An interview with
following interview with Joseph Byrd - composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist,
sound designer and so on - is maybe the one for which I am the happiest
on a personal level. Which could be of no importance for the reader,
save for the fact that Joseph Byrd was the principal motivator behind
two (rightly) celebrated albums (though - alas! - by a minority): The
United States Of America, by the group of the same name; and The American
Metaphysical Circus. Two albums that are reason enough for him to be
featured in many Rock Encyclopedias. In fact, the only albums mentioned
in one of those miscellaneous retrospectives typical of certain UK magazines.
There had been more albums: two LPs of (analogue) synthesis, applied
to (mostly) traditional materials: A Christmas Yet To Come (1975) and
Yankee Transcendoodle (1976), both on Takoma; and co-production and
arrangement work on Ry Cooder's Jazz (1978). Then?
many years I wondered where Byrd was. Given his academic background,
it was easy for me to picture him teaching in some college, maybe in
California. I tried to find him, but nothing came out of it. My heart
sank the day I received (due to a mistake!) a copy of Richie Unterberger's
book, Unknown Legends Of Rock 'n' Roll (1998): yes, it featured a chapter
on The United States Of America; but only Dorothy Moskowitz, the singer;
and David Rubinson, the producer of the first album, were interviewed.
They talked about Byrd, but only in the past tense.
the reader can well imagine my expression when, while reading (web-only)
Salon magazine I saw an article by Damien Cave titled Musician To Napster
Judge: Let My Music Go (April 23, 2002), which talked about a 1960s-era
recording artist, Joseph Byrd, now teaching music
history at the College of the Redwoods in Northern California! A few
seconds later I had already sent a letter to Damien Cave. After a few
days I received a reply from Byrd.
The following conversation took place by e-mail during the first
week of August.
As a first question, I'd like to ask you about the way you perceived
the "rock scene" in 1967 - 1967, of course, being the year
that's conventionally considered as the year when rock became stylistically
more open to both "outside" and "highbrow" influences.
Loosely speaking, think about The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts
Club Band, Frank Zappa, Cream and English "outside" groups
such as Pink Floyd and Traffic. Even a group like The Doors seemed to
integrate many stylistical strands into their music. Did you perceive
your work as (loosely speaking) being a part of that scenery? What were
your conscious goals in establishing a group like The United States
Sgt. Pepper influenced everybody, and indeed was one of the arguments
I used to keep the band on track (on my track, of course). Zappa was
not nearly so influential, whatever his fans would like to think. In
those early days he was mostly into being raunchy and offensive, so
the band (during the brief time that it was still a "band"
as opposed to the later stuff, which was different ensembles) didn't
get much play. On the other hand, his broad brand of satire was more
accessible than my more insidious (or so I like to think) kind.
I never met any of those people, although I certainly heard their
music. If they influenced me, it was subconscious. I've already named
the groups I was aware of emulating: The Airplane, The Fish (Country
Joe), and Blue Cheer; there was an interesting though obscure group
called The Great Society (Grace Slick with her then husband Darby) that
influenced me, and I loved The Red Crayola, although without actually
trying to take stuff from them.
I was pretty deliberate about exploring new territory. No, there
was no "school" in which we considered ourselves. As I've
said elsewhere, I regarded the avant garde art community as my peer
I'd like to ask you a question about the first track of the album,
The American Metaphysical Circus - and since I am not really conversant
with the American musical heritage I'm afraid there will be more questions
like this. Would you mind identifying the musical motives that are featured
at the beginning and at the end of this piece? As a compositional gesture,
the "moving orchestras" remind me of Charles Ives. But why
those particular pieces?
Without going back and listening, I believe the sources are (more
or less in order) National Emblem (an early 20th Century march, which
I played on calliope), At A Georgia Camp Meeting (a "coon song,"
and early ragtime piece), The Red, White, and Blue (a patriotic song,
also known as Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean), and Marching Through
Georgia (a post-Civil war song by Henry Clay Work). That's four. If
you find another tune, let me know, and I'll listen and report back.
Yes, of course, the Ives tribute, but also to establish that we were
firmly in the American tradition of artistic and political radicalism
intermixed with patriotism, and to thus establish a psychic "distance"
from The Beatles.
The specific pieces? Well, I'd done a Civil War album for Time-Life,
and was very comfortable in the style of bands and circuses and saloon
music... otherwise, they were totally personal choices. I actually arranged
and conducted all the band pieces, doing the ragtime piano in 2 takes,
because as an accordionist, I've never been able to play much left-hand
piano. The calliope is very accordionist-friendly (there's one in Humboldt
County that I play a couple times a year), so I could get away with
a simple toot-toot octave left hand.
I've always liked the fact that - though it's very often multi-layered
- the recorded material never sounds "cluttered" - in this
specific sense the album reminds me a lot of The Beatles or of Strange
Days, the second album by The Doors (and their first on eight-track).
I assume you had to do quite a lot of pre-mixing. Would you mind talking
I appreciate your citing the uncluttered quality, because it was
something very much in my mind. I'd studied with and conducted Cage
and Feldman (as well as Mauricio Kagel and Sylvano Bussotti), for one
thing. For another, I thought the "wall of sound" approach
was awful, ending up with a mush that had neither majesty nor focus.
And that's where The Beach Boys were headed. Indeed, that's where The
Beatles might have gone without George Martin's firm hand. This is not
to say that I think we were better than either band.
Interestingly enough, in the next album I proceeded to "over-produce"
myself, and had many textures that sound too dense to allow the music
to sing. A very clear example is the unreleased USofA You Can't Ever
Come Down in comparison to the one I did for Columbia Masterworks. The
former is clean and terse, the latter dense and flabby. I learned some
hard lessons there, one of which is that it is usually a mistake to
produce yourself. Of course, by the time I had half a dozen albums under
my belt, it was impossible to find someone sufficiently experienced,
so I produced everything. A good example of a clean production is the
album I wrote and produced for Ry Cooder - you can see that I'd learned
Some things on the album - the first part of I Won't Leave My
Wooden Wife For You, Sugar being the obvious example - remind me quite
a bit of Frank Zappa. Wrong?
Many people have made the comparison, so you're not wrong. But in
terms of my copying him, yes, totally wrong. I didn't like what he was
doing at all - it sounded sloppy and thrown-together to me, and the
sentiments were juvenile, potty-mouthed, and simplistic. Zappa chose
easy targets, I thought; I was taking on the entire culture. Again,
this isn't a critical survey of the man's work, just what I saw at the
time. He didn't think much of me either, by the way.
A propos of which: How come the new release doesn't have any lyrics?
They had been included in the previous CD edition...
I had less than 1% input into the Sundazed re-release, and that's
more than I'm getting in royalties! They did email me, and asked if
I'd be interested in doing notes, and I figured this was a chance to
get my voice heard - Dorothy and Rubinson had both done extensive interviews
referring to me in unpleasant fashion (as justification for their coup,
I imagine). I asked for $300 and got it. I've written elsewhere to you
that Sundazed took out all references they found controversial, including
one about Bill Graham.
But I wasn't asked about anything they did, and indeed have never
seen many of the photos before.
Again, about I Won't Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar: There
is an uncredited wind section at the end of the piece, playing...
Precious Lord is what I titled it. Years later, I came across that
exact tune in a Japanese Methodist hymnal. What every composer dreads!
It's the same tune as Gospel Music For Abraham Ruddell Byrd in the next
album. So I plagiarized it twice!
Listening to the album again, I thought that something in the
track Coming Down reminded me of some "California music" of
the period - the drums/tambourine combination reminds me of something
Hal Blaine could have played in those days. Your opinion?
I am so pleased you noticed. I later worked with Hal Blaine (in fact
I have a very interesting recording with Blaine on the West Coast and
Bernard Purdie on the East), but he was the Gold Standard of rock drums,
and I worked with Craig Woodson on capturing it. Craig is the guy UNCUT
thought was me.
I've read in your liner notes that when playing live the group
played from written scores on stands. Why not memorize the parts? (Just
a personal curiosity.)
No time, no time! We had the parts memorized pretty much by the time
we did the East Coast "tour," but we had in fact played stuff
in our first gig at The Ash Grove that was first rehearsed that afternoon,
so we did have stands.
The whole album sports a strong "collage" element. Do
you consider this compositional strategy to have the same "meaning"
when applied today?
I wanted to integrate the electronics and the tapes into live performance.
(And if you read Barry Hansen's review of the band, you'll see that
everything on the LP we actually did in performance.) It was part of
my idea that we were not just a band, but an avant-garde event. There
were other aspects of performance art in our performances too, that
changed from one venue to the next.
That said, I don't find so much collage in American music, but it
does seem to have taken hold in the British bands I've cited - Portishead,
Broadcast, and Radiohead, and if that's my influence, I'm delighted.
If I'm not mistaken, you were schooled in both electronic and
concrete music. Do you think that - though there have been practical
and theoretical advances in synthesis (for instance, physical modeling)
- nowadays sampling is the only game in town?
I think a lot is lost in sampling. For rare instances when you want
a tunable sound effect, or to edit 34 seconds down to 30, it's a godsend,
but it seems to contribute to "aural clutter," and that's
I also think much has been lost with the demise of analog synthesis:
for example, I was in a studio not long ago and the composer played
a sound, and I said, "That might be really effective if you modulated
the high partials with a reversed sawtooth wave," and oops, he
couldn't do it. (And that's a really primitive thing to do.) So digital
has meant giving up control of artistic decisions to corporations like
Yamaha. Where by this point in history we should have infinite options,
we actually have fewer!
There! You've succeeded in baiting me, so I sound like an old fogey.
I hope you're happy now.
Do you think there's still an "avant-garde" today?
Somewhere there will always be someone doing something that challenges
mainstream thinking. Taking chances is risky, however. So to get artists
who can continue to work on the edge, doing art that doesn't support
them, they have to be rich, like Yoko, or ascetic, like Cage. That does
tend to change the equation. I left that world because I was 30, and
it was time for me to make a living. (That said, I lived in poverty
for over a decade.)
If you don't mind, I'd like to ask you a few questions about your
second album, The American Metaphysical Circus. Lest I forget: Who's
the uncredited bass player?
Harvey Newmark. I don't know why he isn't credited. He's become a
brilliant player, and has recorded, with David Sherr's ensemble, some
of the most exciting music I've heard recently.
I have to confess that - though I like the USoA album a great
deal - I like the second album just as much, if not more. I think that
not having a fixed palette - a specific group - made it possible for
you to have more timbral variety. (But I suspect you don't agree.)
Well, I wish I'd had more money, better resources to work with (I
regret the lead singers, myself included), and more time to write songs,
and a collaborator to write them with. As I've said elsewhere, Dorothy
was not innovative, but she had a sense of style, and a fluent muse,
so she would immediately get the sense of a song and suggest the direction
it could go.
The different palette would have been more effective if the band
had been a coherent pole, I think. I mean, as a center to play away
from. As it was, there really was no band, just Harvey, Pot, Ted Greene,
and some studio musicians.
No, I'm not sorry about anything I wrote, but if I could have afforded
real studio singers on The Sing-Along Song... It was supposed to sound
like The Roger Wagner Chorale.
What's "Pelog" - the name of a scale?
Yes, one of the two basic gamelan scales.
Again, about my lack of knowledge of those sources: In the song
called Patriot's Lullaby at a certain point it seems there's a record
playing in the background - like a choir singing... what? (America The
Good ear, Beppe! That's what they're singing, only I altered it slightly
to fit the harmony of the song. I may have changed the words a little
The album was dedicated to Ruddell Byrd - but the dedication on
the CD release is incomplete. Why?
My younger brother, now a beloved physician in Tucson. He was a Vietnam
War protester who was in prison at the time the album was released.
I have had no dealings with the company, and they do whatever they like.
Could you please elaborate about the track called Leisure World?
I suspect it to be based on a motif that I've never heard before.
The commercial jingle is set to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, the sentimental
Scottish folk song about remembrance of good times. It's customarily
sung on New Year's Eve. Leisure World (http://home.earthlink.net/~jmartin/history.html)
(which I regarded as a horror) was the first retirement community, a
place in which no one could live who wasn't over 55. There are now thousands
of them, which I at the age of 66, think just as dreadful as I did then: a cruise ship for people who've abandoned real life.
Let's talk about business, would you? How come that after that
second album there was no more?
Well, there was certainly no demand from Columbia! Who do you think
might have put out an album? My "angel" for that one was John
McClure, a very bright and very kind man, who offered it to me on his
division, which was Masterworks, the classical division of Columbia.
Interestingly, it sold very well for a "classical" album,
and is the only "rock" album ever so released. It was in the
catalog for over 15 years!
I've read somewhere that you were involved with talking toys for
Mattel and with creating sound effects for a character in Star Wars?
I did anything that paid, and Mattel was one of my clients. The Star
Wars story is too long to tell here.
I bought your two albums on Takoma way back then. Would you please
clarify for me your musical intention when recording that material?
There are actually 3, the last being a historical album of sentimental
songs from the mid-19th Century.
Takoma approached me about doing an imitative synthesizer Christmas
album in 1974, saying they couldn't pay, but it would make royalties.
I had very primitive equipment, but I was working with Don Buchla at
the time, and you'll recall that I got Tom Oberheim started in the electronic
sound business, so I borrowed and begged some modules and recorded that
album, following it up in 1976 with one of patriotic songs. By the latter
LP I had gotten better at it, but I would never have the kind of equipment
Walter Carlos had, nor would I get more than a 4-track quarter-inch
Earlier you referred to a recording you did with Hal Blaine and
Bernard Purdie. Would you mind elaborating?
In my earliest work in radio, I was still very avant-garde minded;
in fact some of my most interesting work is radio commercials. Until
I began getting a reputation as a non-conformist, which is not what
the agencies want from their suppliers.
I was bi-coastal in those days, and I quickly realized that I could
hire big-name musicians for the same money, because commercials - which
pay residuals - were better than LPs. So when I needed a drummer, I
got Hal Blaine in LA and Bernard Purdie in NY. The piece I'm talking
about was something I did as a "novelty" for The Great American
Radio Show, a broadcasters convention in Manhattan, celebrating 50 years
of radio advertising. I did a number of odd pieces for that, including
my "Radio Cantata," a Handelian homophony on
Glory to the unseen voice
That changed the world in fifty years,
That makes the Great Unclean rejoice,
And sells them soap to wash their ears.
followed by a fugue on
Glory be to radio!
But back to my story. I
wrote a drum part to a non-existent rock instrumental, then made a click
track. This wasn't that unusual, since it was the early days of 8-track
1-inch multi-tracking. The part had pauses, a solo fill, and a conclusion.
I then played the click for both drummers independently, having them
record their parts, neither one hearing the other. It's a great contrast
of loose West Coast style in perfect sync with tight New York style.
Despite that, it sounds great. Hal and Pretty never heard it played
If I'm not mistaken you teach a course in songwriting. What's
your perspective on the way personal, elaborate melodies and intricate
chordal movement seem to have given way to the lowest common denominator
as the consciously pursued ideal? Do you see any clear trend(s)? (I
think Paul Zollo has written quite interesting things in his anthology
titled Songwriters On Songwriting.)
I personally don't miss the "personal, elaborate, and intricate."
Laura Nyro and Stevie Wonder weren't my heroes. I didn't like most people
in the 70s, although my ex turned me on to the lyric facility of Cat
Stevens, and I thought that was charming, very accessible. I have great
respect for Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell, but they are very atypical
songwriters, and I certainly don't think other songwriters should be
learning from what they did. Elliot Smith was in that mold too. It's
a solipsistic loop. As a recovering narcissist, I recognize the syndrome,
and I don't think it's one bit romantic.
Let me mention some current songwriters, and maybe that will lead
to what I find hopeful and discouraging in today's songs. My favorites
this month are Tom Waits, Eleni Mandell, and Nellie McKay, and none
of them are in the Simon/Mitchell mold.
Waits has come a long way. He started more obscure and poet-like,
but has gotten accessible and "real" with age. The opposite
of Bob Dylan, who was the most important songwriter of the 60s (and
that's a definitive decade), but has become a cartoon of himself. Waits
is how Dylan should have turned out. Let me give you a verse of his:
In a land there's a town,
and in that town there's a house
And in that house there's a woman
And in that woman there's a heart I love
I'm gonna take it with me when I go.
It takes a lot of living life to be capable of a lyric that direct,
to eliminate all the craft and all the extra shit, and get right down
Eleni Mandell is a struggling writer, just barely making it, having
to tour with a single bass player (can't afford a band), because she
doesn't write hit singles, she's not cute, and she doesn't have a record
contract. But she too writes intense, and sometimes mad, lyrics:
When it rains I throw up my windows
On a cold, dark day I run in the street
I'm OK when the howling wind blows
Yes, it's alright with me
When it's hot like the devil laughing "Ha!"
I will pull on my hat and coat and see
That I'm always happy keeping up
With the man just a step ahead of me
He thinks he's in love with this girl
But I know that he can't be in love with her
He's in love with me
Nellie McKay is a phenomenon, a media-perfect babe: 19, gorgeous,
with a sarcastic streak, and a wicked mouth. Naturally Sony glommed
onto her, and gave her Geoff Emerick, the Beatles' engineer, to produce
her first album. I don't care. She's brilliant. And even though I advise
people to stay away from preaching, from "messages," from
wearing your political heart on your sleeve, she can get away with it:
I feel bad
not bad enough really
I feel angry and upset
I could write you a small check
look I wish you luck
and here's your buck
it's just that I'm a yuppie fuck
yes indeed I am
OK, if these are signs of what is hopeful in songwriting, what do
they have in common? First, they're vernacular. Second, they say something,
they aren't just about finding a phrase to turn into a hook. Here for
contrast are two "manufactured" pop songs (Avril Lavigne and
Is it enough to love, is it enough to breathe
Somebody rip my heart out and leave me here to bleed
Is it enough to die somebody save my life
I'd rather be anything but ordinary please
If it's over let it go and
Come tomorrow it will seem
I'm just a bird
That's already flown away
Nothing "real" there at all, and nothing that lasts longer
than cotton candy. But I'm not fond of "message" stuff either,
other than Randy Newman. (Actually, he was an influence of mine, only
it was before anyone had heard him; a producer played me his demo of
Simon Smith and So Long, Dad, which are not typical of his later songs.)
What I'm looking for are songs that resonate with the present and
sound like someone actually said the words. Something that engenders
reflection - and there are many ways to get there, but always the same
destination. Something simple. Something that sits comfortably in its
style, like a good pair of shoes. The shoes can be work boots, or spike
heels, or two-tone spectator shoes (my three songwriters). Style has
always been important to me. I think it is the van that delivers the
Beppe Colli 2004
| Aug. 26, 2004