Monday, November 22, 2021



Hey, Joe by the Byrds on their 1966 Fifth Dimension album. This song was recorded by too many bands over the decade, and there is not much difference among the 50 or so versions I'm aware of. The reason I was drawn to the song as a naive teen was because it broke the mode the cycle of love-sick Gene Pitney/Leslie Gore pop melodies and melodramas that dominated my conscious mind at the time and gave me and other unsuspecting youth a taste of a real tragedy concerning the consequences of cheating on one's partner. 

In this case, the cuckold wasn't going to sob and bleed all over the carpet as would be the metaphorical case for Pitney or Gore. Instead, this fellow answers questions from an inquiring pal about what his game plan is, and Joe makes it plain, he's going to get a gun and shoot her dead. That's getting proactive in the worst sense of the word. I was aware that it didn't put women in the best light and would hardly suffice as an example in problem resolution. Years later, after bitter experience and summary reeducation by sharp females who tolerated my foibles, I became aware of the idea of misogyny, the outright hatred of women. I've been trying to mend my ways ever since. 

But at the time, I was engrossed by the sheer drama of it all, the portrait of a lonely guy so anemic in self-esteem that he would rather kill his cheating girlfriend than calm down, feel the feelings, and seek another less destructive path. The one thing I would say as regards anything resembling a defense of the song's treatment of women was that it was an introduction to the idea that emotions are not only dramatic but infinitely and witlessly complex as it goes. It was part of education. But as we say, quantity changes quality, and the surfeit of versions of the renditions leeched the drama from the lyrics and made the ascending chord progression less a measure of tension building than it was a model of metronomic monotony. 

 But the Byrds version is unique concerning the tempo, which is jacked to nearly punk-pogo dynamics and David Crosby's vocal, which is breathless and sounds winded and excited on adrenaline as would a criminal who had, as the lyrics let on, shot his wife. Forget the sultry and soulful writer of the ballads Everyone's Been Burned or Guinivere, the tunes of sensitive minstrels rhyming away life's ironies. Hey Joe is a blunt revenge fantasy, and Crosby sounds wicked, a man who wants blood. But the biggest payoff is Roger McGuinn's twelve-string work, which aligns itself with that Coltrane-inspired note clustering he did for Eight Miles High. He riffs throughout the tune, swift, jabbing riffs, odd chord accents, more jabbing and dissonant riffing, a busy counterpoint to the pulsing bass, the earnest cowbell throughout, the bated vocalisms: this has the drama that comes at that moment when watching a two-story house on fire and the structure collapses in unredeemable sparks. This is the best version of the song ever released.

No comments:

Post a Comment