MIND GARDENS, one of David Crosby’s contributions to the Byrds’ legacy, has been a bone of contention among fans since its release on the YOUNGER THAN YESTERDAY album in 1967. Actually, using that euphemism is inaccurate: almost everyone has something negative to say about the recording—the lyrics, the singing, the music. Including me!
As time has passed, my enjoyment of those Sixties artists who took a chance here and there has grown, especially given how narrow the mainstream became in the ’70s and how boring since.
The lyrics are ‘heavy’ in the Sixties sense of the term and pretend to poetry and allegory. At one point, in his singing/recitation, David punctuates the verses by dramatically exclaiming, “And kept it from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
It is dramatic and well worth quoting—except that it already is a quote, lifted from one of the most well-known, oft-quoted of all Shakespearean soliloquies: the first scene of the third act of Hamlet. Well, if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best!
Mind Gardens can be found on the second side of 1967’s glorious YOUNGER THAN YESTERDAY. “McGuinn, to this day, still hates the song. He told me it doesn’t have rhythm, meter, or rhyme. I told him ‘Who cares? There are no damn rules!’ ” (Crosby)
Stretching the senses
David Crosby has talked about Mind Gardens over the years, and his statements are usually intelligent, articulate, and sometimes seemingly contradictory:
“It was a total struggle to get [Mind Gardens] on there. McGuinn, to this day, still hates the song. The lyrics were a cop on Shakespeare. I did that on purpose. And the music was me with my twelve-string, recorded backwards. I liked the song because it stretched the senses. It was intended to encourage the breaking down of walls, which is what I did with the song.” (David Crosby, 1984)
Once upon a time, there was a garden on a high hill, green and blossom ’round against the sea.
“One of the fortunate things about working in the Byrds was that Roger had a very open head, and so did Chris. They let me get away with putting Mind Gardens on a record! Roger was willing to take a swing at almost anything.” (David Crosby, 1995)
“Mind Gardens had nothing to do with ragas or rock. It had to do with the words. However, it was unusual and not everybody could understand it because they’d never heard anything like it before. At that time everything was supposed to have rhyme and have rhythm, so it was outside of their experience.” (David Crosby, 1996)
It is almost all about the words, and Crosby’s vocal supports that. They are as much spoken as sung and spoken in a manner that could easily lead one to infer that David had aspirations to a stage other than the kind he shared with other musicians.
In a good (if error-ridden) anniversary piece for The Observer (“The Byrds Transformed Rock ‘n’ Roll on Younger Than Yesterday”), John Kruth referred to Mind Gardens as “meandering free-form bardic recitation,” which is exactly what is! After all these years, I have a moniker I can hang on this immensely annoying, immensely interesting recording.
The garden grew and flourished
Below find the complete lyrics. The setting of the lines and the punctuation is mine based on how I head Crosby singing them:
Once upon a time, there was a garden on a high hill,
green and blossom ‘round against the sea.
And there the sun came, and the rain pouring down.
The garden grew and flourished,
and splattered bits of color on the ground.
And it took shape and symmetry,
and all of life abounds.
But there came winds, driven and howling.
There came snow, and I feared for the garden.
So I built a wall, and I built another,
and roofed it over, thick and strong.
And kept it from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
The killing cold could not get in.
But when the sun came, and the gentle rain of spring,
they could not reach the garden behind those walls.
It would have died.
But as I watched,
and as I learned,
I tore the walls all down.
The garden still lives …
As poetry—it is rather obvious Crosby intended this as such—it is awkward. His singing is also awkward, if ambitiously so. The backing track, dominated by tapes of twelve-string guitar parts played backward, holds more than a little fascination for those of us who look with fondness upon the studio experimentation of the Psychedelic Sixties.
Even Columbia’s ads that ran in popular magazines for YOUNGER THEN YESTERDAY were attractive!
You wanna get in free?
For years, I believed that that single track had sunk the second side of the album. I was far from the only person to hold that opinion, as McGuinn has made known repeatedly over the years, including discussing it with me.
For one night in 1970, I was a roadie for the Byrds. They were playing at Muhlenberg State College in Pennsylvania and in need of assistance in getting their gear on stage. My friends and I were approached by a big dude who asked if we had tickets yet.
“You wanna get in free?”
The next thing I knew I was wheeling an amplifier off a truck and following the big guy. When I finally set the amp in its proper place, I stood up and turned around to see several thousand people watching me! After calming down—it was my first time on any kind of stage—I resumed my job as Byrds-roadie-for-a-night.
When the opening act (Santana) was on stage, I gave up my seat and spent their set and intermission hanging out with the Byrds, especially Roger McGuinn. He spent an hour with me discussing rock music, the success of CS&N, even current events.
We spent a good deal of time on the debacle that Mind Gardens had been, that David had insisted on its inclusion despite the other three expressing misgivings.
But that’s another story, so back again to outrageous fortune.
Some mystical garden
In 1996, CBS issued the album on CD with seven bonus tracks, including a more acoustic alternative take of Mind Gardens and portions of the instrumental track guitar played forward instead of the familiar backward sound.
I think the alternative version here is notably superior to the version released in 1967. In places, Crosby’s vocals seem influenced by what Grace Slick was doing with the Great Society before joining Jefferson Airplane. Also, I am not the only person who no longer sees the track as such a disaster.
“With Mind Gardens, we find Crosby looking intently at the fabric of a song and delving deeply into the history, politics, and nature of popular artistic forms: is a song possible sans rhyming?
What is the role of the voice?
The musical accompaniment?
In a way, he is assuming the role of a mystic and a leader in the trajectory of music at the time.
The pop song and the stardom that they sought throughout their formative years, has now been set aside (mostly) in favor of finding ways to speak directly to their audience, to question, and to have their search for some mystical garden made public.” (Rising Storm)
Unfortunately, I could not find a posting of it on YouTube to share here. All of this is now academic, something we Sixties aficionados can toss around in our equivalent of the Hot Stove League.
If you are not yet intimately familiar with YOUNGER THAN YESTERDAY, it’s never too late to grok it and the Byrds and mind gardens, and slings and arrows, and outrageous fortune …
“In some people’s eyes, YOUNGER THAN YESTERDAY is the pinnacle of the Byrds’ art. Unavailable for over 40 years, we’re proud to present the first-ever reissue of this monumental recording in its original, highly-sought-after mono incarnation, cut directly from the original Columbia Recordings analog mono masters, with perfect artwork restoration and meticulously faithful mastering.” (From the notes on Sundazed reissue.)