Monday, July 14, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 195): "TURN! TURN! TURN!" (1965) The Byrds

Yesterday was the birthday of Roger McGuinn, otherwise Jim McGuinn (in the specs), who took the name Roger once his career with The Byrds started taking off and “Jim” seemed to lack style. The Byrds were sort of California’s “answer” to The Beatles, what with their jangling Rickenbacker sound (which McGuinn was the main architect of) and their Beatlesque tunes (which Gene Clark was the main composer of) and their structured harmonies (which David Crosby was a main figure for).

The Byrds had a string of hits in 1965 and 1966, but then, with the departure of Clark, high charting seemed to elude them for the rest of their existence. Which might be a way of saying that the folk rock sound they helped to pioneer had a short-lived moment of pop gold, though it fed into much of what came later. And though The Byrds tried to be a bit more rock or acid rock, their only truly successful LP after the first two (with Clark) is Sweetheart of the Rodeo, in 1968, which owes much to Gram Parson’s sense of how to take the band (sans Crosby too by then) toward country, creating a sound that jells well with one of the most influential bands of 1968/69: The Band. Even so, The Byrds never quite get all the ducks in a row. There’s always something a bit too provisional about their albums, and that may be because of McGuinn himself, who isn’t much of a writer. Still, his voice is the one most associated with The Byrds because he’s the one there from beginning to end and because he sings lead on most of the biggest hits.

Today’s song was a #1 hit in 1965. It started life as a song written by folksinger extraordinaire Pete Seeger, with most of its lines taken straight from the Book of Ecclesiastes—in fact everything but the “Turn! Turn! Turn!” refrain and the bit about “a time for peace—I swear it’s not too late” (urgent in those days of escalation—slow but sure—in Vietnam and the demands of the draft). We even sang this song, guitar-Mass style, in Church. Shudder. Anyway, I picked it to feature McGuinn and The Byrds because the Byrds sound is what was perfected on those first two albums, and McGuinn was rather better as an interpreter / arranger. That’s what he did with the Seeger track, turning it into folk rock. And it’s what he did with several Dylan songs at the time when Dylan himself was trying to figure out how to create a viable electric rock sound for his word-heavy songs. “Mr. Tambourine Man” was a #1 too, but that’s not really The Byrds playing on it, so why not opt for today’s song (and because, for all the pop appeal of McGuinn’s version of “Tambourine Man” there’s something in those California-style harmonies that bugs me a bit . . . the song, as Dylan wrote and recorded it, feels a bit strung out, East Coast style, and theirs goes for that laid back bit that Crosby would continue to manufacture to his considerable profit with Crosby, Stills and Nash).

Indeed, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” sounds like it’s a call to unleash the hippie legions. But that’s just the taint of association. The song—I mean, it’s Ecclesiastes, the same source that tells us “all is vanity”—actually packs some wisdom into its brief span. The notion that “there’s a time for everything” is familiar enough, but how can you not like the Old World charm of “a time to every purpose under heaven.” And “a time to gather stones together”—c’mon, Mick, Keith, get ahold of Charlie—that I always liked as a kind of suspended statement. Not letting us know what the stones are being gathered for, we assume it’s some major project. So, me, I’m always one for gathering stones. You never know when they’ll come in handy.

And “a time you may embrace / A time to refrain from embracing”—that sounds rather preachy doesn’t it? No wonders they made it part of the church service. “Hey, you kids over there—refrain from embracing, this instant!” In the context it’s a way of saying that even if your gig is “to make love, not war” you can’t be on the job all the time. You might have to get out there and, y’know, protest! More to the point, for me, was how it suggested the arc of most love affairs you’ll have: the time when you embrace and the time when you refrain. Turn, turn, turn, indeed.

And good ol’ Ecclesiastes has quite a way with a lyrical contrast: “plant, reap”; “kill, heal”; “laugh, weep.” You might say this guy has pretty much sounded the bucket of available alternatives.

One might well say that this song is the end of the folk movement. Sure, lots of people saw that coming about due to Dylan’s abandonment of his folk guitar for a Stratocaster, but Dylan’s doing that was because this kind of high-minded folk song was swiftly becoming just a feel-good panacea. Let’s join hands and sing!  Meanwhile, the heart-attack machine keeps cruising Desolation Row, and “money doesn’t talk, it swears,” etc. Even Dylan’s folk songs were like hand grenades compared to this kind of song, and yet this is much more the sort of thing “the folk tradition” had become comfortable with, with a dash of “We Shall Overcome” for good measure.

I don’t mean to belittle The Byrds though. They were a major factor in how folk rock spread and how successful it was as a genre for its brief run. A time of folk, a time of rock / A time when you may acid take / A time to refrain from acid-taking.

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