“I’m Rick James, bitch. And I was once in a band with Neil Young.”
Nobody could blame you if you’ve never heard of the Mynah Birds. Over four scattershot years in the mid-’60s this obscure Toronto garage tribe managed only one pretty awful single for Columbia. And if you’re impressed that they had a single out on Columbia then you will want to walk that back since this label pretty much scooped up any cluster of kids with enough paper route money for Sears Department Store instruments and forward swept bangs, hoping for the next Beatles or Stones or even just a Savoy Brown. Well, a quick listen to the Mynah’s lone single proves that this particular teen gaggle were certainly nothing close to a Beatles or a Stones or even a Savoy. If tracks like A Side “The Mynah Bird Hop” and its flipside companion “The Mynah Bird Song” prove anything at all it’s that major labels would throw money at absolutely anything in 1965. Of course neither the Myrna Bird’s hop nor the Myrna Bird’s song bothered the transistor radio airwaves at all that summer.
A closer look at this rightfully obscure band, however, reveals an extraordinary fact that instantly renders the Mynahs legendary in spite of their artistic and career failures, for this band contained one of the most left field musician pairings in history.
The Mynah Birds were formed by a wanted US Navy deserter named James Johnson who had wisely fled the reserves when called up for Nam, crossing into Canada to pursue his freedom and musical dreams. And yes, this James Johnson would later morph into the freebase-fueled, intricately braided, bound-captive-torturing funk superstar Super Freak of never-ending legend. Rick Motherfucking James is one of the last individuals you would picture chilling with the early forebearers of earthy Americana (who were strangely all from Canada), and yet there the young fugitive was in Toronto in the early 60s kicking it with future bearded Big Pink inhabitants Levon Helm and Garth Hudson, who helped him form a homoerotic-sounding band called The Sailorboys who eventually morphed into the Birds in question.
A 350-page incredibly dry history book could be pieced together on the ever-shifting Myrna Birds lineup that played to half-empty Toronto bars as the snow piled up outside, but things really kicked into gear when future Buffalo Springfield bassist Bruce Palmer came into the fold, eventually drafting in a tall, shy drink of water named Neil who was not yet rocking any buckskin fringe at the time.
So, what did Rick James and Neil Young talk about? Did they ever double date? Did Neil show him his train sets and, if so, did Rick shout “choo choo” as Neil played with them? Did Neil introduce Rick to Joni Mitchell and did the Super Freak hit on her? Did they wax poetic to one another about their future plans and dreams, a wide-eyed Neil espousing on redwood ranches and prairie songs and helpless, helpless, helpless while Rick spoke of Egyptian headdresses and strong methamphetamines and McMansion torture chambers?
Most likely not, but why get all bogged down in lame reality when the above was indeed possible? So let’s just say all this happened and challenge anyone to disprove it.
So what did become of these strange Birds? Not much, really. They did managed to squeak out a late-career deal with nearby Motown (who obviously saw a lot of promise in Mistah James and would later make many millions from their relationship). Just the fact that Neil Young was briefly on Motown is an interesting-enough fact, but the song they produced for Detroit’s Finest, “I’ve Got You In My Soul”, was nothing but a hilariously obvious ripoff of Them’s “Little Girl” that was wisely scrapped by the label before Van The Man’s people could file any lawsuits. Then there were the usual shady manager troubles. Dude walked off with the money from the Motown deal and, upon being called out by the Mynahs, turned around and turned in the AWOL Rick James to the MPs, who in turn locked up the Super Freak and that was the end of their flight.
The Mynah Birds may not have had the smoothest run and they certainly didn’t produce any memorable music, but they did boast one of the most unlikely musical pairings in history.
And on that fact alone they shall soar in the footnotes forevermore.