Byrds, Burritos books go to extremes
Rock biographies are a double-edged sword. On one hand, we love to know every minute detail and amusing anecdote about our heroes, while on the other I could do without reading several hundred pages worth of some self-proclaimed expert’s opinions of the same records I long ago formed my own opinions about. A litany of pointless criticism is liable to ruin even the most informative rock tome.
Two new books from Jawbone Press on two of my most worshipped bands, the incestuously linked Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, illustrate well the extremes commonly found in the genre.
Christopher Hjort’s So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star: The Byrds Day To Day 1965-1973 is no less than a chronology of every known concert appearance, broadcast appearance, recording session, contentious departure, etc. during the existence of America’s finest rock band, plus plenty of info about the band members pre- and post-Byrds careers. Chock full of photos, concert flyers, press clippings, contemporary concert and record reviews, and interviews with members and associates, this is probably too much information for all put the most crazed Byrdmaniac. So of course it makes me drool.
The very fact that this book exists is testament to The Byrds’ enduring legacy and influence and their admiration by generations of rock cognoscenti. But what becomes clear far sooner in the 336 pages than might be expected is how rocky a career the band endured and perhaps how remarkable it is that they managed to become so exalted.
The band’s commercial star burned out much more quickly than that of most bands who have retained such a lasting profile (they achieved all seven of their U.S. Top 40 singles within two years of their number one debut, “Mr. Tambourine Man”), and even during this period suffered more than their fair share of misfortune, from the sudden departure of primary songwriter Gene Clark to scathing reviews of their concerts (likely deserved since they basically refused to rehearse) to the groundbreaking “Eight Miles High” being dubiously labeled a “drug song.”
More interesting than the rather well-documented era of smash hits and teen idolatry, though, are the accounts of the band’s frustrating mid-period of flop after brilliant flop on the charts, the crumbling of the group during the recording of The Notorious Byrd Brothers, the sudden rise of the unknown Gram Parsons from sideman to frontman and the resulting jolting shift to country music, and Parsons’ departure as quickly as he had come on the eve of a disastrous South African tour and his subsequent coaxing away of Chris Hillman.
Unpredictably, stability reigns toward the end of The Byrds’ story, as Roger McGuinn surrounds himself with a new group which—almost in direct inverse to the early days—becomes a popular and respected live act while its records are unfairly maligned or ignored before McGuinn—after having stuck it out for so long—jilts his most tenured lineup for a brief and ill-advised reformation of the original group.
Since this book is not written in narrative there is little chance for the author to interject his opinion, though the opinions of about everyone else in the world vested with a couple inches of copy at one point or another is here, which is interesting on many levels but quite dense. This is not an easy read but is a great browse, and I am sure it will be a regular companion during the frequent occurrences when one The Byrds’ records is on my stereo. This is probably not to be recommended for the casual fan, but devotees will want it in their libraries.
Hot Burritos: The True Story of The Flying Burrito Brothers by John Einarson chronicles the life of the band Parsons and Hillman would form upon leaving The Byrds, the commercial impact of which was virtually nil but who are cited constantly as primary influences among several succeeding decades worth of country-rockers. Following on the heels of Einarson’s enjoyable books on Buffalo Springfield and Gene Clark, there is a lot to like about this book, too. Einarson’s writing is generally meticulously researched, entertaining, and clear in its admiration for his subjects but not deferential to a fault. The bulk of the book provides great insight into the life of a band that needed and deserved chronicling. Most of it is a good read, and Einarson wisely keeps his own opinion largely out of the accounting.
However, one man’s opinions are ubiquitous, which would be “co-author” Chris Hillman. (Not sure when giving a long interview began to qualify one as a co-author, but whatever.) I am a Chris Hillman fan. I love many of his songs and records. But I wouldn’t care much about his opinions even if they weren’t so curmudgeonly and featured so copiously as they are here. No one has the right to tell the story of the Burritos and give his take on their legacy more than their co-founder and the only constant in the authentic early incarnations of the group, but what comes out is that Hillman has an axe to grind and that Einarson is more than happy to indulge him.
Two entire chapters of Hot Burritos are basically fully devoted to Hillman’s repeated contentions that Gram Parsons wasn’t all that good. One of these chapters is the first one, which basically made me want to shelve this book before I even got to anything of substance. Hillman takes pains to minimize Parsons’ songwriting contributions, complain about his singing, and blame him for the band not achieving its potential. (The opening chapter also seems to have been rushed and contains some factual inaccuracies and editing mistakes, as well.)
Now, I feel for Hillman on some level. It isn’t quite fair that Parsons is revered at least in some sense because of his romanticized erraticism, substance abuse, and overdose death while Hillman has continued to toil workmanlike on his music to this day. It’s true that some of the classics from the Burritos’ magnificent 1968 debut The Gilded Palace of Sin are routinely referenced as “Gram Parsons songs” when they were co-writes with Hillman (and that Parsons’ vocal triumphs “Hot Burrito #1” and “Hot Burrito #2” were primarily conceived by bassist Chris Ethridge). And it’s a shame that Hillman had to coerce, prod, and sometimes physically force Parsons to attend recording sessions and gigs.
True enough that there would likely not have been a Flying Burrito Brothers, or indeed a Gram Parsons as we know him today, if not for Chris Hillman. But neither would there likely have been a Flying Burrito Brothers or the legacy of country-rock left by The Byrds and Burritos without Gram Parsons. Despite the man’s apparently deep character flaws, a lot of people just love his singing and songs and records. And to read Chris Hillman discounting him today just seems sad and petty. It is especially sad that Hillman basically asserts that he regrets even forming the Burritos with Parsons and wishes he had not worked with him after Parsons had left The Byrds in suspect circumstances.
(To be fair, Hillman seems to dislike a lot of stuff besides Parsons, from basically everything any of his former bandmates did without his involvement, to virtually every drummer he ever played with, to—somehow—Clarence White’s electric guitar playing.)
I will reiterate that despite the cloud Hillman hangs on the whole affair before it even begins, the meat of the book is all well and good. Maybe a bit too much effort is made to talk up the dross-filled first post-Parsons Burritos album, but the account of the latter day Burritos (much like The Byrds) becoming for the first time a well-oiled concert draw made me dig up the vinyl of the live Last of the Red Hot Burritos recorded during that period. But Hillman, like McGuinn seemingly threatened by stability, would break up the band for what must have looked like the greener pastures of backing Stephen Stills (yikes!). And, unfortunately, we get a closing chapter where Hillman gets to rehash all of his gripes.
Neither of these books is likely to much alter whatever popular perception exists of these bands today, but both in their own way should add to fans’ consciousness of these somewhat legends as people and musicians, despite some excess on both counts.