CSN&Y: Squabbling Troubadors II: The Whole Enchilada

Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young: The Wild, Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup
By David Browne
Da Capo Press, 2019, 465 pages

5 Stars

What? Another book about CSN&Y? This year is the 50th anniversary of the formation of the seminal singer-songwriter “supergroup,” Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and sometimes Young). To commemorate the milestone, two excellent biographies were recently published. Fortunately for my wallet, our local library system has both books on its shelves. Three weeks ago, I reviewed Peter Doggett’s book, which focused mainly on the band’s first five years, 1969 to 1974 (see here). In contrast, David Browne’s book spans the entire life of the band, the whole messy enchilada, from 1969 to 2015, discontinuous and painful as it was.

Following the releases of their highly-successful eponymous debut album in 1969 and “Déjà Vu” the following year, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young was arguably the most popular rock and roll band on the planet (made possible only by the official break-up of the Beatles in April 1970). However, the reasons for the band’s great success also precipitated it’s downfall. The old saying about “too many chefs in the kitchen” certainly applied to CSN&Y; a volatile combination of four very talented and very strong-willed performers with contrasting temperaments. Copious drug use added to the constant disharmony. Unable to perform as a unit, CS&N put their energies into solo projects, although Crosby and Nash remained on friendly terms and recorded several albums together. Young, a prolific songwriter, was able to achieve an unusual degree of success on his own and increasingly distanced himself from CS&N.

Crosby, Stills and Nash were able to occasionally put animosities aside and unite briefly for various projects, but Crosby’s spiraling heroin addiction was a major impediment. After having spent five months in prison in 1986 on drugs and weapons convictions, Crosby was released and (somewhat) sober, but CS&N found that their style of music was increasingly out of favor with the MTV generation. From 1988 to 1999, the trio released multiple joint and solo projects of uneven quality to a declining audience. I had already stopped listening to CS&N back in 1977 because the political rants began to grate on me. By the early 00s/aughts, CS&N had largely devolved into a touring oldies band.

After their phenomenal initial success, CS&N began their very long and sometimes tortuous decline. Browne devotes 303 of the book’s 418 pages of text to that post-1970 decline. Being the nerdy, former-fan that I am, I found that information very interesting. Most readers wouldn’t.

It’s revealing that Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young won’t be reuniting this year to celebrate their 50th anniversary because of the bitter acrimony between the ex-members. It’s easy to sing about peace and love, but “the heart [of man] is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.”

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CSN&Y: Squabbling Troubadours

Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young
By Peter Doggett
Atria Books, 2019, 359 pages

5 Stars

My five older sisters always had the record player or radio constantly playing in the house when I was growing up, but I began listening to AM Top 40 in earnest for myself in 1969 at the age of thirteen with my inexpensive Panasonic AM radio/cassette player combo. My oldest sister happened to be in college that year and she came home for winter break with a box of her roomate’s LPs in tow. Flipping through the albums, I was intrigued by three grungy looking hippies; David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash, on the cover of their eponymous debut and gave it a spin. Wow! I was captivated by the trio’s songcraft and soaring vocal harmonies. No more Top 40, bubble-gum pop music for me. Neil Young joined the group before they went on tour and I became a hardcore fan of CS&N and CSN&Y and all of their various solo and collective permutations and faithfully bought ALL of their albums (see far below) for the next eight years. I was such a dedicated fan that I even collected the back catalogs of their previous bands – the Byrds (Crosby), Buffalo Springfield (Stills and Young), and, to a lesser extent, the Hollies (Nash) – and would subsequently become a lifelong fan of the Byrds. CSN&Y had a huge fanbase, which began with their appearance at the 1969 Woodstock festival from whence they were subsequently crowned the “voice of a generation.” 

However, after the release of their “CSN” album in 1977, I lost interest in the group. Why? Their music seemed to grow stale and their never-ending political rants began to grate. In recognition of the group’s 50th anniversary, a couple of biographies were just published, including this one by music journalist, Peter Doggett, who focuses mainly on the first five years of the band (I’m currently reading the second biography). I thought I knew all the stories pretty well, but Doggett provides a lot of interesting new information.

It’s tough enough when a group has one prima donna, but CSN&Y had four by design. Although they were the #1 rock group in the world after the release of their second album, “Déjà Vu,” their demise was already guaranteed. These guys made millions by singing about peace and love, but after their initial start, they couldn’t stand being in the same room together. Copious drug intake and hyper-inflated egos fueled the interpersonal animosity and the declining quality of the music. The internecine squabbling within CSN&Y was symbolic of the false promises of the Woodstock Nation. Yes, there is peace eternal and perfect brotherhood, but they are only found in salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

CS&N (and occasionally with Y) periodically joined together to pay the bills from 1977 until 2015, although they had largely devolved into an oldies band. Crosby then permanently alienated his bandmates with some rather infelicitous remarks. However, freed from the restricting confines of CS&N, Croz has recorded four interesting solo albums in the last five years.

Just for grins, I plugged my memory battery into my CPAP machine and came up with the list below of all of the CSN&Y records that I bought between 1969 and 1977. Rather than spend a lot of time reviewing the albums, I’m providing just a simple 1-to-5 star rating:

  • Crosby, Stills, and Nash (1969) – CS&N  5 Stars
  • Neil Young (1968, remixed and re-released in 1969) – Young  3 Stars
  • Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969) – Young  4 Stars
  • Déjà Vu (1970) – CSN&Y  5 Stars
  • Stephen Stills (1970) – Stills  4 Stars
  • After the Gold Rush (1970) – Young  4 Stars
  • 4 Way Street (1971) – CSN&Y (live)  4 Stars
  • If I Could Only Remember My Name (1971) – Crosby  3 Stars
  • Songs for Beginners (1971) – Nash  4 Stars
  • Stephen Stills 2 (1971) – Stills  3 Stars
  • Graham Nash/David Crosby (1972) – Crosby and Nash  4 Stars
  • Stephen Stills/Manassas (1972) – Stills and Manassas  5 Stars
  • Harvest (1972) – Young  5 Stars
  • Wild Tales (1973) – Nash  2 Stars
  • Down the Road (1973) – Stills and Manassas  1 Star
  • Time Fades Away (1973) – Young (live)  1 Star
  • Byrds (1973) – Crosby and the other four original bandmembers 2 Stars
  • On the Beach (1974) – Young  2 Stars
  • Wind on the Water (1975) – Crosby and Nash  4 Stars
  • Stills (1975) – Stills  3 Stars
  • Stephen Stills Live (1975) – Stills (live)  3 Stars
  • Tonight’s the Night (1975) – Young  1 Star
  • Zuma (1975) – Young  3 Stars
  • Whistling Down the Wire (1976) – Crosby and Nash  2 Stars
  • Illegal Stills (1976) – Stills  2 Stars
  • Long May You Run (1976) – Stills and Young  1 Star
  • CSN (1977) – CS&N  4 Stars
  • Live (1977) – Crosby and Nash (live)  3 Stars

Yup, twenty-eight albums was A LOT of recorded output for four guys in eight years. They cranked ’em out like pizzas.

Grace Slick and rock-and-roll hedonism

Grace Slick: Somebody to Love?: A Rock-and-Roll Memoir
By Grace Slick with Andrea Cagan
Warner Books, 1998, 370 pages

Back a few weeks ago, I posted about one of my favorite rock bands of the 1960s, the Jefferson Airplane (see here). That motivated me to borrow this book from the library that I’ve been meaning to read for the past twenty years.

Grace Slick (b. 1939) was the co-lead singer of the Jefferson Airplane and its subsequent incarnations, Jefferson Starship and Starship, from 1967 to 1987. She was raised in an upper-middle-class family and even attended a hoity-toity finishing college for women; Finch College in Manhattan. But the rebellious Slick embraced the burgeoning hippie movement in 1960s San Francisco and her untrained but impressive vocal talent eventually earned her a place with the city’s most-popular of several psychedelic bands, the Airplane. When the band gained national prominence in 1967 with their second album, “Surrealistic Pillow,” Slick became rock-and-roll’s first female lead vocalist. As a young, red-blooded teenage boy, I think I may have had a bit of a crush at the time, along with millions of other guys.

Slick’s story can be pretty much summed up by the mantra of the 60’s counter-culture; “sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.” By her own account, she was frequently either high or drunk. Drugs and/or alcohol abuse were a part of her daily routine for decades. Sex was as casual and impersonal as choosing a restaurant for dinner. Slick was the poster child for 1960s and 1970s counter-culture hedonism.

“They have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.” – Ephesians 4:19

People tend to idolize celebrity entertainers, but when we look beyond the glitz we see that they’re unhappy people thrashing about to find some kind of direction and meaning to life. Ever read the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible? Chasing after fleshly pleasures through sex, drugs and alcohol, and entertainment can be fulfilling for a short time, but it doesn’t endure. Slick is now 79-years-old and in poor health, and sex and substance abuse are definitely no longer on her priority list. What is her hope?

Slick does mention “spirituality” here and there in this book, but as you might expect, what she refers to is the mysticism of Eastern religiosity. Interesting how hip culture rejects Christianity out of hand, but eagerly embraces various aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism. Slick is pretty upfront about all of her faults/sins. My thought throughout reading this book was how much she needs the Savior and Shepherd, Jesus Christ. This is a sad book. Slick has lots of questions, but no answers.

The Byrds’ Albums – 1965-1973

I had the pleasure of reviewing all twelve of the Byrds albums over the previous twelve months. Below is a handy listing with links to the reviews:

Mr. Tambourine Man (1965) 5-stars
The Byrd’s debut album ushers in folk-rock and is met with critical and popular acclaim.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/01/07/the-byrds-take-flyte-and-dylan-and-the-beatles-take-notice/

Turn! Turn! Turn! (1965) 4-stars
The band’s sophomore album is good but lacks the sparkle of the debut disc.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/02/02/folk-rock-102/

Fifth Dimension (1966) 3.5-stars
Gene Clark’s departure opens up opportunities for David Crosby and the band breaks out of its folk-rock mold to explore new musical genres with mixed results.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/03/01/the-byrds-awkwardly-break-out-of-the-folk-rock-mold-with-fifth-dimension/

Younger Than Yesterday (1967) 5-stars
Chris Hillman’s development as a songwriter helps the band to fire on all cylinders.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/04/03/younger-than-yesterday-an-underappreciated-work-that-would-be-recognized-decades-later/

The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968) 5-stars
The band remarkably produces its finest album in the midst of the departures of Crosby and Clarke.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/05/02/the-notorious-byrd-brothers-the-byrds-crumble-just-as-they-peak/

Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) 4-stars
Newcomer, Gram Parsons, hijacks the Byrds down to Nashville. A pioneering country-rock album.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/06/01/parsons-hijacks-the-byrds-to-nashville/

Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde (1969) 2-stars
Hillman and Parsons quit and McGuinn goes it alone with hired hands, including talented country guitarist, Clarence White.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/07/02/mcguinn-pushes-forward-with-hired-hands-including-a-very-talented-guitarist/

Ballad of Easy Rider (1969) 2-stars
McGuinn and the ersatz Byrds attempt to leverage their connection to the popular counter-culture film.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/08/01/the-byrds-and-the-ballad-of-easy-rider-resurgence-or-hype/

Untitled (1970) 3-stars
Might be the best of the five weak albums from the McGuinn-White ersatz Byrds.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/09/04/the-mcguinn-white-byrds-peak-with-untitled/

Byrdmaniax (1971) 1-star
Almost unlistenable. Producer Terry Melcher added keyboards and choirs post-production in an attempt to save the unsavable.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/10/04/byrdmaniax/

Farther Along (1971) 1.5-stars
The faux Byrds on life support. The forgettable swan song of the McGuinn-White ersatz Byrds.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/11/01/the-collapse-of-the-ersatz-mcguinn-white-byrds/

Byrds (1973) 3-stars
The disappointing reunion of the five original members didn’t come close to meeting expectations.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/12/04/the-byrds-disappointing-swan-song/

By the way, Roger McGuinn, the leader of the Byrds and the only member to appear on every album, accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior in 1977. See here. His testimony was one of the many influences used by the Holy Spirit to eventually lead me to Christ as well.

“When the truth is found to be lies…”

 

I surely liked my rock-and-roll music way back in the day, but I generally stayed away from the raucous stuff. I was more into the breezy and melodic, LA/California folk-rock, country-rock sounds (Byrds, Burritos, Buffalo Springfield, CS&N, Poco, etc.). But there were a few exceptions. Clapton’s bluesy band, Cream, comes to mind along with Jefferson Airplane.

Jefferson Airplane! What a motley crew! The band hit it big in 1967 with the release of their second album, “Surrealistic Pillow.” Airplane was the biggest of the San Francisco, psychedelic hippie bands (Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Moby Grape). The band’s sound, paced by Jorma Kaukonen’s ragged lead guitar, wasn’t much better than a garage band, but they wrote some good tunes and co-lead singer, Grace Slick, was pretty good.

So why am I writing a post about the Airplane? Hang on. We’re almost there.

One of the two big hits from “Surrealistic Pillow” was “Somebody to Love” (see video above), which Slick brought over from her previous San Fran band, The Great Society. “Somebody to Love” was one of the great rock anthems of the late-60s. The song is actually about a person experiencing a romantic break-up and contemplating a rebound, but the opening verse can be interpreted several different ways:

“When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies.”

America’s youth heard Grace Slick angrily belt out those words in April 1967 and they weren’t thinking about a romantic breakup, they were thinking about how many of the country’s institutions – government, military, education, church, corporations, marriage, etc. – were being exposed as imperfect and even corrupt.

I enjoyed “Somebody to Love” over the years, but at one point I had a new, personal interpretation. I had been a Roman Catholic for twenty-seven years, ever since I was baptized as an infant, and believed in the church’s salvation system of sacramental grace and merit. But after reading God’s Word and encountering many passages that contradicted Catholic doctrine, I left the Catholic church. I had discovered that the “truth” I was taught in parochial grammar school and Catholic high school had been lies. My world was rocked. I was shaken. It was like the rug had been yanked out from under me. Talk about a crisis of conscience! However, after a few years, by God’s grace, I heard and understood the Gospel and I repented of my sin and accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior by faith alone. Praise God!

So now, whenever I hear the opening verse of “Somebody to Love,” I think about that tumultuous and upsetting period in my life when I found out through God’s Word that the “truth” I was taught and had hung my hat on for so many years was all lies. Many Catholics must be experiencing something similar with their church currently being rocked to its foundation by the scandal tsunami and by pope Francis’ heterodox reforms. Where can they turn? To THE Truth, Jesus Christ, and God’s Word!

Postscript: Jefferson Airplane’s founding members Marty Balin, Paul Kantner, and Signe Toly Anderson are deceased. Singer, Grace Slick, is now 79-years-old and in poor health. The gospel of 1960s rock and roll, “peace, love, sex, and drugs,” definitely had its limits. We’re all looking for somebody to love and to be loved. Eternal and truly fulfilling love is only found in Jesus Christ. Repent of your sin and accept Jesus as your Savior by faith alone.

“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” – 1 John 4:9-11

The Byrds’ Disappointing Swan Song

Byrds
The Byrds
Produced by David Crosby, Asylum Records, Released March 7, 1973, Length: 34:54

In the summer of 1971, discussions began amongst the founding members of the Byrds regarding a reunion album and possible follow-up tour. The five original members – Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, and Michael Clarke – hadn’t recorded together since January 1966. The project gained steam with the backing and encouragement of David Geffen, president of Asylum Records. Sessions began on October 16, 1972 and ended November 15 while McGuinn was still touring with the latter-day Byrds line-up. In February 1973, McGuinn finally pulled the plug on the ersatz “Columbia” Byrds.

The release of “Byrds” on March 7, 1973 had been eagerly anticipated by fans of the band. Crosby had achieved world-wide fame as a member of the hugely successful supergroup, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, while McGuinn, Hillman, and Clark were all recognized as talented singers and songwriters in their own right. “Byrds” peaked at a very respectable #20 on the album charts. Singles, “Full Circle”/”Long Live the King” was released on April 11 and reached #109 while “Cowgirl in the Sand”/”Long Live the King” was released in June but failed to chart.

I remember being overjoyed at the news of the reunion of the founding members and eagerly anticipated the album with high expectations. I rushed to Midtown Records in downtown Rochester, New York to pick up the album on the day of its release. I wasn’t the only excited fan. Copies of “Byrds” were literally plastered all over the store. I didn’t know it then, but the cover photos were taken at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles where McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby had first gotten together in 1964. The photos told quite a bit about the music inside with Crosby taking center stage and McGuinn shoved off to the side with a lost look on his face. After I played the LP a few times, I had the same reaction as critics and fans; I expected much more than this. Plans for a follow-up tour fell apart after the lukewarm and negative reviews. Years later, the Byrds gave various reasons for the albums shortcomings: not enough time, better material kept aside for solo projects, and fear of stepping on each other’s toes. It’s a bland album with only a few shining moments that relies far too heavily on covers (TWO Neil Young tunes?). McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker, a trade mark of the Byrds’ sound, is largely buried in the mix as are Clarke’s drums, but I do enjoy Hillman’s mandolin. Years later, McGuinn, who had always been credited as the “leader” of the band, complained that nominal producer Crosby had deliberately minimized his contributions to the reunion album as a “coup d’état” in retaliation for his 1967 firing.

“Byrds” is not a bad album. I would argue it’s better than any post-Sweetheart recordings from the ersatz, McGuinn-White Byrds. But outside of Clark’s two tunes it certainly did not live up to expectations. The Byrds had a great opportunity with this album but dropped the ball. Regrettably, the five would never record together as a group again. We can only imagine what this album could have been if McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman had actually taken the time to develop some good songs under the direction of a talented producer who didn’t have an axe to grind and who valued the Byrds’ legacy.

Side One:

  • Full Circle (Clark) – Gene Clark starts off the album with a great acoustic tune. Lot’s of Hillman mandolin.
  • Sweet Mary (McGuinn/Levy) – Not one of the better McGuinn/Levy tunes. McGuinn sings about his failed marriage. Again, lots of Hillman mandolin.
  • Changing Heart (Clark) – Gene’s take on his disappointing solo career. A largely acoustic tune featuring Gene’s harmonica. McGuinn’s electric Rick has some moments, but is buried too deep in the mix. Another good song.
  • For Free (Mitchell) – Crosby gives a nice vocal but this cover was a poor choice for the album.
  • Born to Rock ‘n’ Roll (McGuinn) – A mediocre tune. McGuinn must have thought this was a great song and tried it again on his third solo album.

Side Two:

  • Things Will Be Better (Hillman, Taylor) – A catchy, throw-away. At least we can hear McGuinn’s Rick.
  • Cowgirl in the Sand (Young) – This cover is one of the best songs on the album. Clark and the Byrds give a soaring vocal performance. Listen here.
  • Long Live the King (Crosby) – One of Crosby’s weakest tunes ever. Crosby led the crusade to record this album, but his contributions are noticeably weak.
  • Borrowing Time (Hillman, Lala) – Another Hillman throw-away. Years later he completely dismissed his two contributions to this album.
  • Laughing (Crosby) – Why would Crosby include this song? A far superior version with Jerry Garcia shining on pedal steel guitar had previously appeared on Crosby’s spacey 1971 solo album.
  • (See the Sky) About to Rain (Young) – Byrds chronicler, Johnny Rogan, believes the guitar crescendo at the end of this number is the high point of the album, but I don’t care for this song at all. Two Neil Young covers was one too many.

Fans of the Byrds were universally disappointed by this highly-anticipated reunion album. It reminds me that the things of this world can never fully satisfy. We will only find lasting satisfaction in the Lord, Jesus Christ.

Well, folks, that’s the last Byrds album and the last of my reviews. I’ll be posting a summary of all the albums with links to my reviews down the road. Thanks for accompanying me on this year-long flyte!

The end of the road for the ersatz McGuinn-White Byrds

The last album of the McGuinn-White Byrds borrows the name of a Gospel hymn for it’s title.

Farther Along
The Byrds
Produced by The Byrds, Columbia Records, Released November 17, 1971, Length 32:02

Deeply annoyed with the heavy orchestration and gospel choir backup vocals added by producer, Terry Melcher, to their previous album, “Byrdmaniax,” Roger McGuinn and his ersatz Byrds hired hands (Clarence White, Gene Parsons, Skip Battin) were anxious to record a simpler, pared down response. The band self-produced the eleventh Byrds album, “Farther Along,” while touring in England in July 1971, only one month after the release of “Byrdmaniax.”

“Farther Along” was released on November 17, 1971 and peaked at #152 on the album charts, making it the second-worst performance by a Byrds album, charting only slightly ahead of  the #153 position by “Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde.” The single, “America’s Great National Pastime”/”Farther Along,” was released on November 29, but failed to chart.

Several of the songs on “Farther Along” featured a 1950s rock-and-roll theme. There’s very little to recommend about this album. In my opinion it’s the Byrds’ worst effort. After the release of this album, as the McGuinn-White Byrds sputtered to an end, McGuinn would fire drummer Parsons in July 1972 (to be replaced by John Guerin and others) and bassist Battin in mid-February, 1973. McGuinn officially dissolved the McGuinn-White Byrds just prior to the March 1973 release of the reunion album from the five founding members.

Side 1

  • Tiffany Queen (McGuinn) – McGuinn pays tribute to Chuck Berry. Catchy but unoriginal.
  • Get Down Your Line (Parsons) – Parsons stumbles badly with this loser.
  • Farther Along (traditional arranged by White) – Another Gospel song recorded by the Byrds. The Lord used these Byrds renditions of Gospel hymns along with many other things and people to eventually draw me to Him. Listen to the Byrds’ version of “Farther Along” here.
  • B.B. Class Road (Parsons, Dawson) – For years, music writers questioned why McGuinn had allowed roadie “Dinky” Dawson to sing lead on this throwaway tune when it was actually Parsons performing the vocal. Has my vote for the very worst Byrds song.
  • Bugler (Murray) – Excellent tune. Clarence does a nice job on the vocals given his limitations. Song writer Larry Murray was a member of the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, which also featured ex-Byrd, Chris Hillman. Listen here.

Side 2

  • America’s Great National Pastime (Battin, Fowley) – More of the same Tin Pan Alley piano-driven schlock Battin-Fowley brought to “Byrdmaniax” (Tunnel of Love, Citizen Kane).
  • Antique Sandy (McGuinn, Battin, Parsons, White, Seiter) – Has a few moments.
  • Precious Kate (Battin, Fowley) – McGuinn sings this mediocre Battin-Fowley number.
  • So Fine (Otis) – The Byrds cover this 1959 single from the Fiestas.
  • Lazy Waters (Rafkin) – A pretty good tune from folkie, Bob Rafkin, but Battin’s vocals are overdone.
  • Bristol Steam Convention Blues (Parsons, White) – A simple bluegrass tune.

2000 CD reissue bonus tracks

  • Lost My Drivin’ Wheel (Wiffen) – McGuinn and session musicians.
  • Born to Rock and Roll (McGuinn) – The Byrds and Charles Lloyd on sax.
  • Bag Full of Money (McGuinn, Levy) – McGuinn, White, Battin and drummer John Guerin.
  • Bristol Steam Convention Blues (Parsons, White) – Alternate version

Next month we will review the Byrds’ final album, the 1973 reunion misstep recorded by the five original founding members of the band.

The Byrds hit rock bottom with Byrdmaniax

After somewhat of a career resuscitation with “Untitled,” their previous album, the Byrds would release what most critics and fans consider the band’s worst effort.

Byrdmaniax
The Byrds
Produced by Terry Melcher, Columbia Records, Released June 23, 1971, Length 34:06

Roger McGuinn and his ersatz-Byrds hired-hands (Clarence White, Gene Parsons, Skip Battin) took a break from their demanding touring schedule to begin recording the tenth “Byrds” album at Columbia’s Hollywood studio on January 9, 1971 under the direction of producer Terry Melcher. Melcher later added orchestration and choir during mid-March sessions when the band was not present.

“Byrdmaniax” was released on June 23, 1971 and peaked at a surprising #46. The single “I Trust”/”My Destiny” was released May 7 but failed to chart. “Glory Glory”/”Citizen Kane” was released on August 20 and peaked at #110.

The album was met with scathing reviews in the music press. Richard Meltzer of Rolling Stone went so far as to describe “Byrdmaniax” as “increments of pus.” The ersatz Byrds stated they were extremely disappointed with the finished recording. The Byrds’ instruments were largely buried beneath the orchestration, choir, and session musician Larry Knechtel’s overstated piano parts. Parsons branded the record as “Melcher’s folly.” In his own defense, Melcher later stated he added the overdubs in an attempt to “save” the extremely weak material. While Parsons and White voiced their objections, Melcher said later that it was “inconceivable that McGuinn did not know about the orchestration.”

Perhaps the most disconcerting part of “Byrdmaniax” were songs 4 through 6; “Tunnel of Love” and “Citizen Kane,” written by Skip Battin and Kim Fowley, followed by McGuinn’s “I Wanna Grow Up To Be a Politician.” All three novelty tunes are dominated by horns, organ, and ragtime piano giving them an other-era feel that’s completely out of place in the Byrds’ oeuvre. The sheer kitschiness of the three songs, one following right after the other, overwhelms the entire album.

There were claims the eerie cover art featuring “death masks” of the four Byrds was symbolic of the lifeless music within. Asked many years later to comment on the failure of “Byrdmaniax,” McGuinn stated, “We were just idling artistically, the album sounds like we really weren’t concentrating on doing good work, good art.”

Most fans consider “Byrdmaniax” to be the Byrds’ worst album, but I believe it’s in competition with “Farther Along” for that dubious distinction with “Ballad of Easy Rider” and “Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde” following close behind.

Side 1

  • Glory, Glory (Reynolds) – The Byrds attempt to duplicate the success of “Jesus Is Just Alright” with another Art Reynolds gospel number. Merry Clayton, who contributed the memorable vocal part on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” leads the chorus. Larry Knechtel’s rollicking piano playing dominates the recording. This is another Gospel song from the Byrds which mentions Jesus Christ and had my teenage self wondering what was going on? The Lord gets His message across even in the strangest places. Listen here.
  • Pale Blue (McGuinn, Parsons) – An enjoyable, plaintive tune. The strings are a bit overdone.
  • I Trust (McGuinn) – McGuinn’s personal mantra (I trust everything is gonna work out alright) put to song. I like it even with the overstated choral backing. Producer Terry Melcher contributes the piano part and Sneeky Pete adds some pedal steel. Recorded at an October 6, 1970 early session.
  • Tunnel of Love (Battin, Fowley) – Knechtel’s piano and organ monopolize this schmaltzy novelty tune. Sounds like something they used to play at roller skating rinks.
  • Citizen Kane (Battin, Fowley) – Muted trumpets escort the listener through this decadent Hollywood party. First “Tunnel of Love” then “Citizen Kane”? What was going through McGuinn’s head when these tracks were recorded?

Side 2

  • I Wanna Grow Up to Be a Politician (McGuinn, Levy) – If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. McGuinn attempts to outdo Battin with his own version of schlock. Larry Knechtel’s ragtime piano complements a hot sax. Is this a Byrds album? After listening to the last three songs, Gene Clark, David Crosby, and Chris Hillman must have lifted the needle from the acetate and walked away shaking their heads.
  • Absolute Happiness (Battin, Fowley) – Skip extols the virtues of Buddhism.
  • Green Apple Quick Step (Parsons, White) – An enjoyable bluegrass performance. Some great pickin’ by Clarence and Parsons. That’s Byron Berline on fiddle and Clarence’s father, Eric White on harmonica.
  • My Destiny (Carter) – Knechtel’s piano dominates this song. Sneeky Pete adds some sweet steel licks. Clarence’s unique nasal singing style had its limitations.
  • Kathleen’s Song (McGuinn, Levy) – This song was actually leftover from the “Untitled” sessions. A sweet, simple number that’s overwhelmed by the orchestration.
  • Jamaica Say You Will (Browne) – Clarence sings the best song – by far – on the album; an early Jackson Browne tune. Melcher got this one right. Hear the audio below.

2000 CD reissue bonus tracks

  • Just Like a Woman (Dylan) – Knechtel’s piano and organ hold sway.
  • Pale Blue (McGuinn, Parsons) – Alternate version without the orchestration.
  • Think I’m Gonna Feel Better (Clark) – Clarence’s nasal vocals work on some songs but sound like nails on a chalkboard here. Roger reaches back for some vintage “Fifth Dimension” guitar.
  • Green Apple Quick Step (Parsons, White) – Clarences father, Eric White Sr., converses with the fellas before recording an alternate take.

Would the Byrds be able to recover from this catastrophe? Stay tuned.

The McGuinn-White Byrds peak with “Untitled”

Yes, it’s the beginning of the month, so once again we take a break from theological discussions and return to reviewing albums by the Byrds.

Untitled
The Byrds
Produced by Terry Melcher, Columbia Records, Released September 14, 1970, Length 71:27

The Byrds broke their fall from popularity with 1969’s “Ballad of Easy Rider,” a weak recording which managed to successfully capitalize on the band’s presence on the “Easy Rider” soundtrack. Bassist John York was fired shortly after “Ballad” was recorded and replaced by journeyman, Skip Battin.

The McGuinn-White Byrds had developed a reputation as a hard-working, live act, honing their sound with numerous gigs at colleges and small auditoriums. It was decided their next release would be a double-album; the first disc comprised of live recordings and the second comprised of studio material.

Producer Terry Melcher and the Byrds (Roger McGuinn, Clarence White, Gene Parsons, Skip Battin) entered Columbia’s studio May 26, 1970 to begin work on the band’s ninth album with sessions completed on June 11. The live material had been previously recorded at Queens College on February 28, 1970 and at the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden on March 1. The Byrds’ original manager and producer, Jim Dickson, was enlisted to produce the live tracks. “Untitled”* was released on September 14 and reached a respectable #40 on the album charts. The single, “Chestnut Mare”/”Just a Season” was released on October 23 and peaked at #121.

“Untitled” is widely recognized as the finest of the five albums from the McGuinn-White Byrds. Whereas “Ballad” was largely covers, seven of the nine “Untitled” studio tracks were written by band members. In June 1968, McGuinn began collaborating with theater impresario, Jacques Levy, on songs for a new musical, “Gene Tryp.” The play never reached the stage, but McGuinn brought four of the compositions to “Untitled.”

I like “Untitled,” but despite some fine moments it’s not on the same level with the first six albums from the founding members. The live disc is somewhat enjoyable and the McGuinn/Levy songs are pretty good. In contrast to uncritical Byrds fans who give every post-Sweetheart album four or five stars, the best I can say about “Untitled” is it’s okay. Clarence overdoes the B-Bender as usual. Parson’s drumming is noticeably awkward. Battin’s odd songs portend the disastrous Battin/Fowley novelty tunes to come. However, McGuinn’s Rickenbacker is thankfully much more pronounced here than on the previous two albums. The Eve Babitz-designed album cover ranks as the Byrds’ best.

Side One (Live):

  • Lover of the Bayou (McGuinn, Levy) – The first of the four Gene Tryp songs. The Byrds imitate CCR. One of the best songs on the album. McGuinn later attributed his rough vocals on the live cuts to heavy cocaine use.
  • Positively 4th Street (Dylan) – A forgettable number with the distinction of being the last Dylan-penned tune to appear on a Byrds album.
  • Nashville West (Parsons, White) – Nothing special in the studio or live.
  • So You Want To Be A Rock `N’ Roll Star (McGuinn, Hillman) – Nice to hear McGuinn crank up the Rick for a change. Clarence and Roger do a nice job on this Byrds classic.
  • Mr. Tambourine Man (Dylan) – It’s interesting to hear the McGuinn-White Byrds play this classic.
  • Mr. Spaceman (McGuinn) – Never cared for this novelty song.

Side Two (Live):

  • Eight Miles High (McGuinn, Crosby, Clark) – The band turns this classic into a sixteen-minute jam. Clarence’s B-bender is annoying. Parsons’ drumming is weak as usual and I don’t care to listen to Battin’s unremarkable bass lines for five minutes but I do enjoy the closing crescendo.

Side Three (Studio):

  • Chestnut Mare (McGuinn, Levy) – Could be McGuinn’s best Byrds song next to 5D. The only post-Sweetheart Byrds tune that compares with the best of the material from the first six albums. Listen here.
  • Truck Stop Girl (George, Payne) – It’s almost painful to listen to Clarence cover this Little Feat number with his nasally whine.
  • All The Things (McGuinn, Levy) – Not a bad tune. That’s ex-Byrd Gram Parsons helping out on backup vocals.
  • Yesterday’s Train (Parsons, Battin) – Parsons sings this enjoyable, slow number. Sneeky Pete helps out with some steel guitar. McGuinn wasn’t present for the session.
  • Hungry Planet (Battin, Fowley, McGuinn) – McGuinn rearranged this Battin-Fowley tune and got a writing credit. Yech. McGuinn sings lead and adds some Moog.

Side Four (Studio):

  • Just A Season (McGuinn, Levy) – One of the better songs on the album. Listen here.
  • Take A Whiff On Me (Ledbetter, Lomax, Lomax) – Clarence and the Byrds do a nice job on this Leadbelly classic.
  • You All Look Alike (Battin, Fowley) – McGuinn sings lead on another Battin-Fowley number, a tribute to long-hairs everywhere. Byron Berline makes a guest appearance on the fiddle.
  • Welcome Back Home (Battin) – Otherwise known as Well Come Back Home. Skip finally gets to sing lead on one of his songs. An anti-war number written at the height of the Vietnam War and student unrest. The longest Byrds song ever at 7:40. Skip ends the song with the Buddhist mantra chant, “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” (I devote myself to the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law). McGuinn should have had his antennae up. Battin-Fowley will contribute songs on the following two albums that will be completely at odds with the Byrds’ oeuvre.

2000 CD reissue bonus tracks:

Studio

  • All the Things (McGuinn, Levy) – Alternate version
  • Yesterday’s Train (Parsons, Battin) – Alternate version
  • Lover of the Bayou (McGuinn, Levy) – I like the live version better.
  • Kathleen’s Song (McGuinn, Levy) – Nice tune. Will be held over for the next album, “Byrdmaniax.”
  • White’s Lightning Pt.2 (McGuinn, White) – Jam.
  • Willin’ (George) – Parsons sings this Little Feat country rock favorite.

Live

  • You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (Dylan)
  • Old Blue (traditional arranged by McGuinn)
  • It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) (Dylan)
  • Ballad of Easy Rider (McGuinn)
  • My Back Pages (Dylan)
  • Take a Whiff on Me (Ledbetter, Lomax, Lomax)
  • Jesus Is Just Alright (Reynolds)
  • This Wheel’s on Fire (Dylan, Danko)
  • Amazing Grace (traditional arranged by McGuinn, White, Parsons, Battin)

*The choice of “Untitled” as the name of the album was actually a mistake. As McGuinn tells it, “Somebody from Columbia called up our manager, Billy James, and asked him what the title was. He told them it was ‘as yet untitled’ and so they went ahead and printed that.”

Stephen Stills not “into” Jesus, just into “every day.” Hmm.

I was listening to our Amazon music stream the other day and it brought back quite a few memories. I’ve previously posted about how I was a huge fan of the rock group, Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and eventually became an even bigger fan of David Crosby’s first group, the Byrds). Throughout my teen years, I used to play those CS&N (and sometimes “Y”) albums until they wore out. As the music blasted from the turntable in my bedroom, I read along with the lyrics printed on the album covers like they were Scripture. I thought, “These guys got it ALL figured out with their gospel of peace, love, drugs, and sex.”

One of the band’s members, Stephen Stills, wasn’t averse to dropping Jesus’ name in his songs now and then. On the live, double-album, “4 Way Street” (1971), Stills sang:

“And I don’t know if I want white America to remember or to forget,
That Jesus Christ was the first non-violent revolutionary.
Dig it, ohh dig it, ooh right on, dig it, yeah.”

Jesus a non-violent revolutionary? Yup, a lot of people back then tried to characterize Jesus as just another Fidel or Che.

After CSN&Y broke up, Stills struck out on his own with a couple of solo albums and then assembled a rocking, seven-piece ensemble he named “Manassas.” On its 1972 debut album, Stills cited Jesus again, this time as a vague example of loving unconditionally, in his song, “Jesus Gave Love Away For Free.” I’m thinking Stills must have had some romance problems at the time.

But the song that really caught my attention was “Down the Road” from the band’s same-titled second album, “Down the Road” (1973): Capture4

“Some people into Jesus,
Other people into Zen.
I’m just into every day,
I don’t hide from where I been.”

Well, that’s a pretty bold statement. I was a “lapsed” Catholic when I first heard those lyrics, but I remember they struck even me as a bit arrogant.

I’ve since learned some of the backstory on Stills. His Manassas bandmate, Al Perkins (album photo, third from right), was part of the West Coast hippie, Jesus movement, and was witnessing to everyone he could, including Stills. “Down the Road” was Stills’ “no thanks” reply. Perkins would later join the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band and lead Richie Furay to the Lord (see my post here). Richie then tried a few times to witness to his old Buffalo Springfield bandmate, Stills, but Stephen wanted no part of Jesus.

Stephen Stills is now 73 years old and still performing. While he still plays some good electric and acoustic guitar, his distinctive singing style succumbed to the ravages of cigarette smoke long ago. Is Stills still “just into every day”? The reality is there’s not too many of those left.

Postscript: Back in 1969-1971, with the phenomenal success of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, many predicted that multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter, Stills, would have a singularly successful career, in the manner of a Clapton or a Springsteen. His former bandmates testify that no one believed in that notion more strongly than Stills himself. But his strong affinity for drugs and booze derailed him. Evidently, being “just into every day” somehow included a great deal of drug-induced escapism?