Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I lived in England for a year and a half, right around the time of the first Gulf War. I remember it as the most miserable time in my life – a shame since I was in my early 20s and should have been enjoying the freedom of youth. I was free all right, but more in the Existentialist sense of freedom, ‘condemned to be free.’ I felt terribly lonely and isolated in a strange new place. English winters have the peculiarity of feeling equally damp whether you’re inside or outside. The sunless days made my struggles with depression and anxiety torturous. Thankfully, I never thought about offing myself (because I have a very low threshold for physical pain), opting instead to smoke tons of hash and drink several pints of beer every night at a grim local pub... When I reflect back on that period now, many of the distant memories are murky at best, but I mostly recall myself being perpetually sad, stoned and nervous.
But every now and then good things happened for me. I walked into a rinky-dink little bookshop one afternoon and found a used compilation cassette tape of Byrds songs, distributed by some weird company out of Germany. The cover featured a sepia toned photo of one of the band’s more obscure, latter-day line ups, and while the tape offered great songs like “Here Without You”, “Goin’ Back”, and “Chestnut Mare”, some of the smash hits were omitted from the collection (no “Turn, Turn, Turn”, no “Eight Miles High”, no “So You Wanna be a Rock and Roll Star?”). Maybe it had to do with some kind of European licensing problem. Who knows? Who cares? I took the tape home with me, rolled a joint, and the love affair began…
I already had some passing familiarity with The Byrds because their more conventional Greatest Hits from Columbia Records was one of the goodies I found in my dad’s record collection when I was a kid. …At some point, I might write a post on the scattered treats my father had sandwiched between piles of Stephen Sondheim, Mel Torme and Frank Sinatra. …Anyway, England is really where I first encountered The Byrds for real. They had a magical effect on me during that difficult period. The ringing sound of Roger’s 12-string Rickenbacker; the beautiful 4 and 5-part harmonies, with David singing the top end so angelically; the pop perfection of the arrangements; Gene’s sad love songs, all the more heartbreaking when played at a sunshiny tempo… The Byrds lifted me out of my stupor that first winter and gave color and life to those bleak English months.
As much as I adored The Byrds back then, in retrospect I don’t feel like I really understood their music at a deep level until I moved to Los Angeles. A real connection with The Byrds only comes after driving in the L.A. canyons, through the passes, and down the long, electric boulevards, at dusk, with the sky lit up in incandescent colors, and the tall palm trees swaying in the breeze. L.A. has heightened my appreciation for The Byrds ten fold, and The Byrds have heightened my appreciation for L.A., knowing that this is where those celestial voices came from, and understanding, at long last, that they couldn’t possibly come from anywhere else…
Funny thing is, I really don’t love Sweetheart of the Rodeo. To me, it’s the least Byrdsy of all their albums. I guess I’m just not all that keen on Gram Parsons when you get right down to it. I love his notion of ‘cosmic American music’, and I think his image and the mythic tales about him are cool aspects of L.A. lore. But his music has never done it for me. I like a few tracks from The International Submarine Band, and the same goes for The Flying Burrito Brothers, but I still don’t see why GP and Grievous Angel are such revered albums. They’re OK, but they’re not worth wetting yourself over, are they? I have friends who practically have to change their drawers every time they hear those records.
Gram’s presence dominates Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I compare the Byrds with Gram Parsons to the Byrds after Gram left and Clarence White joined as a permanent member, and I find that I much prefer the latter. Clarence wanted to be a Byrd, whereas Gram wanted to do his own thing.
OK, I’ve traveled pretty far from what I originally wanted to do in this post…Must focus… I may not feel all that connected to Sweetheart of the Rodeo, but there’s no question that it represents The Byrds version of the rural turn, even though the band had already been dabbling in country music for quite awhile before the album came out in 1968, thanks to Chris Hillman and Gene Clark.
The Notorious Byrd Brothers, released some months earlier in 1968, is a masterwork of psychedelic pop. It could very well be my favorite record, period. There’s still some naïve sentiment scattered throughout the album (“Change is Now”, “Natural Harmony”), but you can really hear the 60s starting to take the “left turn” Hillman talks about in that interview I alluded to a few posts ago. 'Do you really think it’s the truth that you see?' McGuinn asks in “Artificial Energry”, a cautionary song about speed, 'I’ve got my doubts, it’s happened to me.' …David Crosby was fired during the making of The Notorious Byrd Brothers, but he added some brilliant flourishes before he left, conjuring up images of the 60s at their apotheosis and beyond (“Tribal Gathering”, “Draft Morning”). …”Wasn’t Born to Follow”, written by Gerry Goffin and Carole Klein, is an incredible piece of songwriting both in terms of melody and its naturalistic lyrics about the refusal to conform. But is it a rejection of the establishment or of a counterculture that by then was starting to look and feel exhausted? Goffin and Klein additionally wrote “Goin’ Back”, a song that pines for the innocence of childhood while also giving a hint of an immanent retreat with the line, 'A little bit of courage is all we lack, so catch me if you can, I’m goin’ back.'
Sweetheart of the Rodeo came along less than a year later with a drastically different sound. In place of cutting edge L.A. pop, the band recorded the album in Nashville and turned in a collection of songs drawing from Country and Western and other traditional American influences. The album's timing and frame of reference places it in the same category as Music from Big Pink. Sweetheart of the Rodeo, in fact, features two Dylan songs from his 1967 (Basement Tapes) sessions with The Band (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, “Nothing was Delivered”). ...There are admittedly some great moments on the album. I love the pedal steel on “100 Years from Now,” and I love the way the interpretations of Dylan maintain a long standing Byrds tradition. I’ve also always found something quite nice about Gram's rendition of "You're Still on my Mind." But still, Sweetheart of the Rodeo is an album I reach for only rarely. It is arguably the quintessence of the rural turn in rock, but for me it’s first and foremost a Byrds album that somehow just isn’t a Byrds album.
I know I promised Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty this time around, but I’m fighting fatigue so they’ll have to wait until next time...
Posted by MBS at 7:59 PM