Roger McGuinn, as a founding member and guiding force of The Byrds, had a huge impact on rock ‘n’ roll of the 1960s, before embarking on a long and distinguished solo career that continues today. His fellow member of the Rolling Thunder Revue, Larry “Ratso” Sloman, recently caught up with him to talk about the Byrds, going solo, Rolling Thunder Revue, Bobby Darin, Lenny Bruce, Tom Petty, Pete Seeger, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and revisit the highlights and lowlights of the past several decades.
Roger McGuinn holds a most esteemed place in the pantheon of rock heroes. Coming from a traditional folk background, he took elements of that, added a bit of the Beatles sound and, using revolutionary lyrics provided by Bob Dylan, created a whole new genre of music called Folk Rock with “Mr. Tambourine Man.” It was instantly recognizable because of the unique jingly-jangle sound he produced on his 12-string Rickenbacker guitar. His band, the Byrds, weren’t content to rest on their laurels and within a few years had defined two more genres of music: space rock, with its psychedelic underpinnings, and raga rock, which drew on elements of traditional Indian music and influenced the Beatles to further explore that terrain. Then, in a stunning shift again, the Byrds produced Sweetheart of the Rodeo, an album that pioneered country rock.
The Byrds’ first TV appearance, 1965:
I met Roger just as he was embarking on a solo career after a disastrous attempt at a Byrds reunion. And we were together the night we entered the Other End in Greenwich Village and got corralled by Bob Dylan into joining his legendary Rolling Thunder Revue tour, recently immortalized in a brilliant documentary by Martin Scorsese. So, it was a delight to reconnect with Roger and get him to reminisce about his early folk days in Chicago, the formation of the Byrds, and his solo career. Roger took time out while on his 77th birthday cruise aboard the Queen Mary 2 to answer our queries about his fabled past and what’s in store for this still active national music treasure.
PKM: You were born in Chicago to parents involved in journalism and public relations. They wrote a best-selling book called Parents Can’t Win. Was that true? Where you that much of a terror? Seriously, what were your formative years like growing up in Chicago?
Roger McGuinn: Parents Can’t Win was a satire on Dr. [Benjamin] Spock. They tried his suggestions of reverse psychology on me and they didn’t work, for the most part. There was one exception, I wanted to stay up past my bedtime and they said, “Alright you can stay up but you have to stay up all night long.” I said, “No I’m a little boy and I need my sleep!”
PKM: Like me, your first musical hero was Elvis. How did he rock your world? Who else were you digging then musically?
Roger McGuinn: Elvis was the first artist to make me want to play music. I loved the whole rockabilly scene. Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers.
PKM: You got a guitar for your 14th birthday. Like a lot of musicians, did you do that to increase your chances of getting girls? Were you popular with the opposite sex before that?
Roger McGuinn: My main motivation was to learn to play the music, I discovered the girls liked me better after playing for the kids at school.
PKM: You went to a private school where a young music teacher was a major influence on the direction of your life. Talk about her, what music she turned you and your classmates onto and how you eventually wound up enlisting in an experimental music school.
Roger McGuinn: My music teacher at the Latin School of Chicago was Louise Ganter. She was in her early 20s and played piano, harpsichord, guitar and accordion. She invited Bob Gibson (not the baseball player) to play an assembly for us and I loved the stories and songs so much that I ran up to her and asked what kind of music that was. She pointed me to the Old Town School of Folk Music where I learned to finger pick and play guitar and banjo.
PKM: Albert Grossman, who would go on to become Bob Dylan’s manager, was a fixture in the Chicago folk scene. What was he like then? Is it true that he played guitar and sang sea chanties?
Roger McGuinn: Albert Grossman was a big teddy bear of a guy. He and Alan Ribback would sing sea chanties while Alan played guitar sitting backwards on a wooden chair. Alan was disabled by Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
Paul McCartney told me to get rid of the little glasses and the Rickenbacker 12-string.
PKM: How much did you hang with Michael Bloomfield back in Chicago? Did you see evidence of his future greatness then? I was always in awe of Michael’s wide range of knowledge about esoteric things.
Roger McGuinn: I really didn’t know Michael Bloomfield well but on two occasions he approached me. The first was after we’d both been at the Old Town School for a year or so. He came up and said, “I’m going to get better than you!” I told him that was fine with me. The second was when he asked how to make that ‘crying’ sound on the guitar. I showed him how to bend a string.
PKM: How much of your signature sound was developed back in Chicago? Didn’t you come up with the idea of a 7-string guitar there?
Roger McGuinn: All I knew when I first went to the Old Town School in 1957 were a few chords and a couple of songs. Frank Hamilton taught me everything I know. All the rolling arpeggios I used in the Byrds and banjo techniques came from my time there.
The idea for the 7-string came years later after Air France broke my 12-string acoustic guitar on a trip back from Paris. I wanted to get the best part of 12-string on a 6-string guitar.
PKM: How and when did you hook up with the Limeliters and then the Chad Mitchell Trio? Were you performing solo in Chicago?
Roger McGuinn: After a few years at the Old Town School I got good enough to get a coffeehouse gig. I had a group called the Frets. Johnny Carbo on banjo, Lou McDonald on conga drum and me on banjo and guitar.
When the shows were over at the Cafe Oblique coffeehouse, I would walk down Rush Street to the Gate of Horn where all the big time folk singers and jazz musicians played.
One night I walked into the Gate of Horn and found a jam session going on with the Limeliters, and Theodore Bikel. Alex Hassilev saw me with my guitar and banjo hard shell cases and asked what I had. I told him I had a guitar and a banjo. He said, “Great, break out the banjo, we have enough guitars going.”
I played with them until 5:00 AM when the Gate of Horn closed.
He offered me a possible job backing the Limeliters and told me to take their album home and learn the songs. I stayed up and learned the ones I didn’t know. There were a number of Bob Gibson songs I already knew.
The next day I auditioned for them at 1PM and I was a little shaky but got through it. Alex said “Great, you’ve got the job when can you start?” I said, “I get out of high school in June.” “June?” he said. “Didn’t we meet you in a bar last night?” I said, “This is Chicago.” Alex said, “Well that’s OK, we are recording an album for RCA in June and at least we’d like to have you on that.”
So, the Limeliters flew back to California and I went back to high school.
June rolled around and I got a long distance call from California, an expensive thing back then. It was Alex. He said, “Do you remember me?” I told him I did and he asked if I still wanted the backing job. I did. He said, “We have to send a letter for your parents to sign because you’re under 18 and when we get that back, we’ll send you a plane ticket.” My parents got the letter and signed it. The Limeliters sent me a plane ticket.
I recorded with the Limeliters on their Tonight In Person album. They went on a break and told me that if I ever got to San Francisco to call the number on a pack of matches they gave me.
I met David Crosby at the Ash Grove in L.A. and he drove me to Santa Barbara where I stayed at his mother’s house for a few days. Then I hopped on a Greyhound bus and headed up to San Francisco hoping to reconnect with the Limeliters. When I got to town, I called the number on the match book. It had been disconnected.
I hung out at the hungry i and that’s when the Chad Mitchell Trio got ahold of me and flew me to NYC to work with them. We toured together for a couple of years.
McGuinn playing banjo backup to the Chad Mitchell Trio on a “Folk Medley”:
PKM: On a tour with Chad Mitchell, you opened for Lenny Bruce at the Crescendo in L.A. Did you hang with Lenny? Any reaction to him? Is it true that his mother promoted your first gig as the Byrds later?
Roger McGuinn: I did meet Lenny and his mother during the Crescendo. Lenny was cool and funny sometimes.
PKM: At that same fateful show at the Crescendo, you met Bobby Darin, who would become one of your first mentors. Describe Bobby to people who might not know of his place in popular music.
Roger McGuinn: Bobby was multi-talented. He played drums, piano, guitar and vibes. He worked with George Burns and as a result was very professional. His shoes shined, hair combed, suit pressed. He was always in tune and on time!
I asked him to get me in the movies and he told me he had a hard enough time getting himself in films. But he brought me a script from Jackie Cooper. It was for a banjo player …. in a place called “Petticoat Junction.”
After reading it I couldn’t take the part, I was too much of a city kid. Bobby said well if you turn down Jackie Cooper, you’ll never work in Hollywood.
You know what? I never have! 🙂
PKM: When did you migrate to New York? Was it because Darin fell ill and retired from performing and set up his own music company and hired you to sit in an office in the Brill Building and attempt to write hit songs?
Roger McGuinn: Bobby was ill. He took a break from performing and moved to New York. He asked me if I wanted to move there and learn to be a songwriter. I thought it would be good experience, so I did.
The job was to listen to the radio and write songs like the hits. I co-wrote a song with Frank Gari called “Beach Ball” that reached number six on the Australian charts sung by Jimmy Hannan and backed by the Bee Gees. I still get about $6.00 a year from that.
Bobby Darin played drums, Gari sang and McGuinn played guitar under the name “The City Surfers”:
The songwriting job only paid $35 a week so I became a studio musician to supplement my income.
PKM: Did you meet Simon and Garfunkel then? Was that before Lou Reed and John Cale worked at the Brill Building?
Roger McGuinn: I did a demo for Paul Simon for his song “The Sound of Silence.” I didn’t see Lou Reed or John Cale at the Brill Building.
PKM: Now you’re in New York when the folk scene is on fire. What clubs were you playing? What did your repertoire consist of then?
Roger McGuinn: I played the hootenannies at Gerde’s Folk City and the Gaslight. I worked the Cafe Playhouse on MacDougal Street where we passed the hat after each song. Other players there were Richie Havens, Peter Tork, Tiny Tim, John Sebastian and the Holy Modal Rounders. John Sebastian always said, “You didn’t want to follow Richie Havens because there would be no money left.”
I did some Beatles songs and folk songs with a Beatle Beat. It didn’t go over well with the folk crowd.
PKM: At the same time, Dylan had hit town and was playing at Gerdes Folk City. Were you impressed when you first heard him? Did you meet him then? What was he like then? Is it true that he was always surrounded by folkie chicks? Were you actually part of his scene or where you still wearing your Chad Mitchell Trio suits and sporting a crew cut?
Roger McGuinn: I did see Dylan at Gerde’s and the ladies liked him. He was good but it was before he started writing his own material. I was still wearing traditional clothes and had short hair although I started growing it out after hearing the Beatles. I wasn’t part of Dylan’s circle.
PKM: When did you meet Pete Seeger? Wasn’t he a major influence on you years later when you went solo and introduced an element of storytelling in your sets?
Roger McGuinn: I met Pete Seeger when I was 16, still living in Chicago. I was just a kid hanging around the Navy Pier where he was supposed to play a concert. But the concert got cancelled and I met him on the loading dock.
Not much trial and error once I got the Rickenbacker 360/12. It was just a banjo roll with some compression. The compression was put there by Columbia Records’ engineer Ray Gerhardt, probably to cushion his equipment from our nasty rock music.
PKM: Where were you when you saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show? How did you react?
Roger McGuinn: I didn’t see the Beatles on Ed Sullivan but on a commercial that played on New York TV before they came to the US. It looked like they were having so much fun that I went to the record store on 8th Street in the Village and bought “Meet The Beatles.” I learned all the songs and started playing them at coffee houses.
I remember walking west on Bleecker Street and hearing a couple of club owners point to me and say, “We need four of him.” I knew I was onto something then!
PKM: How did you wind up in California? Your first gig was opening at the Troubadour for Hoyt Axton and Roger Miller. Did they have any advice for you?
Roger McGuinn: After the poor reception from the folkies in New York, I flew to L.A. and got a job at the Troubadour opening for Hoyt Axton with Roger Miller as the second act.
I was still playing Beatles songs and a few folk songs souped up with a Beatle beat. Roger Miller tried to help me saying “I like what you’re doing, but it would go over better if you didn’t get so mad at the audience.”
Gene Clark approached me to write some songs after that.
PKM: Is it true that you saw Mike Clarke walking down the street and he looked so cool that he was invited to join the group even though he couldn’t really drum? Was this a Monkees move?
Roger McGuinn: Mike Clarke looked like a combination of Brian Jones and Mick Jagger. That was his ticket to ride!
PKM: One positive that Crosby brought to the band was that he knew Jim Dickson who worked at a studio and would let you do demos there for free. What were your impressions of Dickson? Did you think he’d make a good manager?
Roger McGuinn: Dickson may have planned to manage us but initially he was just a friendly guy letting us use the tape machines after the regular sessions were over.
PKM: You guys got a deal from Elektra Records. What happened with that? Did they make you change your name to The Beefeaters?
Roger McGuinn: The name Beefeaters was Jac Holzman’s idea. It sounded British. Fortunately, the single never made it.
PKM: Watching A Hard Day’s Night was a watershed moment for you guys. How much did the Beatles influence the early Byrds, even in terms of calling yourself the Byrds?
Roger McGuinn: The Beatles were a major influence! Everything from the beat to the hair to the clothes were inspired by them. But we were folk singers and that came to the surface when we did a Bob Dylan song.
PKM: You’re all performing in suits with suede collars, cribbed from the Beatles but you’re wearing tinted granny glasses. How did you come up with that look? Were you acting aloof, too cool for the room or was it that you guys were just stoned a lot?
Roger McGuinn: The suits were an obvious cop from the Beatles. Fortunately, they got stolen by the second week at Ciro’s. I told this to John Lennon and he said “I wish they’d stolen our suits!”
PKM: What drugs were you all doing then?
Roger McGuinn: Pot, LSD, Librium, and Ritalin.
PKM: That amazing jingle jangle sound you got from your Rickenbacker helped cement this new folk rock genre. How much trial and error was there in creating that sound?
Roger McGuinn: Not much trial and error once I got the Rickenbacker 360/12. It was just a banjo roll with some compression. The compression was put there by Columbia Records’ engineer Ray Gerhardt, probably to cushion his equipment from our nasty rock music.
We told George and John about Ravi Shankar at the party in Bel Air where we were on LSD. That may have influenced their music.
PKM: Not everybody loved your inventiveness. Tom Paxton in an article in the folk magazine Sing Out! derided folk rock as folk rot. Did you want to tell him and the other purists “don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall, for the times they are a changing”?
Roger McGuinn: Yeah that was the reaction from coffeehouse and Troubadour audiences. They soon changed their tune.
PKM: You played some weird gigs in the beginning. A high school graduation party at the Bel Air Country Club. Was that where you met Billy Hinsche, who would go on to form Dino, Desi and Billy and then later play with the Beach Boys? He said that he picked up your guitar and started strumming it there. Were you pissed to find him fiddling around with your axe?
Roger McGuinn: No memory of that event.
PKM: In 1965 you went to play England and you met the Beatles and the Stones. Let’s talk about the Beatles first. They loved the Byrds, right?
Roger McGuinn: They said we were their favorite band!
PKM: It’s said that John loved your signature dark glasses and he got his own soon after. Is it true that after you lost your precious glasses in the Bahamas, Paul told you not to replace them? And he also told you to lose the Rickenbacker guitar. He was sabotaging your style and your sound!
Roger McGuinn: Yes, that’s pretty much the way it went. Paul McCartney told me to get rid of the little glasses and the Rickenbacker 12-string.
PKM: You established a long-lasting friendship with some of them? Who were you closest to?
Roger McGuinn: George was a good friend for many years. The others were very nice to me. I remember Paul inviting me back stage at the L.A. Forum and John invited me to record with him at the Record Plant during his “Lost Weekend.” Ringo and I exchanged antique English Pennies at the Wembley Arena on the Bob Dylan / Tom Petty 1987 tour.
PKM: In a way, you brought Dylan and the Beatles together by combining their work in a new fresh way. Were you present with both of them many times? Is it true that Dylan scolded the Beatles for not saying anything in their lyrics in the beginning?
I was just drifting and Rolling Thunder gave me a new sense of purpose. It was also the best two month party I’d ever been to.
Roger McGuinn: George once told me, “We had a big argument with Bob Dylan.” I asked for details and he said, “Well it really wasn’t an argument.” it was just that Dylan had told the Beatles “You’re not saying anything with your songs.” They took his advice and began writing deeper more meaningful lyrics.
PKM: What about the Stones? When I was growing up you had a choice, be a Beatles fan or a Stones fan. I liked the Stones anti-social attitude more. Were they really like that?
Roger McGuinn: I loved the Beatles and the Stones. To me they were both doing great music. Stones were more blues based especially after Brian Jones was no longer with them but the Beatles were a great rock band like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers became.
PKM: You later toured with the Stones in the States. What was that experience like?
Roger McGuinn: Touring with the Stones was really fun. My favorite memory of that tour is when we were opening for them at a large arena in San Diego. We were a young band with a very limited repertoire. The Stones were late and we had exhausted our ten songs. So, I started singing Stones songs. Mick and the guys were amused when they finally arrived to see us sing “Not Fade Away.” They took us out to dinner at Martoni’s Italian Restaurant. Mick paid for our meal with a roll of $100 bills.
PKM: You once commented that the inadequacies of the early Byrds live show was offset by the fact that screaming teeny-boppers drowned out the music. When did the live shows really start to gel musically?
Roger McGuinn: Chip Monk, former lighting man at the Village Gate was our road manager for a while. He commented, “You guys get a wild reception when you first come on stage. As the show progresses, the enthusiasm gets lower and lower.” He was right, the fans had stopped screaming by that time and it wasn’t until Clarence White was playing with us that the reaction became incredible. We were getting three encores!
PKM: Your second album is a continuation of the musical ideas of the first, but you break new ground again with your third album Fifth Dimension. Now you’re inventing a new genre, psychedelic rock with “Eight Miles High” and showing Indian musical influences on that and other tracks. You melded psychedelia with jazz on that track. Your guitar playing emulated the free form jazz stylings of Coltrane. How’d you come up that idea?
Roger McGuinn: I had bought a cassette recorder in London. It was a new invention and no pre-recorded cassettes were available. I bought three blanks and asked Derek Taylor to record our concerts on the UK tour. We later used the screams in “So You Want to Be A Rock ’n’ Roll Star.”
After returning to the US, we toured in a motor home. Crosby had a friend in the Midwest who had John Coltrane’s double album India and Africa and Ravi Shankar’s latest album. I recorded the tracks on my new device and we plugged in a Fender amp in the Clark Cortez motor home and listened to Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane for a month.
By the time we got back in the studio (first at RCA, then at Columbia), we were so steeped in that music that “Eight Miles High” and “Why” came out the way they did.
PKM: The first fissure in the group come right before “Eight Miles High” is released when Gene Clark leaves the group. What was behind that? It had to be more than just his fear of flying. Although you had a great line when you told him “if you can’t fly, you can’t be a Byrd.”
Roger McGuinn: Gene was genuinely afraid of flying, claiming to have seen a plane crash in Kansas. He was in a panic the day he walked off the plane bound to New York where I told him “if you can’t fly, you can’t be a Byrd.”
But later Jim Dickson was in the hospital, perhaps thinking he was dying and confessed that he and Eddy Tickner had a plan to spin Gene off as the next Elvis Presley.
PKM: What was the group dynamic of the Byrds at this point? Are the others jealous that Gene was making more money because he was writing a lot of the songs? Or was it a case of him wanting to strike out as a new Elvis of sorts?
Roger McGuinn: It’s true that the rest of the Byrds resented the fact that we were walking and catching busses in L.A. while Gene had a shiny new sports car.
PKM: Is it true that after Gene left the group, the Beatles told you that, from their own experience, it’s better to just have four members in a group?
Roger McGuinn: The Beatles told us that they were better off with only four members and not five.
PKM: Did the “raga rock” elements in Fifth Dimension influence the Beatles to start incorporating Indian elements in their own music?
Roger McGuinn: We told George and John about Ravi Shankar at the party in Bel Air where we were on LSD. That may have influenced their music.
PKM: In 1967, you joined an obscure eastern religious group named Subud and changed your name from Jim to Roger. How did that happen? Why didn’t you go the traditional route and get a guru from India?
Roger McGuinn: I got involved with Subud in New York in 1963 before we knew of a guru from India.
PKM: By 1968, with the Notorious Byrd Brothers album, you reached the apex of your synthesis of folk, rock, country and psychedelic sounds with some new innovative studio techniques. That’s your favorite Byrds album isn’t it?
Two songs from The Notorious Byrd Brothers album:
Roger McGuinn: The Notorious Byrd Brothers album is my favorite.
PKM: Now the band is down to you and Chris. So, you hire Chris’ cousin and Gram Parsons and put them on salary. Did you think this would work out in the long run?
Roger McGuinn: Well it sounded better with Gram Parsons than just Chris, Kevin and me. We weren’t sure of our future at that point.
PKM: Whose idea was it to put the picture of a horse on the cover of the album where Crosby’s face would normally be? Why a horse’s face instead of a horse’s ass?
Roger McGuinn: The photo was taken in Topanga Canyon and the horse just walked into the shack with Michael Clarke. It wasn’t planned.
PKM: For the next album, you wanted to do a concept album that would be a history of 20th century American music. What would have been on that album? Instead, you guys do a straight out country rock album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Hillman told a writer that he and Gram Parson kept nudging you along towards country music and that “I don’t think he likes it to this day”?
Roger McGuinn: Gram’s love of country music was infectious. I couldn’t get Chris to go along with my history concept from Early Music from Medieval era c. 500-1400, Renaissance era c. 1400-1600, Baroque era c. 1600-1760, Classical era c. 1730-1820, and showing how Celtic music got distilled in the Appalachian mountains to become folk songs and got slicked up by Nashville to become country music. Then African and country collided to become rockabilly music, rhythm and blues became Rock ’n’ Roll. Then on to Space music with the synthesizer. It was just too far out! So, I went along with Chris and Gram and fell in love with country music.
PKM: You once said that going country was like playing a role, so you got the obligatory Nudie sequined outfits and bought a Cadillac. Was it like being a poseur or was country in your heart and blood then?
Roger McGuinn: Country music was truly in my blood.
PKM: The Byrds played the conservative Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and got booed. Describe that scene.
Roger McGuinn: We went on stage with a sincere love of country music and were misunderstood. It was heartbreaking!
PKM: Now the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album is considered a masterpiece. Back then, was it the case of what Kinky Friedman went through, it was too hip for country and too country for the hipsters? Then you decide to go on a tour of South Africa. Hanging out in London with the Stones, before the trip, you guys go to Stonehenge with the Stones. They’re against going to an apartheid country. Was their disapproval of the tour the reason that Gram Parsons left you in a lurch the day you were to fly to South Africa or did he use that as an excuse to buddy up to the Stones?
Roger McGuinn: Gram was going to do the South African tour until the Stones gave him an out. He just wanted to stay in London and hang with Mick and Keith and maybe be a member of the Rolling Stones.
PKM: The South Africa trip was intense. You went there because Miriam Makeba encouraged you? Talk about the crooked promoters and about your dust-ups with the authorities over your anti-apartheid statements and your eventual escape by the skin of your teeth from the secret service. How did you meet the gangster called The Fish who smuggled you out of the country?
Roger McGuinn: I did want to go to South Africa at the request of Miriam Makeba. We did a lot of interviews on radio and for print press and came out against apartheid and we got death threats as a result!
A guy named the Fish got us some pot called “Durban Poison.” I caught a bad case of the flu and the shows were a nightmare. When it came time to fly home, we were told that the secret service was waiting to arrest us at the airport. The Fish got us on a chartered DC-3 to get us out of the country. The whole thing may have just been a ploy by the promoter not to pay us.
PKM: Then when you get back, Chris quits the band after fighting with your manager. And you’re left with a huge band debt. Just four years after #1 hits and making revolutionary music, you’re now the last Byrd flying. Was it a case of too much, too soon? Were the Byrds victims of commerce over art? Too much record company pressure to get hits, rat race tours, no sleep, and ultimately no royalties?
Roger McGuinn: The Byrds were on steady decline after Gene left. We peaked artistically with Notorious Byrd Brothers and never regained commercial success. Then when everybody was gone and I got Clarence White to play with us we had minor airplay with Untitled. After that, the wheels fell off. The last straw was recording a reunion BYRDS album that didn’t sell well and had no tour. It was time to go solo!
Gram was going to do the South African tour until the Stones gave him an out. He just wanted to stay in London and hang with Mick and Keith and maybe be a member of the Rolling Stones.
PKM: The Byrds barely limped along for the next few years, highlighted by disasters like the female choir producer Bob Johnston overdubbed on your version of Dylan’s “Lay, Lady Lay” and Terry Melcher’s crazy mix on the Byrdsmaniax album. But this was also the period that you started writing songs with Jacques Levy. Tell us about Jacques and what he brought to the writing table.
Roger McGuinn: I was kind of excited about going solo and underestimated my need to reach for a hit record. Instead, I just recorded anything I liked and hoped people would like it too. That wasn’t the case with my first solo album. Jacques Levy recruited me to write the music for “TRYP,” a country rock musical he was putting together inspired by Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. We wrote 23 songs for that and just kept writing.
PKM: After a disastrous reunion album with the original members, you finally went solo in 1973. Why did you finally make the move? Were you nervous about being a solo act? Did you think you still needed a band to help put across your musical vision? It may have taken you a long time but today you say you prefer being solo. Why?
Roger McGuinn: I love the interaction with the audience as a solo artist. It took a long time to learn the art of storytelling but once I did, it became my favorite thing to do!
PKM: With the Byrds gone except in memory, do you think that one reason the experiment failed was there was too much democracy in the band dynamics, that giving everyone a chance to express themselves didn’t make for the best product?
Roger McGuinn: Yes, I have said that a band should be a benevolent dictatorship.
PKM: Yet going solo at first wasn’t a smooth ride. After your first solo album, didn’t Columbia move in and choose a producer for you and even tell you what material to record? How did that make you feel after years of being a force in the music scene?
Roger McGuinn: Having Columbia Records take over my career choices was very disheartening.
PKM: You seemed rudderless around that time and then one day we walked into the Other End in the Village and there was Dylan and Jacques and next thing we knew we were both on the magical mystery tour known as the Rolling Thunder Revue. Tell me your feelings about that tour now in retrospect. Did you think Scorsese did a good job in capturing the spirit of the tour in his documentary?
Roger McGuinn: Running into you, Dylan and Jacques that night was a real morale booster. I was just drifting and Rolling Thunder gave me a new sense of purpose. It was also the best two month party I’d ever been to. I liked the Scorsese interpretation with its whimsical fictional characters. It was especially cool to hear Dylan say “McGuinn was into sophisticated electronics.” and that I may have been bugging Stefan Van Drop’s room.
PKM: I was too busy writing my account of the Northeastern leg of Rolling Thunder to continue on the second leg. How was the experience different? The music seemed harder, angrier.
Roger McGuinn: The Northeastern leg was without a doubt the best! But there were highlights on the second leg. Between the two, Bob invited me to Minnesota for the holidays. We went skiing. I stayed at Louis Kemp’s house. When we began the second leg, we rehearsed at a resort called the Belleview-Biltmore in Belleair, Florida. I had a great time hanging out with Mick Ronson and Kinky Friedman.
The concert in Houston at the Astrodome was interesting. I was sharing a mic with this guy and we were both looking at each other as if to say, “Who are you?” It turned out to be Willie Nelson.
Then we recorded the show in Ft. Collins, Colorado. It was cold and rainy but left a lasting impression. I got my name in the credits but no screen time. 🙂
PKM: You once said that Bob learned stagecraft from you on the Rolling Thunder tour? What did you mean by that?
Roger McGuinn: The ladies on the tour put some makeup on my face before one of the shows. I got off stage and mentioned that to Bob. He said “Yeah that’s why you’re doing so good up there.” He started his white face makeup after that night.
PKM: A lot of people see our pal Bob as being something of an enigma. But my interactions with him are usually quite normal. And you claim to have a “good working telepathic sense” with him. Explain.
Roger McGuinn: Some things are not to be explained.
PKM: Let’s talk about women. When I met you, you were married to Linda Gilbert your third wife, who you divorced right before Rolling Thunder. You had been previously married to Susan Bedrick for three years and Dolores DeLeon [Ianthe McGuinn], who was into Subud with you and gave birth to your two sons. You seem to always want a domestic situation with a woman. Is that the Cancer in you?
Roger McGuinn: I have always wanted the kind of relationship I have with Camilla.
PKM: Now your fourth marriage to Camilla seems to be the charm. Talk about meeting Camilla. Were you practicing Subud up until you met her? Did you know she would be the one, was it love at first sight?
Roger McGuinn: I met Camilla in acting class. She and I started the same night and were put into a love scene. It was method acting and the exercise we were given was to make the other person do something he or she didn’t want to. I had talked with Camilla and found that she had been a Christian but had drifted away. So, I played her “I Like the Christian Life” on my guitar. I asked what she thought of the song. She said “It’s kind of Country.” I asked if she liked country and she said “Not particularly.” I asked what she thought of the meaning? She said “Oh you’re going to tell me about Jesus right here on stage in front of all these people! How long have you been into Jesus?” I said “About two months.” She said “Give it two more and you’ll get over it” Then she stormed off the stage. The kids in the class applauded and asked “Wow that was great, what was that …. Tennessee Williams?”
The play we were assigned took place in Italy so Camilla suggested we visit the Los Angeles Museum of Art. When we got there the only paintings were of Jesus on the cross. It was an entire exhibit of the Crucifixion. Camilla said to herself “Oh, He didn’t look like that!” She got in her spirit “How do you know what I looked like; you haven’t wanted to hear my name for ten years.” Then the Bible verse John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Camilla accepted Jesus that afternoon as the sun was setting.
I had quit Subud some years before and was praying for a Christian wife. God told us separately that we would be married. First, He told Camilla and she said “Great, but you tell him!”
I had been touring with Gene Clark and was flying home from Washington DC. It was Good Friday and I started praying Catholic prayers. I stopped myself and thought “What am I praying for?” I got in my spirit “Marry Camilla.” We were married two months after that.
PKM: Camilla seems to be a perfect helpmate for you. She tours with you, collaborates on songs with you and takes care of the business end of McGuinn Inc. At least you still take the garbage out, correct?
Roger McGuinn: Living and working with Camilla is a joy. We have so much fun on the road and at home where I do have to take out the garbage.
Mick and the guys were amused when they finally arrived to see us sing “Not Fade Away.” They took us out to dinner at Martoni’s Italian Restaurant. Mick paid for our meal with a roll of $100 bills.
PKM: Talk a bit about your embrace of evangelical Christianity? Was your family religious growing up? How did you come to accept Christ into your life? Were you at a desperate part of your life or was it a result of a lifelong spiritual yearning? And did you trade notes with Bob when he went through his born again phase?
Roger McGuinn: Elvis Presley had just died and that really shook me up. It was a complete shock to read that he was a victim of prescription drugs. I had been getting prescription drugs from a series of doctors for years, speed and Quaaludes, both of which apparently Elvis depended upon heavily. I was also doing illegal drugs as well. Elvis was only seven years older than I was when he died and I thought, “Man, I’ve only got seven years left.” and I panicked. The functioning lobes of my brain began demanding that I investigate what was going on spiritually in the world. Some self-preservation instincts were kicking in.
Suddenly a horrible new feeling began to plague me. It felt as though an elephant was standing on my chest and my arms were as heavy as lead. Right after I began to experience this sensation. I met a jazz piano player, named Billy. He was a Christian, and when I told him about the “heavy” feeling that I had been having, he thought it was spiritual oppression of some kind. He asked me if I believed in the power of prayer, and when I told him that I did, remembering Norman Vincent Peale, he prayed with me. He said “’Lord, I pray that you come into this man’s heart, in your own time, slowly and surely and take away this bad feeling, in Jesus name, amen.” Nothing happened.
The crushing feeling came and went for no apparent reason. One day while I was sitting on the couch in the living room, I began to get that “heavy” feeling again. Suddenly I found myself in prayer, “Oh Lord how can I keep from feeling like this?” An answer came to my spirit, “Well, you could accept Jesus.” I said silently, “Alright, I accept Jesus.” The “heavy” feeling left me and I could feel the Holy Spirit moving in me physically and it felt good to have Jesus in my heart.
I went driving that night and at a stop light, a biker named Peter, whom I’d met in Texas on the Rolling Thunder Revue, pulled up along-side of me. He was a wild man who liked to dominate everyone he encountered.
“Hey Peter! What are you doing in town?” I yelled.
“I come to take over the place man!… Hey, McGuinn, let’s get some coke and some broads and have a good time.” He growled.
“Naw, I’m not into that anymore.”
“What’s the matter? Are you into Jesus now?” Peter snarled.
“How could you tell?” I asked incredulously.
“I know Jesus when I see him… How’s he doing?” Peter demanded.
I just smiled and said, “He’s right here.”
“I work my side of the street and I tell Him to work His!” Peter boasted.
After Peter realized that I wouldn’t provide the amusement he wanted, he let me go, and I drove through the palm lined streets of Beverly Hills feeling ecstatic with my newly found faith.
The functioning lobes of my brain began demanding that I investigate what was going on spiritually in the world. Some self-preservation instincts were kicking in.
PKM: Ramblin’ Jack Elliot gave you a template for your post Rolling Thunder career. He’d get in a Land Rover and tour the country with his wife. Did that make sense to you? Do you have the same thirst for being on the road that Jack Kerouac had?
Roger McGuinn: Capitol Records had lost interest in McGuinn/Hillman by this time, I decided then to quit the band and go out as a solo artist. Camilla was very supportive when I told her. ”What do you think you want to do now?”, she asked as she sat on the porch couch looking at the sunset over the bay.
“You know what I’ve always wanted to do? I would love to be able to just throw my guitar in the back of the Mercedes and take off on the road as an acoustic solo artist. On the Rolling Thunder tour, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott told me about the best times of his life… when he and his wife Polly went out barnstorming around the country in their old Land Rover.”
“Well let’s do it. Call Ron Rainey tomorrow and tell him to book a solo acoustic tour. I’ll be your roadie.”
My agent, Ron Rainey, booked me on a solo tour starting in Canada. He had his travel agent book all of our flights and hotels but we were not experienced enough to confirm the reservations, so all the hotel dates were one day off. That’s when I learned how helpful Camilla could be on the road. She would go to the front desk of the hotel wearing a flower in her hair and they would give us the bridal suite. The entire tour was another honeymoon.
PKM: You collaborated and played with Tom Petty a bit. Tell me about him. He seems super respectful of the people who came before him in acknowledging their influence on him.
Roger McGuinn: Tom was the nicest guy! He did have respect for artists who had come before him. He learned from them but created his own sound. He freely gave me credit as an early influence. Above that he was a great friend. He stuck up for me in the recording studio when the label wanted me to do a song that wasn’t right for me.
Tom changed the logo on my signature Rickenbacker 370/12/RM from a cartoon to a real signature. He got me on the 1987 tour of Europe with Dylan and the Heartbreakers where we wrote “King of the Hill.” He recorded that song with me on my Back From Rio album and it got high on the charts. Because of his prompting, I was on the 30th Anniversary show at Madison Square Garden. He and the Heartbreakers backed me up on “Mr. Tambourine Man” and invited me to play “My Back Pages” with Dylan, Clapton, Young, George Harrison and him.
He asked me to induct him into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2016. Tom was always there for me and I will miss him so much!
PKM: Around 1990, the same time you almost became a Traveling Wilbury brother. What happened?
Roger McGuinn: I was living in L.A. writing songs for my Back From Rio album when I received word from George Harrison asking me to move into the house where the Traveling Wilburys were recording. I had to decline because I was too busy at the time.
PKM: Was it depressing to see all the different factions of the Byrds mounting their own tours in the ‘80s? Finally, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acknowledges the trailblazing work of the Byrds in 1991. How was that reunion? Was it a tension convention like so many of those bands who reunite for an honor even when nobody’s talking to each other?
Roger McGuinn: I think a “tension convention” would be a great description.
PKM: In July of 2000, you testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the impact downloading music had on musicians. Is it true you admitted that you never got royalties from the record company for “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn, Turn, Turn?”
Roger McGuinn: I told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the royalties we got were not enough to live on. My share of early Byrds albums was $0.0007.
PKM: What’s your take now on the state of the so-called music industry today?
Roger McGuinn: I was giving a lecture at a school and one of the students asked “What’s the best thing you did in the music business?” I said, “Get out of it.” The big companies streaming services are great for consumers but don’t pay a fair share to artists.
PKM: As long as I’ve known you, you’ve been a gadget freak and first adopter. I’ll never forget the first portable cell phone you schlepped around in a huge attaché case. What is it about technology that attracts you? What are your favorite technological innovations?
Roger McGuinn: My maternal grandfather was an engineer in Chicago. He would take me to the Science Museum every Sunday starting at an early age. I developed a love of technology there. One of the great exhibits was of a mobile telephone. They had a medical emergency and thanks to the car phone the doctor was able to save little Susie’s life. I guess that’s why I had a briefcase telephone. I guess the iPhone is my favorite gadget.
PKM: Like you, I was once a scanner radio buff. It was fascinating to eavesdrop on people’s conversations until digitalization wiped our fun away. What was the best thing you ever heard on your scanner?
Roger McGuinn: Well according to the communications act of 1934 it’s legal to listen to any broadcast over the airwaves but it’s not legal to talk about them. That said my song “Car Phone” from Back From Rio is based on real conversations.
PKM: One of my mentors was John Keel who did groundbreaking work on UFO’s. I know you’re a UFO buff. What’s the true story behind the UFO’s? Where are they now? Talk about your near visitation in Malibu.
Roger McGuinn: I’m not at liberty to discuss that.
PKM: You’re writing a new song. Is it inspiration or perspiration? I’ve seen Leonard Cohen’s hundreds of notebooks that contained alternative verses for “Hallelujah”. On the other hand, Dylan claims to have written some of his songs in fifteen minutes. Is there an element of getting hooked up to a higher power and becoming a conduit in cases like that?
Roger McGuinn: I do believe there is a supernatural connection regarding song writing. Tom Petty didn’t want to talk about it out of concern that it might just go away. Some songs come in a few minutes and others take years.
PKM: Right now, you’re on the QE2 tooling around the ocean. How do you account for your attraction to the sea? Another Cancer thing? Doing the CCD album must have been quite satisfying for you.
Roger McGuinn: I think my love of the sea may come from my Celtic roots. I have always loved the songs of the sea and I kind of relive the lyrics when I’m on the sea.
PKM: “Rock and roll peaked 15 years ago” you told an interviewer in 2012. “It’s a subgenre now like jazz.” Nine years later, why do you think this is the case?
Roger McGuinn: Tastes change. We’ve had vaudeville, Roaring Twenties music, 30s and 40s crooners, Country, Jazz, Rock, Rap, Hip Hop and so on.
PKM: Talk about what you’re doing with The Folk Den. It’s like you’ve put the Old Town School of Folk Music online and are celebrating your roots in music.
Roger McGuinn: The Folk Den is a labor of love to preserve traditional music.
PKM: How much of a national treasure was Pete Seeger?
Roger McGuinn: Pete Seeger was a great inspiration to the world. A man of true peace. He had great hopes that we could all live in harmony. He hammered out love between his brothers and sisters! Wish we could all follow his lead!
PKM: You recently reunited with Chris to do a 50th anniversary show featuring Sweetheart of the Rodeo. What was that experience like? I imagine with Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives it was far from an exercise in nostalgia.
Roger McGuinn: For me it was a reinvention of the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album and a pleasure to play with Chris Hillman, Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives. Nothing nostalgic about it!
PKM: It seems like with your home studio in Florida and Camilla working beside you, you can keep pursuing great projects like your Sweet Memories album and your ambitious musical autobiography Stories, Songs & Friends that includes a DVD of your musical friends trading McGuinn stories. It sounds like a nice setup.
Roger McGuinn: Working with Camilla, who is busy planning a tour right now is a blast. Having my own studio and label gives me more freedom than I’ve ever had. What record company would let you record 200 folk songs in two 4 CD sets? Or who would let you record 23 songs of the sea as on CCD?
PKM: When I think about Bob Dylan’s never-ending tour, I think about how the great old bluesmen like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf must be role models for him. He doesn’t need to tour endlessly and neither do you. Yet what is about the energy that you derive from playing live in front of appreciative audiences that keep you and him going?
Roger McGuinn: It’s the combination of the appreciation from wonderful audiences, the travel and a bold sense of adventure that keep us on the road.
PKM: I read that your role model in performing is Andres Segovia, who kept playing dates until two months before he died at the age of 94. Since your mother died at 102, I hope we can expect to see you making people happy for many, many more years. Deal?
Roger McGuinn: Deal.