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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Friday, March 31, 2017

LOVE AT FIRST SPIN: Mr. Tambourine Man

Love At First Spin looks back at albums that I immediately loved, from start to finish, the first time I heard them. The concept was suggested by Steve Stoeckel, and was detailed here.

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THE BYRDS: Mr. Tambourine Man (Columbia, 1965)

Would pop journalists even know the word "jangly" if not for The Byrds? One presumes so. I mean, The Beatles were known to jangle occasionally before The Byrds hit big, and there's certainly plenty of jangle to be savored in the synchronized guitars of "Needles And Pins" and "When You Walk In The Room" by The Searchers. But, with the irresistible twelve-string ring of The Byrds' take on Bashful Bobby Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," these jet-settin' former Beefeaters became synonymous with the idea of jangly pop music. Listen to that jingle jangle.

The Byrds were one of the many great '60s acts I discovered after the fact, when I was a teenager in the '70s. Their music was probably at least somewhere within the fringe of my consciousness when I was younger, but I didn't really take any notice until, I think, around 1975 or so. That's when my so-called attention was caught by a TV commercial--you know the type, hawking some presumably-essential assortment of classic hit records, each the original song by the original artist, slapped together just for you on this unbelievable bargain-priced set of LPs or eight-tracks, for a limited time, so order now, man, NOW! I specifically recall the commercial included snippets of "Kicks" by Paul Revere & the Raiders (which would ultimately be a seismic event for me, too) and "Turn! Turn! Turn!" by The Byrds.

I didn't buy the TV record. I don't think I've ever purchased a TV record, at least not until I bought a series of Time-Warner Classic Rock CDs in the late '80s and early '90s. I am gullible, but selectively gullible. Nonetheless, that TV commercial was my gateway to The Byrds.

From there, I proceeded through rock history books and oldies radio shows to learn about The Byrds. I had some favorites: "Mr. Tambourine Man,"and "Turn! Turn! Turn!," of course, but especially "Eight Miles High" and "So You Want To Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star." I was still learning. My first avian jangle purchase was the "Eight Miles High" 45, plucked from the overflowing rack of singles at Syracuse's Walt's Record Shop on North Salina Street. My first Byrds LP was Fifth Dimension, which I probably bought at The Record Grove when I was a freshman at Brockport College in the fall of 1977. I'm not positive, but I think I bought a used (and battered) copy of the Turn! Turn! Turn! LP (perhaps at Syracuse's Desert Shore Records, when it was still located in Eastwood) before purchasing my copy of The Byrds' debut album, Mr.Tambourine Man at The Record Grove.

Although I'd learned a little bit more about The Byrds by this point--and by "a little bit" I mean that I'd heard and enjoyed the track "Chestnut Mare" on Brockport's campus radio station, WBSU--I was still a neophyte awaiting flight. The title track on Mr. Tambourine Man was the only song I knew beforehand. Things were about to change, on first spin.

Jangle. If the word didn't exist in the rock 'n' roll writer's lexicon before 1965, the hypnotic chime of guitars in the first few seconds of "Mr. Tambourine Man" suddenly makes the word necessary, and eternal. The soaring harmony of the chorus sends the song into the stratosphere, like a gift from above, before you've even had time to sit down after setting the needle to the groove. Maybe you shouldn't even bother sitting down right now. What's the point? The music is going to move you forward no matter what you do.

So, obviously, "Mr. Tambourine Man" is The Greatest Record Ever Made. Matchless. Nonpareil. Impossible to equal, let alone surpass. The sine qua non of pop music. And how do you follow that?

Well, apparently you follow it with an even better song.

"I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better" is amazing, and one of rock 'n' roll all-time greatest kiss-offs: "I'll feel a whole lot better...when you're GONE!" Don't let the door hit ya, ya worthless crumb. Its riff is prototypical folk-rock, lifted in part from "Needles And Pins," and later modified by The Beatles for "If I Needed Someone," a song which would not exist if "I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better" didn't first provide the elements to pilfer and inspire. This is Gene Clark's finest moment, and that's saying something.

Dylan's "Spanish Harlem Incident" allows us to catch our breath while still remaining fully engaged. "You Won't Have To Cry" nicks so blatantly from The Beatles' early clues to the new direction that you'd swear The Byrds found it by turning left at Greenland; but it's pleasant and agreeable thievery, further justifying the smile that's been widening upon your appreciative head as the album plays on.

Side One closes with the ferocious one-two gut punch of "Here Without You" and "The Bells Of Rhymney." The desperate loneliness of "Here Without You" hits you in waves of longing and regret; the mining disaster of "The Bells Of Rhymney" lifts up its mourning with the now-familiar jangle, a pure, pristine pop sound that reminds us of redemption, deliverance, in the face of horrible tragedy.

(Decades later, following a devastating personal loss, I played "Here Without You" on the birthday of a departed loved one. I sobbed to myself, inconsolable, throughout its spin.)

Another Dylan song, "All I Want To Do," kicks off Side Two with freewheelin' abandon, leading into the yearningly romantic swoon of "I Knew I'd Want You" and the cantankerous swagger of "It's No Use." Jackie DeShannon's "Don't Doubt Yourself, Babe" (a life-affirming ditty best summed up as "I'm okay, you're oh, baby!") runs best-foot-first into Bob Dylan's last stand (for now), the clarion call "Chimes Of Freedom." We feel important. We feel deep. Our toes are tapping, sure, but they're tapping meaningfully. The album closes with a house call from Dr. Strangelove, as the traditional British "We'll Meet Again" stiffens our upper lip for that long day's journey into night. Let the dark armies come as they may; The Byrds have established a resistance.

Cool 1965: David Crosby, Chris Hillman, Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Jim McGuinn
It's silly to think of The Byrds as underground, even in 1965. This is pop music, unabashedly so, yet still deeper than the market required, more accomplished than the teen mags expected, unassailably cool in ways that defy analysis. "Cool" is an intangible, an ephemeral, an imprecise ideal that can't quite be defined or quantified. In 1965, cool was embodied by The Byrds.

The Byrds weren't considered cool for long. The Rolling Stones--surlier, more sinister bad boys!--usurped that title in short order. Four of the five original Byrds left the nest as seasons turned, turned, turned: Gene Clark was gone in 1966, David Crosby and Michael Clarke followed in '67, and Chris Hillman departed right around the time Richard Nixon rose to the top of the charts. Jim McGuinn--later known as Roger McGuinn--was the only member to remain in all of the varying incarnations of The Byrds, and the group finally ended in '73 (following a one-off reunion album by the original quintet). For too many people, The Byrds became a mere footnote in the chronicle of Crosby's path to the more celebrated Crosby, Stills & Nash. While I like CSN, I can't forget the fact that CSN broke up three great groups--The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and The Hollies--to make one good group.

I had a ticket to see McGuinn, Clark & Hillman in 1978 or '79, when this Byrdly trio visited Brockport. But I didn't like their new stuff, figured they probably wouldn't perform any Byrds songs, and sold my ticket instead. Aside from passing on a chance to see James Brown in the mid '80s, this was the stupidest missed opportunity on my concert-goin' resume. 

Over time, I acquired nearly all of The Byrds' albums, via CD reissues if nothing else. I still like the early stuff the best, Mr. Tambourine Man through Younger Than Yesterday. I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now. Cyril Jordan of The Flamin' Groovies once said that no one ever released another subsequent album as great as Mr. Tambourine Man. When I interviewed Cyril for Goldmine in the early '90s, I asked him if he still thought that was true; "Still true!" was his simple response. Still true. Still jangling. And still a love at first spin.