BYRDS: Requiem For The Timeless, Volume 2 by Johnny Rogan

Until Mark Lewisohn began his detailed investigations into The Beatles, no music writer had devoted more time, words or commitment to chronicling the history of a group than Johnny Rogan with the Byrds. For Johnny, like Mark, it is an ongoing life work, not a project that is over once the book is published but, instead, a kind of mission – I hesitate to call it an obsession – to set down all the facts in all their wondrous detail as they continue to evolve. No surprise then that Johnny has followed up 2011’s Requiem… Vol 1 (1,200 pages), which concentrated on the group, with Vol 2 (1,248 pages), which tells the individual stories of the six Byrds who have left us: original members Gene Clark and Michael Clarke, together with Kevin Kelley, Gram Parsons, Clarence White and Skip Battin. Rogan has written individual chapters, two of them book-length, about all six that could be construed as separate biographies in themselves, yet has chosen to publish them all within the same volume.
A bit of history: Johnny Rogan and I first became acquainted in 1982 as a result our association with a publisher called Proteus Books, and neither of us today looks back fondly on this alliance. Johnny had written a book for them on Neil Young and I had written one on Pete Townshend. Both of us were invited to their Christmas party which was held that year in a function room on Sale Place in Bayswater, and we somehow ended up talking to one another while drinking as much free booze as we were able to stomach. Both of us had come to the unspoken conclusion that Proteus was not a company whose ethics were whiter than white, and that taking as much advantage of their hospitality as humanly possible was a prudent course of action. When the party concluded we retired to a nearby pub. Not long afterwards we sat next to one another at a bankruptcy hearing for Proteus Books held in the ballroom of a hotel on The Aldwych at which the Irish rock photographer Finn Costello raised a huge cheer when he reproached the company’s MD in spectacularly colourful language. Johnny and I were amongst those who cheered the loudest and we’ve been friends ever since.

But back to the Byrds. The first edition of Johnny’s Byrds saga, then titled Timeless Flight, was published in 1981 by Scorpion/Dark Star and the second, which I still have, in 1990 by Square One Books. Johnny inscribed this one to me: “No 3 in the charts this week. Beaten out by Omnibus. Fix!” which sounds a bit like a Donald Trump tweet. Neither of these editions boasted the heft of the third edition, Timeless Flight Revisited: The Sequel, which came out in 1997 and, at 720 pages, drew a line in the sand as far as extent was concerned in terms of rock biography. Requiem… Vols 1 and 2 together, of course, make even that look like a mere pamphlet.
In the first volume of Requiem Johnny explained his incentive by recalling how he first heard The Byrds’ ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ in June, 1965: “McGuinn’s strange vocal inflexions, that distinctive Rickenbacker and the sumptuous harmonies all contributed to a record that sounded unlike anything I had ever heard before… Several radio plays later I was completely entranced.” Johnny longed to get his hands on a Byrds album but family finances were tight in those far off days and to avoid parental ire at squandering hard-earned pocket money on something as superfluous to their daily existence as an LP, he bought record tokens which he mailed to himself with a faked note congratulating him on winning a competition sponsored by Radio Luxenbourg. “That’s how I came to purchase the first albums I ever owned,” he writes. “[The Byrds’] Mr Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn!

And now here we are 52 years and five books later, and that’s just on the Byrds. Rogan, of course, has also written 19 other books, eight of which I published while running the editorial department at Omnibus Press. One of them was Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance, the first significant book on The Smiths which, by rock book standards, became an international best seller. Morrissey disapproved of course, though its title – which implied that the Smiths’ singer and guitarist were the key members of the group – was cited as evidence on Morrissey's behalf in the court case brought by drummer Mike Joyce over what he claimed was an unjust distribution of royalties. 
But back to the Byrds. Because of the way it is structured, there’s no need to begin Requiem… Vol 2 at the beginning, so I didn’t, skipping around at my leisure and relishing Rogan’s absurd attention to detail. In all six cases Rogan has unearthed hitherto unreported facts and stories, most notably on Kevin Kelley, about whom nothing has been published prior to now, and also on the better known Gram Parsons and Clarence White. Nevertheless, whichever way you turn, it’s a rather bleak read, quite the opposite of a fairy tale. Four of the six – Clark, Clarke, Kelley and Parsons – pretty much drank and/or drugged themselves to death, the upshot of the rock’n’roll lifestyle (though in Parsons’ case it ran in the family), while White was tragically killed in a road accident and Battin was a victim of Alzheimer’s. Then there’s the temptations of the flesh that occur around all successful rock bands, and Rogan is especially good at tracing, and telling the stories of the women involved, thus adding a tasty spoonful of human interest that is all too often lacking in rock biographies. Naturally, such overindulgence in just about everything available to them had an injurious effect on their relationships with one another and on those close to the first four, especially their wives, girlfriends and offspring, with the result that recriminations and bitterness persisted for years, legacies were fought over and absolutely no one felt a whole lot better when they were gone. 
At almost 400 pages*, Gene Clark gets far and away the weightiest treatment, and rightly so in view of the fact that he was the first to leave the mothership; the great underachiever whose wonderful album No Other remains a cult favourite for connoisseurs everywhere and to whom an air of otherworldly remoteness clings to this day. No one better deserves the honorary tribute ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. Clark’s tale is perhaps the saddest of the lot, though it’s run a close second by his almost namesake Michael Clarke (135 pages) whose post-Byrds career never really amounted to much and who, like some of the others, later became involved in bogus editions of the group that angered his former colleagues. 
Second in order of coverage, perhaps inevitably, comes Gram Parsons (208 pages) whose riches-to-rags, well not quite, life story has already inspired two substantial biographies and whose adventures with The Flying Burrito Brothers, not to mention The Rolling Stones and Emmylou Harris, make him the ex-Byrd with the highest profile. Born into a fortune founded on orange juice, Parsons was a precociously talented songwriter as well as a gilded prince, arguably the originator of Americana, yet somehow doomed as the Byrd who flew too close to the sun, though if you believe Chris Hillman Parsons was never a Byrd at all. I’m inclined to think that this is sour grapes from the only other Byrd with a rightful claim to being a pioneer of country rock, and who still rankles at the posthumous acclaim that clings to Parsons. Either way, after several pages devoted to legal wrangling over Parsons’ song copyrights, Rogan concludes the chapter by rightly asserting that, “Only David Crosby and Gram Parsons have arguably transcended the group legacy by daring to create, or having thrust upon them, an equally enduring myth based on their own image.”
White (122 pages), Battin (96) and Kelley (82) are less well known but still interesting case studies, and like the first three covered in the kind of detail you would expect from Rogan. It is instructive to be reminded that White appeared on eight Byrds albums and was a full time member of the group for longer than all the originals barring McGuinn. Without doubt the finest instrumentalist to have flown as a Byrd – in the same class as James Burton and our own Albert Lee in my opinion – he was modest, unassuming and, by Byrds standards, relatively abstemious. One night at the Whisky in Los Angeles a flamboyantly dressed well-wisher told him: “I just want to tell you how much I love your guitar playing.” As Rogan relates, “White accepted the praise with characteristic good grace and later enquired of his fellow Byrds, ‘Hey, who was that guy who came in to talk to me?’ ‘That was Jimi Hendrix,’ they told him.”
Bass player Skip Battin, the oldest Byrd by some distance, is a relatively minor figure, another who became involved in later, ersatz, editions of several bands with whom he was associated, including the Byrds. Kevin Kelley, a cousin of Chris Hillman, was enlisted as drummer in 1967, lasted less than a year and worked as a session player between failed attempts to launch an independent career. Rather like the surviving John York, Kelley is a forgotten Byrd who, for much of his post-Byrd life, delivered flowers for a living. 

Left to right: Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Kevin Kelley,
Gram Parsons, Clarence White and Skip Battin

In the chapter devoted to Kelley, Rogan writes despairingly: “The Eighties was a decade of reckoning for every one of the surviving Byrds. All were forced to readjust their lives and find meaning in a world that no longer considered them gods or even fallen princes. Some sought salvation in the Lord, others in the bottle or the free-base pipe. Few seemed destined ever to record for a major label again. It was a time when the phrase ‘the good old days’ was no mere cliché but a brutal reality.”
The reality of a post-fame life for those who fell from grace, those who once sat alongside The Beatles in the pop charts, who were once screamed at on stages from London to Los Angeles, and who might once have appeared on the front pages of the music press, is an overriding theme of Johnny Rogan’s biographies of the Byrds, and no more so than in this latest book. Only a relatively small number of the great rock performers from the past find themselves living in the lap of luxury several decades on from their glory years; the remainder, the vast majority, scratch a living from a past that is recycled like the endless sub-par sequels to hit movies. Johnny Rogan’s telling of the Byrds’ story is therefore a salutary lesson that the joys of being ‘toppermost of the poppermost’ are more often than not short-lived. Nevertheless, the surviving Byrds and those who left us are fortunate to have attracted such a conscientious biographer, and those of us who love reading about the world of rock in all its ungainly, bloody and often mind-blowing detail are fortunate to have him too. For those who relish such authenticity, Rogan’s the man

* This includes copious credits, references and notes, over 60 pages following the Gene Clark chapter alone, and there are similar notes, relative in length to the chapters themselves, after the rest. The discography (of solo recordings by all the members of the Byrds, not just the six covered in this book) occupies a further 171 pages at the end of the book.


aegistyrannus said...

'salvation in the Lord' - @Gene Parsons, heard him and his wife as @Parsons Green , Meridian Green, daughter of folksinger, @Bob Gibson, in a CA. coast church <3

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Unknown said...

Bought both books on account of your review. They are absolute page turners that re-ignited my long lost love of the Byrds, prompting me to take a 2000 kilometer car round trip to see McGuin and Hilman celebrate the 50th release anniversary of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. They did not disapoint, but I sadly noted that they have not been able to reach a new audience, as the audience at that show probably had no more than 10 people under the age of 30. That being said, I believe the Byrds are the best american band but are now slowly receding in the rock musical collective memory