Tuesday, November 06, 2007

"Eight Miles High" / The Byrds

At first (I'm talking ancient days here, 1965 and 1966), I liked the Byrds. I bought both "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn, Turn, Turn" as singles; I'm pretty sure my brother owned that first album, the cover looks so familiar to me. Their hootenanny harmonies were lovely, and though it was apparently an electric guitar that Roger McGuinn was playing, he still seemed to be picking it folk-music-style (that "Mr. Tambourine" line about the "jingle-jangle morning" seemed completely apt, didn't it, given the metallic clang of McGuinn's guitar?). It didn't really register in my Beatlemaniac mind that these guys were Americans -- their sound fit right in with the rest of the British Invasion stuff I loved.

And then, in the middle of 1966, they came out with this strange new song, "Eight Miles High." That jangly guitar was now spinning crystalline strands of dissonance, and the close harmonies suddenly sounded less earnest, more...confused.

Young as I was, I knew perfectly well that the word "high" in the title had nothing to do with an airplane taking off. It was the first undeniably psychedelic song I'd ever listened to, and while I could pretend that the Beatles' "Rain" and Donovan's "Season of the Witch" meant something else, there was no pretending with this one. I was just a kid; it scared me. I did not buy that single, or anything else by the Byrds, ever again.

And I never gave this song another thought -- until a few months ago, when I saw Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 perform it as part of their encore set. In Robyn Hitchcock's hands, of course, psychedelia is a good thing. Suddenly I GOT this song. It's not just vague and dislocated; it's about vagueness and dislocation, and a drug user's surreal disconnect with reality.

"Eight miles high," the chiming vocals solemnly intone, climbing up a succession of minor chords, "and when you touch down / You'll find that it's / Stranger than known." Sure, that's weird grammatical usage, but we know what he means. Nothing around him makes sense: "Signs in the street / That say where you're going / Are somewhere, just being their own." That peculiar drug-induced dyslexia, turning letters into meaningless hieroglyphics, that's accurately noted all right.

Beneath those gliding, constantly shifting harmonies, the lyrics muddle around in hazy social commentary about the square (read straight) citizens who flit past, "afraid of losing their ground." Like a surreal silent film, the images unspool, a nonsensical street scene of huddled people "Some laughing, some just shapeless forms." A black limousine glides past. The guitars begin to get very busy, heading no one knows where, indulging in the musical equivalent of navel-gazing -- notes for the sake of notes. I've never had much patience for extended guitar solos, and I find myself spacing out during this part. But now I know that's what you're supposed to do during the solo. Of course!!

What this song really has -- which I never fully appreciated before -- is texture. We were just coming out of a monoaural era, full of music that sounded best spilling out of a transistor radio on AM frequencies. Here at last was music that begged to be played in stereo, with dense layers of different sounds -- hums, scrapes, throbs, thuds, murmurous whines and wheezes, and knifing through it all a reverberating cascade of notes from that juiced-up 12-string. It seems to go on a whole lot longer than three minutes and thirty-eight seconds, doesn't it? It makes me picture heavy swirling paisley draperies, and dark rooms lit with candles, and a definite smell of patchouli. Ah, it's the pure essence of the late Sixties, distilled into one little record. Mighty fine.

Eight Miles High sample


Nina said...

Hey great blog!

I’d love it if you checked mine out, just started it a few days ago. I will be posting Mon-Thu every week, hopefully!


I write mostly blurbs and ramblings about music every day, and I want to start doing some more album/song reviews when the time comes. I would really appreciate a comment or some feedback! :) thanks!

Dave K. said...

Thanks Holly,
It's one of my favorite songs. I've always been suspicious of the Byrds' explanation that it refers to a plane trip to London at the height of Beatlemania. I just assumed that it was a thin cover story for the straight press. But it makes sense to me now that a lot of references are of London in the mid 60s:

Rain gray town known for it’s sound
In places small faces unbound

It's not a stretch to think of London as a gray rainy town known for its sound. That's not to say that drugs play no role :-) . The vagueness and dislocation could also reflect the sense of being in a very foreign not so friendly place to a band that was hyped as America's answer to the Beatles. The lyrics give rise to multiple interpretations and the plane trip is not implausible.

I really don't know the answer, but it's fun to think about it :-) .

--Dave K.

Holly A Hughes said...

So okay, yeah, it can be about a plane trip too. If you insist. But in 1967, I guarantee you, all the fun lay in knowing that it WASN'T just a plane trip -- it was all in code so your parents wouldn't figure it out. "Byrds? They don't sound like birds to me..."

Angela said...

Oh, COME ON DAVE! :-()

I'm glad you finally tuned in and got turned on to this song, Holly. I started feeling high (or feeling like I was up in plane) while reading some of your descriptions. There is something beautifully eerie about the harmonies. There seems to almost be this Buddhist Monk drone at the base of it. I love, love, love this song. Great review as always. Doing with words what these musicans do with notes; making me FEEL it.

Dave K. said...

A quote from David Crosby who co-wrote the tune:

"Of course it was a drug song," Crosby said. "We were stoned when we wrote it. We can also justifiably say that it wasn't a drug song, because it was written about the [plane] trip to London."

There's a fine line between reality and sureality :-) .

Holly A Hughes said...

Well, there we have it, right from the horse's mouth! And from a man who knows his drugs...

JB Publicpolicy said...

As a long-time Byrdmaniac, I never worried too much about what EMH is really about. As Crosby said, it's about drugs AND a plane trip. To me it's really about diving in the deep end of Coltrane jazz and Shankar raga set to a rock beat and just blowing it all out to the walls.

What I also find remarkable is that the Byrds managed to concoct and record this less than a year after they hadn't been allowed to play most of the instruments on the "Mr. Tambourine Man" single and often seemed teetering on the brink of garage band incompetence on stage because they didn't rehearse enough. So "Eight Miles High" suddenly appears and, "Whoa! Where the f did this come from?"

Perseverence - and inspiration - furthers!

Holly A Hughes said...

I did not know that they weren't allowed to play the instruments at the beginning of their career -- that's an interesting perspective that makes this song even richer to me. Clearly someday I'll have to start going deeper into the Byrd's catalogue!