Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Psychobabble recommends 'So You Want to Be a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star: TheByrds Day-By-Day 1965-1973'

While most books about Rock & Roll legends either aim to lionize their subjects or tear them down via sleazy (and often exaggerated) anecdotes, Christopher Hjort’s So You Want to Be a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star: The Byrds Day-By-Day 1965-1973 takes one of the most respected bands of the ‘60s and presents an eye-opening, yet often depressing, portrait. In terms of influence and quality, The Byrds may only rank behind The Beach Boys and The Velvet Underground (and, arguably, The Band) as the greatest American band of the ‘60s. Even beyond their sometimes overly familiar hits (“Turn! Turn! Turn!” is one of those songs like “White Rabbit” and “Time of the Season” that unimaginative filmmakers love to use to tell viewers “Hey, dummy, you’re in the ‘60s!”), they cut some of the decade’s most consistently spectacular albums: Mr. Tambourine Man and Younger Than Yesterday and The Notorious Byrd Brothers. With Sweetheart of the Rodeo they became the first Rock band to bypass Country Rock— a genre they helped create with stuff like “Mr. Spaceman” and “Time Between”— and delve directly into the pure stuff. Every time you hear a guitarist jangling away on a 12-string Rickenbacker, whether he is Peter Buck, Tom Petty, or George Harrison (the Beatle acknowledged that “If I Needed Someone” was a tribute to one of his favorite bands), he or she is paying homage to Roger McGuinn.

Yet, So You Want to Be a Rock & Roll Star tells a somewhat different story of The Byrds. One can’t really accuse Hjort of conscious iconoclasm since he so clearly adores the band and since the vast majority of his book consists of period interviews and concert and album reviews. But the story those reviews tell is one of a band that often went unappreciated during its time. Much of the first half of the book is devoted to scathing concert reviews. Apparently, it was common knowledge among the Rock press that The Byrds were one of the worst live acts on the scene (and, sadly, the footage of them in the “Outtakes Performances” disc in Criterion’s excellent Monterey Pop box set doesn’t exactly provide contrary evidence). This is certainly interesting in light of the group’s current impeccable reputation, but it starts to get a little painful to read by the time the original Byrds begin flying the coop mid-way through the book. Still, the album reviews are generally good, and it’s interesting to see how widely The Notorious Byrd Brothers, a relatively obscure record in The Byrds’ catalogue since it contains no hits, was praised as a masterpiece upon its release.

After Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and the departure of Chris Hillman left McGuinn as the sole original Byrd, the reverse becomes true. The Byrds grow tremendously as a live band (listen to the first disc of the (Untitled) album to hear how good they got), but their albums diminished in quality. Those Byrds just couldn’t have their feed and eat it too. And even though the concert reviews become more positive, the samey set lists and the tendency of journalists to focus on the same few songs might inspire readers to skip around.

But perhaps So You Want to Be a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star is not really meant to be read cover-to-cover like a straight biography (and perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the tremendous readability of The Velvet Underground Day by Day, also published by JawBone Press). As a reference book for Byrdmaniax, it is certainly indispensable, incredibly researched stuff. There are plenty of interesting nuggets scattered throughout to keep readers compelled: the revelation that Bob Dylan listened to The Byrds’ cover of his “Mr. Tambourine Man” obsessively despite his dismissive words about the band in Scorsese’s No Direction Home documentary, the amusing story of how McGuinn and Dylan came to collaborate on “The Ballad of Easy Rider”, the story about how that song made Candice Bergen cry, and how the main characters in the Easy Rider film were based on McGuinn and David Crosby, and McGuinn’s unending, frustrated dream to shed The Byrds’ country influences in favor of futuristic synthesizers. There’s also the interesting tale of how all-five original Byrds came to reunite for one last record in ’73, bringing the band full circle while also ending it not with a bang but a whimper. It’s a fittingly melancholy way to conclude an often melancholy read.

Get So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star: The Byrds Day-by-Day, 1965-1973 here at
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