More than twenty years after their first single, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” soared to the top of the charts in 1965, the Byrds continue to exert a formidable influence on American music. The band’s five original members — guitarists Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, singer Gene Clark, bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke — went on to form such seminal groups as Crosby, Stills and Nash and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Even more important, the Byrds’ sound — the rich vocal harmonies and the resonant chime of McGuinn’s twelve-string Rickenbacker — defined folk-rock. That sound still rings in the music of R.E.M. and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (who recently covered the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”), as well as dozens of lesser-known bands.
“If you want a quick analysis of the Byrds, I’ll give you one,” says Hillman. “Five guys with different musical backgrounds and tastes. I came from a bluegrass background. Roger was a folk singer who had accompanied the Limeliters. David Crosby came from ensemble folk singing. Gene Clark was an ex-Christy Minstrel. We didn’t come out of a garage in the Valley playing rock & roll.”
Actually, the Byrds came together through their love for the Beatles. “They knocked me for a loop,” says McGuinn, who at the time was working for Bobby Darin’s publisher in the Brill Building in New York (“My job was to listen to the radio and write songs like the ones I heard”). For Clark, the Beatles had a more immediate impact. After coming across “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” on a Norfolk, Virginia, jukebox, he played them “a hundred times” — and quit the New Christy Minstrels the next day.
Sometime later in L.A., Clark knew he’d found a potential soul mate when he spied McGuinn sitting in the Troubadour club, strumming his twelve-string and singing the Beatles’ “You Can’t Do That.” They soon became a duo. Then, on a hootenanny night at the Troubadour, they caught the performance of another young singer named David Crosby. “Who is this arrogant punk?” Clark asked McGuinn. “Then I heard the guy sing, and I was totally floored.” Crosby eventually teamed up with the duo, and Hillman and Clarke came on board shortly afterward.
Once the Byrds’ cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” hit Number One, they were touted as the American Beatles, but the “too much, too soon” syndrome quickly took its toll. Clark, who suffered a nervous breakdown and, ironically enough, developed a fear of flying, left the band in 1966. That year the remaining Byrds recorded the Fifth Dimension LP, which included the psychedelic classic “Eight Miles High,” but Crosby and Clarke departed the next year. Then, after Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Hillman split, leaving McGuinn to oversee an ever-changing nest of Byrds until 1973, when the original members recorded a disappointing reunion LP, The Byrds.
The original Byrds are still in flight — separately. Chris Hillman, 43, has scored a record contract for his country combo, Desert Rose. Gene Clark, 44, is working on a record with Carla Olson of the Textones. He’s also incurred the ire of some of the other Byrds by taking a successful Byrds tribute show on the road. Michael Clarke, 43, who has toured with Clark’s tribute band, is currently “taking a breather,” painting pictures and houses in the Southeast. David Crosby, 45, has been serving a five-year jail term for drug possession.
Now a quietly religious born-again Christian, Roger McGuinn, 44, tours as a solo artist. He dismisses the rumor that the Byrds will get together when Crosby is released from prison.
“I wouldn’t do it,” McGuinn states flatly. “When we did it thirteen years ago, it didn’t work. I really don’t want to be in the Byrds anymore.”