The Collaborators

Sat, 01/04/2020 - 10:30pm

You get something remarkable and unique when it’s a combination of collaborative, that you just can’t do with your own DNA. You just can’t.” — Jakob Dylan

The night I witnessed Jakob Dylan’s dad play his Fender Stratocaster in Newport in ’65, it was clear that a shift was happening in contemporary folk music. It was a hell of a thing to witness. At that festival and the ones preceding and following it, we could find little groups of mostly kids playing their guitars, mandolins, and banjos in circles — swapping and singing songs — all around the festival grounds and the City of Newport. This festival drew people from all over the country; I played music with guys and girls from L.A., New York City, Boston, and Providence. There was lots of information in these circles of players and we fed off each other’s ideas with whatever talent we had. The good players and singers stood out and the others paid attention and took notes. We felt part of something that was very powerful and in hindsight it became clear to me that there was collaboration going on in all of these groups of kids — memorable stuff.

In the new Netflix documentary, “Echo in the Canyon,” singer/songwriter Jakob Dylan takes us on a musical tour of what was happening in the 60s in a place called Laurel Canyon. This neighborhood is in Los Angeles; however, it had a feel of being in the country. It was a quaint place peopled by creative and eccentric characters from the old-school film days, and the burgeoning contemporary music scene. It was a perfect place of collaboration for musicians such as The Byrds, The Mamas & The Papas, The Beach Boys, and many other people who helped create melodies and lyrics that are rife with Americana and are embedded in our national psyche. Moreover, Laurel Canyon was near the epicenter of music production. For example, Western Studios was close by on Sunset Boulevard, along with MGM, and Capitol Records. What Jakob Dylan does, in a very subtle way, is connect what his dad did at the Newport Folk Festival to the music scene in this canyon. (It evokes the circles of kids playing music in the festival parking lots and woods near the stage.) Most importantly, he shows how it started with The Byrds covering his dad’s song “Mister Tambourine Man.”

Right from the rip in this documentary, Jakob and the late Tom Petty discuss the transformative sound of the twelve string Rickenbacker guitar on “Mister Tambourine Man.” That opening lick by Roger McGuinn knocked the song completely out of the traditional folk music category, and right into a brand-new category — Folk Rock was born out of that austere and jangling opening line of those 12-string notes. Then, Jakob connects the dots with a series of collaborations that lead to the formation of bands like Crosby, Stills and Nash, Buffalo Springfield, and The Mamas & The Papas. He does this with the help of the brilliant and streetwise producer Lou Adler, singer/songwriter Jackson Browne, John Sebastian, Michelle Phillips, Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson et al. McGuinn was the only guy in The Byrds who played on the song “Tambourine Man.” A passel of session players called the Wrecking Crew backed him in the studio for that track. These folks were the best session players in the business at that time. The song became The Byrds first number one hit. Nota bene: The Wrecking Crew were the guys—and guitar and bass player Carol Kaye—who played on many of the Beach Boys records; most notably, “Pet Sounds.” They also backed Jan and Dean in the studio. They were skilled and brilliant musicians and were the go-to players in all of Los Angeles.

A saloon guitar player told me once, “Covering a great song is harder than playing your own stuff.” It’s true, pulling off someone else’s hit song in good fashion is daunting. In this documentary, Jakob Dylan, Regina Spektor, Beck, Fiona Apple, Norah Jones, and many others covered all of the songs featured in the documentary, played them live for an audience at the Orpheum Theatre in L.A., and made a record. Dylan has tight singing chops, and plays clean and simple rhythm shots on his acoustic guitar. Moreover, he’s a personable guy who holds his power carefully, and is a good front guy who is there but not there at the same time while he performs. My favorite song in the whole pile is “Goin’ Back,” written by Carole King and Gerry Coffin — great collaborators — which was also covered by The Byrds. Jakob’s band nails this one with impeccable harmonies.

There are a few missing links to the chain of these great collaborators. For example, Joni Mitchell, Gram Parsons, and the late guitarist Clarence White were not mentioned. Clarence White hailed from Lewiston, Maine, and came up in the Bluegrass tradition. He played with The Byrds, and contributed a guitar style which is stamped all over the Folk Rock and contemporary Country Music we hear today. His playing evolved from his mandolin chops and it transferred on to the fretboard of his modified Fender Telecaster. A mention of these folks would’ve been nice; however, I can understand how time constraints for this much historical and musical information was already stretched to the snapping point.

Jackson Browne mentions “cross pollination” as a metaphor for collaboration. Moreover, the general theme of the documentary is one of people sharing ideas. Ringo Starr refers to The Beatles as “buskers,” out of the skiffle bands of England, who were figuring it out as they went along. Finally, a poignant example of this collaborative mindset was how The Beach Boys album, “Pet Sounds,” influenced “Sergeant Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band.” This documentary is worth a glance.