THE READING ROOM: Chris Hillman on Surviving Fires Real and Metaphorical
Chris Hillman onstage with The Byrds in the mid 1960s (photo via Getty Images)
Chris Hillman’s refreshingly candid new memoir, Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother, and Beyond (BMG), opens with an eerily apocalyptic scene on the night of Hillman’s 73rd birthday on Dec. 4, 2017. Around 11 p.m., his wife, Connie, woke up to the smell of smoke and looked out the window to see “an angry red glow covering the whole skyline.” The couple evacuated their house in Ventura, California, immediately.
When they returned the next day, they found their house severely damaged but still standing. While the couple spent the next eight months rebuilding their house, the fire and its aftermath stood as a metaphor for Hillman and his life. “Over the course of my life, I have faced down and survived plenty of metaphorical fires,” Hillman writes in the book. “I’ve been confronted by personal struggles and I’ve lost people I loved deeply. I’ve overcome the ravages of disease. I lost an earthly father too young and found a heavenly father I only wish I had found sooner. I’ve experienced the highs, lows, temptations, and triumphs of life as a professional musician. I was blessed to have been a member of The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas, Souther-Hillman-Furay, and The Desert Rose Band, where I survived countless miles of endless highway pursuing my dreams. … I’ve lived a very full life, and God has blessed me abundantly.”
Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother, and Beyond is no cavalcade of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, nor is it interested in settling scores. (Read an excerpt from the book in last week’s The Reading Room.) Hillman instead shares stories that focus on his great passion for music: “I had such a passion for the music when I was in my late teens. … I never thought about the money, the future, or about chasing down stardom. It was always all about the music.” His memoir not only chronicles his involvement with the wonderful people he’s met over the years, it also sets the record straight about stories that have been told about his relationships with Gram Parsons and about The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers that are inaccurate. Hillman points out that the authors of some books about the bands were never even around the band members.
In one passage from the book, Hillman reflects on The Byrds: “I never discounted how fortunate I was to have been a part of the whole experience of The Byrds — both good and bad. We were encouraged early on to choose material that would stand the test of time, and I think we listened. We left a lasting legacy by introducing jazz, psychedelic, and country elements to rock music. In our short time together, we made a major artistic statement, and paved a path for many musicians to follow in the years to come. I will always count it as a blessing to have been a member of The Byrds along with Roger, David, Gene, and Mike. The Byrds — one of the greatest bands ever.”
In another passage, he shares his love for Parsons, in spite of being sometimes angry and frustrated with him: “Gram’s story has been told many times, so there’s no need to go through all the details yet again. His legacy lives on with loyal fans around the world that still hold him close in their hearts. To many, he was a legend. To me, he was a musical partner and friend. Our few short years together were complicated and often frustrating, but despite his gregarious charm, I don’t think Gram had many real friends. In fact, I believe there were only three people who really knew, loved, and understood Gram Parsons: me, Emmylou Harris, and Rev. Jet Thomas, who was his student advisor at Harvard during Gram’s brief time there. In the end, none of us could save him.”
I chatted with Chris Hillman by phone recently about his book.
How long did it take you to write the book?
Seven years. I had it done, and I said to my wife, Connie, “we need to find an agent.” We met Scott Bomar, [publisher and senior director] at BMG, and he got what I wanted to do with the book. My daughter, who is an English teacher, read a draft, and she told me I had go back and cut out all the exclamation points (laughs), and Connie also read it. Then we gave it to Scott and it went into copy editing.
Why this book now? What prompted you to write it?
I have a great memory. I recall everything. I wrote the book to clarify things other books reported that were not accurate. People see The Flying Burrito Brothers in a different light than what it was. Some books have portrayed the breakup of the band as my fault because I was angry and jealous of Gram. The Burritos had some great moments, and that first year of the band with Gram was great. We wrote “Sin City,” and everybody from Emmylou to Dwight Yoakam ended up recording it. I loved Gram; it was hard, and I didn’t like what he did many times, but I loved him. I was fortunate that when one band was ending another seemed to be starting up. In Manassas we had a great two years, but then Stephen [Stills] wanted to try to get together again with Crosby and Nash, and then Souther-Hillman-Furay started. I often tell people that a band is like five guys with a paintbrush trying to paint Mona Lisa’s smile. For a while everyone might have the same vision, but after a while, people’s vision changes. When it works, it’s beautiful.
For you, what’s the difference between writing the book and writing a song?
It’s harder to write a song since you have to think about rhyming words in a song, for example. Writing the first words of the book was like the first step of a thousand-mile journey. I wrote it as if I were sitting down and telling the story to family and friends.
Did you read any other music memoirs as models?
I read Keith Richards’ book, and I enjoyed it; it’s a good book. But I really loved Linda Ronstadt’s Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir. I liked the way she focused her story on her musical journey and not on the salacious parts. I realized that I didn’t need to say anything irrelevant in my book. I wasn’t interested in settling scores or denigrating anyone in my book.
What do you hope readers take from your book?
The theme of the book is picking yourself up and to keep moving. Never give up. I love my dad; he was a sweet creative man. When he died, I was so lonely that first year; we had moved to a new city and a smaller place, and we were poorer, but we never felt that. My mother just kept us moving on. The underlying message of the book is redemption.