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The American Metaphysical Circus: You Can't Ever Come Down

It would be too easy to wax nostalgic for nostalgic wax and just list the records that you heard first and will remember always coming out of your older brother's portable radio, the one in the perforated black pleather case. The thing had a handle and a bent antenna and ran on batteries, but around outlets, you could plug it in, and that was living. You remember it as it was, tuned to the same "underground" radio station for half a decade. 

Only in hindsight can you claim critical distinctions between any of the tunes or the musicians on the playlists spun by the college DJs with the cool nicknames, and nasally, post-adolescent voices. The ones bunkered in some out of the way corner on the campus of Brown University.   

As far as you cared, one tune was as laudable or as damnable as another, no matter who the performer. Perhaps with the advent of the rock press, an easily influenced adolescent (you!) started copping attitudes about geniuses and sellouts and all that nonsense, but in the halcyon days of first encounters with the underground, the song was the thing, whether it was the Beatles or Pearls Before Swine, the Byrds or Circus Maximus, Bob Dylan or Tim Buckley or Lord Buckley even.

Only later would you discover that the extremities of this trip, the far reaches of The Insect Trust, Holy Modal Rounders, and Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies, were "on the fringe." Sometimes it all seems so remote to your conscious everyday musical intake, the filler stuff on NPR, the endless personal playlist on your IPOD, the I Tunes playlists on your laptop, that it feels like a dream. A dream with strange clothes and smells, lank-haired girls and hilarious afternoons when Peter Stampfel might have spilled beer on your sneakers __his cup ranneth over__ while you were chatting after an Unholy Modal Rounders set on a Brown Spring Weekend. You can't believe they were ever there. You can't believe they played "Wooly Bully."

You never saw Circus Maximus, the Blues Project, the Velvet Underground, the Pentangle, Tom Rapp, Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies, or their progenitors, the United States of America.  About the Joe Byrd and company, there's a simple explanation---they never played a single live gig. You probably would have heard that line, "waiting to die for the 23rd time,"  cross-stitched in your mind to  "I know what's it like to be dead,"  until you forgot about them both. That is, if you hadn't found The American Metaphysical Circus, the Field Hippies' only recording (released under the Columbia classical Masterworks banner in 1969), for cheap in one of the half dozen or so unsolicited catalogues of rare and hard to find music that seems to be the snail mail fate of the occasional-through-the-late-90's reviewer (you!) of pop music.

Today Joe Byrd is a teacher of music history and theory in Northern California, but in 1969 he was a composer, multi-instrumentalist, arranger and producer. He was also a young man with an avant-garde pedigree and a recording contract.  The American Metaphysical Circus was pretty much his baby: odd, tripped-out, mixing electronic sounds and musical styles from psych-rock to ragtime sometimes effectively, often overreaching, not as satirical as he might have thought at the time, certainly not as wry as Zappa or as ingenious as Van Dyke Parks, but positively one-of-a-kind.

The hard rocking song that WBRU latched onto and my brother and I carried from the car to the beach and from the beach back to the car during the summer of 1969, "You Can't Ever Come Down," has held up pretty well. The fact that it comes in the middle of a much longer and generally memorable suite of three songs called "The Sub-Sylvian Litanies," only ups the psychedelic ante and makes Joe Byrd's American Metaphysical Circus redolent of rock experimentation at its loopiest, too strange to get lost in anybody's shuffle.  


Thanks, Wayne, for this! I do remember the perforated black pleather case for the radio! And yes, it WAS my older brother's!
You turned me on to the Holy Modals so I trust you already and look forward to hearing the Circus!


We still play and love our vinyl. Many of our albums were found cast off at the local dump, as suburbanites abandoned vinyl for more convenient devices. However, we love the pops and clicks of our records. I have the copies of Surrealistic Pillow and Hello/Goodbye (Tim Buckley) that I bought with my own money at the age of 10, during the summer of love (my parents didn't love me too much that summer). I can't find a hard copy of Circus Maximus, but "Can't Find the Time to Tell You" is on my iPod along with Spirit and my all-time favorite song, "No Good to Cry" by the Wildweeds. Wayne, I love your blog! I look forward to reading more after I finish my grades. As I told you, I am shy. Could we be Facebook friends?

Holy Modal Rounders!

Hey, Sam Shepard -- of True West, of Buried Child, of The Right Stuff -- wasn't he the drummer of the Holy Modal Rounders?

Sam Shepard

Check out Sam Wainwright Douglas' doc about the Holy Modal Rounders, Born to Lose. There are some cool and genunely affective moments with Stampfel and Shepard talking about their early years together.