Wherever That River Goes, That’s Where I Want To Be: The Byrds’ Ballad Of Easy Rider At 50
In the Fall of ’69 , the L.A. folk-rock icons added a new dimension to the Fonda/Hopper cult classic
The massive and unexpected success of Easy Rider in 1969 marked not only the apotheosis of sixties’ underground culture’s hold on the mainstream imagination, but also the first indication of its eventual crumble and collapse.
From a contemporary perspective, Dennis Hopper’s film is not a simple and idealistic depiction of innocence and big-hearted revolution, but rather a downbeat elegy issued in advance, a precognitive glimpse of a dream shattering under the boot heel of relentless conformity and consumerism. The hippie generation may still have no better requiem in any artistic form than the devastating closing moments of Easy Rider.
VIDEO: The end of Easy Rider
The Byrds had undergone their own small revolution in the years leading up to the end of that legendary decade. Undergoing constant lineup shuffling and inter-band tension, they’d grown past their early fame as jangling interpreters of Dylan standards to explore early psych-rock (Fifth Dimension) and country-rock (Sweetheart of the Rodeo), the latter drawing them serious ire from Nashville purists who assumed the longhairs were satirizing or toying with their beloved traditions.
Now, inspired by the success of Easy Rider, they found the film a useful launchpad to deepen their experiments with the melding of those two disparate elements that had come to define them.
Ballad Of Easy Rider arrived at a strange time in the band’s history. Having shed notable talents David Crosby and Gram Parsons in previous years, the endless lineup reconfigurations now led to a tighter rein over band affairs by primary songsmith Roger McGuinn. Outside of the title track (co-written with an uncredited Dylan as the film’s theme song), most of the album has little to do with the film directly or thematically, consisting largely of covers and rearranged standards. Still, the association proved fruitful, resulting in what was then the Byrds’ highest-charting album in the US. Dissatisfied with Bob Johnston’s production on their previous and disappointing full-length, Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, the band returned to working with Terry Melchier, who’s work behind the scenes been an integral element to their earlier successful chart forays.
The album re-established McGuinn and the Byrds as capable interpreters of others’ material as well as contemporized traditionals. Beyond the string-laden, dignified country-rock veneer of the title track, ‘Oil In My Lamp’ and ‘’Jesus Is Just Alright’ are strong reminders of this band’s capacity for gold-tinged harmonies and lush arrangements. The requisite Dylan cover, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is a sad-eyed melancholy-soaked updating of the original, and even the sea shanty experimentation of “Jack Tarr The Sailor” scans as a creatively-reinvigorated band broadening their reach and exploring new sonic frontiers. The album’s most stunning moment, however, may be the Woody Guthrie cover “Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)”, a worrisome but shimmering extension of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’s country stylings that showcases The Byrds at the height of their Americana-fueled powers.
Following the successful release of Ballad Of Easy Rider, the band underwent yet another lineup change, swapping bassist John York for noted session man Skip Battin. Although this switch led to the most stable of Byrds lineups in future years, it also heralded an unofficial end to the band’s streak of pop success, and nothing released in the resulting four years of their lifespan would capitalize on the resurgence that Ballad Of Easy Rider suggested. In this way, while Easy Rider itself can be seen as one of the flower power era’s final bursts of fractured glory, much the same can be said of the Byrds and the album the film inspired, marking the close of an indelible time in history and in American culture.
AUDIO: The Byrds Ballad of Easy Rider (1997 Expanded Edition) (Full Album)