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Ballad of Easy Rider - the Byrds

Talking of rock songs in movie soundtracks.......

the story goes that when Peter Fonda was pushing Bob Dylan on a promise he had made to write a song for the movie Easy Rider, the latter, in a typical hurry and leaving the cafe where they had bumped into each other, with the terse instruction to "give this to McGuinn, he'll know what to do with it" scribbled the following words on a napkin:

the river flows

it flows to the sea

wherever that river flows

that's where I want to be

flow river flow

Easy Rider was one of the first films of the "American New Wave" and the first movie to use a soundtrack made up of contemporary music by a variety of artists that was not performed by the characters during the narrative. Mike Nichols had used Simon and Garfunkel to create the soundtrack of "The Graduate" two years before in 1967, but this was the first time that the hippy counterculture's music was on show in a cutting edge film that represented their values. And unlike Mike Nichols' movie, Easy Rider didn't sell out on the new values by having the protagonists falling back on those of their parents at the end. Instead they are destroyed by them.

Easy Rider is a lightening rod of what had come before and, in its violent ending, prescient of the souring of the sixties counterculture, being released the same year as the deaths caused by Hell's Angels bouncers at the Rolling Stones performance at the Altamont free concert and the Sharon Tate murders by the Charles Manson crew.

In 1965 film producer / directors Bob Rafaelson and Bert Schneider, having seen the Beatles' movies "Help!" and "A Hard Day's night", came up with the idea for the smash hit Monkees tv series and with the money they earned from that were able to produce Easy Rider, a movie which reflects the innocence, the anti-materialism and free love ideals of sixties' youth.

When given the Dylan scribble, Roger McGuinn, famed amongst other things for his rendition of Dylan songs such as "Mr Tambourine Man", "All I Really Want to do" and "My Back Pages" with his band the Byrds, accepted with alacrity, and wrote the rest.

Dylan was writing about the themes of the film, the search for freedom from society's constraints, but when he saw the actual movie, he didn't like the ending, the random, motiveless shooting of the two hippy motorcyclists by middle-aged Southern rednecks. He wanted the ending to be happy, the success of the West Coast culture, not its destruction. And after the killing, the camera rises and looks down on the burning bikes from the sky, and the credits roll - cue the ballad of EasyRider. Dylan promptly asked for his name to be removed from the song composition credits.

But when McGuinn finished the song, he had at least seen the rushes and knew the ending.

And he liberates it, by twisting the deaths into a Christlike redemption,

All he wanted

was to be free

and that's the way

it turned out to be

The song is forgiving, in the context the musical equivalent of Kurt Vonnegut's "so it goes", a balm to the evils of this world.

McGuinn recorded two version of it, one solo which is the movie version, but I prefer this one, the one he did with the Byrds who were after all the group who most personified the West Coast ethos of peace, love and drugs. And the reason he recorded it with them was to boost the sales of their next album entitled "Ballad of Easy Rider", shamelessly riding on the back of the movie's success. But it's got some wonderful Clarence White guitar work on it.

The production engineer on this track, as on many Byrds albums, was Doris Day's son, Terry Melcher, the man who stymied Charles Manson's attempts to embark on a musical recording career, and who was the previous tenant of the house where Sharon Tate was murdered. Manson didn't think Melcher still lived there - he just wanted to scare him, to send a message to the new young American aristocracy that they were just like the old one, materialistic and cynical - and of course he couldn't get in himself.

And that's what this songs says to me more than anything else. It's the epitaph to a beautiful dream that became corrupted, was too good to last, and was destroyed by the continuing massive social inequalities of American society as much as by the horrific violence of people like the Hells Angels or Charles Manson. The reverberations of which are still being played out in the US today.

But McGuinn still thinks there's hope, and this is what saves us, what always saves us:

Flow river flow let your waters wash down take me from this road to some other town

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