#171: The Byrds, "The Notorious Byrd Brothers" (1968)

171 Notorious Byrd Brothers.jpg

My brother invites me over for a beer after he is kicked out of the band he’s been a part of for the past five years. He lives with his wife and their two little girls in a sprawling, five-bedroom house in one of those new subdivisions where all the houses are one of three prototypes, and as I drive over, I try to remember the names of the other band members. My brother plays bass guitar, and the band has four other members, but their names are lost to me.

Trish greets me with a peck on the cheek when she answers the door, my one-year-old niece perched on her hip. “Thanks for coming,” she says.

“Of course.”

“He’s in the den,” she says. She hoists the baby higher. “He’s been there all evening.”

“Okay,” I say.

“I think he was crying earlier,” she says. She leads me through the house, past the newly-redone kitchen, the polished banister of the staircase, the framed family photos that line the hall. The baby, my niece, watches me solemnly over her mother’s shoulder. I make my eyes wide and open and close my lips like a fish, but she doesn’t smile.

Trish sticks her head in the den. “Jonah’s here,” she says. There’s a grunt, and she turns to me and shrugs. “Good luck,” she says.

My brother is lying on the couch watching a muted commercial on TV. A child stands in the rain, face turned upwards, tongue out. The shot moves to a close-up of the child’s rain boots, the splashing mud as he stomps one foot in the puddle. Then it zooms out, and we see the mother watching the child through the window, the smile on her face. Letters fall into place. It’s an ad for life insurance. My brother snorts.

“Want a beer?” he asks and opens one for me.

“Thanks.” It’s warm, and I grimace. I sit next to him. “Sorry, man,” I say.

“Fuck,” he says. “Yeah. Thanks. I guess.” He finishes his beer and opens another.

“You want to talk about it?” I ask. He shakes his head.

In some ways, it’s surprising my brother hasn’t been kicked out of the band sooner. My older niece leaves her kid magazines lying around the house, the pages open to all sorts of half-finished activities: word finds, word jumbles, scribbles over the pictures. If my brother were in the magazine, he’d be in the panel titled “What’s wrong with this picture?” My brother was the newest member of the band, the only one not to have attended high school with the others, the only one with a family, a corporate job. He was the one who kept them from becoming a stereotype. Without him, they’re just four middle-aged guys who were too committed to their music to do anything else, but not quite committed enough to make something of themselves.

“They said I wasn’t available enough,” he says. “I was too busy, with work and the kids.”

My brother has often said that I’m too harsh on the band, that they’re good, but also happy with what they are. He has often said that they have no wish to make it big, to sign with a label. He says they’re just five guys doing what they love, and who am I to judge them? He’s probably right, but as I watch him take another swig of warm beer, and I see the way his fingers tighten around the bottle, like he could break it if he tried, I feel justified in every unkind thought I’ve ever held toward the band.

As a child, I used to believe that the world was wide open to me, that I could do anything, be anyone. My brother and I used to make plans when we were little. We’d be architects and design the tallest building in the world. We were going to be marine biologists in the Great Barrier Reef. We would be a two-man band, traveling around the country performing. Maybe it’s better that we never imagined instead the very ordinary futures we’ve both ended up with. Maybe it’s better that we thought we had more of a choice.

I sometimes joke to my friends, when I’ve had one or two too many, that my brother has it all. The high-paying job, the house in the suburbs, the wife and kids. Even the band, I slur, and they wince and nod and offer to drive me home.

I realize that my brother has set his beer down and is hunched over, his head between his knees, his shoulders heaving. He’s making awful gasping sounds, and I reach over and lay my hand on his back.

“I can’t believe it’s over,” he says. “I just can’t believe it’s over.” He straightens up and wipes his eyes, though they aren’t wet.

“You could find another band,” I say. “Or work on music yourself. Lots of people have gone solo after being kicked out of bands.”

“Who?” he says. “Name one.”

“John Lennon. Paul McCartney. Hell, any of the Beatles.”

“They weren’t kicked out,” he says. “The Beatles disbanded. There’s a difference.” He bends over again. “This isn’t the life I want,” he says. The beer in my hand feels suddenly colder. I turn, half expecting to see Trish hovering near the entry to the den, but she’s nowhere in sight.

There’s a story my brother once told me about the Byrds, a band I always thought to be mediocre at best. When they began recording their fifth album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, the band consisted of four members. By the time the album was finished, only two of those members remained. The drummer quit partway through the recording sessions, then returned to finish the album, only to be kicked out upon its completion. Shortly after the drummer’s (first) departure, the band fired the rhythm guitarist, and replaced him with a former Byrd, who had previously quit the band due to his fear of flying. This replacement remained with the band for just three weeks, my brother told me, before quitting once again as a result of his inability to board a plane.

When my brother told me this story, I found it ludicrous, and I still do. I thought it strange that after losing half the band, the Byrds could still be considered the Byrds. It doesn’t matter how many times my brother explains to me that a band is more than just the sum of its members. I may never understand it. I want to explain this to my brother, tell him how without him, his band is no longer the same band, how something core to its existence is gone, fundamentally changing the band’s sound. I want to tell him this, but I don’t, because I know it would mean nothing to him.

A sound floats down from the second floor. It’s Trish, singing to one of the girls. My brother lifts his head, listening.

There’s something I should say now, something about duties and responsibilities, but also about dreams, and when you cling to them and when you give them up. I should say something about stability, about wisdom, about sacrifice. But I have never loved anything the way my brother loved his band. I have also never loved anyone the way he loves Trish and his daughters. I am in no way qualified to comfort him, to help him through what can only be seen as a run-of-the-mill mid-life crisis, albeit on the early side.

I pat my brother’s back. His spine is knobby beneath my palm. Somewhere upstairs, Trish stops singing. On the television, the commercials fade away. The Wizard of Oz is on. The Wicked Witch is dispatching her monkeys. “Fly, my pretties,” she’s saying, though the sound is off, and the monkeys take to the air. “Fly! Fly!” The beer bottle slips from my brother’s hand, landing with a muffled thump on its side. My brother stares as the liquid begins to soak the carpet. I go into the kitchen and return with a roll of paper towels. I lay them over the damp spot in sheets. “There,” I say. “See? Everything’s fine.”

—Emma Riehle Bohmann