Wednesday, January 9, 2013

About Five Yards of the Eight Miles: The Byrds Live, 1970

Once in a dark long ago, it might've been The Merv Griffin Show I was watching but I distinctly remember a comedian doing a bit on the premise that all one needed to sell a magic act was a really good drummer. He then demonstrated by performing a completely inept magic routine accompanied by a drummer with monster chops (lots of cymbals). The bit was modestly amusing but for some reason I never forgot it.

In the video below The Byrds present "a little taste of Eight Miles" which here means 10 minutes of dicking around on the opening vamp, verses be damned. At this stage the band was sliding into a softer country sound so the arrangement seems a bit odd. (Country was a leave behind from the recently exited Gram Parsons.) The guitarists seem mostly indifferent and their parts sound phoned in. The trademark Rickenbaker 12-string lines are just about DOA. It's the drums and bass (mostly drums) that are left to tear the roof off the sucka. The cameramen and editors figured this out quickly as the rest of the band gets little notice including leader and last original Byrd standing Roger McGuinn. What we're left with is drummer Gene Parsons and bassist Skip Battin (formerly with Kim Fowley [!] among others) playing for their lunch money like it was The Last Supper.

The other guitarist in the video is Clarence White, a session guitarist and sideman with a deep résumé. The line-up in the video provided the band with its longest and most stable roster even as its fortunes were foundering. Distancing themselves from the psychedelia of their earlier albums and along with it the counterculture that was their audience––a point made worse by their choice to perform in apartheid South Africa at the time. Instead, they embraced country music which was about as far from counterculture as they could get. The result was their records weren't getting played and sales dropped precipitously. Their association with wildly successful Easy Rider may've helped save them from total oblivion.

"Time has nobody and nobody has Time," to paraphrase Captain Beefheart. Though time has been good to The Byrds' legacy and as it turned out the move into country proved visionary: The Byrds (with Graham Parsons) are credited with recording the first ever country-rock album, Sweethearts of the Rodeo. (The country move would also prove controversial: Reaction to their appearance at the Grand Ole Opery was received somewhere between the booing of Dylan going electric and the chair throwing of Stravinsky's debut of Rites of Spring.)

Anyway, back to my premise: Maybe it's true that the right stick man on drums can overcome even the most inept magic. The Byrds offer proof.

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