Friday, July 11, 2008

Stranger In A Strange Land


"Stranger In A Strange Land" (David Crosby)
The Byrds - Turn! Turn! Turn!
Columbia Records, 1965

I've been listening to this extra track on the 20-bit digitally remastered CD reissue of The Byrds' Turn! Turn! Turn! album over and over again all week. It's a really great, hypnotic instrumental to listen to while commuting to work, its soothing 12-string guitars and minor key changes calming down my normal road rage as I navigate downtown's many twists, turns and detours that result from Operation Orange Cone and other annoying municipal initiatives and West Side gentrification projects. But I was surprised to learn that this track wasn't written by Roger McGuinn or Gene Clark but by David Crosby - I didn't think he had it in him.

I've never been much of a Crosby fan (though I liked Bob and Bing Crosby). By most accounts he was almost universally considered a jerk during his Byrds, Crosby, Stills & Nash and CSN&Y days, even before his much-documented rehab and prison adventures. And how exactly do you manage to be both a coke addict and fat? Did he snort coke up one nostril and Hamburger Helper up the other?

But I give credit where it's due, and it's due on this dandy ditty. Inspired by the Robert Heinlein sci-fi novel of the same title, Crosby's composition originally had lyrics, but no recorded version remains - thank God, as David Crosby lyrics tended to be pretentious hippie-dippy drivel ("Mind Gardens," anyone?) - except as covered by Blackburn and Snow (the male-female San Francisco folk duo of Jeff Blackburn and Sherry Snow - the latter allegedly considered as a replacement for Signe Anderson in Jefferson Airplane in 1966), who released it as a single on Verve Records in 1966. The backing band was We Five and the writing credit was attributed to "Samuel F. Omar."

Behind the Music
For more on the story we turn to Johnny Rogan, author of Timeless Flight: The Definitive Biography of the Byrds (1988) and The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited (Rogan House, 1998) - which are both, criminally, out-of-print (and fetching used prices of up to $228 - glad I got mine back in the day for $40!) - who in describing the extra tracks on Turn! Turn! Turn! wrote:
"Finally, there was the mysterious instrumental 'Stranger In A Strange Land,' borrowed and refined from the bootleg Journals. Unfortunately, a vocal version could not be found, but the backing track remains a fascinating and tantalizing piece. David Crosby admitted that the lyrics were a naive attempt to capture the spirit of the Robert Heinlein book of the same title, and that in itself sounds ambitious and interesting. According to Jim Dickson, the song was sold by Tickson Music and tentatively scheduled for a movie soundtrack that never appeared. It was later recorded on a single by the duo Blackburn & Snow..."

"...Even two years on, with the hippie counter culture at its zenith, the song languished in obscurity. 'Stranger In A Strange Land was a very unsophisticated, childish rendering of that ethic,' Crosby confessed with undue modesty. 'I don't think it was a very good song, but I was greatly influenced by Robert Heinlein and always loved science fiction.'"
Indeed, Crosby also borrowed allusions to the same Heinlein novel in his song "Triad" (famously rejected by The Byrds only to be resurrected later in Crosby, Stills & Nash) when the lyrics referred to "sister lovers" and "water brothers." (Hmmm, wonder if Alex Chilton was really referring to Heinlein for his Big Star Third: Sister Lovers album?)

Anyway, further research determines that the bootleg source that Columbia used for the remastered CD was Journals Vol. 6; the song was recorded September 18, 1965.

I know: fascinating!

P.S.: You can listen to "Stranger In A Strange Land" on YouTube.

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