"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