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A Byrd's Eye View: Roger McGuinn (The Interview)
“Mudcrutch’s whole approach is like a power band,” Roger McGuinn, the founder of The Byrds, tells me when I catch up with him after seeing him in New York City with Tom Petty’s “other” band. “They’re more like Rolling Stones than Beatles. It’s a powerful, punchy band.”
But McGuinn, who tours the world solo these days, says it wasn’t much of an adjustment to sit in with his old friends from the Heartbreakers.
“I play with the Rock Bottom Remainders almost every year,” he says of the band of best-selling authors, including Scott Turow, Amy Tan and Stephen King, that he’s been known to sit in with.
“I’ve been doing that since 2000. So I keep my chops up. I prefer to tour solo, but playing with Mudcrutch was great. They’re a really solid band. I felt really happy playing with them. But I didn’t change anything. I was, on Lover of the Bayou, doing the same kind of fingerpicking I would do if I were alone on stage. I was doing the arpeggio stuff that I did on the original recording on the Untitled album, and everybody else was doing their thing. Tom played bass and Mike (Campbell, guitarist) was playing more chunky parts against me. Benmont (Tench, keyboardist) was playing beautiful counterpoints. But I was fingerpicking, a rolling kind of thing that I do, because that’s just the way I play that song.”
McGuinn’s matter-of-fact confidence is well-earned. He came up through Chicago’s Old Town school of music, via the Greenwich Village folk scene, and eventually the Los Angeles music scene that exploded from the Troubadour and Ash Grove clubs there in the 1960s.
The Byrds are probably the most significant – if also the most underrated – of the 1960s groups that grew out of America’s West Coast scene. More than the poppier Beach Boys, or the more left-of-center Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds were the only band from America that The Beatles considered peers, and looked to as direct competition.
McGuinn remembers the rivalry clearly, even when it became apparent that The Beatles had become untouchable.
“I knew Revolver was something special the moment I heard it,” he recalls. “I loved it. It was wonderful music. It sounded kind of Byrds-y, like (the B-Side of Paperback Writer that preceded Revolver) Rain. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’ It was after they’d talked to Dylan about content and he’d kind of scolded them about not saying anything. So, I think they felt the songs on Revolver had to say a little more than they had been saying with I Want to Hold Your Hand and She Loves You. So with something like She Said She Said – which came from an acid trip John (Lennon) and I took together in Bel Air, when Peter Fonda told him he knew what it was like to be dead and it freaked John out and John had him kicked out of the house – it brings back memories. But they did feel a bit untouchable by that time.”
Still, McGuinn can’t remember the first time he heard the album – or what he refers to as its “remarkable centerpiece” — Tomorrow Never Knows.
“I can’t recall,” he says with a laugh. “It was the ‘60s.”
While McGuinn was all too willing to take a trip down memory lane, he says he’s happier these days to stay in the present as a solo artist, and one of the few musicians continuing the tradition of passing down American folk songs to new generations of listeners.
“I don’t really spend a lot of time listening to The Byrds’ records,” he confesses. “I really don’t play them and the only time I hear them is if I hear them on the radio. So I don’t really go there a lot. I’ve got other stuff to do.”
That other stuff includes a 20th anniversary set of traditional songs, appropriately entitled The Folk Den Project: 20th Anniversary Edition, released this past summer, that cherry picks over four hours of the best songs from McGuinn’s long-running Folk Den project, something he began when the Internet was in its infancy, with free downloads of the songs he grew up loving as a young musician.
“I love playing with the Internet, and I especially loved when it was brand new,” McGuinn says of the series. “Back in the earliest days of the Folk Den I kind of imagined myself dragging a recording machine around the Appalachians. It was like I was using modern technology to make old-timey music. But I didn’t see it as a contradiction and I still don’t. I think it was a good way to broadcast what felt like a dying art form worldwide, and it’s still going.”
Still, McGuinn knows that fans want to know about The Byrds.
“Once you’re in a band like that you’re kind of buried,” McGuinn confesses. “That’s the way it works. So I just kind of gave up the idea of making new rock and roll records for public consumption. But they were amazing times, and I remember them really fondly now.”
Those fond memories extend to the groundbreaking 5D album, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in July, and its follow up Younger Than Yesterday, the last Byrds album to feature the classic line-up.
“That was a very difficult time because there was a lot of internal strife in the band, especially from David (Crosby), who didn’t feel he was getting his fair share of songs on the records,” recalls McGuinn. “So it was a tough time, but I think the output of The Byrds was very good at that point. They were good records.”
The songwriting was also flowing freely, says McGuinn.
“I felt good about a lot of the songs I wrote with David, Gene Clark, and Harvey Gerst. I especially liked The Airport Song that I wrote with David because it’s kind of jazzy. It’s got that sort of Summer Breeze, jazzy feeling to it. In L.A. we used to listen to KDCA, which was a jazz station. ‘All jazz, all the time.’ David and I got a lot of that in our heads. I’d always loved Coltrane and Miles and that sort of bebop sound. It’s not traditional like the old Dixieland style of jazz. It’s more freeform and I always liked that feeling. It made me feel good, so it was an influence, definitely.”
That jazz influence also permeated the landmark song Eight Miles High.
“That was a really fun, fun time for recording, and felt really different,” McGuinn says of the sessions for the album 5D, which included the recording. “First we recorded Eight Miles High at RCA with Dave Hassinger, but Columbia wouldn’t allow us to release it because it was not their guy. So we had to re-record it. They’re both good, but I think the second one’s probably better and it’s probably good that we had to do it over again.
Coltrane moved around on the sax in unpredictable places, and we were inspired by that, and I was especially inspired by that on the solo. That’s what I was trying to emulate. Later, I was happy to see that there were some jazz guys who picked up on it and did the song. So it went full circle from Coltrane to the Rickenbacker to the sax again.
“So I feel good about 5D and Younger Than Yesterday, and they’re fun to hear now.”
McGuinn says he’s also proud of the later albums The Byrds made – including Ballad of Easy Rider, Untitled and Farther Along – but especially the groundbreaking country rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, when Gram Parsons, a pioneer of that genre, was in the band.
“That is a comforting thing, especially with Sweetheart, which was totally rejected when it first came out,” McGuinn says of the critical and commercial reassessment. “It took about thirty years for it to catch on, but it became the favorite album we made for many people, and Rolling Stone even put it above any other album we did.”
As for his memories of Parsons, McGuinn says they’re bittersweet.
“I liked Gram a lot and I had a lot of fun jamming with him. That’s what I remember most, these days,” McGuinn recalls. “We used to play banjo and guitars together and we rode motorcycles and drank beer and smoked pot and everything. We had a good ol’ time.
“I liked him a lot, until the point where he wanted to fire me and get a steel guitar player for The Byrds,” McGuinn says with a laugh. “That wasn’t exactly my idea of what I wanted to do. But then we went to Europe and he started hanging out with Keith Richards and he left The Byrds, and that was the end of that. We would’ve left his vocals on Sweetheart, in fact, but he had another record deal so we had to take them off. But on the box set we were able to put them back on. They’re much better than my replacement vocals, because I think that Gram was the guy to sing those songs. He sounded more authentic. But while he was there we had a good time and we had a lot of fun.”
McGuinn says that the hands-off approach that the band’s label, Columbia, took toward them may have seemed like a curse at the time, but that in retrospect it was probably a blessing.
“I guess it would have helped to have had more input from the label, and nurturing, but the thing I came away with was that Columbia just let us do whatever we wanted to and I think that was pretty cool,” McGuinn says. “I mean, they let us do a country album!”
Another fond memory for McGuinn is his time in the mid-1970s while on tour with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review.
“Rolling Thunder was sure unusual,” he says, again punctuating his memory with laughter. “We had a ball. It was about a hundred people on the road and a lot of parties and all kinds of people hanging out after the show at the hotels. The bus rides were even great! But mostly I remember hanging out with Allen Ginsberg and Joan Baez and T-Bone Burnett and Kinky Friedman, and that it was just a big, long party, and also that the stage shows were four and a half hours long. Everyone had a part to play. I got to do a few songs, like ‘Chestnut Mare’ – which T Bone used to come out and lasso me at the end of – and Lover of the Bayou and Jolly Roger, so it was just great. And playing with Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott was just so incredible.”
Still, McGuinn’s most indelible memory is of his old friend from the earliest days of The Byrds, Bob Dylan.
“Bob was great,” says McGuinn, flatly, of the man who penned The Byrds’ first hit, Mr. Tambourine Man. “He was probably as good as I’ve ever seen him perform. He was really, really committed and there was a lot of passion in his vocals.
“I think Bob had changed a little. He was more passionate on the Rolling Thunder tour than I’d seen him on stage and, of course, the costuming, the 7h/7ats – which I remember Phil Ochs gave him at Gerde’s Folk City just before the tour started; a really cool hat – and the Desire album was just coming out, and he and Jacques Levy had written some great stuff for that. Jacques was a musical director on the Rolling Thunder tour, so that was cool. But I think Bob was more enthusiastic on that tour than I’d seen him before, and maybe since.”
By that time McGuinn was also ready to put The Byrds behind him.
“I remember, in the last days of the band, we were taking equipment in and out of venues and loading the trucks, even though I was the leader of The Byrds,” he recalls. “We had an equipment truck and we had roadies and we were flying people around first class, but it was not a money-making proposition. And I remember playing with Eric Andersen and he was making five hundred bucks a night, which was more take-home than I was getting, even though we were getting more for our gigs. And I thought about what he was doing on his own, and I thought to myself, ‘that sounds really good to me.’”
McGuinn struck out on his own, but he was able to draw on a formidable catalog in those first days as a solo artist.
“I was doing a lot of stuff from The Byrds, and maybe a couple of original songs thrown in there, and I was playing for about an hour,” McGuinn says of his earliest solo shows. “I was playing songs I still do, like My Back Pages and Chestnut Mare and Lover of the Bayou, and the reception was great. At that point I knew I could do it and be happier than being in a band.”
Now, forty years later, McGuinn has been a solo artist more than four times longer than he was a member of The Byrds, and he’s proud of what he’s accomplished.
His latest release is an astonishing one hundred songs from his Folk Den project.
“It’s a four and a half hour listening session to get through all of it. A good way to check it out is on CD Baby, because they put samples up that are thirty seconds,” McGuinn recommends with another chuckle.
As for his favorites?
“I like King Kong Kitchie Ki-Me-O a lot,” he says. And I like Jones’s Ale and Hard Times of Old England. There are quite a few that really stand out as songs.”
He also has a new album in the works, featuring updated renditions of his classic songs, which he says is something fans at his solo shows have been asking for for years.
“Fans who come to my show and always say, ‘I’d like to get a copy of Mr. Tambourine Man or Turn! Turn! Turn! And so we’re re-recording those for them,” McGuinn explains as we wrap up. “I’ve got some drum tracks that Stan Lynch (formerly of the Heartbreakers) did awhile back. It’s going to be about ten songs. We’ve got some new songs on there, as well as the hits that people want. It’s not trying to replace The Byrds or anything like that, but it’s different and it’s been really fun for me to work on. It’s been a challenge to reimagine the songs, and I think people will be really excited when they hear what we’ve done.”