Pop Quiz: Chris Hillman Of The Byrds

November 26, 2006|By Aidin Vaziri

The best box set of the year? That's easy. The Byrds' "There Is a Season," a four-disc run through the archives of the California band's prime material, covering everything from the jingle-jangle Dylan covers ("Mr. Tambourine Man") and shimmering psychedelic rock classics ("Eight Miles High") to the songs that set off the whole cosmic country-rock movement (everything from "Sweetheart of the Rodeo"). Without them, there would have been no R.E.M., Wilco or, ahem, Eagles. The Byrds' original bass player, Chris Hillman, served as our tour guide through the package, which also comes with a DVD of vintage television appearances.

Q: The record company spared no expense on this box set. It even smells good.

A: I've probably rarely said this in 44 years, but they did a great job. It brings back the good memories, not the bad ones.

Q: So you're not going to use this an excuse to dump on your former bandmates?

A: No, I don't wish to waste energy on things that happened 20 or 30 years ago. We got to enjoy what I consider the very best part of the '60s. I was just the bass player.

Q: Just the bass player of one of the most influential American bands in the past million years.

A: The Byrds, as great as they were, my better work was with the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Desert Rose Band, which you probably don't know. But even if I cured cancer tomorrow I would be known as an ex-Byrd.

Q: And the least famous one at that.

A: Right. I wasn't David Crosby. I was the guy in the back, not smiling, just holding the bass. As far as I'm concerned, Roger McGuinn was the Byrds. He had the distinctive 12-string sound that we built the band around.

Q: Did it even feel like you were doing anything worthwhile at the time?

A: We had no idea what we were doing. We had no blueprint. We had no plans. No one thought we would make any money. I had no idea how to play the bass. I bluffed my way into the job. Everyone got into music just because they loved it so much, not because of some trophy or award. Who knew?

Q: How were the drugs back then?

A: We had pot and LSD. But crystal meth, cocaine wasn't around. The drugs that came along in the '70s, that's when I started losing people. Gram Parsons died. Gene Clark. Mike Clarke, God knows how they lasted into the '80s. You can ask anybody my age who survived it, and they would tell you the same thing: You never wrote the great songs on that stuff.

Q: If you had such a good thing going why did everyone quit the band?

A: What happened was, we started to shoot ourselves in the foot. We got successful, we got rid of our manager, Jim Dickinson, and then we start fighting and people are leaving. When we did the country stuff David had left, Michael had left, Gene had left. When one person leaves an original lineup you lose the essence. We managed to make some good records, but it was never the same.

Q: Gram Parsons: the best or worst thing to happen to the Byrds?

A: We thought Gram was a keyboard player, but it ended up he was a songwriter. The best stuff he did was on "Sweetheart." We went down to Nashville and took this really radical turn. That probably left more of a legacy and touched more people than our earlier stuff. It was the worst-selling record the Byrds made. That was it for me.