Roger McGuinn Interview by Alan Harrison
It’s difficult to quantify the impact that Roger McGuinn had on popular music during his time with the Byrds over 40 years ago. What I can say, is that he not only influenced the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the early to mid 1960’s, while spawning the embryonic Country-Rock and what was to become known as the West Coast Sound; but with the ‘Notorious Byrd Brothers’ album in 1968 it can be argued that he also had a hand in the birth of Psychedelia.
In the 1980’s the bands on the Postcard Records roster in Scotland (Aztec Camera, Orange Juice etc) not only appropriated the Byrds sound but their dress sense too! Then; if you jump forward to the late 20th Century you can hear McGuinn’s signature jingle-jangle 12 string guitar sound in the music of REM, Teenage Fanclub, Crowded House and even the Smiths.
The Byrds finally went their separate ways in 1973 and the heart of the band, Roger McGuinn subsequently released a series of solo records over the next decade and toured sporadically.
With Roger’s upcoming UK tour on the horizon, I was honoured to interview him on your behalf.
The conversation began with the obligatory background questions:
“Roger; it’s a little known fact that you started your career with Bobby Darin and later worked in the Brill Building as a songwriter for him.”
“That’s correct. Singing harmonies with someone like him, was a dream come true for me and when Bobby realised that his days were numbered as a Pop singer he moved into the Brill Building and took me with him. I had to sit in my office all day listening to the radio and trying to copy the hits. It wasn’t the hardest work I’ve ever done but was a fantastic learning experience in the actual mechanics of songwriting. At that time Surf music was just beginning to become popular so that was what I was influenced by. A few of my songs did get recorded but only one; ‘Beach Ball’ was actually a hit, by a band called The City Surfers; which was really me playing guitar and a bunch of friends.
It was also a hit in Australia by a singer called Jimmy Hannan and it was the Gibb Brothers (Bee Gees) who sang the harmonies!
That record and my savings gave me enough money to leave New York for California where I set about becoming a folk-singer. It was an exciting time, playing coffee houses and folk clubs; but when I first started adding Beatles songs to my set list and then singing my own songs in that ‘style’ it upset the traditionalists and I found work increasingly hard to come by until I got a residency at the Troubadour in LA.
It was there that I came to the notice of Gene Clark and David Crosby who were listening to the same records that I was and we instantly became friends and decided to form a band to sing folk and Country songs in a Beatles type style. We felt that it was a natural progression to merge folk, country and Pop, but the folk clubs weren’t interested in booking us but we persevered and eventually gained a reputation around town which led up to being asked to record Mr. Tambourine Man. When we went into the studio it was a conscious decision to still sound a bit like Bob Dylan but more importantly a bit like John Lennon too and it went to Number 1; which proved a lot of people wrong.”
I then asked Roger about his love of guitars and did he still have any of his original models.
“Oh yes; I still have my very first Martin guitar which cost me $165; or at least my wife does!” He laughed,
Because it meant so much to me I actually presented it to her as a gift on our Wedding day. I still have a couple on my early Rickenbacker’s too; which I dust off and play every now and then. From those days I also have a banjo that Bernie Leadon from the Eagles gave me. I’d always played a Bluegrass model but his was a folk banjo with a long thin neck which suited my grip. It still has a wonderful tone today.
I don’t know if you or your readers know but I have three ‘signature’ guitars from Martin? The first one came about following a conversation with a fan after a concert 15 years ago. He asked why I didn’t have a signature guitar after all of those years. I replied that I didn’t know either; so he went on to write an irate letter to the company who quickly got in touch to ‘put the oversight right’!
That was the 12 string one but my favourite is the HD7 which sounds just like a 12 string but is simpler to play.
I know I’m more known for playing guitars but I also own one of the first Moog synthesisers. I bought it at the Monterey Pop Festival in 67 and used it on The Notorious Byrd Brothers album. I still keep it in the garage with my collection of old computers (I never throw anything out) and fire it up every couple of years to make sure it still works.
With today’s technology I can make perfectly good music with my computer; but it is nice to know that I have a little piece of history….in my garage.
It’s because I can record music in my home with just a guitar and a computer that I’ve managed to record so many tracks for my website; Folk Den.
By the time I reached my 50th birthday I found that I was buying and listening to more and more of the traditional folk music that I’d grown up with, but I couldn’t find anywhere that was playing that type of music. If the younger generation don’t hear these songs I felt that they would get forgotten and lost; so I set about recording as many as I could remember and putting them on my Folk Den website so people could download them for free.
Music has been good to me – The Byrds lasted 9 years and even today some Classic radio station somewhere is playing a Byrds single; so ‘giving something so important back’ felt like the right thing to do. So I set up my Mac Book Pro with Pro tools and began recording. It’s pretty much just me and my guitar with the occasional collaboration. Everything is ‘back to basics’ with some songs even sounding a little experimental; but it’s given me a freedom that I never expected after years of working for major Record Companies.
The Internet has been great in many ways for musicians, as it means our work can potentially be heard by millions of people at the press of a button; but it’s been a bad thing for songwriters as they don’t always get the financial rewards that their work merits. In 2000 I even spoke at the Congressional Hearings about Downloading music and the non-payment of royalties. It’s slowly getting better but artists still have to depend on the Internet for promoting their work and bringing people to their concerts where they can sell them CD’s and merchandise. The circle has come around again as it was just like when I started out 50 years ago.
I’m incredibly proud of the Folk Den project as the University of Carolina and many, many schools now adapt my songs as part of their own music courses and a CD I recorded with Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Judy Collins called TREASURES FROM THE FOLK DEN was nominated for a Grammy in 2002.
Which brings me to my latest CD, C-CD; which is an album of traditional Sea Shanties from Folk Den, which I’ve remixed and released as an album of songs from across my career, which all tell tales of bravado and camaraderie through the ages.
You will get to hear some of them when I tour the UK later this month; as well as many other things I’ve recorded over the years.
I know this might sound odd but I still love touring; even the travelling. Just like the sailors on C-CD I love the sea and will be travelling to Europe aboard the Queen Mary II, which will be like a second honeymoon for Camilla and myself. I won’t be doing it on this trip but I occasionally give lectures on Cruise Ships. I tell the story of my life through pictures and songs spread over two 45 minute sessions and it gives us the opportunity to discover new lands; just like adventurers.
Time was getting on now so I had to quickly ask Roger a couple of questions that keep me awake at night.
“How does it feel to be the only Popstar to be name checked in two hit singles?”
“Two?” Roger sounded baffled.
“Yes,” I laughed, “Two – Creeque Valley by the Mamas and Papas and Consolation Prize by Orange Juice who sang ‘I wore my fringe like Roger McGuinn!’ You should check it out.”
Roger laughed out loud, and found the song on YouTube as we chatted. He loved it and went on to play it several times, as he corrected me;
“That actually makes four! David Allen Coe also mentions me on Willie, Waylon and Me and you can also hear Bob Dylan calling out my name on Really Going Nowhere.”
The next question has baffled the Harrison family for decades; “Why did you famously change your name from Jim to Roger?”
“I was Christened James and have been known as Jim to friends and family all my life; but in 1967 I thought that it was a bit dull for a ‘Popstar’ so the Leader of a Spiritual Group that I was involved with suggested that I change my name to something beginning with the letter R as it had a more positive ‘energy’. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I offered up a number of words beginning with R and Roger was the only ‘real name’ among them; so Roger it was and still is, professionally.”
“Do you still meet up with the guys from way back when?”
“Occasionally; but as I live in Orlando Florida and most of my friends are still working musicians it’s only at Festivals or in the case of Elvis Costello; hotels and airports. We had a period a couple of years ago when we kept bumping into each other as one of us was checking into and the other out of, hotels then we kept meeting in Airport lounges; no one else in the whole music industry, just Elvis Costello. I’ve known Elvis for a lot of years and we can talk for hours; or at least he can talk for hours and I listen.
Actually; earlier this year I did meet John B Sebastian; from the Lovin Spoonful at a Festival. It was really great to catch up with him again and he reminded me of the day we met on McDougal Street and he was wearing the strangest, coolest round, cobalt blue sunglasses that I’d ever seen. He insisted that I should try them on and look at the sky….maaaaaan. I did and they made everything look spectacularly ‘clear’….maaaaaan. So much so, that at the first opportunity I had my optician make a pair of corrective glasses for me in the same colour; only I chose a rectangular frame; which sort of became my trademark after I wore them on TV! I’m not sure he’s ever really forgiven me. (Cue laughter).”
‘What does the future hold for Roger McGuinn?’
“Well, after this interview I’m off on my bicycle to play golf, and then we will be preparing for the visit to Europe, which we are both really looking forward to.
When we get back I will be putting the finishing touches to a DVD Biography that is in the works. After all of these years it’s a pretty exciting project; as it features lots of old film of me and some of my more recent concerts plus interviews with Bruce (Springsteen), Tom Petty, Judy Collins and my old friend Joan Baez. If all goes well it will be released in early 2012.
After that it will be much of the same I hope – singing, recording and touring until I die at a ripe old age like Andres Segovia; who was 93 and due to play Carnegie Hall three days afterwards.”
Roger McGuinn website – http://www.ibiblio.org/jimmy/mcguinn/