So you want to be a rock ‘n’ roll star? Chris Hillman reflects on vital legacy in new memoir, ‘Time Between’
The folk-rock and country-rock pioneer lived in Rancho Santa Fe, Del Mar, Tijuana, and a shed behind San Diego’s Blue Guitar store
So you want to be a rock ‘n’ roll star / Then listen now to what I say / Just get an electric guitar / Then take some time and learn how to play ...
Chris Hillman was just 21 in 1966 when he co-wrote the classic “So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” with Roger McGuinn for their now-legendary band, The Byrds. It became the fifth of seven consecutive Top 40 hits for the Los Angeles-based group, which — in a dizzying period of barely three years — helped launch folk-rock, raga-rock, psychedelic-rock and country-rock.
“I don’t think we planned anything. We made two albums a year, starting in 1965, and our music just went into these different places,” said Hillman, 75, whose candid, no-nonsense memoir, “Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother, and Beyond,” was published Nov. 17 by BMG Books.
“It was wonderful because The Byrds developed this great sound out of nowhere,” continued the veteran singer and multi-instrumentalist, who grew up in Rancho Santa Fe in the 1940s and 1950s. “We didn’t have a blueprint.”
Chris Hillman: Bonus Q&A with the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer: ‘It’s neither hair nor there!’
As for the guitar Hillman learned to play before he became a star — and, in 1991, a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee — it was an acoustic, not an electric.
He and his mother found it in a shop in Tijuana when he was 15. She paid the $10 price and promised her son that, if he stuck with the instrument for a full year, she would pay half the cost for him to acquire a better guitar. These were likely the best investments either of them ever made.
A year later, the self-taught Hillman moved up to a Goya acoustic that cost $100. It was followed by a used Epiphone, for which he paid $50. After becoming hooked on bluegrass, via albums by Flatt & Scruggs, The Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe, Hillman bought a new Kay mandolin at Singing Strings in Encinitas.
As he had first done with guitar, he learned to play mandolin by listening to his favorite albums, over and over, at a slower speed than they were recorded. While attending San Dieguito High School, he found an invaluable musical mentor in Bill Smith, a custodian who was well-versed in nearly all things bluegrass.
“Billy was fantastic,” Hillman said, speaking recently from the Ventura home he shares with his wife of 41 years, Connie. “I still feel blessed to have met people who were always pointing a way, a direction, for me and saying: ‘Why don’t you try doing it this way’?”
By 17, Hillman was a member of top San Diego bluegrass band The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, with which he would record his first album a few years later. His life would never be the same again.
“The Barkers was probably one of the best bands I ever played in, but I didn’t look at it like: ‘OK, this is step one in my musical career,’ ” Hillman said. “I was blindly living in the moment. And I had such a passion for the music. We played a gig and we each got paid $5 or $10. I couldn’t believe it! ‘Oh, we get paid?’ ”
Turn, turn, turn
Hillman’s 315-page “Time Between” takes its name from what has long been regarded as the first country-rock song ever recorded, which he wrote for The Byrds’ fourth album, 1967’s “Younger Than Yesterday.” He is perhaps the only musician whose credits include performing at the seminal Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and the Grand Ole Opry in 1968 (both with The Byrds), then at the bloody, decade-ending Altamont festival in 1969 (with the Flying Burrito Brothers).
“To this day, I believe that Monterey was the best music festival ever,” Hillman declared.
“The diversity of the lineup, from Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix to Janis Joplin and Ravi Shankar, was remarkable. I had played in 1963 with the Golden State Boys at the Monterey Folk Festival. Josh White and Judy Collins were part of the lineup. After the Monterey Pop Festival, record company executives knew there was money to be made and would sign anyone that could walk, had a pulse and write a song...
“Altamont would have made a great horror movie, except it was real. The Hell’s Angels were providing ‘security’ and they were horrible and frightening. I was headed to the stage with my bass guitar and this Angel stopped me, and said: ‘Where do you think you’re going?’ Then, as I was going up the stairs onto the stage, David Crosby was coming down, and he said: ‘Be careful. This is not a good deal going on here.’
“The Angels were beating a fat guy with pool cues. Before the last note on my bass died out, I handed my bass to one of the road crew guys and got out of there. That was the day — this sounds like sounds like a bad song, and with no offense to Don McLean — that the ‘60s died. Altamont was just a few months after the (Charles) Manson murders and it got progressively darker from there. I’ve got the poster from Altamont on the wall and it still gives me the creeps to look at it. That was an interesting arc for me to go from playing Monterey to Altamont in such a short period of time.”
Seven years in the making, off and on, Hillman’s book covers multiple bases. It is a tale of personal redemption and overcoming adversity as much as it is an artistic chronicle. By design, it eschews sordid tales of the sex and drugs that are too often synonymous with rock stars, including former mid-period Byrds’ member Gram Parsons.
Hillman and Parsons co-founded the Flying Burrito Brothers in 1968. Parsons was only 27 when he died of a morphine overdose in 1973.
“I gently wrote that Gram had some issues,” said Hillman, who turns 76 on Dec. 4.
“But was it relevant for me to write that he was so loaded on heroin we had to prop him up on stage? That’s irrelevant to me, as opposed to saying he had the talent but lacked the work ethic, and that he traded those aspirations for hedonistic pursuits that didn’t quite work out.
“When I signed a deal with Scott Bomar at BMG Books for ‘Time Between,’ I said: ‘I’m not hanging you a ‘rock ‘n roll book. I’m not going to write about drugs. I was a boring person!’ Sure, lots of people I knew did stuff, but I didn’t make it a habit — no pun intended — I didn’t make it a pursuit to know people who sold their drum kits because they were so strung out...”
Instead, Hillman writes about his life, music and spiritual journey as a devout Christian who was born into a Jewish family for which religion was decidedly not a priority. He frankly addresses the hepatitis C that, in 1998, nearly claimed his life and which he speculates he contracted while getting a tattoo in the early 1970s. Pivotally, he acknowledges the soul-sapping anger he spent decades overcoming after his dad committed suicide when Hillman was 16.
“He was a wonderful father, and his death decimated my family,” the mustachioed musician said. “My book is about picking yourself up off the ground and going forward.”
As initially envisioned, “Time Between” was going to be two books, as Hillman’s wife, Connie, told the Union-Tribune in a separate interview.
“The first was going to extensively focus on Chris growing up in Rancho Santa Fe and North County,” she said.
“The second was going to be about him learning to play music and then going on from there. Then, the two started merging into one. Chris wanted to give that legacy of his childhood and growing up to his children in this book. So, he began the process with the idea of it being two books.”
In 2014, Hillman and his wife made the first of two research visits to North County, where his father had been the publisher of The Rancho Santa Fe Times newspaper.
“The Rancho Santa Fe Historical Society was fantastic in letting Chris go into its archives and look at a lot of copies of his dad’s newspaper,” Connie said. “That was very important for him. Writing this book was cathartic for Chris. He addresses a lot of the difficult things that have happened in his life. And he found that — like many other people have experienced — writing makes you feel much better.”
Hillman devotes almost all the first five chapters in his 18-chapter book to his youth in San Diego, where he became an avid surfer and developed an underage taste for beer. His most notable colorful extra-curricular activity while in high school was using the printing presses at his father’s newspaper to make fake ID cards during his sophomore year.
“I was surprised to learn that, as were our two children,” Connie said with a laugh. “That was something I’d never heard Chris talk about.”
Hillman responded with an emphatic “No!” when asked if he had considered including in his book a photo of a fake ID that he and a classmate, Pebble Smith, made for their surfer pals. It was an avocation the two quickly abandoned after learning the FBI got wind of it.
“I got into mischief,” Hillman said, choosing an adjective that appears several times in his book. “My mom and dad were very good parents and doing those fake IDs was really terrible on my part. It was two months before my dad died and he was going through hell then, personally and financially.”
Tall in the saddle
Hillman and his older sister both had jobs at The Rancho Santa Fe Times. He fondly recalls the 2-mile horse ride he regularly took from his family’s home to the center of the then very rural town.
“Chris used to say: ‘I would ride my horse every day and then come home after dark,’ ” recalled Connie, who Hillman credits for encouraging him to add key details to his memoir. “It was a different time.”
Indeed, it was.
“I didn’t put this in the book, but my dad wanted to open a little retail shop in La Jolla,” Hillman recalled. “But they wouldn’t give him a wholesale permit because he was Jewish, and covenants were pretty prevalent back then in La Jolla and Rancho Santa Fe.
“My dad, as the weekly newspaper editor, would do battle with them about the covenants — unbeknownst to me as young guy. I do mention in my book the time we had a small fire at our house and, because we were Jewish, the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe would not give us rooms for the night.”
After his father’s death, Hillman, his mother and his sister moved to Los Angeles. It was there that he concluded his very brief life of crime by shoplifting some blue jeans at the May Company store where he had a part-time job.
“Who knows what was going through my head?” Hillman mused. “A very nice salesman who worked at the May Company took me aside and said: ‘I’ve been watching you. I’m letting you know I don’t want to turn you in. I want you to resign.’ I did — and my life in crime was over. I went back to San Diego and played bluegrass, a criminal occupation in itself!”
In early 1963, Hillman returned to San Diego to rejoin The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, which in 2004 earned Lifetime Achievement honors at the San Diego Music Awards. The quintet’s 1963 debut album was later cited by Rickie Lee Jones for providing her bluegrass epiphany.
“It was perfection!” Jones said in a 1992 Union-Tribune interview. “I practiced banjo and guitar and sang with them over and over. I was sure they lived in Arkansas and saved all their money to record (the album).”
After a stint in the Los Angeles bluegrass band The Golden State Boys, Hillman joined The Byrds in 1965 — on electric bass, which he had never played before. Together, his new band and new instrument helped him forge an indelible creative path.
Drawing from folk, pop, rock, jazz and more, The Byrds quickly forged a sound uniquely its own. The band’s mix of rich vocal harmonies, jingle-jangling guitars and a propulsive rock ‘n’ roll backbeat earned the hearty approval of Bob Dylan, whose previously obscure solo acoustic songs “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “All I Really Want To Do” became international hits after being transformed by The Byrds.
“We weren’t a garage band trying to be Chuck Berry,” Hillman recalled. “We did want to be The Beatles! I think The Byrds watched (the 1964 Beatles’ movie) ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ five times at the Pix Theater on Hollywood Boulevard when it came out. I have great respect for Paul McCartney. I learned to play bass by listening to him.”
In turn, The Beatles were one of the many bands on either side of the Atlantic to be inspired by The Byrds. Other admirers included the members of such bands as R.E.M., The Smiths and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, whose now-deceased leader and namesake produced and performed on Hillman’s acclaimed 2017 solo album, “Bidin’ My Time.”
As longtime fan Elvis Costello noted in a recent interview with Variety magazine: “Even The Beatles took cues from The Byrds. They were a very influential band, not just because of the vocal blend, but because of their use of the guitars, with wide-open kind of folk chords with heavily amplified, open strings ringing like that. It’s a very good sound.”
A blurb from Petty on the back of Hillman’s new book is similarly, if more specifically laudatory. It reads, in part: “Chris was a true innovator — the man who invented country-rock. Every time the Eagles board their private jet, Chris at least paid for the fuel.”
Dwight Yoakam, who contributes the forward to “Time Between,” writes: “Without Chris Hillman acting as the connective tissue between West Coast country music traditions and the rock ‘n’ roll generation, from Buck Owens to The Byrds, there would be no modern country music.”
Hillman left The Byrds in 1968 to launch the pioneering country-rock band The Flying Burrito Brothers with Parsons. On board with them was Bernie Leadon, a latter-day member of The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, who co-founded the Eagles in 1971.
Had Hillman opted for an early retirement after his combined six-year tenure with The Byrds and the Burritos, his musical legacy would already have been ensured.
Instead, he joined forces in 1971 with fellow future Rock Hall of Famer Stephen Stills to form the acclaimed band Manassas. Then came the all-star Souther-Hillman-Furay band, followed by a reunion with two former Byrds’ members for two albums under the name McGuinn, Clark & Hillman.
From 1986 to 1994, Hillman led The Desert Rose Band. The group scored 12 hits on the national Billboard country-music charts, including the No. 1 hits “He’s Back and I’m Blue” and “I Still Believe in You.” Hillman, who played bass in the Byrds and Manassas, was happy to take center stage as The Desert Rose Band’s rhythm guitarist. He shared lead vocals in the group with Herb Pedersen, with whom Hillman has collaborated longer and more often than any other musician.
“My favorite year in my development was 1967,” said Hillman, whose songs have been covered by everyone from Pearl Jam and Roy Rogers to Patti Smith and Crowded House.
“I’ll never forget coming to rehearsal and playing a couple of songs for Roger (McGuinn), and he was knocked out. (David) Crosby showed up late, as he always did at that time, and Roger said: ‘You better sit down and listen to what Chris has been writing.’
“Crosby gave me a look like: ‘Yeah, right.’ Then he listened and he was very impressed. He asked me: ‘Did you write these songs with anybody else?’ I replied: ‘No, it was just me.’ Roger has a very nice quote about me. He said: ‘Chris was a little late in blooming, but when he did, he blossomed.’ ”
Both McGuinn and Crosby make guest appearances on Hillman’s 2017 album, “Bidin’ My Time.” Hillman and McGuinn last toured together in 2018 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Byrds’ landmark album, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” The two now get together, via Skype, to play weekly games of Trivial Pursuit.
Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, Hillman had a fall tour booked with former Desert Rose Band members Pedersen and John Jorgenson. Those dates have been rescheduled for next spring, although it remains to be seen if they will need to be rescheduled a second time.
“Apart from the Rolling Stones, very few bands have been able to hold together over the decades,” said Hillman, who is now mulling writing a nonfiction book.
“I was always curious where The Byrds might have gone, musically, if we’d stayed together. But when the doors opened for me in the music business, and they did a number of times, there was always a path forward. What I’ve learned is that, by hook or by crook, you keep going forward.”
— George Varga is a reporter and pop music critic for The San Diego Union-Tribune
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