Saturday, June 21, 2008

Roadier Report 39 - Memories of "The Byrds" as told to Camilla McGuinn

The Beginning - Jim McGuinn, David Crosby and Gene Clark

In July 2005, I wrote the first "Roadie Report" for Roger's web page. I wasn't sure I wanted this personal road diary to come under scrutiny of the world, but several different prompts set me to writing. After a few BLOG entries, I received an email from Jim Dickson, the godfather of the BYRDS, asking if I would like to write about some of his memories. I was honored and curious. Many different writers have chronicled the story of the Byrds in detail. I didn't feel I could add much to those details, but sometimes as we travel the world together, Roger will reflect on a memory I haven’t heard.

In May 2006, I began incorporating Jim Dickson's memories into the BLOG. This summer hiatus seemed like a fine time to share some more of the stories I have heard along the way about a magical time in the history of music. I will not be documenting a detailed description of the BYRDS history, just a few of the memories of old friends.


Bob Hippard, Hoyt Axton's road manager, almost didn’t recognize Jim McGuinn as he walked toward him from the airline gate. This 21 year old who had toured two continents, played Carnegie Hall, been on national television, performed with world renowned musical artists, recorded on hit records now looked like a vagabond. His hair was long and combed forward, his big black crumpled raincoat looked huge over his thin frame and his pale skin was a sharp contrast to the warm southern California sun … but there was a glint of expectation in his eyes and in his walk.

Jim’s finances were at an ebb, so Bob drove him to Hoyt Axton’s house. Bob had arranged for Jim to stay at the guesthouse, where Hoyt’s mother, Mae Axton, resided when she was in town. They deposited Jim’s bags and musical instruments in the pool enclave. As they walked back to the car to go search for a bite to eat, Hoyt greeted them in the driveway. This down home Oklahoma boy grabbed Jim’s hand and invited them both into his home for refreshments. After hours of munching and smoking a vast quantity of imported Indian hemp, Bob reminded the musicians they both had a show the following night.

The Troubadour Club in West Hollywood was one of folk music’s hot spots in town. Jim had spent many hours on previous sojourns in Hollywood practicing his craft and meeting other artisans in the front room of the club, The Folk Den. Hoyt had recorded his album, "The Balladeer," in the club and was always a welcomed artist.

Jim was going to open the show, then singer songwriter; Roger Miller would precede Hoyt. Jim was tired when he sat down on the lone stool on stage. He began to quietly sing the Scottish folk song “Wild Mountain Thyme” but he became energized when he incorporated a Beatle beat to the lyrics. He loved it, but the audience didn’t. There was no response when he finished the song. The rest of the 30 minutes dragged on.

Roger Miller was tuning up in the small dressing room, when a very dejected Jim walked in and sat down on the other chair. “Jim, I liked what your doing out there.” Roger smiled at Jim as he shook his head. “ I watched you for awhile and I noticed something.” Roger softly spoke. “You got mad at the audience. They notice when a singer doesn’t like them. You might do a lot better if you didn’t show how upset you are when they don’t appreciate what you’re trying to do.” Roger left the dressing room. Jim could hear the enthusiastic applause greeting Roger Miller. He knew he needed to take the advice he had been given and change his attitude.

The next couple of nights were not any easier for Jim, but his attitude changed. He was ready to work hard with the hope some lone person would understand where he wanted to take his music.

One night, someone did. Gene Clark, a newcomer to town, fresh from the Missouri folk circuit, was in the audience. As soon as Jim was off stage, Gene went to find him. This soft spoken, good looking, dark-haired musician was excited about Jim’s innovative way of combining folk songs to the Beatles’ beat. Jim’s spirits lifted and they both agreed to meet the next day in the Folk Den to write some songs.

The collaboration between Jim and Gene was electric. Gene’s lyrical genius and Jim’s musical knowledge took these two hungry artists to new heights. Their voices blended beautifully as they sang the new songs they penned. When Jim began playing one of the new songs, “You Showed Me,” he felt his guitar move when an almost spiritual energy. He knew something wonderful was happening.

Two days into their song writing adventure, while they were jamming in the Folk Den, a student actor turned folk musician, heard them singing. He walked over and added an incredible harmony. During Jim’s first trip to Los Angeles in 1960 to accompany the Limeliters, he had spent a couple of weeks hanging out with this actor/singer. As the trio’s voices blended with a harmonic brilliance, their eyes flashed at each other with looks of wonder. Something awesome was happening. David Crosby hyperly shouted, "We make beautiful music together!" Jim wasn’t sure he wanted to work with this high-energy songbird. David saw Jim's hesitation and slyly mentioned he had a friend who would let them use his recording studio for free. Jim's qualms were quickly surpressed.

Jim Dickson,Roadie Report 14, was a producer for World Pacific Records. One of his productions, “12 String Guitar” sold several hundred thousand copies, enough to save the label from bankruptcy. World Pacific's owner, Dick Bock, rewarded Dickson with the key to the studio to use for his own purposes whenever there were no paying sessions on the schedule.

Dickson went in search of new talent to record demos in the studio. One night at the Unicorn, L.A.’s first coffeehouse, he heard David Crosby singing and being ignored by the audience. He was struck by the quality of David’s voice. Dickson's first recordings with David were with studio musicians. It was a standard practice to use the pros when recording. Jim had recently finished recording sessions with Dino Valente in a rock and roll format and decided to record David in a like manner.

Unfortunately, the tapes embarrassed David because folk music was the genre of the moment. Dickson wasn’t able to secure a recording deal for David, so he suggested he should switch from lead singer to a harmony singer. David had been in Lex Baxter’s Balladeers and resisted the direction. In the meantime, David kept a suitcase in Dickson’s garage and slept on different people's couches.

One day David arrived at the World Pacific studios high with excitement. He had found two guys he wanted to sing harmony with and if Dickson would get involved he was sure they would let him.

Dickson was familiar with Jim McGuinn, but had never heard of Gene Clark. David told Dickson he would only be a singer because both of the guys were much better guitar players than he was. David’s method of guitar playing was of the school of Travis Emundson - just learn the chords when you need them for the song you want to sing.

It was late at night, when David brought Jim and Gene to the World Pacific studio. Dickson asked them to sing a few songs. He felt their vocal sound was worth his time, since vocal blend was the most difficult achievement for a group. Their pseudo English accents did cause him to wonder about their motivation
Jim and David begged Dickson to go with them to a movie they had seen, “A Hard Days Night.” He finally understood the accents. The lads were excited about the movie.

On the sidewalk outside the theater, while McGuinn was busy explaining to Dickson his realization that most of the Beatles’ songs were based on folk chords, David was swinging around a lamp pole like Gene Kelly and yelling, "I want to be a Beatle!" McGuinn was also excited about George Harrison’s guitar. When he first heard the sound, he was sure it was a 12-string guitar, but in the movie it only looked like a 6-string from the front. Then, George turned sideways and Jim could see it was a Rickenbacker electric 12-string guitar! This veteran 12-string player had to have one of those magical instruments at any cost.

A few days later, David and Roger were standing on Hollywood Boulevard talking about how to become a band like the Beatles. David felt he could play bass, but they needed to find a drummer. They felt it was important for everyone to look English. As they were talking, a guy came strutting down the street who looked just like two of the Rolling Stones rolled into one package. They both pointed and said "him!"

It was an 18-year-old who was calling himself Michael Clarke. Roger had seen him in San Francisco playing bongos and they asked Michael if he could play drums. “Sure," he half-heartedly answered. They took him to the studio. Configured some cardboard boxes as drums and set a tambourine up for the snare drum. Michael sat down with a pair of sticks and began practicing.

David quickly realized he couldn’t concentrate on harmony while playing the bass. He asked Dickson to get another player. Dickson had recorded with an accomplished mandolin player named Chris Hillman. He first encountered Chris with the Bluegrass group, Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, then the Golden State Boys with Vern Gosdin. Their latest Dickson recording at World Pacific was the album, which became “The Hillmen” featuring Vern and Rex Gosdin, Don Parmley, and Chris.

Dickson felt Chris’s musicianship and the way he supported vocals would make him a good candidate to learn to play the bass, so he invited Chris to a rehearsal.

Dickson wasn’t planning on recording with the bass and drums, but did want them for live performances. He formed a business partnership with the original three musicians. He quickly realized in order for the partnership to survive, he would have to feed the lads who had no money or jobs. “Guess I have to feed you now,” was the line Dickson used when he felt the late night session was over. Hamburgers were the reward for a good night’s work.

The group was making progress. Dickson used his own money to bring in some studio musicians to play on two songs: “Please let Me Love You” and “Don’t Be Long.” He sold the songs to Elektra Records and told Jack Holzman to choose a name, but don't identify the members. He chose the name “Beefeaters.” Maybe it was the “British Invasion” or a gin bottle on the desk inspiring the moniker.

The group’s ability to perform live was still in question. They booked a show at the Troubadour. David played without an instrument and the result was an awkward singer slinking around the stage in the style of a chubby Mick Jagger. The audience was not impressed. David quickly grasped he wasn't going to be the next rock screamer and he needed the protection of a guitar. He joined McGuinn in lamenting about Gene's tempo changes. Gene felt songs were more dramatic if they were sung in a slower tempo. This habit drove the perfectionist musician, McGuinn, to distraction. Bobby Darin had impress upon Jim the importance of timing and to hear a song drag out of tempo was tough for him. The timing issue was the point David chose as a tool to undermine Gene's confidence as a guitar player. David had to quickly learn all the chords to the songs and Gene grabbed a tambourine as a prop. It was the beginning of the major rifts which often plagued the band: personalities, perfection and politics.

By then Dickson felt there was a future for the group and brought Eddie Tickner into the partnership to handle the business end. They needed money for instruments and the lads wanted to have suits like the Beatles. Eddie found a very wise investor with an available $5000 whose heirs still collect 5% of the initial royalties to this day.

Dickson drove McGuinn, Clarke and Crosby to the music store. Jim carried his Pete Seeger model 5-string banjo and Gibson acoustic 12-string guitar, a gift from Bobby Darin. He wanted a Rickenbacker 12-string and was willing to trade in both of his instruments to get one.

After the instrument purchases, Dickson dropped Jim off at the Padre hotel. Mae Axton had come to town, so Bob Hippard found Jim a room at the Padre Hotel for $4.00 a night. The moonbeams danced around the room as Jim played the guitar until he fell asleep, propped up against the pillow of the bed holding his new prize possession.

To be continued...someday.