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Posts tagged ‘David Crosby’

‘Echo in the Canyon’

Laurel_Canyon-3

There’s a lot to like about Echo in the Canyon, a new 90-minute documentary about the Laurel Canyon music scene in the mid- to late-’60s, directed by Andrew Slater. One asset is the constant presence of Jakob Dylan, who has been silent as a recording artist for several years but here proves to be a sensitive interviewer and performer. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that someone who’s grown up as the son of Bob Dylan isn’t sycophantic towards his celebrated interviewees, but his thoughtful silences are often expressive — they give us, too, the chance to think.

It’s an unusual film in that its framing device is the assembling of a group of musicians, led by Dylan, to perform in concert the songs of the Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, and Buffalo Springfield. Dylan’s on-stage guests include Regina Spektor, Beck and Fiona Apple — and, I guess, the members of his band, the Wallflowers. Those he interviews include Roger McGuinn, Brian Wilson, Michelle Phillips, Lou Adler, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, John Sebastian, Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr. There are lots of archive clips, many of them cherishable.

The real focus is very specific. It’s the moment folk music and rock music merged in the Byrds’ version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr Tambourine Man”. Specifically, it’s the moment Roger (then known as Jim) McGuinn got hold of a 12-string Rickenbacker — the second to be produced, we learn — and constructed that famous introduction, which echoed the “jingle-jangle” of the lyric and became a genre in itself, working its way through Tom Petty and ending up as power-pop.

A lot is made of the influence of the Beatles on this movement, quite correctly, and also of the way the Byrds’ early records influenced George Harrison to write “If I Needed Someone”. Personally I think they should have given considerable credit to the Searchers’ versions of Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono’s “Needles and Pins” and Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk in the Room”, which came out in 1964 and predicted the jingle-jangle sound with great precision. Also, given Nash’s presence, some mention should have been made of the Hollies’ influence.

But then David Crosby doesn’t think much of the pop music that came before… well, before David Crosby. It was, he says, all “moon-and-june and baby-I-love-you”. Oh, right. “I close my eyes for a second and pretend it’s me you want / Meanwhile I try to act so nonchalant.” That’s not poetry, huh? Sure, “To dance beneath the diamond sky / With one hand waving free / Silhouetted by the sea” is poetry, too. Ah well. Tutto fa brodo, as they say.

Having read two biographies of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young for a Guardian review last year, my appetite for stories of internecine warfare in the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield is pretty well sated, and nothing uttered here adds interesting detail or insight. It’s nice to see Brian Wilson and to hear Michelle Phillips, and Petty’s conversation with Dylan in a guitar shop is apparently the last interview he gave before his death in 2017. But anyone expecting this to be the story of the Laurel Canyon of Joni Mitchell and James Taylor will be disappointed, which makes the presence of Jackson Browne puzzling: he talks well, of course, but really had nothing to do with what the film is talking about.

Apparently Slater was inspired to make the documentary by seeing Jacques Demy’s 1968 film Model Shop, set in Hollywood and starring Anouk Aimée and Gary Lockwood, with a soundtrack by Spirit (who, like Love and the Doors, are never mentioned). I’ve never seen it, but the clips we’re shown certainly make me want to rectify that omission. The director tries to recreate that lost vibe as Dylan cruises the boulevards and wanders from one legendary studio to another: United and Western (now merged), Capitol… not Gold Star, of course, demolished many years ago. The use of Laurel Canyon itself is disappointing: I wanted get more of a sense of the topography and to see the houses where these people lived and (in every sense) played.

Some of the newly performed music is enjoyable, although the chopped-up editing can be frustrating, and having Stills and Clapton perform a guitar duel in studios on different continents wasn’t really a very good idea at all. The best comes at the end: a sensitive version of “Expecting to Fly” is the finale, preceded by Dylan and Beck duetting quite beautifully in front of their band on the Byrds’ arrangement of Goffin and King’s “Goin’ Back”. “A little bit of courage is all we lack / So catch me if you can / …” It made me stand up, grab the nearest air guitar, and find a harmony to sing. And that doesn’t happen every day, I can tell you.

* Echo in the Canyon is on Amazon Prime. The photograph is taken from the Laurel Canyon Radio website: http://www.laurelcanyonradio.com/view-from-laurel-canyon/

The Byrd who fell to earth

Gene ClarkSomehow Gene Clark never looked young, even when “Mr Tambourine Man” was hitting the charts before he had turned 21. Unlike the other members of the Byrds, or of their rival groups breaking through on both sides of the Atlantic in 1965, he didn’t look like a boy. He had a face that seemed to have seen things, a face of premature experience.

We learn a lot about the background to the way he looked in The Byrd Who Flew Alone: The Triumphs and Tragedy of Gene Clark, a two-hour documentary  by Jack and Paul Kendall, released on DVD this week, in which the two English film makers talk to just about everyone involved in the story of a great singer-songwriter who didn’t begin to receive proper attention as a solo artist until after his untimely death in 1991. Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby from the Byrds, the producer Larry Marks, the record company president Jerry Moss, the singer Carla Olson, his wife Carlie, members of his family and many others are among those providing testimony, interspersed with snatches of music from the various phases of his career.

Gene Clark’s face turns out to have been that of a person who grew up in a small community in rural Missouri, in circumstances described by one his brothers as “austere”. He began playing in bands at the age of 14, moved to Los Angeles while still in his teens, joined the New Christy Minstrels, and decamped to the fledgling Byrds in 1964. Just over a year later he was receiving a first royalty cheque. Because he wrote songs that the group recorded as B-sides and album tracks (such as the wonderful “Feel a Whole Lot Better” and “Set You Free This Time”), he earned more money than the other four members. That first cheque was for $47,000. The others got $4,000 each. “The rest of us were still taking buses and walking around LA,” Roger McGuinn remembers, “and he had a little MG. That created a bit of tension.”

The MG was followed by a Porsche and then a very nice maroon vintage Ferrari. And there were other factors. “You take a group of young men, very different young men, give ’em some money, introduce them to drugs… I don’t think there was anything wrong with the fact that we all of a sudden got laid a lot… but the money and the drugs… that’ll do it every time,” says David Crosby, one who knows whereof he speaks.

Clark’s departure from the group and the various chapters of his solo career are dealt with in fascinating detail. I always loved the two Dillard & Clark albums, particularly The Fantastic Expedition, and it was sad to listen to the reasons behind the disintegration of that pioneering project in 1969, followed by many more false starts.

“He had great songs,”  Hillman says, “and he sang from the heart. Why didn’t it work? That’s the question.” Chronic indiscipline when under the influence of drink or drugs seems to have been the simple answer. Perhaps the happiest period of his life began in 1970, when he moved out of LA to Mendocino with Carrie McCummings and enjoyed a return to his roots in rural surroundings. It was there that he wrote the songs for the album White Light, produced by Jesse Ed Davis and released in 1971, which I consider to be the highlight of his career: the recording in which his gifts find the best balance and the most sympathetic environment.

Many of his admirers would nominate No Other, the album that followed in 1974, recorded for David Geffen’s Asylum label and produced by Thomas Jefferson Kaye with a huge budget and a cast of thousands. It’s a cult classic, to be sure, and it contains some fine songs that only Clark could have written, but I find it overproduced, overarranged, overplayed, overpackaged — just overwrought in every direction. Its commercial failure more or less put an end to his prospects of once again experiencing the success he had all too briefly known with the Byrds.

He wasn’t entirely finished. I wouldn’t be without the album he made with Olson, called So Rebellious a Lover, released the year after his death and containing two real classics: his own “Gypsy Rider” (“Crank her over once again / Put your face into the wind / Find another road where you’ve never been”) and the most gorgeously compelling version of “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies” I’ve ever heard. But the life did for him when he was only 46.

There are some sad and illuminating reflections in the course of the film. “I watched him go from an innocent country boy to road-weary and just… tired of it all,” McGuinn says. Marks, who produced his first solo album, says: “You couldn’t help but just feel the energy that Gene put out whenever you were with him. It wasn’t all good. That energy carried some danger with it.”

Luckily, bits and pieces of his music continue to emerge. The latest is Here Tonight: The White Light Demos, released on Universal/A&M’s Omnivore label, containing bare-bones versions of some of the great songs — “For a Spanish Guitar”, “The Virgin”, Where My Lover Lies Asleep” — plus others than didn’t make the cut, including the lovely “Here Tonight”, which turned up on the restored version of an abandoned album called Roadmaster, which was to have been his next A&M release after White Light. The demos are touching in their plainness. You wouldn’t swap them for the original album, but they’re very welcome. And the documentary is highly recommended.

* The photograph of Gene Clark is from the insert with Here Tonight: The White Light Demos, and was taken by Henry Diltz.