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‘It Would Have Been Great If We’d Stayed Together’: Inside the Upcoming Photo Book on the Byrds

You know you’ve become a rock institution when you’re awarded a photo-heavy coffee table book that will test the budgets of your fans. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Queen, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and many more have been awarded that high-end treatment, and the latest recipients will be the Byrds.

On September 30, the group will release The Byrds: 1964-1967, which crams 500 photos (some previously unseen), into 400 pages,  all documenting the legendary L.A. band that created folk-rock, country-rock, and arguably psychedelic rock too. Focusing on the original lineup of Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, Gene Clark and Michael Clarke, the tome includes in-studio photos, alternate takes of album covers, backstage and tour-bus glimpses, goofy group publicity photos (including one of them in bathing suits with a beauty-pageant winner), and many shots of a startlingly cherubic-looking Crosby.

The book also features new, running commentary from surviving members McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman and ends with a final section devoted to photos from the sessions for their ill-fated but underrated 1973 reunion album. Of that project and the way he lorded over it, Crosby admits, in his comments, “I tried to be nice, but I’m pretty sure I was a dick.”

Frank Bez

These memories will cost you. A so-called “stand edition” of the book will be priced at $125. A deluxe edition signed by McGuinn and Hillman will go for $350; another limited edition, signed by McGuinn, Hillman and Crosby, can be had for $475. If you really want to make a dent in your savings account, another autographed “Super Deluxe” edition, which comes with a fine-art print of one of the book’s photos and will be limited to 700 copies, will set you back $1,700.

Among the many aspects of Byrds history that are rekindled by the book is the Beatlemania level of fan worship that greeted the band the year after “Mr. Tambourine Man” put them on the charts. Photos show fans grabbing at the band or swarming around Crosby as he exits a limo. “America’s answer to the Beatles,” chuckles McGuinn, who will turn 80 next month. “It was like being in A Hard Day’s Night. It was exciting, but a bit dangerous. Sometimes our limo would be parked on the street and we had to run from the car to the venue and the girls would tackle you and say, ‘I got ’em!’ They didn’t have good security back then.” McGuinn also recalls one loyal fan stealing his trademark Byrds granny glasses in Chicago: “We were doing an in-store and coming down the escalator and some girl grabbed them. They were gone.”

As one turn, turn, turns through the pages, The Byrds 1964-1967 also chronicles of departures of Clark and Crosby, with McGuinn, Hillman and Clarke reduced to a trio (as seen in rare live shots of that incarnation, which even McGuinn hadn’t seen). “It’s kind of a sad story when you think about the guys leaving,” McGuinn admits. “We managed to make some good records even without all the guys. The Notorious Byrd Brothers is a really good record, and it had David on it too. But It would have been great if we’d all stayed together, more or less like the Stones.”

david crosby motorcycle byrds

David Crosby on a motorcycle.

Jim Dickson

What fans won’t find are any photos of the 1968-1972 years, when different McGuinn-fronted incarnations of the Byrds continued with the likes of Gram Parsons, Clarence White, Skip Battin and Gene Parsons. McGuinn says it was the publisher BMG’s decision to focus on what he calls “the early Byrds,” adding, “It would have been great to have Clarence. He was a great friend and one of the best guitar players I’ve ever worked with. Hendrix came to see us at the Whisky A Go Go and he came backstage and was shaking Clarence’s hand.”

In 2018, timed to the 50th anniversary of Sweetheart of the Rodeo, McGuinn and Hillman reunited to play the country-rock milestone start to finish. McGuinn says we shouldn’t expect any more of those shows — he felt they should have been limited to that five-decade mark — but he continues to tour solo and has a least one more Byrds trump card up his sleeve. In 1969, he and the late lyricist Jacques Levy wrote two dozen songs for a musical, Gene Tryp, based on Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. A few of those songs, like “Chestnut Mare” and “Just a Season,” emerged on Byrds albums. But McGuinn, playing all the instruments himself, has finally recorded most of the rest of the unheard material from that project, including the gospel-style “Are You Right with God?” A release date is pending. 

McGuinn himself wrote a memoir years ago, which he says was rejected by his publisher after it was submitted. As he recalls, the reason was the parts of the book that were devoted to his Christian beliefs, which kicked in during the late Seventies. “The publisher said, ‘Can you take all that Jesus stuff out of there?’” he says. “They said, ‘It’s not what we expect from a rock autobiography.’ But looking back at it, there was a lot of sex, drugs and rock and roll in there and there’s a lot of stuff I wouldn’t want anyone to know about.”

The Byrds’ often fractious dynamic continues to this day. Earlier this month, McGuinn tweeted publicly to Crosby, “David… please unblock me.” (The two, who seemed to be on good standing after years of ups and downs, had a falling out in 2019.)  “I’m still blocked,” McGuinn says. “It didn’t work. We love David, but he’s just a little hard to get along with.”

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