Saturday, September 18, 2010

It's A Beautiful Day -- "White Bird" (1969)

White bird dreams of the aspen trees,
With their dying leaves, turning gold.
But the white bird just sits in her cage, growing old.
White bird must fly or she will die.

As I'm writing this, we've had two weeks of perfect late-summer weather -- it's been warm (but not hot), dry, clear, and calm day after day.  

Houston didn't really have winters, and I wasn't there for the hot, humid summers.  When I think of my college years, I think of days like these.  And I think of "White Bird," "Hot Summer Day," and the rest of the It's A Beautiful Day album.

Rice University campus
My residential college was constructed like a 1950s-style motel -- it was only two stories high, and the door to every room took you directly outdoors, not into a hallway.  So on quiet afternoons, you could open the door to let the sunshine and breezes in as we read, or sit on the grass of the courtyard and lean back against one of the old trees.  

On an afternoon like that, there was not a better record to have on your turntable.  It's A Beautiful Day is an unusual album, partly because the lead instrument is a violin instead of a guitar.  The songs are relatively long, and several of them can induce a trance.

There are certain records that can quickly put me to sleep.  That's not a sign of boredom -- it's an indication of how relaxed and at peace that music makes me feel.  There's nothing more pleasant than falling asleep while listening to music.  Surrealistic Pillow is probably the best example of a record that has that effect on me.  Rubber Soul and Pet Sounds are other examples, and so is this album.  

I used to be able to fall asleep quite easily while lying on the grass in a park.  I remember lying on the side of a hill in People's Park in Berkeley one warm Sunday afternoon in 1981 and quickly dozing off while reading a Raymond Chandler paperback I bought used somewhere along Telegraph Avenue (The Long Goodbye?  The Little Sister?), but I don't think I could do that today.  Part of it may be that I don't trust strangers enough to close my eyes and fall asleep out in the open like that.  But I think that another reason is that I'm too self-conscious to let my guard down the way you do when you fall asleep -- I'm afraid I may snore, or mumble in my sleep, or just look funny.

Yet I will sing out loud to the music on my iPod as I ride my bike to Lake Needwood and back and not feel a bit self-conscious.  The difference is that falling asleep in a park, unlike singing out loud on the bike trail, has no element of vanity or exhibitionism.  

The majordomo of It's A Beautiful Day was David LaFlamme, a classically-trained violinist from Salt Lake City who had played in the Utah Symphony Orchestra.  In the 1960s, he moved to San Francisco, where he played with Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia (among others) and was one of the founders of the original Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks band.  

LaFlamme and his keyboard-playing wife, Linda, formed It's a Beautiful Day in 1967 -- the year of the "Summer of Love" in San Francisco.

"White Bird" was apparently inspired by their experiences with their manager, Matthew Katz, who also managed the Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape.  (Katz is still around.  At age 80, he is a candidate for the Malibu City Council.)  

Katz discouraged the band from performing in San Francisco, booking them instead at a Seattle club he controlled.  While in Seattle, the group lived in the attic of an old house owned by Katz while writing and rehearsing new songs. 

According to LaFlamme, "We were living in the attic of an old Victorian house in Seattle, and performing at the Encore Ballroom. It was a typical Seattle winter day, rainy and drizzly, and we were looking out from the attic window over the street in front of this old house. . . . The song describes the picture Linda and I saw as we looked out this little window in this attic. We had a little Wurlitzer portable piano sitting right in the well of this window, and I'd sit and work on songs. When you hear lines like, 'the leaves blow across the long black road to the darkened sky and its rage,' it's describing what I was seeing out the window.  Where the 'white bird' thing came from . . . we were like caged birds in that attic.  We had no money, no transportation, the weather was miserable. We were just barely getting by on a very small food allowance provided to us. It was quite an experience, but it was very creative in a way."  

The group members eventually returned to San Francisco and began playing at a few clubs without Katz's approval. The band got its first big break when offered a chance to open for Cream at the Oakland Coliseum on October 4, 1968.  This album was released the next year.  The LaFlammes split up shortly thereafter, and Linda did not perform on the group's second album.    

Here's "White Bird":

Here's a live performance of "White Bird":

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