Roger McGuinn

'If you mixed Lennon and Dylan together — that was something that hadn't been done'

Roger McGuinn, circa 1990 Credit: Marc Marnie/Redferns/Getty

 Roger McGuinn never particularly liked Los Angeles.

He lived there for the better part of two decades, 1963 through 1980. As the principal singer, lead guitarist and de facto leader of the Byrds, McGuinn was also one of the city's most distinguished rock & roll citizens — an early champion of Bob Dylan's songs, a confidant of the Beatles and a major instigator of the folk-, acid- and country-rock movements that transformed pop music during the Sixties. But he never really liked Los Angeles.

"I always looked down on L.A., like it wasn't the real world," McGuinn says with a chuckle. "Just the whole attitude here, where people are superficial and so caught up in material things. I couldn't deal with that."

It was, however, the very surreal quality of life there — the singular collision of great wealth, high commerce and deviant art in the film, television and music communities, heightened by the rising tide of teenage discontent and the impact of the British Invasion — that made Los Angeles the ideal playground-workshop for the mid-Sixties hip rock elite. And while the twang 'n' harmony magic of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys embodied the SoCal myth of wild surf and sweet beach romance, the real sound of swinging Sixties L.A. was that of the original Byrds — McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke. The distinctive chime of McGuinn's twelve-string Ricken-backer guitar and the metallic resonance of the group's choirboy vocals on "Turn! Turn! Turn!," "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star," "Eight Miles High" and on covers of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "My Back Pages" vividly captured not only the city's sunny allure but also its restive, and hopeful, adolescent spirit.

Ironically, James Joseph McGuinn III (he changed his name to Roger in 1967, during a flirtation with Eastern religion) thought Los Angeles was "a sleepy little town" when he first passed through in 1960 while touring as a backup musician with the Limeliters. "Pop radio was people like Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme," says McGuinn, then seventeen and already a veteran of the folk scene in his native Chicago. "There wasn't much going on on the street either. I don't think the Beach Boys had even started yet." There was more action in New York; during 1962-63, McGuinn was in the Brill Building writing tunes for Bobby Darin, doing session work and playing folk gigs in Greenwich Village.

But by mid-1965, Los Angeles was alive with the crisp sound of electric guitars and the cumulative roar of expensive Porsches driven by the city's new mod gods. These included McGuinn and the Byrds, who were a vital force in L.A.'s metamorphosis from Snoozeville to America's new capital city of pop. With the Number One success of "Mr. Tambourine Man," Los Angeles became the main spawning ground for folk rock; the Mamas and the Papas, Sonny and Cher, the Grass Roots and the Turtles quickly followed in the Byrds' wake. The band's legendary residency at a Sunset Strip discotheque called Ciro's started a live-music scene that included historic clubs like the Trip, the Whiskey a Go Go and the Cheetah and gave birth to future legends like Buffalo Springfield, the Doors, Love and Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention. The Byrds were also central figures in pop schmooze circles, enjoying friendships with Dylan and the Beatles, helping newcomers like Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne and partying with Papa John Phillips, Phil Spector and young movie outlaws like Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson.

The Byrds themselves were a fractious bunch; by 1969, McGuinn was the only original member left, and the hit singles had dried up. (He finally put the Byrds to rest in 1973.) But throughout his career, Roger McGuinn — who now lives on the west coast of Florida — has been a keen observer, and often a strong critic, of life and music in Los Angeles. This interview — conducted, appropriately, in that city, where he was talking to prospective producers for his upcoming Arista solo album — provides a glimpse at what we might expect in McGuinn's autobiography, now in progress and entitled So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star. "My dad died about four or five years ago," says McGuinn. "He had a lot of stories, and he used to tell us to write 'em down, and we never did. They went with him. And I'd like my kids to know some of the stuff I did."

But if McGuinn never really liked Los Angeles, why did he stay for seventeen years? "I guess I liked the weather."

In the early Sixties, you were making a name for yourself on the New York folk circuit. Why did you chuck it all to go to Los Angeles?

I got a job offer to play as an opening act at the Troubadour. I did feel that the real folk scene was in the Village. But the Beatles came out and changed the whole game for me. I saw a definite niche, a place where the two of them blended together. If you took Lennon and Dylan and mixed them together...that was something that hadn't been done.

So I got an offer to play the Troubadour as an opening act for Hoyt Axton and Roger Miller. I came out and started blending Beatles stuff with the folk stuff, and the audience hated it. I used to get mad at 'em because I thought it was good. Roger Miller took me aside one night and said, "I know what you're trying to do up there. It would go a lot better if you didn't get mad at the audience. Just try to smile and be nice to 'em."

Later on, I ran into Gene Clark at the Troubadour. He was one of the few people who understood it. He asked if I wanted to write some songs with him. Then David Crosby came in and started singing harmony. I'd already met David back in 1960, when I was with the Limeliters. I knew what kind of guy David was, and I wasn't sure I wanted to get into that [laughs]. But it worked out okay because his harmony was real good.

Los Angeles was caught up in the clean-cut hedonism of the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean then. Did you feel out of place?

It was changing, slowly. There was a copycat mentality here that is still going on. People will follow what's cool, and if it isn't cool, they won't get into it. If it suddenly becomes cool, they've always been into it. And it suddenly got cool to do what I was doing. It was the British influence. It was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Suddenly, it became cool to be like that.

How did you go about selling this folk-rock concept before it was "cool"?

We got some good breaks. One of our managers, Jim Dickson, knew this agent names Benny Shapiro. We went over to Benny's house with a tape of background tracks and sang live over it. Benny had a fourteen-year-old daughter at the time. She came running down the stairs because she thought it was the Beatles in her living room. Benny was impressed by that, to the point that when Miles Davis, who was a friend or client of his, came over, he told Miles about it, and Miles said, "Well, I'll just pick up the phone and call Columbia Records, tell 'em to sign these guys." And he did. And that was how we got a record deal.

What did you live on before the royalties from "Mr. Tambourine Man" started rolling in?

Jim Dickson bought us a hamburger a day. That was our ration. We were starving artists. I could always go to the Troubadour and get a hamburger or something. We could always bum things off of them. I used to play there at hootenannies. The Troubadour was the only mecca for people to hang out at, where you could exchange ideas. The front room was kind of a coffeehouse where you could buy strings and picks and stuff; I think McCabe's Guitar Shop was originally there.

Did you have a car?

I did for a while. But then I blew it up. I didn't know about oil. I'd grown up in a city where you don't have a car. I was on the freeway one day, and the car started to make this really great sound, like a jet, and I love jets. And then it just stopped, the engine just froze up. I was still paying for it, and they repossessed it.

How did you manage in Los Angeles without wheels?

It wasn't easy. I had to catch a bus to rehearsals. And sitting on a bench for the bus was a really grueling experience. I had long hair at the time, nobody else did. These greasers would go by and go, "Hey, Ringo, did your barber die?"

But long hair had its advantages, right?

The Rolling Stones were playing at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. This was '64, before the Byrds broke. I got my guitar case, and I walked right in backstage. The guards let me through because they figured nobody had long hair except musicians. And while I was in there, these girls went, "Ooooh!" And then they said, "Oh, he's nobody."

I didn't get close to the Stones. But I saw the show from backstage. I wanted to be in on it. I'd seen A Hard Day's Night and wanted to be there. And within a year, the Byrds were opening for the Stones and the girls were screaming for us.

How did you get the residency at Ciro's?

Jim and Eddie [Tickner, comanager] got us the job somehow. As far as the club was concerned, we were another club band. We'd work five 40-minute sets a night, and they didn't care what we played. You can still go and see the place. It's called the Comedy Store now.

Did people dance to the Byrds?

Oh, yeah. Carl Franzoni [a charter member of the local freak scene] used to dance with his arms out, bouncing up and down, sort of like Big Bird. Other people would do jitterbuggy things. No air guitars, though.

You actually took some of the Ciro's dancers on the road.

Yeah, that was our manager's idea. It was a crazy thing. They were really wild, wilder than we were. They had hair down to their shoulders, they were painted up in psychedelic colors — before psychedelia was even happening — and we took them to the Midwest, where they scared people to death.

There were a couple of girls and some guys. They weren't professional dancers. They were part of Vito's gang; Vito was this mad sculptor who hung out with Zappa a lot. We used to rehearse at Vito's and take acid there. And all his friends would come down to Ciro's when we played. We still run into some of them. They're out there.

Metaphorically or literally?

Both.

There's a famous photo of the Byrds playing with Bob Dylan onstage at the Trip. Did you hang out a lot together when he was in Los Angeles?

He came out here on and off to write. I remember one time he stayed at the Thunderbird Motel, on the Strip, for about three weeks. He had a typewriter on the balcony. He'd sit there and write a song a day. We were real impressed by that. We never did it, though. It was too hard.

He was miles above us. He'd kind of humor us a little bit. He was Dylan, and we were this band who did one of his songs and happened to have a hit with it. That was his attitude. We weren't really close.

But he did perform that night. He got up and played harmonica. We did "All I Really Want to Do." But he didn't recognize it when he heard it. He said, "What's that song?" Because he did it in 3/4 time and we changed it to 4/4.

You also spent a lot of time with the Beatles when they passed through Los Angeles on tour.

They came to our concert at Blazes, in London, in '65. It was really a disaster for us. Chris broke a string on the bass, and when you break one, it just knocks the whole band out of tune. There's no way to recover from that. After the show, we met George and John, and they said, "Great show, guys." We went, "Oh, man, how can you say that?"

We hung with them when they came out here later, and they were really nice. This was also '65, they were playing the Hollywood Bowl. They were up in the hills here, in one of the houses, a place with a gate and guards and the little girls camped up on the hillside. They sent a limo down for us, and we came winding up the road, through this gate. It was like a movie.

We went into this house, and there were all these guards walking around. And we were all trying to get high. We didn't have any place to do it. So we locked ourselves in the bathroom, we closed all the windows and blinds and sat in this huge square shower.

We sat on the floor exchanging guitar licks. Crosby showed Harrison some Ravi Shankar stuff he'd just been into. And Harrison had never heard this stuff before. Indian music was a new thing to him. John and I were talking about "Be-Bop-a-Lula," our first favorite song. Barbarella was playing out in the other room, and everybody hated it. Joan Baez was out at the pool. Then Peter Fonda came over and showed John his scar. And he said, "I know what it's like to be dead." We were on acid, and it freaked John out so much that he later wrote that song with the line "I know what it's like to be dead" ["She Said She Said"]. It was really some afternoon.

The Beatles also attended some Byrds recording sessions.

George and Paul came down one afternoon while we were recording "She Don't Care About Time." I remember George was really into the Bach thing in the middle that I did on that. It was "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." And Paul was looking at all the machines and taking notes on all the recording levels.

It's ironic that you were first inspired by the Beatles and here they were, picking up tips from you.

That was really a kick. The Dylan thing, you could never really tell whether that connected or not. The Beatles, you could, because George was very open about it and John said the Byrds were his favorite group. George wrote "If I Needed Someone" off the lick from "The Bells of Rhymney," and he sent it to us in advance and said, "This is for Jim" because of that lick.

One of the Byrds' contributions to Sixties fashion was your colored granny glasses. Where did you get them?

I'd known John Sebastian in the Village. He had these little round cobalt-blue glasses on. I said, "Wow, those are great." And he said, "Yeah, look through 'em. Look up at the street lights. It's really groovy." He liked that word groovy a lot. I did, and it was. I wear glasses, and I'd worn contact lenses, but they were expensive. So when we finally got a little money, I bought these little frames, took 'em to the eye doctor and had him put some dark cobalt-blue prescription lenses in them.

Within a month or so of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and the publicity with the cover shot, the Japanese had cornered the market on them. They were in all these drugstores for a buck a pair. I tried to get the trademark on them, but it was too late.

What about your threads? There are some early photos of the Byrds wearing suits and ties!

They had velvet collars. We'd found a place in Watts that had these suits. Real soul stuff. But our suits got ripped off at Ciro's when we were playing there with Little Richard. Jimi Hendrix was his guitar player. And somehow during that gig our suits disappeared. We started wearing jeans after that. I remember when we were comparing notes with the Beatles, they said, "Boy, we wish someone had stolen our suits."

On the cover of the first Byrds album, you were all decked out in pointy boots, turtlenecks, striped T-shirts and tight Levis.

That was California style. We used to go to a shop called DeVoss, it was on Sunset. In fact, that's where I got the glasses. It was a little boutique, a Carnaby Street kind of thing. There was a section of the Strip that had some pretty hip stuff. It was just a couple of blocks, between Sunset Plaza Drive and Doheny. Now it's all record stores and Thai and Japanese restaurants.

Did local hipsters socialize at these boutiques as well?

You'd go in, you'd shop, you'd buy, and you'd split. There was really no culture here. The only places you would see people would be at parties at night or on the set of some TV show. We used to do a lot of these lipsync shows: Shindig, Shivaree, Hollywood a Go Go, Hullabaloo, Where the Action Is. One of the first ones was The Lloyd Thaxton Show. It was almost like a kiddie show. He had these little puppets that would sing along between cuts, and there would be all these twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls in the audience. It was like a pajama party.

Casey Kasem had a show. In fact, I got in trouble with him one day. He was asking me all these square questions, and I was giving him cool answers like "Man, I don't know." We went to a commercial break, and he went, "I don't know, these people, I'm walkin' out!" He didn't like that attitude.

Were you friendly with other local folk rockers like Barry McGuire or Sonny and Cher?

No, we weren't connected. I'd known Barry before, when we were in the folk thing. But once Barry got "Eve of Destruction" and we were the Byrds, I didn't see him anymore. And I never saw Sonny and Cher. We were in separate camps completely. It was highly competitive. We did a cover of "All I Really Want to Do" and they did one, too, and they got a hit with it. Dylan got mad at us. He said, "You let me down, man."

What about Buffalo Springfield? In the 1981 Byrds biography Timeless Flight, Chris Hillman says he was interested in managing the band and that he tried to get you to go in on it.

Stephen [Stills] asked Chris if he wanted to manage Buffalo Springfield, and Chris said to me,"Let's go down to the Whiskey and see this group." I watched them and I said, "Nah, you don't want to be a manager. It's a pain in the neck. We don't need that." That was a bad piece of advice.

In the book, Crosby claims he was asked to join Springfield.

I know that Stephen was grooming David. He wanted to do something with him. In fact, that led to the breakup of the Byrds. Because Stephen was really pulling at David to get him out of the Byrds. And David was going for it. Stephen was sort of a home breaker in that way.

Buffalo Springfield's first hit, "For What It's Worth," was inspired by the teenage riots on Sunset Strip in the summer of 1966. What started the ruckus?

There was a big generation gap and sort of a sloppy revolution going on, where the young people wanted to just wear funny clothes and hang out on the Strip, and all the proprietors in the shops wanted to get rid of them because they were slowing business down. So the police were called in, and that's when the riots started.

It was hardly a serious political action, though — more like a lot of teenage energy with no place to go.

It was political. It was the leftist kids against the right-wing proprietors, and there was a real polarity here between people under and over thirty. It was amazing. It doesn't exist today. But you could feel it everywhere then. If you were young, you were discriminated against. I remember not being able to get into Disneyland with long hair.

Was there much organized political activity in the rock community on issues like civil rights or the Vietnam War?

Not that I can remember. I was political in that I didn't like inhumanity to man. But I really didn't get involved. I didn't vote either. I didn't do anything. I was tied up in my own little world.

Yet the Byrds were writing and recording songs that fueled the civil-rights and antiwar movements.

We figured that was our contribution. Actually, we were just doing songs. We really meant them when we did them. But that was the end of it. When I was off the road, I was at my house, playing with my gadgets. And staying stoned a lot. That was my life. I mean, we were hedonists.

Who were some of the movie people in your circle of celebrity hedonists?

I hung out with Peter Fonda and Brandon DeWilde, who was a child actor. [Jack] Nicholson was around. Dean Stockwell, too. The B-movie motorcycle crowd.

How involved were you in the making of Easy Rider, besides writing the title song?

I didn't know much about it until it was already in production. Peter came to me. He wanted one or two songs that would be custom-made for the movie. And he asked me to write one. Actually, he went to Dylan first and Dylan turned him down. But Dylan scribbled something on a napkin and gave it to Fonda to give to me. Peter gave me the napkin, and it said, "The river flows/It flows to the sea/Wherever that river goes/That's where I want to be/Flow, river, flow." I came up with the second verse and a melody for it. I gave credit to Dylan on the record, and he called me up and said, "What is this? I don't need the money. I don't want that credit. Take it off." So I did. He was just doing me a favor.

Another interesting thing is that Peter said, at the time, that he was drawing his character partially from me and that [Dennis] Hopper was drawing his character from David Crosby. He was paranoid, uptight and everything. And I was always going around, saying, "I trust everything will work out all right, it's gonna be okay." So that's kind of in the movie.

For a time, you subscribed to an obscure Eastern faith called Subud. Of all the Eastern religions that were big in the Sixties, how did you pick that one?

It was a small organization out of Indonesia, and frankly, I don't know much about it myself. It was a "surrender" kind of thing, where you just release yourself to God and it cleans you up. I thought it was cool, a religion without any responsibilities. You didn't have to learn a whole lot or use any props. Brian Wilson got into it. But he didn't want to go to the place where they had the meetings. So he sort of developed his own brand of it with his friends. That's when he got really weird. He incorporated acid into it and a few other strange things. And drugs were not part of it at all.

Speaking of strange, you changed your first name from Jim to Roger because of Subud.

They had this name-change option. The sound of your name is supposed to vibrate with your spirit. So I thought I'd see what my Subud name was. And Roger was one of them. I was into gadgets and space, and Roger was from two-way-radio airplane talk, "Roger that." I wish I hadn't done that now. I'd still be Jim.

How did you convince people to start calling you Roger?

People would say, "Hi, Jim," and I'd say, "Call me Roger." Most people were cool about it. Hey, it was the Sixties: "Whatever feels good, whatever's your groove." [Laughs] Some people still call me Jim. George Harrison still does.

Were drugs a big part of your daily diet?

I used to wake up and smoke a joint, stay high all day and maybe take some speed. Quaaludes, I got into those later, and coke. I just did a lot of drugs. Acid, mescaline, peyote.

LSD was an experimental thing that was part of this spiritual search when I started doing it. We thought that we could improve ourselves mentally and spiritually by opening up these other levels of consciousness. I can't say it did me any harm. I don't know that I'm a better person for having done it, but it didn't make me a worse person. I didn't have any nasty flashbacks or panic attacks.

Was heroin prevalent in L.A. rock circles?

The people I knew were afraid of it. They didn't like needles. They wouldn't even snort it. But Cass [Elliot, of the Mamas and Papas] did heroin and she got David [Crosby] into it.

Cocaine, though, later became the rock & roll drug in Los Angeles.

But we didn't think of it as a hard drug at the time. We didn't think it was addictive, and socially it was fun, like pot. It was a status symbol. If you could afford to turn everybody on to coke, you were really rich.

Cass got me into coke. She gave me a big pill bottle with a couple of thousand dollars' worth of coke in it — I didn't know how much it was worth — and I was scared of it. I put it on a shelf and didn't touch it for a long time. And Crosby would come over with all his friends and chip away at it. So I thought I'd give it a try, and after a week or so I liked it a lot. That was a bad thing to do.

In the late Sixties, San Francisco eclipsed Los Angeles as the happening city on the West Coast. Why do you think psychedelic pop culture flourished upstate instead of here?

San Francisco was a better breeding ground for that. It's too sterile here, too much chlorine in the pools and sunshine. It was a fungus that really grew well in San Francisco. I lived in San Francisco for a few months around the time I was working with Bobby Darin. I took my first acid up there. It was '61 or '62. I wasn't sure what would happen to me, but I thought it would be fun to test myself. To see if I'd go crazy or not. So I got in the shower with all my clothes on. I said to myself, "If I'm gonna be irrational, I'll turn the shower on and get myself wet." And I never turned the water on. So I figured I had it under control. [Laughs] Foolproof test.

Eventually, Los Angeles had its own be-ins and psychedelic clubs, like the Kaleidoscope and the Cheetah. But did the peace-love-and-music aesthetic ever really take root here?

Not in the same way. L.A. always had that tension, that competitive thing. I always felt when I was onstage that guitar players were watching my hands to see what I was doing. There was still that feeling here, that it was serious business.

The interesting thing about the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival was that although it was associated with the San Francisco scene, it was actually organized by L.A. big shots like Lou Adler and John Phillips (of the Mamas and Papas).

The event was actually a good blending of the two styles, the Northern and Southern California things. There was a lot of genuine feeling for that kind of thinking down here. But it probably needed the administration from down here, to make it more organized. Up north, they were mostly interested in getting high. The Los Angeles people gave it form, the San Franciscans made it flourish.

Younger acts like Tom Petty and R.E.M. have been instrumental in reviving the Byrds' jangly guitar style. How do you relate to its renewed popularity and the Sixties nostalgia that comes with it?

I relate to it probably the same way Chuck Berry related to the Beatles doing his songs. It doesn't bring back memories. It's just good to hear those sounds again. Because they were sounds that I liked, or I wouldn't have made them.

But it's hard not to feel a little sentimental about the town's mid-Sixties salad days whenever that opening twelve-string Rickenbacker riff from "Mr. Tambourine Man" comes over the radio.

It's a fantasy thing people have. I remember that kind of thing from when I lived in Chicago and James Dean was out here, Rebel Without a Cause and all that. I saw that movie and thought, "Wow, I really want to get out to California, that's where it's happening." And when I got out here, it wasn't quite like that. I went up to the Griffith Park Observatory, and nothing was going on. No gangs, no nothing. It was a great fantasy, but that's all it was.