The Rolling Stone Interview: Roger McGuinn

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Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 69 from October 29, 1970. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

Everybody knows who the Byrds are, right? They are the rock and roll group that more or less provided our answer to the Beatles back when an American answer to the Beatles was necessary, and they were the group that introduced folk-rock, whatever that was supposed to be, and they are the testing grounds for so many of today's top musicians, and they are the ones who started off the country craze.

And, well, they're Roger McGuinn, mostly. Jim McGuinn, as he was named at birth, later changed by his conversion to Subud, a religion started by an Indonesian businessman. Roger McGuinn, the man with the ear-piercing electric twelvestring that has, in the final analysis, formed the backbone of their sound since the very beginning, the man whose fascination with technology has led them into some strange sonic experimentation. The only original Byrd left.

I first ran into McGuinn at the Fillmore West, where they were sharing the bill with Commander Cody and Big Brother's latest incarnation. In the little backstage area, McGuinn was standing under a blue light, looking icily cool and just a little stoned. Playing the rock and roll star to the hilt. Would he be interested in doing a Rolling Stone interview? "Sure, man. Just say the word. I mean, you gave all that space to Crosby ..." Tight-lipped, looking over my shoulder at the other wall. I told him I'd be in touch.

By the time the Byrds came on, Big Brother's wretched excesses had made me tired of rock and roll, and, somehow, the Byrds came off as boring. Leaving, I reflected that their last two albums had come off that way too, and wondered why. They were just slipping into "Mr. Tambourine Man" as I hit the street.

A few calls to Hollywood, and the interview was arranged. I was worried though, and totally unsure of what I'd say. I ransacked the Byrds file. Nothing but a dozen bios, all starting out "Roger McGuinn's parents wrote a book called 'Parents Always Lose,' and who would have it any other way?" A distinct feeling of early Beatlemania P.R. came off of all I read. Billy James, their publicist. Now owning a restaurant in Hollywood, and writing, in the notes to the 'Preflyte' album, "I haven't been caught up in anything like it since. I miss them."

It was Billy who picked me up at the Burbank Airport in his station wagon. Chain-smoking cigarettes, he said, "Roger is my only brush with genius. The man's incredible." That made me feel a little better.

Finally, we arrived at the McGuinn residence in Sherman Oaks, part of suburban Los Angeles. As we went into the driveway, the car broke an electric eye, which buzzed a little buzzer inside. There was also a television camera there.

Upon entering the house, a typical suburban ranch-style place, we were confronted with the sight of Roger bent over his Moog Synthesizer with soldering pencil and VOM (Volt-ohm meter), checking out the power supply to one of the oscillator modules. "I didn't set this up to look good," he said, chuckling. "It really is broken." Or was. He'd found the problem and corrected it, and set about taking the back off to plug the module back in. "That's one of the best things about the Moog," he said. "These modules just pop in and out, and you can locate the source of the trouble very quickly. The only trouble is, if it's something I can't fix, the nearest repairman is miles away, and he's an electric organ repairman anyway." We chatted awhile about the various new synthesizers on the market, the Tonus/ARP, Buchla and others. Finally, with the back put back on the synthesizer, I set up the tape recorder.

As Roger put away his tools, he chuckled and said, "You know, I told you I wanted to get back at David Crosby, but you'll never guess where I was yesterday. Over at his house, man. And I had a real mellow time. We were talking about the sea, and, man, David's sure mellowed some."

Roger's wife, Ianthe, came in from the kitchen and offered beer, which was welcomed all around, and Billy sat down on the couch with Eddie Tickner, the Byrd's manager. The beer arrived, herbifumaceous substances appeared, the tape recorder got turned on, and McGuinn handed me a "Touch-Me," a little lightshow encased in plastic, which, when touched on the back, changes shape and color.

What's your theory about what's in that thing?

I think it's a series of oils, each of a different tint and density, and they rise to the surface at different times.

You don't think it's different density oils against a diffraction grating?

It does use refraction, but I'm not sure exactly. Sort of like the rainbow in a spot of oil. Yeah, forget what I said about tinting. I wasn't thinking.

Are those pictures of flying saucers up there?

Taken by me, with my Polaroid camera. Bogies. Bogies all. Good bogies, though, aren't they? It's really easy to double-expose on a Polaroid. You just cock it again and shoot again, and if you think in terms of light levels and mounting, you're all right. Those people there are the Rolling Stones, taken right off their album cover, which was the only background set I had. I have some color ones, too, that're streaking ... [To photographer Ed Caraeff]: Here, you take this. Burn your moustache.

I used to have a moustache, you know. Had to shave it off. That wasn't why, though. [Laughter.] Aw, I dunno. I can't seem to keep an image. I'm just about to grow another one.

Okay, let's officially kick off the interview. How about some biographical information?

Hey, Eddie, you got any bios around?

Shit, all right. What about the Chicago folk scene where you started?

Yeah, I could fill in some of that that's never been in the bios. There was the South Side blues scene, and the North Side blues and Appalachian thing. It involved everyone from Josh White to Chet Atkins. This was about 1958-59, which was late for the folk scene. I didn't get to the Village until 1960, when it was still happening somewhat. You could still go to Washington Square — well, you can still go to Washington Square and see kids with guitars and banjos and if you're 18 years old you'll think it's great.

There were only two or three resident folksingers in Chicago. There was Bob Gibson, and Bob Camp (who turned into Hamilton Camp and has since turned into Ahmid Camp, that's his Moslem name), and there were a lot of folksingers coming through. There was the Gate of Horn, the club where they'd all play. Albert Grossman and Allan Ribback owned that, and they used to sing sea chanties.... Dig this — I'll set up the scene for you. The bar was about 12 feet wide and about 20 feet long, lit by these round red lamps, and dark beer was served in these glasses that were about ten inches high and two inches across, and they always had a couple of dark beers and a game of chess going. So one of them would win the chess game, and Allan Ribback, Grossman's partner, was always sitting facing the door, for some reason, and he had a game leg. So he'd get up and kind of hobble over behind him and get his guitar case at the table behind him, which was never occupied. [McGuinn takes a guitar off the wall.] He'd get the guitar up on his left leg like this, like Carlos Montoya or somebody, and he'd get into these sea chanties. They did the whole Ewan MacColl/A. L. Lloyd songbook. The two of them singing harmonies was a mad thing to behold, really something. I just saw Grossman a couple of weeks ago in New York and reminded him of that, and that's the first time I've seen any human emotion come out of him in a long time. It was funny seeing him look like a big teddy bear or something. And he sings pretty well for a big manager-type like he is.

So you started playing guitar ...

I started playing guitar back in '56. I was a teenager, and guitars had just come in, and I had a thing for it and got one. Started learning lead breaks from songs, because that was the easiest thing to do at the time. I had the guitar for two years before I learned any chords. Really.

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From The Archives Issue 6: February 24, 1968