff, maybe it’s a melodic idea, maybe it’s a guitar tone. You really think The Jayhawks didn’t steal ideas from Tom Petty? Please. Sometimes that inspiration turns into a hit
song and sometimes it turns into crippling debt and a life in dive bars (most likely) or concert halls (it could be worse). Hell, Petty himself went through that with his first band, Mudcrutch (pictured left way back in the day), and in the first few years with The Heartbreakers. Luckily for him, though, radio and chart success with the HBs allowed for the totally cool moment where he reconvened his first band for an album and tour in 2007-08. And wouldn’t you know it? The Notorious Crutch Brothers were kind enough to bring us full circle by covering the band that started this whole thing off. According to Petty, Mudcrutch covered “Lover Of The Bayou” when they first started, so they decided to cover it again.
Here’s the video, which as far as I’m concerned is The Mike Campbell Show. You wanna talk about a pantheon guitarist who has totally absorbed Clarence White’s style into his own playing, Campbell is the man. Tastefully badass, profoundly underrated, and in all likelihood sucked and weaned on chicken bile. Mike Campbell, this post is for you!
Mudcrutch – Lover Of The Bayou