060: The Bill Evans Trio, ‘Gloria’s Step’ from “Live at The Village Vanguard”

Posted by jeff on Nov 12, 2015 in Jazz, Song Of the week

Bill Evans Trio – ‘Gloria’s Step’ (1st Take), from “The Complete Live at The Village Vanguard”

From the same album, ‘All of You‘ and ‘Waltz for Debbie’

This morning, like most mornings, I started the day with Bill Evans. Not just any Bill Evans, but “The Complete Live at The Village Vanguard”. Sometimes we play music to reflect our mood, sometimes to enhance it, to complement it or to change it. But between my first and second cups of coffee, when the world is just a pre-moodal blur, I can do whatever I want. So I almost invariably start with something easy on my ears, easy on my mind, easy on my soul. Like Brad Mehldau, for example, a 40-year old pianist, one of the best young jazz artists around. And almost invariably, after a few minutes, I ask myself “Why not go for the original? It’s early, at this hour you don’t yet owe anybody anything, listen to whatever you want.” And if I’m feeling really indulgent or up or down or in the middle, I say, “Well, if we’re indulging ourselves, let’s go for the very best.” And there goes that 3-CD 1961 set, which gets us up to 10:00, on the cusp of our third cup of coffee, and the world has become a pretty tolerable place.

I have a hard time filtering all the things I want to say about Bill Evans (1929–1980). Over the past five years, this set has been the work I’ve listened to most, loved most, and appreciated most (and those are three distinct issues). It has moved me as few other works have – Bach’s Suites for Cello, Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”, James Taylor’s Apple album (a partial and admittedly disparate list) are the company it keeps in my soul.

Bill Evans’ “Live at The Village Vanguard” can be perceived in several ways. It can sound like inoffensive cocktail music. It’s very ‘nice’, pleasant on the ear. And yet jazz fans know that in this performance Bill Evans reinvented the piano trio (the jazz equivalent of classical music’s string quartet), and in my opinion single-handedly changed our perception of rhythm in modern music, evolving it from the mechanical metronome to the sublime interplay of fluid improvisation. And on a whole different level, if you look at the album cover for one of the releases, you’ll see there was something harrowing going on below the surface.

Bill grew up as a ‘nice boy’ in New Jersey, graduated from Southeastern Louisiana University with a degree in classical piano performance. But that failed to hold his attention, because he sight-read music so well, was able to perform the classical repertoire at such a level of refinement from the git-go, that he failed to maintain the necessary edge to practice hard enough to make a career of it. He played a bit of jazz in New York, served in the army and in the late ’50s returned to the scene in New York, where he quickly made a name as a highly esteemed studio musician. Although record companies were interested in recording him, he made only two albums under his own name in five years – by his own choice, maintaining that he would record ‘when he had more to say’.

In 1959, Miles Davis became interested in exploring modal music and asked his mentor Gil Evans to recommend a pianist to join his working band, someone with a solid grounding in the European tradition and knowledgeable in musical theory. The resulting collaboration between Miles and Bill Evans was “Kind of Blue”, a universally acknowledged masterpiece, some say the seminal marriage of American jazz with the European tradition.

But Bill left the band shortly after that recording to pursue two main interests –the search for a trio which would express his unique musical vision, and the beginning of what would be a lifelong addiction to drugs, beginning here with heroin, later modulating to drink and cocaine till his death at the age of 51. But he achieved also his other goal, with the 25-year old drummer Paul Motian and the 23-year old bassist Scotty LaFaro.

Evans was seeking to evolve beyond the traditional piano trio format in which the bassist, drummer and the pianist’s left hand all provided a predictable backdrop for the pianist’s right hand. He wanted to build a group of equal partners in creativity. In LaFaro, he found his musical soulmate. From the fall of 1959 till June 1961 they developed this new musical language together in two studio recordings, “Portrait in Jazz” and “Explorations”. In June, 1961, they went to the Greenwich Village jazz club The Village Vanguard for a week’s gig. Their producer, Orrin Keepnews, decided to record them on Sunday, because that included an additional matinee show (two sets, in addition to the regular three evening sets), giving him more material to choose from. Here’s Keepnews discussing the formation of the trio, here discussing the trio’s work on that legendary day.

Like many great jazz recordings, the participants felt that it was ‘really good’, but had no sense of recording for posterity. Ten days later, the car Scotty LaFaro was driving in upstate New York veered off the road and hit a tree, killing the driver. Distraught, Bill Evans sank into his heroin habit and stopped recording for a year. Fifty years later, that day’s music is universally regarded by jazz fans as a unique work of genius and transcendent beauty.

The first album released from these sessions was called “Waltz for Debby”. Evans and Keepnews focused their selection on performances written by and featuring LaFaro.

“Sunday at the Village Vanguard” followed the same year, and some years later “Bill Evans – More from the Vanguard”. In 2005, the entire day’s recordings were released as a 3-CD set, “The Complete Live at The Village Vanguard”.

The rest of Evans’ career would follow an unusual trajectory. After a year and a half of depression during which Evans wandered around wearing Scott’s clothes and recording only one solo session, young bassist Chuck Israels dragged him out of his shell to form the second trio, with drummer Larry Butler. They recorded the sterling albums “Moonbeams” and “How My Heart Sings“, and a number of fine live performances on television. Evans then teamed with bassist Eddie Gomez and a series of drummers over the next 10 years. He also recorded in other contexts, most notably in duets with guitarist Bill Hall and several groundbreaking experiments in recording himself overdubbed in two or three parts (the Grammies didn’t know whether to give him the prize as solo or group artist). Ravaged by drugs, Evans somehow managed to maintain the highest levels of musical standards (to the point of one notorious performance where his left hand was rendered useless by the excesses of the needle, but he performed admirably right-handed). His followers are so dedicated that every scrap of his recordings is released commercially. I personally own and listen to over a hundred CDs of his, even the relatively mundane years with Gomez.

Then incredibly, in 1979, he formed a new trio with two young musicians, Joe LaBarbera (drums) and Marc Johnson (bass). He developed a probing new style and recorded extensively, in a final burst of creative energy, right up to his death in 1980.

But nothing ever matched the magic of that Sunday in 1961. Nothing by Bill Evans, nothing by anyone else.

The songs that Bill Evans’ trio played that day are mostly standards (‘My Foolish Heart’, ‘All of You’, ‘My Romance’, ‘Some Other Time‘, ‘Detour Ahead’, ‘My Man’s Gone Now‘, ‘I Loves You Porgy’), with a scattering of originals–LaFaro’s ‘Gloria’s Step‘ and ‘Jade Visions’, Evans’ sublime ‘Waltz for Debby’. After much deliberation, I selected for our Song of The Week ‘Gloria’s Step‘ for several reasons. First, that was the first piece they played that day. Secondly, there’s a 10-second break in the middle where the tape recorder lost power, nearly causing the technical team heart failure. I think that interruption is fittingly emblematic of the truncated life of this trio and of the fragility of the moment of inspiration. But mostly, I chose it because of its innate beauty. I could describe at length the unusual, affective melody of the song, the revolutionary mid-keyboard blocked chords of Bill Evans’ left hand, the utterly and unutterably magic interplay between these three musicians. But I’d never do it justice. Because this is as beautiful as music gets, and no words can rival that.


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227: Vitamin String Quartet, ‘All Along the Watchtower’

Posted by jeff on Oct 30, 2015 in Other, Rock, Song Of the week

101relaxVSQ – ‘All Along the Watchtower’

VSQ – ‘Purple Haze’

VSQ – ‘Stay With Me’

VSQ – ‘Chandelier’

My worst nightmare came true this week.

I endured a large portion of my childhood in Lima, Ohio (rhymes with “I’m a”, as opposed to the capital of Chile, which rhymes with “a-Weema-weh”. Lima is where Hugh Downs and Phyllis Diller were born, and where John Dillinger escaped from jail by killing the sheriff. In 1923, a Ku Klux Klan rally drew 100,000 participants. All this happened before my time, which was marked primarily by stealing hubcaps and trying to see just how much trouble a 12-year old Jewish boy could get into in the world’s (Euphemism Alert:) armpit.

But the most heinous crime I witnessed there was my mother buying a “101 Strings” LP at the grocery store.

101_Strings_(1957_album)_(album_cover)David L. Miller of Philadelphia (1925-85) got his start in the music biz by releasing the first Bill Haley & His Comets 45s on his Essex Label in 1952-3. He then jumped on the Mood Music orchestrawagon popularized by Mantovani, hiring the 124-member Orchester des Nordwestdeutschen Rundfunks Hamburg (123 men and a harpist) to play popular standards arranged by his in-house stable of writers. The LPs were pressed by Miller’s own plants and sold through grocery stores at the irresistible price of a mere $1.98 for 12 hits.

In the ten years of the franchise’s existence, 101 Strings recorded more than one album per musician and sold 50,000,000 records, including “101 Strings in a Hawaiian Paradise”, “The Emotion of 101 Strings at Gypsy Campfires”, “Exodus and Other Great Movie Themes”, “The Sounds and Songs of the Jet Set”, “Hits Made Famous by the Supremes”, “101 Strings Tribute to Hank Williams”. I could go on, but I’ll spare both of us. (Three+ hours of HD 101 Strings!!!)

I actually witnessed one of those sales in Lima, at the tender and impressionable of 11. I was in A&P with my mother, who had a nice collection of Original Cast Recordings of Broadway musicals, Sinatra and Lena Horne at home (which I tried to ignore, but somehow osmosed, which stood me in excellent stead some 40 years later, when I became a jazz enthusiast and actually knew all those standards). It was 1959, and I was a wannabe punk and budding music critic. In between the Wonder Bread and Fruit of the Loom stands, Mom plucked “101 Strings with Romantic Piano at Cocktail Time” out of the bin and right into our basket.

Jumping on the Mood Music orchestrawagon

Jumping on the Mood Music orchestrawagon

“Mom, wouldn’t the 99¢ be better spent on a box of Oreos?”

“Why? It looks like nice background music for while I’m cooking dinner.”

“Oh,” I said. But I didn’t really understand. Not then, and not now. Fifty million pieces of vinyl.

I like to take a short nap after lunch when I can. If I’ve been listening to John Cage or Grand Funk Railroad (that was a joke), I tone things down for sleepytime—Bill Evans or Brad Mehldau or Gregorian chants or Bach keyboard music. One deceptively regular morning this week I’d been listening to Imogen Heap, one of my favorite musicians of the last couple of years. She’s a riveting artist, so intense, angry and so frightening that she invariably triggering cremasteric testicular retraction.

say-your-prayers-little-one-the-string-quartet-tribute-to-me-4fde7379900d2But right there in the folder with “iMegaphone”, “Ellipse” and “Sparks” is “VSQ Performs Imogen Heap” – string quartet treatments of Ms Heap’s compositions. I don’t know how it got there, but I’d listened to it numerous times, albeit on my way to Siestaville, with my critical senses duly dulled. But I’d heard enough to know that I approved. Ms Heap is one fine musician, and it’s a pleasure to hear her given a respectful treatment in a quasi-classical setting. It fits her complex, intelligent music just like her musical gloves. (Vitamin String Quartet Performs Imogen Heap)

Not so different from the Kronos Quartet’s homages to Bill Evans and to Thelonious Monk, both of which include string transrangements of the original, with guest slots from the masters’ cronies (Eddie Gomez/Jim Hall, and Ron Carter, respectively) providing a fine kosher certificate.

SoTW 086: ‘Different Trains’, Steve Reich (Kronos Quartet)

But the Kronos Quartet carries its own bona fides as the foremost promulgators of contemporary classical music around. They’re Mick Jagger cool. If there’s a band in the world that can’t be accused of being derivative or commercial, it’s Kronos. When they play ‘Purple Haze’, you know they’re not pandering. So I decided to postpone Le Snooze and check out just who this VSQ is.

cover326x326Turns out it’s the Vitamin String Quartet, an LA-based string quartet/”group of music geeks, string players, performers, arrangers, producers and creatives” formed in 1999 to record Led Zeppelin’s greatest hits. Their website provides scanty background information, but they do refer to themselves as “the carefully curated source for innovative string renditions of popular music”. According to Tom Tally, a leading shaker in the “rotating cast” of hired musicians, “Vitamin String Quartet is about applying rock n’ roll attitude to classical technique.”

Then I watched a short documentary about their first performance in a ‘rock setting’, just a few months ago at the Troubadour Club in LA (Pt 1, Pt 2). They come across as very cool, sincere, dedicated musicians with classical training and a mohawk coiffure, guys I’d be happy to hang out with. Kids lined the street to get into their show.

Then I dug a little further. It turns out that in 16 years they’ve recorded over 330 albums, all released through their very own label, Vitamin Records. David L. Miller, are you listening? Not only are their recordings frequently used as background music for leading TV shows – for two years WWHK of Concord, New Hampshire played their music exclusively, 24/7. David, that should make you sit up, even in the grave.

I’ve been listening to a few of those 330+ albums. Their treatment of The Beatles is as predictable as that of 101 Strings, and not much better. Most of the bands they pay tribute to I’ve never listened to (Nirvana, Aerosmith, Alice in Chains, Black Sabbath) or even heard of (Bad Religion, Sevenfold, Blue October, Bullet for my Valentine). But I really do like that Imogen Heap album. And their sound, their attitude, really are pretty cool. I even found a cut or two that work well (Howie, Shmuel, here’s a very nice ‘All Along the Watchtower’ for you.)

519UZdtatTL._SS500_Lightbulb over my head. Why are they so popular? Why do I even like some of it? Because for fans of everyone from The Beatles to Nine Inch Nails, they’re nice to listen to!

And that’s when my blood ran cold. I had become my mother.

“Nice” has always been an anathema to me, the biggest musical snob to sprout in Lima, Ohio. What do I do now? Go get myself a martini glass and a lobotomy, and ride the elevator all day just so I can listen to the music?

Vitamin String Quartet. I just can’t bring myself to disapprove. They’re clever businessmen with great hair, an innovative aesthetic, and a blockbuster formula. They’re guys I’d be happy to hang out with. They might even invite me onto their yacht.

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166: John Martyn, ‘Bless the Weather’

Posted by jeff on Oct 23, 2015 in New Acoustic, Other, Song Of the week

John Martyn – Bless The Weather

John Martyn – Solid Air

John Martyn – May You Never


Young John Martyn

At the age of 22, I found my life but lost my music. For the love of a woman, the love of a country, and the yoke of a mortgage, I embraced self-imposed exile to a musical Siberia. If the Beatles hadn’t recently broken up and Dylan hadn’t released “Self-Portrait”, I don’t know if I could have done it.

I spent the twenty years from 1970 till the advent of the internet in musical exile, where the local AM radio’s idea of a hip foreign playlist was Johnny Hallyday followed by ‘Greenfields’ followed by Rex Allen’s ‘Son, Don’t Go Near the Indians’. Somehow, on Friday afternoons, when the Kommisars of Kitsch were taking their pre-weekend nap, an hour-long program snuck on the air called ‘Here, There and Everywhere’. It still may be running, for all I know. I stopped listening to other peoples’ playlists the moment the airwaves were liberated.

The theme song of the program was a Jose Feliciano instrumental, a harbinger of good things to come. They played new, interesting, refined music, stuff that was unavailable in the local stores. I was playing a lot of mediocre guitar in those days, and was thirsty for new sounds and materials and directions. I’d sit by the radio with the microphone of my little cassette recorder pointed at the speaker. When a promising intro started up, I’d flick on the tape. And it was thus, boys and girls, that I compiled twenty or thirty compilation cassettes that I loved dearly, tapes now closeted in the back of some drawer but dusted regularly in the nether corners of my musical memory.

One song that struck and stuck with me was a charming, disarming, more-than-ditty called ‘May You Never’ by a John Martin. I enjoyed it for years, and when All Music Guide and YouTube and Amazon Records hit town (iTunes still won’t sell here), I checked him out.

Bar Room Fight

May you never lose your temper if you get in a bar room fight
May you never lose your woman overnight
May you never lay your head down without a hand to hold
May you never make your bed out in the cold.

It turns out his name is John Martyn, a Scottish dissolute who died of booze and pneumonia and diabetes and excessive indulgence with one leg and many scars in 2009 at the age of 60. He began at 17 as a young adherent of the burgeoning British folk scene which included Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourne and others. They started with traditional British/Celtic folk materials, amplified their acoustic guitars, and melded into them American blues and American jazz. Richard Thompson took Fairport Convention towards a new brand of rock. Paul Simon took the tweed jackets and turtleneck sweaters (and Graham’s ‘Angie’ via Jansch’s rendition) back to America. Jansch and Renbourne recorded alone, as a duo, and then together in The Pentangle, creating a riveting but regrettably short-lived acoustic folk-jazz amalgam.

John Martyn at the beginning

John Martyn took his guitar to the pub. After four albums where he honed his craft and many drinks in which he learned to slur his voice, he broke through the constraints of the folk tradition into a remarkable outburst of brilliant, genre-defying folk-jazz in his next two albums, “Bless the Weather” (1971) and “Solid Air” (1973).

Martyn’s music of this period is spare in format – a sliding drunken mush of a voice, more an instrument than a singing voice as such; an expressive, fingerpicked electrically amplified acoustic guitar with a lot of percussive backslapping; backed by double-bassist Danny Thompson (formerly of The Pentangle); and the occasional bongo or ornamental piano. But it’s all Martyn and his guitar and voice backed by Thompson. The subject matter is slippery and elusive, ranging from the whimsical to the passionate to the cosmic. But it’s all a distinctive, unique voice. And hence difficult to describe, lacking all reference. He’s like no one, no one is like him.

John Martyn at the end

The only thing that comes to mind is that other unique Celtic jazz-rock masterpiece, Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” (1968). Way back in SoTW 38 I wrote:

What is unique about “Astral Weeks” is how unique it is. It comes from no tradition and left no legacy. Stylistically, it stands absolutely alone. Spiritual blue-eyed Celtic soul acid acoustic jazz-rock. It’s gorgeous and sumptuous and moving and transcendent. No one else even tried to go there. It is literally inimitable. Probably the closest album to it in its musical frame of reference is The Pentangle, their first, an album I quite admire. Listen to this, and you’ll hear how many light years beyond its contemporary surroundings “Astral Weeks” was. Its impact, if not its influence, has been indelible.

I wrote that a few years ago, and I’ve learned since then that John Martyn did some fine work in that very vein. Van Morrison drafted jazz masters Richard Davis (bass) and Connie Kaye (drums) for “Astral Weeks”. Thompson was a significant partner for Martyn. Folk-jazz, the genre that almost never was.

John Martyn

Van never repeated the experiment, but he went on to a long, restless and energetic career. John Martyn spent the rest of his life degenerating personally and musically. John Martyn was a singular talent, tragically wasted. Many friends collaborated with him over the years, attempting unsuccessfully to resuscitate his career: Clapton, Phil Collins, David Gilmour, and Levon Helm. Back when I was discovering him, I dutifully plowed through his dozens of albums and innumerable live performances. Trust me, he flamed brilliantly for a short time, and you’ll do better avoiding the stench of his decline.

I made myself a Favorites compilation, 33 songs, 1970-1980. Not a single song from the subsequent 30 years of sloppy, self-indulgent recordings. And to tell you the truth, 30 of the songs are really fine, admirable, enjoyable. But there are three that outshine the others. Heck, they outshine just about everything. There’s the aforementioned ‘May You Never’, a charmer, witty and wise and loving. Listen to Clapton mistreat it. Gives you some respect for Mr Martyn, doesn’t it? Here’s Martyn singing it live in 1973, when he was still holding himself together.

Solid Air

And then there are these two transcendent, breathtaking cuts. One is a paean to pain, soul bared, nerves exposed to the ‘Solid Air’. Martyn wrote it as a tribute to his buddy Nick Drake, who had the tragic good taste to end his misery in one fell swoop rather than dragging it out.

You’ve been taking your time

And you’ve been living on solid air
You’ve been walking the line
And you’ve been living on solid air
Don’t know what’s going wrong inside
And I can tell you that it’s hard to hide when you’re living on
Solid air.

Here’s the studio version from 1973. And here’s a live version from 1978, in which his dissolution is palpable. It’s not just his string that’s broken.

And then there’s our Song of The Week, ‘Bless the Weather’. It’s a love song by definition, but how often does a popular artist invoke the elements as the impediment to love’s fulfillment? Oh, those Scots. It’s just John, his voice and his guitar and his bassist. And the elements, and his love, and the pain of her absence.

The Weather

Time after time, I held it
Just to watch it die
Line after line, I loved it
Just to watch it cry.

Bless the weather that brought you to me
Curse the storm that takes you away
Bless the weather that brought you to me
Curse the storm that takes you home.

Wave after wave, I watched it
Just to watch it turn
Day after day, I cooled it
Just to watch it burn.

Pain after pain I stood in
Just to see how it would feel
Rain after rain I stood in
Just to make it real.

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226: The Byrds, ‘Eight Miles High’ (RCA Version)

Posted by jeff on Oct 16, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week

The Birds 1965 L to R: Hillman, Crosby, Clarke, McGuinn, Clark

The Byrds – ‘Eight Miles High’ (RCA Version)
The Byrds – ‘Eight Miles High’ (Official Columbia Version)

You can’t overstate the importance or achievement of the early Byrds (not the Miami Beach diners, the LA band). Going way out on a limb (Byrds can do that), there are strong arguments that they:

  • Invented both folk rock and psychedelic rock
  • Catalyzed the hippie counter-culture
  • Were the first American rock band (as opposed to rock and roll, i.e. post-Beatles).
  • Introduced and legitimized Dylan into the world of rock
  • Made some of the best music of popular music’s finest hour, music that still shines 50 years on.

To no small degree, it was their version of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ that shattered the Rock/Folk dichotomy. Prior to it—never the twain shall meet. After it—the floodgates opened. Folk-rock marked the crazed coupling of Beatle hormones intertwined with Dylan gravitas.

The Byrds and Dylan

The Byrds and Dylan

Dylan’s “Another Side of” (August 1964) reached #43. “Bringing It All Back Home” (March 1965) reached #6. It’s hard to grasp today that the album did that well despite the fact that it had virtually no air play. Album-oriented rock FM radio did not come into being until the end of the decade. Until then, it was all about the Top 40. The new music had nowhere to be heard – that’s why they called it ‘underground radio’ in its nascent period. ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, Dylan’s first single to chart, only made it to #39.

In marked contrast, The Byrds’ ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (June 1965) and their cover of Pete Seeger’s cover of Kohelet ben David (Ecclesiastes) ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ (October 1965) both hit #1.

The Jet Set, 1964 L to R: Crosby, Clark, McGuinn

The Jet Set, 1964
L to R: Crosby, Clark, McGuinn

So circa 1965, the folk scene was just beginning to lose steam. Dylan was booed at Newport. The Beatles were at the apex of their initial mania period (“Help” July 1965), the British invasion had captured AM radio.

In LA in 1964, three bona fide folk musicians – Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, Gene Clark and Dave Crosby – formed The Jet Set, playing acoustic Beatle covers alongside the droning olde Irish ballads. They liked the direction, so they bought electric guitars (including a 12-string Rickenbacker for McGuinn), added a Brian Jones lookalike drummer (Mike Clarke) and an ex-bluegrass mandolinist as bassist (Chris Hillman), and started rehearsing.

Columbia signed them, and their management got them a tape of a new, unreleased Dylan song. But by the time their first studio session was scheduled, they hadn’t yet mastered their instruments, so The Wrecking Crew was brought in to lay down the instrumentals together with McGuinn, who did do the vocals together with Clark and Crosby.

TheByrdsEightMilesHighTheir first two albums hit #6 and #17 respectively, spurred by their two #1 hits and a series of lesser hits (especially ‘All I Really Want to Do’). Columbia and the American public, eager for a homegrown group to rival all those Brits, made them into teen idols (see ‘So You Want to be a Rock and Roll Star’). McGuinn’s square specs, Crosby’s outlandish capes and hats, and their general stoned aloof demeanor, cultivated their pop star status.

Many maintain that the crowds gathered at Ciro’s in LA to see the Byrds perform “represented the first stirrings of the West Coast hippie counterculture”.

I have less enthusiasm for The Byrds’ first two albums than most rock critics. I find the material (Dylan and other folk covers, as well as a smattering of Clark-penned originals) pretty bland, to tell the truth. Columbia promoted ‘Another Side of’ with the slogan “Nobody sings Dylan like Dylan”, but the public was unconvinced. They weren’t ready for that voice unless it was sugar-coated by PP&M, Joanie B, then The Byrds.

The Byrds

The Byrds

Me? I was 17. I struggled with Dylan. I understood that something was happening there, but I didn’t know (exactly) what it was. But I certainly didn’t need the watered-down versions to explain it. You tell me, would you have listened to Dylan’s ‘All I Really Want to Do’ or The Byrd’s?

Still, they were a force. They could indeed make some fine Amirkin Beatlish music, like ‘Feel a Whole Lot Better’, and yeah, the vocals were pretty darned cool.

In November they toured the US, listening to their new discoveries, John Coltrane (“Impressions” and “Afro Blue Impressions”) and Ravi Shankar. Coltrane was pioneering his ‘sheets of sound’, wild high-speed arpeggios of fluid, ‘vertical’ music. Listen to Coltrane’s ‘India’, the first cut from “Impressions”. The influence couldn’t be clearer.

The Birds

The Birds

Ravi Shankar was soon to become the darling of the hippies, the mentor for George Harrison’s sitar experiments, star of Woodstock, the guru of the East. A decade later he would later father Norah Jones, no small contribution to the world in itself.

In August 1965, The Byrds migrated to England, the first American group to cheep back at the music the Beatles were making. The tour was hyper-hyped; the press panned them, and despite the warm personal welcome they received from The Beatles and The Stones, they were 21-year olds stoned out of their minds, overwhelmed by the noise and the adulation.

Returning to the US from after England, they experienced an epiphanous flight, seven miles high –a pun on the drugs. McGuinn: “The Beatles had a song called Eight Days a Week, so we changed it to Eight Miles High because we thought that would be cooler.”

The Byrds and The Birds

The Byrds and The Birds

In November, somehow the song “Eight Miles High” was composed, credited to Clark/McGuinn/Crosby. Gene Clark said it was almost entirely his composition. McGuinn says the song was mostly his and Crosby’s. Crosby said, “I thought it was Gene’s idea to write a song about our trip to London – he was a wonderful, talented man. But if Roger says it was his idea, maybe it was.”

Here are McGuinn’s and Crosby’s accounts of the making of the song. Gene Clark: “It was about a lot of things. It was about the airplane trip to England, it was about drugs, it was about all that. A piece of poetry of that nature is not limited to having it have to be just about airplanes or having it have to be just about drugs. It was inclusive because during those days the new experimenting with all the drugs was a very vogue thing to do.”

Shooting Byrds

Shooting Byrds

But the Byrds couldn’t get those Coltrane and Shankar sounds out of their ears, and the arrangement seems to have been a group effort.

On December 22, 1965, The Byrds snuck down the street to the RCA studio where their friends Jefferson Airplane had been recording to record ‘Eight Miles High’.  They wanted to release it, but the Columbia suits insisted on a recording done in their studio. Both McGuinn and Crosby have expressed their preference for the original recording. Crosby: “It was a stunner, it was better, it was stronger. It had more flow to it. It was the way we wanted it to be.”

It was released in March, 1966, long (3’33”) and weird. Six weeks later, an industry report alleged that it was a drug song, resulting in a ban from airplay on many AM stations. Still, it reached #14 on the Billboard chart, The Byrds’ first great song, their last Top 20 hit.

the-byrdsIt is widely credited with being the first psychedelic rock song, catalyzing a mindset and soundtrack that would accompany us through Woodstock, Altamont, and the Vietnam debacle. If you want some perspective on just how innovative the song was, it was preceded by ‘We Can Work It Out’, ‘Daytripper’ and ‘Nowhere Man’, and followed by ‘Paperback Writer’ and ‘Rain’ (the Beatles’ first ‘other’ song). The Byrds beat them to the punch. A British music magazine stated at the time that “Paul [McCartney] admitted recently that the Liverpool foursome are working on a similar sound for their new album and single.”

Eight Miles High’ is not only a groundbreaking song. It is also a great song. The lyrics are indeed haunting, psychedelia at its very finest. The melody is a riveting amalgam of traditional folk chord progressions with Eastern drone. The vocals—well, David Crosby is the finest harmony singer in rock, McGuinn and Clark no slouches – are a shimmering sheen of peach-cheeked choirboys (who have just snuck behind the altar to drop acid).

The+ByrdsThe angelic, mellifluous harmonies contrast with the raucous, grating instrumental track. (here’s the Columbia instrumental track isolated). Hillman’s thrusting bass launches the flight. For my money, he’s in the absolute top echelon of rock bassists. Clarke propels it to liftoff (hey, he was listening to Elvin Jones). I still remember how he knocked me out in concert (and I had seen all the biggies). Crosby’s jagged, punching, ballsy rhythm guitar (inspired by McCoy Tyner’s rhythm piano?) provides the off-the-beat edginess. And of course McGuinn’s Rickenbacker, heavily compressed to produce a bright and sustained wall of overtones. Oh, how he jangles.

The juxtaposition of the grave, melodious vocals; the muscular, brilliant high-octane rhythm section; and the feverish, hallucinatory lead guitar–unlike anything heard before – together comprise one of rock’s masterpieces.

tumblr_ndp4xioF2Q1rrwazho1_400Time has dealt kindly with ‘Eight Miles High’. It’s been elected to the Grammy Hall of Fame, and is #151 on Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. There are oodles of articles about the song; and a flock of cover versions, including ones by various Phoenix-like reincarnations of previous Byrds, and solo efforts by both McGuinn and Crosby. Most are pretty embarrassing, the worst being by McGuinn and Gene Clark where they sing in unison! Out of all those harmonic options, unison?

I’ve always found McGuinn an annoying persona, despite his talent, and have refrained from following his music over the years. I did listen to a sampling now, with my reservations justified. But I did come across one acoustic version of his from 2006 which really knocked me out. He was (is) indeed an exceptional guitarist. Especially interesting for me is how prominent the folk roots of the song are in this treatment.

Immediately following the release of the single, Gene Clark left the band. They went on to record around it a mixed but fine album, “Fifth Dimension”, and then their masterpieces “Younger Than Yesterday” and “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” before Crosby left the band, McGuinn changed his name, and dressed the Byrds in a different feather.

But the early version of his band, even before they reached the zenith of their flight, (at the risk of hyperbole) invented folk-rock, invented psychedelic rock, and introduced both Eastern and avant garde jazz to mainstream rock. No small feats, those. The early Byrds indeed got the worm.

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