By Mike Greenblatt
From his earliest days playing bluegrass to becoming the teenaged bassist of The Byrds in 1965, Chris Hillman has had more than just a passing importance in the cultural foundation of what became country-rock. His days with Gram Parsons [1946-1973] in The Flying Burrito Brothers were pioneering. His time with Stephen Stills in Manassas and his own Desert Rose Band added more great music to an already stuffed resumé. Ever gracious, Hillman was quick to downplay compliments for his talents as he reminisced about The Byrds and bandmate David Crosby.
CHRIS HILLMAN: The truth is, I was never the greatest songwriter, musician or singer. I’ve been lucky. I learned. Look at the people I’ve had the privilege to play with! And that’s the way the way it went. Conversely, I have respect for someone like you who writes. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do. In fact, I’m going to quote David Byrne here who said, “Aging rock star autobiographies make for a crowded bookshelf.” Still, I’m attempting it. But enough about me. Let’s talk about my good buddy, David Crosby.
GOLDMINE: David told me you kicked him out of The Byrds!
CH: [Laughs.] That was later on. Initially, David was going to be the bass player of The Byrds, not me. I had worked with Jim Dickson [1931-2011], who ended up co-producing us with Terry Melcher [1942-2004] and actually managing The Byrds. Jim had produced my [pre-Byrds] bluegrass band and asked me to come listen to Roger [McGuinn] and his 12-string Gibson, Gene [Clark] and David. He said, “Man, you have got to hear these guys! They’re rehearsing now in a studio, c’mon!”
Having come out of a band where I worked with Vern Gosdin [1934-2009], I had already been around some beautiful singing. But when I first heard McGuinn, Clark and Crosby sing, I remember going, “Oh my god, they sound fantastic!” They were singing Beatle songs and writing songs like The Beatles. And that was the end of it, before I got a phone call some three weeks later from Jim Dickson asking me if I could play bass for them.
Well, I couldn’t play bass! But I just knew, after hearing them sound so great, that this was going to work. David, apparently, felt more comfortable not playing bass. So I was hired as the bassist. History has recorded that I was a founding member of The Byrds, and that’s fine with me.
We all came from the folk tradition except for drummer Michael Clarke, and God only knows where he came from. We were five of the most diverse individuals to ever be in a band together. Crosby, Clark and McGuinn were of the Christy Minstrel school, and I was the traditionalist. Roger was the most seasoned musician of the bunch. He was really good and had been an accompanist to Chad Mitchell. He also had worked with Judy Collins and really had been around. David and Roger were about three years older than Gene and I, and when you’re that age — late teens/early 20s — three years is huge. I knew they were very bright guys. So that’s The Byrds.
GM: So, you wanted to be a rock ’n’ roll star, eh?
CH: And there we went! Major success. We couldn’t quite believe it.
David was one tough guy to work with, let me tell you. I was shy. I’ve had to think about this but I realize now, as intimidating as he could be, and, boy, was he a little f**ker, and I don’t use that word too much anymore, there was something about David that made me reach harder and further. The more intimidating he got, the deeper I went into the music. At times, sure, he also made me feel like I couldn’t handle it, especially after Gene left and I became one of the singers.
David Crosby made me a better musician by his very presence. I learned how to sing by listening to him and Roger. Beneath that gruff exterior was a heart of gold. This man has been there for me many, many times. You just have to chip away at that exterior. When my house burned down, he was there to help me. When I sick 15 years ago, he was there to help me. I love the guy, I really do. Sure, back then I wanted to strangle him. A lot. We all did. And, yes we did, actually, get rid of him! He was too out-there for the rest of the band. He wasn’t contributing. It was over at that point. We were starting to lose the whole focus of everything, but that’s another story.
GM: No it’s not. Tell me.
CH: OK, after we played Monterey, and that performance for us was pretty weird, David was way out of line. He just checked out. The performance itself was pretty sketchy.
We had gotten rid of our manager. But getting rid of Jim Dickson was a huge mistake. He was the architect of it all. Him and McGuinn. Jim Dickson saw what it could be and made The Byrds what they were. He’s the one who brought us “Mr. Tambourine Man.” This is a guy who taught us to go for substance in our music. He said this line to all of us, and it’s the single-most best piece of advice I’ve ever received in my career. “You guys should make records,” he told us, “that you’re going to be proud of in 40 years.” It didn’t quite hit us at first. We went, “What?” But he was dead-on with that. So we went, “Wow, OK.” Now, looking back, just about all those songs we recorded at that time, I’m so proud of, at least 80 percent of them. I was lucky to be in that band.
But we got rid of the stagecoach driver, and all of a sudden, the stagecoach is careening down the mountain, like the Beatles after Brian Epstein. Brian dies, and the band just fell apart.
So Monterey was a pretty sketchy performance for us. David just wasn’t there. I mean, he was there, but he wasn’t. He sat in with Buffalo Springfield. I really didn’t care, but man! See, I originally met Buffalo Springfield when they were just getting together. I would hear them play at the home of Barry Friedman, their original manager. And I would go, “Man, these guys are really good.” I talked Elmer Valentine [1923-2008] at the Whisky A Go Go into hiring them. Here I am, a dumb bass player from The Byrds, and I said to Elmer, “Get these guys in here for a few nights.” Well, he kept them for two weeks. I took Crosby down to hear Buffalo Springfield. I said, “You have got to hear this band.” He casually agreed. Well, within a year, he was hanging around that band all the time. Then they became really successful. It was ’67, I think, maybe ’68. David was getting bored in The Byrds. I knew that.
It finally got to where we just couldn’t work with him. It came down to McGuinn and I, of all things, to have to tell him. I had begun writing songs by then. I was growing, but I wasn’t singing as good as I knew I could. That came later.
GM: So he was right. You did kick him out of The Byrds! Man, that’s some heavy load you dropped on him. What must that have been like?
CH: He took it well at the time, I guess. I really don’t remember. But look at his career! Have you heard “Croz”?
GM: I love it.
CH: So do I. It’s incredibly good. He still sings so beautifully. And he still takes us into this unique place with his songs. I gotta tell you this: I’m so tired of today’s generic stuff. So here comes Crosby’s album, and I got lost in the melodies, the lyrics, his presentation. I just think it’s so fantastic. And I don’t say that much anymore. I’m too jaded. I listen to old music now, man; there’s just nothing new to get excited about.
GM: I hear you. People ask me who I listen to and I tell them, “Mostly dead people.”
CH: [Laughs.] I’ve been going back to the music my parents used to listen to: Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin mostly. Y’know, I told Crosby a few years ago, “Out of all the people who have jumped into doing standards, you’re the one who could do it.”
GM: He would never.
CH: But he’s got the voice. He’s a good guy, man. A real good guy. But, yeah, there were times I wanted to smack him with a baseball bat. He was intolerable in the early days of The Byrds. But I can’t blame everything on him. We were all little brats at that point.
GM: Didn’t you know you were creating culturally significant music? Or were you all like idiot savants just making rock ’n’ roll not realizing whatsoever it would stand the test of time for decades and decades?
CH: [Laughs] I do seem to remember the recording of [Pete Seeger’s] “Bells Of Rhymney,” a Welsh coal mine poem that Pete wrote a beautiful melody for [and changed the lyric]. I remember the day we worked it up. I went, “God, this is amazing.” It’s still one of my favorite Byrds records. Michael Clarke hitting those cymbals sounded like cathedral bells, and Crosby sang so, so beautifully. His harmony singing was unparalleled, just fantastic, and it’s stayed that way in everything he’s ever done.
You have to remember those Byrds records were cut in 8-track analog at first, before we hooked up to a 16-track. Boy, did those records sound great. They were real. They were alive. I think The Byrds were a better band in the studio than we were on stage most of the time.
GM: Those songs still sound vital today, unlike a lot of what I adored back then.
CH: I agree. Roger McGuinn sang [Pete Seeger’s] “Turn Turn Turn” at my wedding. It was the greatest rendition I’d ever heard. I’ve been married 35 years now. He sat there with a guitar and did the most beautiful thing for us. We walked down the aisle to it. That’s how powerful that song is.
GM: Some things die hard, though. McGuinn has said recently, when the old reunion idea is mentioned every now and then, that he’d never again, to this day, want to be in a band with Crosby.
CH: I know, I know. It’s a little tough to take and I totally understand it, but only on a certain level. And I’ll be honest with you, as far as a Byrds reunion is concerned, first of all, two of the guys are gone. [Gene Clark died at 46 of a bleeding ulcer in 1991; Michael Clarke died of liver failure at 43.] David said to me, “I just wanted to do those songs again, and I don’t care if I’m a back-up to Roger. You and I are the side guys,” he told me. He was into it. I told him I love playing those songs, too. I did tell him of the pros and cons of getting back together with Roger. I mean, hell, sometimes you’ve got old war wounds that have healed but fester again if opened. Some of that stuff should be kept locked up. Maybe a short reunion, just a few shows, because it’s such great music. Part of me, truth be told, really wants to. Another part of me totally gets McGuinn’s logic. Hey, Roger is happy doing what he’s doing. His show is basically The Byrds anyway.
GM: I saw him with Marty Stuart last year, and I was in honky-tonk heaven.
CH: Oh yeah! He’s still a great performer. He still plays the stuff great. Would it be unbelievably better if David and I were playing?
CH: Damn right it would.
GM: You gotta convince McGuinn to do it.
CH: I won’t go there with him. It’s his thing, and I respect it. I like Roger and only wish him the best. I know how David can be. When we got together about the boxed set in the 1990s and went down to Nashville, it was the three of us and we cut a couple of tracks. David, even in the ’90s, had a moment down there where he was the old incorrigible David. He had some issues with somebody and was being a total jerk.
GM: He told me he’s not the same person now.
CH: We’re all different people now. I’m not just Chris the dumb bass player anymore. And I don’t even want to be referred to as Chris the bass player if we do get together again. I’ve gone and done other things. The Byrds were only a part — a big part — of my whole musical career. If I ever get off my lazy ass and do another album, we can talk about all the rest of it.
GM: You should do new music. The new music of Crosby, Stills & Nash is amazing. Graham Nash has this song, “In Your Name,” which is him asking God why so many people kill in his name. It’s a prayer. It gives me the chills. It’s up there with “Our House” and “Teach Your Children.” I’d love to hear some new Chris Hillman material!
CH: Nash is a very talented guy. I don’t agree with his politics or the way he looks at things. That age-old question of why people are killing in God’s name? Leave it to man — the fallen, imperfect species — to throw a monkey wrench into the beautiful Christian concept of love and forgiveness.
GM: So Graham doesn’t have to ask God why people kill in his name. He has to ask Chris Hillman!
CH: That’s pretty much it, yeah. But he won’t. The theological ramifications of it are something I’m sure he doesn’t want to talk about. You probably won’t even want to talk to me after I tell you this, but I’m a very conservative guy and I’m very religious, too. I’m a Greek Orthodox Christian. Now that doesn’t mean I know everything. In fact, I don’t know anything! But, this I’ll tell you: Ted Nugent and I will be out there aiming our rifles at things. You get it?
GM: Final word on Crosby?
CH: I have no animosity. It’s become comical to remember certain things, but, as corny as it sounds, I’ve loved everybody I’ve ever worked with. I know that sounds so cliché. But you know what? I had great times with those guys. Crosby? Yeah, he could be a real pain, but I do love the guy. He’s a good guy. He’s unique. His approach to his craft is like nothing you’ll ever hear out there. His talent is overflowing, and he’s singing better than ever, and “Croz” is a great album. He’s funny and he obviously has the constitution of Samson. He’ll outlive all of us. Look what he’s done! It’s hard to top David Crosby’s life story. GM