Clarence White and his gee-tar…
Listen – The Byrds – Bad Night at the Whiskey – MP3
How’s by thee?
I figured I’d get the week off to a big start with a record that- after the first time I heard it, decades ago – quite literally blew my mind.
Like any self respecting music nut, I’ve been a Byrds fan for most of my life. When I was a kid it was all about the well-known jingle jangle of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and ‘Turn Turn Turn’, and a little further down the line, when my hair was longer and my mind bent just enough to see around corners (courtesy of chemical indulgences), I got all up inside ‘Draft Morning’ and such.
However – big however – when my brother passed along a copy of ‘Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde’ an album that I had not previously known of, I dropped the needle on the record and by the time it skated off into the runoff grooves on side two, NOTHING, especially in relation to the Byrds, was as it had been before.
And you can thank one man for this tectonic shift, the mighty Clarence White.
By late 1968, the Byrds, having transformed once already (into the country gentlemen of ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’) found themselves mutating yet again when Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons bolted to form the Flying Burrito Brothers, leaving Roger McGuinn the sole original member of the band.
McGuinn had good taste to bring Clarence White into the band as lead guitarist, and despite what any number of Byrds fans will tell you, created the work of genius that is ‘Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde’.
White, like Hillman, got his start playing bluegrass music, but by the time he hooked up with the Byrds the lysergic sunshine of southern California had seemingly permeated every cell in his body (or at least his fingers) turning him into one of the most formidable guitarists of his day.
In fact, I would gladly line up White’s playing on ‘Dr Byrds..’ against any of the accepted masters of the day, with the possible exception of Jimi Hendrix. One need only slap on their headphones and listen to today’s selection ‘Bad Night at the Whiskey’ to understand that I am not engaging in hyperbole.
Following the opening drum roll, Clarence White’s guitar literally explodes, bringing a sound that is equal parts Nashville and Owsley acid. There are two leads competing for ear-space, the first a mind boggling psychedelic cry that bounces through your head from ear to ear and back again, the second a fuzzed out country twang, all banging up against McGuinn’s lead vocal and a chorus of singers.
It seems almost unfair to refer to ‘Bad Night at the Whiskey’ as psychedelic, because as mind-bending as it is, it includes almost none of the accepted signifiers. This isn’t collapsed on the couch with a smile on your face music (i.e. pot). This something much closer to how Grace Slick once described an STP trip, i.e. like being shot out of a cannon. In the space of less than three and a half minutes, McGuinn and White pop open your head, grab your brain and take it for a ride through the smog, brush fires and psychedelic chemistry of fin de decennie Los Angeles.
I’d even go as far as to say that ‘Bad Night at the Whiskey’ may be too strong a quaff for some. So potent is White’s guitar, that every time things settle down for just a second, leading the listener to think that maybe, just maybe things are going to be fine, Clarence and his Telecaster swoop down like some kind of mad eagle, sinking his claws into your ears yet again and carrying you up above the clouds.
Though ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ is usually spoken of as the watershed LA country rock album, I’d say that that title really belongs to ‘Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde’, in which country and actual rock (something is rather short supply on ‘Sweetheart…’, on account of country music played by longhairs isn’t automatically ‘rock’) are blended quite confidently. There in the grooves of that album resides the true admixture of shiny LA modernism, LSD and the sound of privileged rock stars, dressed in cowboy drag, getting high in their Laurel Canyon backyards.
‘Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde’ is the sound of a brief tipping point within the zeitgeist, before which McGuinn was in danger of losing his band to Gram Parsons, and after which the whole lot of them grew their hair way too long and started looking like stray members of the hippie love cult.
There’s film of the Dr Byrds-era band playing on Playboy After Dark where you can get a look at Clarence White, and listen to him work his magic on ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’.
Clarence White would stay with the Byrds until 1973, and was just getting started on his solo career when he was killed by a drunk driver.
You need only listen to this song, over, and over, and over again, to realize how big a loss that was.
See you later in the week.