Dylan, The Byrds, and John Coltrane

January 7th, 2018

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In Robbie Robertson’s entertaining biography Testimony, the rock guitarist tells a short story about a conversation he overheard Bob Dylan having with The Byrd’s Jim (a.k.a. “Roger”) McGuinn concerning John Coltrane’s influence on McGuinn when he wrote “Eight Miles High.”

The setting was Los Angeles, 1966, during a Dylan tour that employed Robertson and, among others, bandmates Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, who are referred to in the excerpt.  The “Levon” in the story was the drummer Levon Helm, who left the tour after a month out of frustration of playing with Dylan during his initial “electric” period, when folk music purists routinely heckled Dylan and the band.  Helm spent much of the time away working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, and it was rumored that they may have all been in Los Angeles at the same time.

The group (before Dylan) originally played as the backing ensemble for the Canadian rock singer Ronnie Hawkins, and eventually became known simply as “The Band.”

The excerpt follows…

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     During our next trip to California for a run of shows, Bob and I stayed at a house called the Castle in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles.  It was a big, classic, Spanish-style house with a huge window that offered a view for miles, smog permitting.  One fascinating thing about this place was that it sat right across the street from Ennis House, the classic Frank Lloyd Wright building that had been home to Bela Lugosi, the original Dracula in movies.  He had a reputation for being a morphine addict, and you could imagine him holed up in this spooky fortress of a house for weeks at a time, peeking out the long, narrow windows to scan for police or intruders.

     After getting settled in a downstairs bedroom that opened onto the garden, I went over to the Hyatt Hotel on Sunset, where the other guys were staying.  We’d had word that Levon might be out in L.A, and Richard asked me if I’d heard from him.  I’d tried calling him the day before and again that morning, but no answer.

     “If he wants to see us, he’ll get in touch,” Rick interjected.  “Otherwise, I say leave it alone.  Maybe he’s not in a very social place right now.”

     Jim McGuinn of the Byrds came by to visit Bob and play a new track his group had just recorded called “Eight Miles High,” which would be released as a single next week.  You could tell he was excited about it, and he certainly stirred up my curiosity with his space-age description of the song.  He took off his little rectangle-frame shades, wiped them on his shirt, and put the disc on the record player.  He was right – it was spacy, quite a departure from their earlier folk-rock sound.  Bob didn’t seem overly impressed.

     “How’d you come up with that?” he asked Jim.

     “Been listening to a lot of Coltrane.  Trying to interpret that in my own way on the twelve-string guitar.”

     “Why?”

     “I don’t know,” Jim answered.  “Probably because I like it.  Don’t you like John Coltrane?”

     Bob laughed.  “Sure, but I don’t try to copy his stuff.”

     Jim smiled.  “Well, maybe you should.  It’s pretty good.”

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Excerpted from Testimony, by Robbie Robertson

 

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A 1967 film of The Byrds playing “Eight Miles High”

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John Coltrane in 1966…”Naima,” from Live At the Village Vanguard Again!

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