Tuesday, July 7, 2009

To Dance Beneath the Diamond Sky with One Hand Wavin' Free

It's not because my birthday is in July that makes me like it better than any other month of the year. Up here in the Midwest, summer finally hits its stride on the Fourth and from there straight on to Labor Day it's barbecue smoke and sweat. July is the only month of the year that begins with fireworks and ends with Back to School sales -- at the start a celebration of freedom and in the end a realization for school kids that the freedom thing is like an Independence Day sparkler . . . it burns bright but it doesn't last very long.

If you look at the charts, you'll see that over the year July has danced to an awesome soundtrack. No music is as memorable as summer music, and the music of July begs to be played with the volume up and the windows rolled down. At least it used to . . . before we put the buds in our ears.

It gives me the fan-tods to think of years gone by, especially my youth. I was nearly 15-years-old in early July of 1965, for example, and that was 44 years ago. To look back 44 years at that point in my life would have been to see that Warren G. Harding was the President of the United States and Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were convicted of first degree murder, history book stuff. Now it's 44 years later, and I'm wondering what happened.

In early July of 1965 Mr. Tambourine Man, recorded by The Byrds spent its first week at the top of Chicago's WLS Silver Dollar Survey. Bob Dylan, who has never had a number one hit, wrote the song, and The Byrds got hold of the demo and took the song to Number One on their first try.

When the song was recorded the band (Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke) was so green that only McGuinn played on the record. The backing track was furnished by a group of session men called The Wrecking Crew -- Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel and Leon Russell. Blaine holds a Grammy Award record, playing drums on six different Grammy Award winning songs. Knechtel played bass on a number of songs for the bass-less Doors and went on to play with Bread. Russell, of course, has played for and with just about everyone in pop music, from Gary Lewis and the Playboys to Eric Clapton. McGuinn, Crosby and Clark sang vocals over that track.

As a Chicagoan I'm proud when I listen to McGuinn's work on the 12-string Rickenbacker for a couple of reasons. McGuinn was born right here in the Windy City and attended the Latin School. In 1957 he enrolled in the Old Town School of Music on North Lincoln Avenue, where he learned the five-string banjo, lessons that paid off on "Mr. Tambourine Man," on which he used a flat pick with metal finger picks on his middle and ring fingers to get the distinctive sound. Engineer Ray Gerhardt compressed the guitar line, in order to obtain a fuller, more sustained sound, a sound that we think of now as the distinctive "jingle, jangle" sound of McGuinn and the Byrds.

Structurally, the song is different than most popular songs because it begins with the chorus. Dylan's original song had four verses, of which only the second verse is sung on The Byrds' version. You look at Dylan's original lyrics, and look at how thin the song is that ended up as a Number One record, and you wonder how the heck the song could have worked in such a condensed form. But, hey, if it's summer and the music is good, it doesn't matter much what the words are. And that's rock and roll.

But if you want words . . . here they are from the master, the final verse of Dylan's song.

Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

And that's rock and roll, too.

No comments: