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Byrds Battle for the Rights to the Name

Times Staff Writer

How many Byrds does it take to make a band fly?

The answer to that riddle depends on which of the five original members of the acclaimed, Los Angeles-based ‘60s folk-rock group you ask--and it ultimately may depend on what a judge has to say concerning federal trademark law.

Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Chris Hillman think the answer, at least for now, should be three. Their aim in playing together as the Byrds for three Southland club dates this week--their first billing as Byrds in 15 years--is to establish their legal right to control the name Byrds as a registered trademark.

By controlling the name, they hope to stop what they see as its improper use over the last few years by the two other original Byrds, Gene Clark and Michael Clarke, less well-known musicians who since 1985 have toured together or individually under the Byrds banner.

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Representatives of Clark and Clarke, however, said Tuesday that both musicians are considering legal action to stop the others from reserving the name for themselves.

Clarke, who plans to begin touring next month as “The Byrds featuring Michael Clarke,” thinks one original member--himself--is enough to justify putting the Byrds name on a marquee. A drummer who neither sang nor wrote songs for the Byrds, Clarke said he already has begun steps to register Byrds as his own trademark.

Clark, who made important vocal and songwriting contributions in the band’s early days but was the first original member to leave the group, said that only a full-fledged reunion of the original lineup should be allowed to hold the Byrds trademark.

Speaking from his home in Spokane, Wash., Clarke said that touring under the Byrds name in recent years gives him a greater legal claim on it than McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman, who haven’t been billed as Byrds since a 1973 one-shot reunion album featuring all five original members.

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“If you give up your name for 15 years, it’s anybody’s name,” Clarke said. “I feel if you’re a part of something in the beginning, then you’re a part of it forever. I’m not the kind of person who gets denied a living or likes to be harassed. If this goes into a full (legal) battle, may the best Byrd win.”

Without elaborating, Clark said in a separate interview that the controversy over use of the Byrds name “has become a legal matter.” But Clark also said he doesn’t want to use the name by himself, and that he stopped touring as a lone Byrd last summer because he didn’t think it was proper.

“I really wasn’t comfortable having it be the Byrds,” he said. “But (touring under the Byrds name) was an opportunity that wasn’t available to me in any other way. When I got things back on the road for my own solo career, I figured if the other guys don’t want me to use the name, then I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.

“The best thing would be for the five people to sit down and come to some sort of agreement (to re-form the original band),” Clark continued. “At least a few hundred thousand people would love to see the original Byrds, and (in light of the band’s 25th anniversary this year), to give it to them right now would be the prime time.”

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McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman see Byrds tours led by the other original members as rump versions of the band that can only hurt its legacy.

“Last thing I heard, they were playing at a lounge in Vegas,” Hillman said in an interview last September, well before the current controversy developed. “That’s the ultimate insult. It just drags it in the mud.”

This week’s Byrds’ dates--Wednesday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, tonight at the Bacchanal in San Diego and Friday at the Ventura Theatre--don’t herald an ongoing re-formation of the band, according to McGuinn, although he said that is an eventual possibility.

Instead, the shows are a hastily organized tactical move intended to bolster McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman’s efforts to stake a legal claim to the Byrds name by showing that they are actively in business as the Byrds.

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Crosby’s manager, Bill Siddons, who organized the current dates, said McGuinn is the only Byrd with the conceivable right to claim the group name for his sole use.

McGuinn, the only member to stay with the band from its formation in 1964 to its final breakup in 1973 after many personnel changes, is generally regarded as the most important shaper of the Byrds’ signature harmonies and ringing 12-string guitar sound. Until recently, McGuinn had said he had no intention of resurrecting the Byrds.

A reunion of all five original Byrds would be a lucrative proposition. Judging from their comments, the less prominent Clark and Clarke are keen to tap that demand, while McGuinn said that using a Byrds reunion to reap a windfall “is not where I’m coming from.”

McGuinn’s recording career has been on hold through most of the ‘80s, but he continues to tour steadily as a solo act, and says his autobiography is due to be published later this year. Crosby has been busy since his comeback from drug addiction with a recently published autobiography, an album with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and an upcoming solo album. Hillman has built a solid country music following with his Desert Rose Band.

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Organizers of a hospital benefit in San Jose have offered $500,000 for a single performance by the original Byrds lineup this August at a 30,000-seat college football stadium. Clark, Clarke and Hillman accepted, according to Kathy Goldwyn, one of the proposed event’s organizers, but Crosby and McGuinn did not respond. But, Hillman’s wife, Connie, said Tuesday that his OK was not given seriously because he doubted it was a realistic offer.

“When somebody says they’re going to do a benefit and pay you $500,000--Chris has been in the business long enough to know those dollars are way out of the stratosphere,” said Mrs. Hillman, who is one of Elton John’s managers.

Even if the offer is firm, said Siddons, Crosby’s manager, accepting it would tarnish the Byrds’ legacy by turning their reunion into a pure money grab.

“The Byrds mattered,” he said. “I think playing a stadium date on your return after 15 years without a record is just the wrong thing to do. They have to rebuild a little bit of their legend first. It’s critical that we establish the quality and importance of the band before we think about the money. My hope is that this goes well enough so the Byrds will regroup and forgive each other. I know it is in the cards for that to happen.”

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