Where to start with John York? The Empire State native was a teenager when he landed in California during the 1960s folk rock boom, an actor looking for a stage and finding one– but as a musician with some of the most influential outfits of the era. York cut sides with groovy Texas transplants the Sir Douglas Quintet, toured with The Mamas & The Papas, and stepped in as bassist for The Byrds after Chris Hillman’s departure, appearing on 1969’s Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde and the subsequent Ballad Of Easy Rider. In the 1980s, John joined his Byrd brother Gene Clark in various projects including an incarnation of the Flying Burrito Brothers that also featured former Byrds Skip Battin and Michael Clarke, Firefall’s Rick Roberts, and Sneaky Pete Kleinow. York’s decades of solo work have drawn inspiration from multiple world influences including the Middle East and Native American spirituality, and at 75, he remains an active performer on the West Coast. Calling to talk about his cut of John Stewart’s “Runaway Train” on the new Americana Railroad compilation, York also indulged my questions about Gene Clark, Gram Parsons, and how he chooses songs for his setlist– or rather, how they choose him.
AI- How does a would-be actor end up playin’ bass with some of the most influential rock n’ roll bands of all time?
JY- That’s a good question! I’d always played in bands– I’m from New York– and that’s how I came up as a teenager. I came out to L.A. rather foolishly thinking that I was gonna be able to find some kind of Shakespeare company or somethin’ (laughs)! I was sadly mistaken! You know, when I met some people that were would-be actors, I couldn’t really fit it in with ’em– they seemed to be all into some other reality. And then when I hung out with musicians, it was familiar territory, and I just started getting asked to play with people. I followed that. I went where it felt natural for me. One little musical situation would lead to another, and I followed that for a number of years. It wasn’t like I planned anything, it just seemed like the natural path for me to go on.
For this record that’s brought us together, Americana Railroad, Gene Clark is like a spirit guide for this album in a way. I spoke to Carla Olson, and we talked about her relationship with Gene. I know your time in The Byrds and your time with Gene Clark were two different periods– even though I’m sure you guys had some great big jams in that era! Tell me about your time with Gene and how that informed your performance on “Runaway Train” for this album.
I first met Gene even before I joined The Byrds in the ’60s. I wound up playing with him and Clarence White and Eddie Hoh. We had a mutual friend, a guy that was there with The Byrds– I guess he was the business manager or somethin’– and I played some gigs with Gene. I immediately liked him. He was a really talented guy, he wrote amazing songs, and it was difficult for him ’cause he was a guy from the Ozarks in Los Angeles. He had both of those guys inside of him, so he could sometimes be completely comfortable navigating the world of Hollywood phony people and money people and career-hungry people, but then other times it was just too much for the guy from the Ozarks. He would bounce back and forth, but musically, it was always wonderful!
Later on, I guess in the ’80s, I ran into Gene and Michael Clarke at a club called The Troubadour. Somehow, people started figuring out that there were three guys who had been in The Byrds in the club, and they were all hopin’ we were gonna play! Of course, that didn’t happen, but it led to me joining them for this thrown-together thing that was supposed to be a tribute to The Byrds [The 20th Anniversary Tribute to the Byrds]. It had a lot of amazing musicians in it like Rick Danko and Richard Manuel from The Band and just a lot of amazing people. I wound up playing with Gene then, and at that point, it was not always easy playing with Gene because he had his demons.
Of course, when you’re out on the road, you find out what your demons are and how much control you have over ’em! Sometimes Gene would not be in control, and then it would get kinda scary, but musically, he was really an authentic, creative artist. That’s what really held it together when he was alive, and I would say it’s still holding it together! More and more people are discovering not only the quantity of his music but the quality and the sheer depth of his songs. Yeah, he’s definitely a guiding spirit, especially for Saul [Davis] and Carla. They really were also close to Gene and tried to help him in many ways. I think it’s accurate to say you can feel his spirit in this recording.
The song you do, “Runaway Train”, Rosanne Cash had that on her King’s Record Shop album, she had a #1 hit with it– written by John Stewart. Did you know John?
Just briefly. I ran into him every once in a while, and I really liked him. He was another talented guy and he was kinda from the folk thing and he could never quite be comfortable with what was happening when he got to be real pop and everything– but he really tried! I think he was a tremendous songwriter.
How did you land on that song? Or was it offered to you?
Saul and Carla wanted me to do it. I was not familiar with it, and I listened to it and I said, “Yeah, this is a great song! A really great song!” So I learned it and we just did it!
I hear a lot of John Stewart’s version in the one that you do– that very earnest delivery.
Well, that’s the only one that I’d heard. When we cut that track, there was no pedal steel on it yet, and Gary Myrick was playin’ slide. We did the song, and then we listened back to it and I really liked everything, but I wanted him to at the end just play like a madman! Just completely be this spirit of the runaway train so that his slide guitar playing would suddenly become almost wrong, you know what I mean? Like it should be playing in a heavy blues, raucous kind of thing, so you would really get this feeling like, “Oh, whoa, man, this is out of control!” And he did it! And I loved it! But Saul and Carla thought it was way over the top! So when I listen to that, I always hear two versions! I hear the one that’s on there that Marty Rifkin’s playin’ the beautiful pedal steel part on, but in my own mind, I hear Gary Myrick’s insane slide guitar where you’re expecting the whole record to crash at the end!
That surprises me that she thought it was over the top ’cause I was just listenin’ to her version of The Who cover that she just released, “I Can See For Miles”! I would love to hear that version with Gary playin’ the slide!
I don’t have it, but they probably still have it. Speakin’ of over the top, you know, the “Whiskey Train” that Carla and Brian Ray did is really great, and the “Train Kept A-Rollin'” that Gary Myrick did– imagine that kind o’ guitar but on the end of “Runaway Train” (laughs)! That’s what I had in mind! But it’s a really good album! What I do is if I like somethin’, I play along with it, and I’ve played along with this a few times already. A lot o’ these people are my friends, and a lot o’ people I don’t know and I’ve discovered. I like that with a record– where you discover voices and players that you’re not familiar with, but they touch you and you wanna hear it again!
I didn’t get a chance to ask Carla about it, but Byron Berline also appears on the album– he’s on Kai Clark’s version of “Train Leaves Here This Mornin'”, and I don’t know this for a fact, but I imagine that had to have been one of his last studio recordings. Did you work with Byron in The Byrds for Ballad of Easy Rider?
His part was overdubbed later when I wasn’t there in a separate session, but I have played with him a few times. I played with him live, and I really felt like I was in the presence of a master– kinda like playin’ with Clarence White, where you know you’re playin’ with somebody really special. Of course, there are many, many musicians that I’ve played with that would be in that special category, but you just feel like there are certain people and it’s almost like they’re touched by heaven. They’re just touched by somethin’ beyond where the rest of us are, and Byron definitely had that feeling.
Now, I’m sittin’ here in Macon, Georgia. I’m just a few hours away from Waycross, and I don’t mind sharing with you that I am a Gram Parsons fan. Between The Byrds and Burrito Brothers and everybody else that you’ve played with, I know that you guys all used to get together and have huge jam sessions, and I was hopin’ that you might share a little bit about what that was like back then when Gram was around.
I did know Gram. I remember one particular thing that we used to do, where we would do these shows, for instance, there’s actually like a bootleg recording of the Burritos and The Byrds playing together on stage. I think it was in Chicago? Not everybody, but most of us would play a different instrument than we would normally play, and that was really fun!
Gram was an interesting character because he was always Hank Williams in his mind– or his version of Hank Williams. When he got up in the morning, he was Hank Williams. Something happens to you when you’re playing music with people on stage that is more than yourself because you become this vehicle, you know? But you can’t channel that twenty-four hours a day or you would just lose control. It’s too much. It’s kinda like people that channel entities that speak from another dimension and all that kinda stuff? Well, you can’t do that twenty-four hours a day, and I think that’s kinda what tore Gram up. He had to be his own version of Hank Williams twenty-four hours a day, and it got to be a bit much! We used to say, “Hey, relax, man!” The thing about it that was the most striking about Gram is he wore his sensitivity on his sleeve, so you could feel the real guy down inside there no matter what his behavior was like. It was easy to see through some of the artifice that he had created to be that guy. You could see the real guy, the tenderness, the kindness that was in there.
I see that you have been maintaining a pretty steady performance schedule, and when you play live, you’re doin’ a mix of Byrds material, some Bob Dylan, and of course, you’ve had a rather prolific solo career of your own. When you’re puttin’ together a set or you’re tryin’ to decide what you want to add, what makes a song for you? What draws you in to want to perform a song?
Good question– and it’s a deep question. There are certain songs that I love to play for people because a certain kind of catharsis happens inside those people– they get in touch with some things you can’t really explain. There’s a club I play out here, the guy that runs the club says, “I don’t care what you do except for these three songs. You can do anything you want, but please, you gotta do ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’, ‘The Bells of Rhymney’, and ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’.” Most of the time, I do those three, and then I’ll add whatever Byrds songs call me.
My typical way of doin’ things is I’ll put together like fifty songs, and I just sit around the house and play ’em. And then that gets whittled down to about thirty until it gets whittled down to maybe twenty-one, somewhere in there, so that they jostle around each other for positioning. The songs, they let me know– the ones that really wanna be played. It keeps it really alive for me because I’m definitely the servant of this music. There are certain songs that I haven’t played in years– and all of a sudden! Pretty much, every morning, I’m hearing something in my head. Unless I’ve got some heavy obligation (laughs), right after breakfast, I’m sittin’ around playin’ that song– plus others that come to me. It feels like they want me to sing them.
I get to the point, usually in the week or five days before the gig, I know the songs and I know the order that they’ll fall in. So by the time I’m playin’ for people, I’ve spent a lot o’ time with these songs, sometimes movin’ em up a key, down a key, or changing what chord shapes I’m gonna use or stuff like that. I basically approach it almost like I’m the pool guy or I’m a carpenter or I’m a craftsperson who’s coming in to do a really good job. I’m doing my preparation. That’s really the truth of how I put together a show.