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The Rolling Stone Interview: Roger McGuinn

The Byrds guitarist on flying saucers, Dylan and Groucho’s daughter

Kevin Kelly, Gram Parsons, Jim, Roger, McGuinn, Chris Hillman, ByrdsKevin Kelly, Gram Parsons, Jim, Roger, McGuinn, Chris Hillman, Byrds

(From Left) Kevin Kelly, Gram Parsons, Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman of the Byrds.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

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.

What kind of lead lines?
Well, I could play one for you. [And he does.] That was from “Baby Love,” which was Gene Vincent. I learned, incidentally, that that was the first thing George Harrison learned how to play on the guitar. We were comparing notes, and that’s what he told me. But I was just doing whatever I could. I didn’t have a chord book or anyone to show me how McGuinn to do it. I mean, I knew there were chords, but I also knew that they were difficult to achieve and would take a lot of pain and practice, and I didn’t want to do that right away.

I remember we were living in a three story apartment building on the North Side of Chicago, and this guy from Kentucky moved in downstairs. He was playing at a bar on North Clark Street, and he was playing real loud with an electric rig. I saw him coming into his house one night and I said, “Hey, I’ve got a guitar upstairs and I’d like you to show me some things sometime if you’ve got time.” He showed me a couple of chords and told me to get to be like Les Paul, because he was the best guitarist in the world. At the time I thought it was great advice.

Doesn’t sound like a very promising beginning for a folkie.
Yeah, I started out with rock and roll. Everly Brothers, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Elvis Presley, and I only resorted to folk music — well, not resorted, but — well, yeah. I kind of went to it like a resort, a summer resort or a ski resort, when rock and roll became almost as bad as it is now. It got really crappy before. Does it periodically, you know.

So I was going to a fairly exclusive private school in Chicago and there was this nice teacher, around 23 years old and very attractive, and she knew a lot of folksingers around the country and would bring them into school now and again. She introduced me to the Old Town School of Folk Music. She said there was a fine school of folk music opening over on North Avenue, and it wasn’t very expensive, and it was run by two very fine people, Frank Hamilton and Win Strachey. I was, of course, looking to impress her, so I looked into it, and became the first person to graduate from it.

What did they teach there? Like, was it the basic Carter Family style and … ?
All of that, yeah. They taught you everything — Earl Scruggs and the Sam Hinton basic beat…. They had it really academicized.

But there were a lot of good people there, people who were into the same kind of thing you were into. They’d give you tips and tell you who was gonna be in town that weekend. I got to see a whole lot of good folk music concerts.

Then, as soon as I got out of high school, I got a job with the Limelighters. I’d met them at the Gate of Horn. I was still in high school and they came up and said to me, “Come and go on the road with us,” and I had to say, “Well, I’m still in high school.” They said, “Wow, well, when do you get out?” and I said at the end of the year and they said, they’d call me back then.

Were you actually one of the Limelighters?
Well, I was an accompanist with them. Just for a short time, and then I went with the Chad Mitchell Trio, got fed up with that — I was just in it for a gig. I never thought they had any integrity as a folk group.

Were you ever really into that ethnic purist thing?
I was fairly taken up by it. I was a snob. I thought I was better than they were because they were really ignorant about a lot of folk things that they’d never taken the time to really research.

But the final blow was that I found that my time was slipping. I wasn’t improving it with practice, I was losing it. So I started working out with a metronome to get it really tight and I started to improve, and then they couldn’t sing with me any more because I’d be right on the beat and they’d want to go somewhere else and they couldn’t. So I split, giving them two weeks notice.

But I had two aces in the hole. One was the New Christy Minstrels, which I didn’t particularly want to get into, and the other was Bobby Darin, which was more bread and better exposure.

What kind of stuff was he doing at the time?
He was doing a folk music routine in his Vegas night club act. He was trying to get all the integrity he could into it, which I respected about him because it was a far cry from “Splish Splash.” He was still into the mohair and slickedback hair thing, but he was still trying to get folksy.

He’d do “It Makes a Long-Time Man Feel Bad” and … I can’t remember them all, but he did about fifteen minutes in the middle of the act and then I’d split and he’d do the rest of the show. So I had like a spotlighted position in, like, the main room of the Flamingo four or five times a year, and then he’d go and do the whole Borscht Circuit thing in the Catskills and then the Copa in New York.

But he hung it up because his voice began to go. He went “AAAaargghhh” too many times. So he decided to go into the music publishing business and he gave me a job for $35.00 a week. He said, “You’re not gonna believe this” — he used to call me Skinny McGuinny — “but I’m gonna give you thirty-five a week.” And I said, “You’re right; I don’t believe it.” “Yeah, but you can buy a lot of hamburgers for thirty-five a week.” And I said “Sure, but where am I gonna eat them?”

I took it anyway, for what it was worth. I’d drop into the publishing office for one or two hours a day, when I felt like it, and the rest of the time I’d go home home and watch television or write or something like that. After a couple of months of that I couldn’t stand it any longer and I walked out.

I did ask him the secret of his success before I walked out, though, and he told me to get in front of audiences as much as possible. So I started going to hootenannies as much as possible, any place I could play in front of people. It was painful sometimes, but it was good experience.

This was all in New York. Is that when you met Dylan?
No. I knew him to say hi to him in the street, and I saw him at Gerde’s when he was singing hootenannies down there and I was with the Chad Mitchell Trio. He had a big following of about 20 or 30 little chicks and I didn’t, because here I was with a suit on. I was into $150, $200 suits back then. I had a crewcut, but later I got into longer hair, but combed nicely. He looked all funky in his levis and funny hair.

It wasn’t till the Byrds started and Jim Dickson got him over to one of our rehearsal sessions that I really met him. I saw him a lot in the Village, but didn’t really know him. He couldn’t believe I was the same cat when he saw me with the Byrds at the rehearsal session.

The Chad Mitchell Trio was about as low as you could go in those days. Shit, they were even on ‘Hootenanny,’ on television.
Oh, I left them long before they went and did that. I was hip to them all the while. Nothing personal against any of the guys in the group — they’re all nice guys. Well, Chad punched me in the mouth once in South America for saying “Fuck you” or something, but of course I wasn’t into violence so I didn’t punch him back …

Let’s see, after Darin I came out here. A friend of mine named Bob Hippard got me a job at the Troubador — Hippard’s also the guy I co-authored a couple of space songs with, “Space Odyssey” and “CTA–102” — for about $175 a week, and I took it for about two weeks. Then I was hanging around here for about a year without any visible means of support.

Then I ran into Gene Clark. I was doing Beatle songs with a twelve-string acoustic guitar, doing folk-Beatle music, you know, and of course nobody was going for it. Not that it was bad-sounding. If you heard it today it would be cool, but then it was foreign and unacceptable. But Gene Clark heard it and he dug it and he came over to me and said, “Do you want to start a duet, like Peter and Gordon or something?” That was before Simon and Garfunkel stopped being Tom and Jerry. Anyway, we did that and the very same night David Crosby came in. Paul Potash, who was a friend of ours, said, “I think you need a high harmony part. Why don’t you ask David?” And David just happened to be standing right next to him. So I said, “Hi, David, wanna sing high harmony?” And I knew his reputation from back in 1960 when I’d come out with the Limelighters and he was, like, “Can I play with you guys, can I play with guys, huh, huh?” So I didn’t know how far to trust him, but we took him anyway, and he sure could sing. He turned out to be a great singer …

Like I was saying before, I was over to David’s house yesterday and he was discussing where to live in San Francisco. You have to be within an hour of both the city and the airport, so he was saying that you don’t move north into Marin Country, you move south of the city. The Byrds are so rooted in L.A., what with friends and recording sessions, but we’re considering it really heavily.

You’re also part of the L.A. scene, whatever that is.
Well, I’ve never been a chauvinist about a city, you know, and I’m not nationalistic, and if you got me to another planet I don’t even think I’d be spheristic, because I’m a universalist, and I believe that anywhere in space is just as good as anywhere else as far as its basic essential value. What you do with it is different. I mean, Detroit is not a cool place to live. Or Philadelphia with its smog problem. You think it’s bad here–well, sure it is–but Philadelphia is really [cough] it’s blacker smog and heavier. \

So we were at the point where you had just about all the Byrds…
Well, Michael Clarke was walking down Santa Monica Boulevard and he looked right for the part and we said, “Hey, you wanna be our drummer?” and he said “Sure.” And so he learned how to play the drums–well, he’d played conga drums before. Actually, that’s cheating, because we’d met him before in San Francisco up in a North Beach folk club that’s since folded. Chris was the only one inducted into the group by Jim Dickson. Everyone else just kind of fell in naturally, but Chris was working at Ledbetter’s as a mandolin player with a bluegrass group called the Greengrass Group — a Randy Sparks special. Ledbetter’s was where folksingers went when they needed a gig and about $100 a week.

Was there an audience to support all that?
There was the Westwood UCLA beer drinking audience. So Chris was happy to get out of that, although he didn’t want to lose the security of a hundred a week, which we weren’t making at the time. He was doing both for a while, but he finally committed himself to us.

There were mixed reactions before “Tambourine Man” hit. I was about to go off with Dino Valenti and start a group with him, because we’d already recorded “Tambourine Man” and it had been sitting in the can for about three or four months and nothing had happened to it. Dino came up with all these great ideas. Like, he was gonna have wireless transmitters in all the suits. We had these suits in mind with cross-zippered maroon leather jackets and pants with whip antennas on the shoulders and a place where you plug the guitar in, and a throat mike. It was a great idea, but they didn’t have the equipment then. They do now. You used to be able to do only one channel at a time without bleed-over, but now you can accommodate up to ten channels at once, so that would take care of a five-piece group with vocals and instruments. [Chuckles.] I can just see that — picking up police calls …

You know that happened to this one group once. They’d left this suitcase with just every kind of drug in it back at the Holiday Inn in this little hick town they were playing and somebody found it and called the cops. So they were up there on stage and suddenly one of the amplifiers started picking up the police calls: “We’ve got the Holiday Inn surrounded, sir.” “Roger.” So after the gig, they just packed up and split for the airport … [Great laughter from all]

Where’d the name Byrds come from?
Eddie Tickner: It was your idea, Roger.

No, I remember you saying “How about ‘Birds’?” at that Thanksgiving dinner. I have a very strong audio-visual memory of that. The old name, the Jet Set, had been vetoed by Columbia that day, because some English group had filed for it. And you said Birds, and I said, “No, that’s English slang for girls and we don’t want them to think we’re a bunch of fags, right?” So you said, “What if we change the spelling to B-u-r-d-s?” and I said “Yeccchh,” and we got around to Byrds somehow.

Eddie: You said the name would indicate high flying, soaring.

And we’d been through Birds earlier … Well, anyway we were the Byrds, and from there you probably know what happened.

Well, “Tambourine Man” was released …

And became a number one hit, and we were totally unprepared to follow it up on stage, which became evident later.

(At this point, a huge scrapbook kept by a fan was brought in, and I looked through it. It featured what must have been every clipping relating to the early Byrds from the day that “Tambourine Man” was released to the day they got back from England, and, with a fan’s typical fickleness, it stopped at the point where Sonny and Cher began to make waves. I began to leaf through, Roger looking over my shoulder.)

That was first photograph we had taken as a group. It was for Cosmopolitan. With Rudi Gernreich. They’d called up World Pacific looking for a jazz group, but no jazz groups were available, and so they said “How about a rock group,” and it must have been OK.

‘Hullaballoo’ …
Whew. That was our first television performance and it was national and in color, and it was before it was fashionable for a group to come on in blue jeans and funky clothes and look a little weird. Not only that, but they made us sing live, which we’d never done before and what with the lousy mixing they had then — it’s still lousy, but it was worse then, and, like, they’d mix one voice up and forget the rest — plus, we were scared to death of color TV cameras and a whole big studio and it came out like [shaky, cracking voice] “Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man?”

Billy James: Yeah, but they were five cocky kids out to conquer the world.

But right then, we were five scared cocky kids.

A tour with the Stones?
Yeah, we did that tour. It was fun. Watching the cops beat little girls’ fingers to a pulp, nice things like that. That was in Long Beach. I was in the car right behind them. They were in a station wagon, and we were behind them, and the cops climbed right on top of the car and these little girls didn’t give a shit, they were climbing up on top of it anyway. One of them had to have a hand or a couple of fingers amputated. And this was before police brutality and the Kent State shootings and violence and all that, too.

Wow, look at this promo shot. What a bunch of scraggly mothers …
Yeah, that was just after the Hullaballoo thing. Out of the rain and onto the stage. We didn’t care. That was what we looked like, and that’s the only clothes we had and the only ones we intended to get. Well, we did have two sets of suits once, but both sets had been stolen.

What would have happened to the Byrds if they’d had more than two pairs of suits?
Had the money for more than two pairs of suits, you mean. I remember telling John Lennon that our suits had been stolen and that’s why we weren’t into specialized clothing, and he said, “I wish that’d happened to us.”

So you were really knocking them out here.
Well, there weren’t really any other groups happening back then. There were the Beau Brummels, but they were a San Francisco group, and they had a little trouble singing in tune.

Groucho’s daughter?
What? Oh, we were on a Shindig together. How was she? I don’t even remember her. She didn’t pursue her career.

Here’s where we get all the really, really bad press from England. Most of it’s really slamming us because we weren’t better than the Beatles. Mervyn Kahn billed us as America’s answer to the Beatles, without our consent, of course … The Speakeasy club. John and George were there to see, I guess, if we were any good yet, and we were terrible because we were so uptight.

Why did they hate you so? Was it because you were American?
They were scared to death that America was gonna come back with something. Whether we were any good or not, that we were just the first wave of something. Our record certainly was successful, and that certainly scared them.

Billy James: But there’s another thing. Even if they were as good on stage as they are today, they would still have gotten booed. Because it not only required the ability to play the guitar well, but also to move back and forth.

Yeh, well, David would let a little footwork go every now and again. Hey, remember one place where somebody was sent down to do choreography for us?

Billy: The first agent who saw the Byrds had this to say: “We’ll get two go-go girls, choreograph the whole act, and get them right into Vegas and they’ll work six, seven weeks at a crack at $150 a week.”

So after that it’s pretty much what you can tell from looking at the records. I do have an interesting thing here, from the August issue of Zig-Zag, a British pop magazine. It’s a line graph showing all the members, who had been in, for how long.

What is this about Gene Clark coming back for about three weeks here?
He said he’d fly, but at the last moment he decided he wouldn’t. He would always take trains everywhere. We had this one date we had to fly to, and he’d been up all night in a cold sweat. He came into the room about seven or eight in the morning and we said, “Come on, we’ll give you sleeping pills or whatever you want to knock you out,” but he said, “No, man, can’t do it.” Somebody said, “It’s Mother,” and he snapped back, “You’re damn right it’s Mother!” Real soap-opera psychodrama-ish. So he took a train back to L.A.

Joan Baez won’t fly. Neither will Ray Bradbury or Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick got his pilot’s license, he went out and got real good at it, but he decided it was too much of a risk.

Where did this technological fascination of yours come from?
I don’t know. I think my grandfather gave it to me. He was an engineer, he engineered several bridges in Chicago, worked for the Deering Company, he built ships out here in Long Beach, worked for the International Harvester Company for a couple of years and then got into accounting after he retired. He used to take me down to the very fine Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago — they have one of the better ones there — and 20 years ago it was really well-kept. They had all of the state-of-the-art stuff. They hay a wonderful Bell Telephone exhibit there, and a working coal mine that you can go down into, and a lot of real airplanes suspended from the ceiling. A bunch of real good exhibits. I used to go down there a lot and they had a lot of pushbutton exhibits where you’d push a button and something would happen demonstrating static electricity or whatever. They used to all work back then. Now, they’re all broken and kinda half-assed because they ran outa funds. They had one of the first submarine exhibits there, a U-232 or something like that. So I guess my grandfather got me into it, and when I got on my own, I just started experimenting with gadgets.

You don’t have any academic background, any degrees …
No, none whatever.

But if you wanted to build, like, a good superheterodyne receiver, you …
I could probably whip one together, right. From books and things. I don’t have it all in my head.

That’s kind of in contrast to the dominant hip fashion at the moment of going back to the country and back to the simple things like organic fertilizer.
That’s a paradox. Like, I’d like to be back in the country with my own jetport and my own computers and my own audio-visual center and everything. Although I think that if the attitude of the people who are opposed to the people who are running things now remains the same, and they take over the facilities that will be available when the other people move out, if the society sticks together — there sure are a lot of ifs — eventually it’ll come around to what we like and then the people under us’ll hate it and try and throw us out.

Were you influenced by classical music in the earlier stuff?
To some extent. I was mostly into Bach.

I figured, what with “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” coming out in the middle of “She Don’t Care About Time.”
That was my idea. Didn’t make it as a single, but … I always wanted to use that in something, and I had to change the metric scheme of it considerably, but … George Harrison was down at that session and he kind of dug the idea that I stuck that in there.

What it amounts to is that I’ve been willing to go along with the ideas that were different just because they were different, so you couldn’t pin me down and say the Byrds is any kind of band. That was what the country thing was all about.

My original idea for Sweetheart of the Rodeo was to do a double album, a chronological album starting out with old-timey music — which I’m into too — not bluegrass but pre-bluegrass, dulcimers and [in a reedy voice] “In Nottamun Town …”, nasal Appalachian stuff, and then get into like the 1930s advanced version of it, move it up to modern country, the Forties and Fifties with steel guitar and pedal steel guitar — kind of do an article on the evolution of that type of music. Then cut it there and kind of bring it up into electronic music and a kind of space music and going into futuristic music. That was my original idea, but it didn’t come off because I didn’t have any support. It was a nice idea, but harder to pull off than to think of.

Space music and futuristic music?
Well, you know. Space music, I mean songs specifically about space, space travel. Like “CTA–102” is about a quasar. Whereas futuristic music could be earth music, but kind of projected into the future of what it might sound like. I have some rough ideas about what that is. I mean, just using some of the things the synthesizer will do that nothing else will do. Getting into electronic music and what could possibly happen to the roots when they are exposed to the new audio vocabulary.

The audio vocabulary. The one we’ve got is getting pretty hackneyed. There seem to be more cliches than original ideas.
I try to avoid them, you know.

Who is the banjo picker in that picture on the wall?
Pete Seeger. And that’s a letter from him thanking us for doing “Turn Turn” with some integrity. But he wondered why we hadn’t repeated “To everything there is a season” because he thought it loses the whole musical impact if you don’t do that. But the reason we didn’t is because it was running 3:30 already and to do another chorus would make it 4:05 and, you know, forget it. That was before the long record was allowed. It still isn’t except for like the Beatles and Dylan.

Does the latest Dylan puzzle you any?
Not at all. I understand it thoroughly.

Well, I’m more on the inside of it than most people because we were supposed to work with Dylan at that time. I got a call from Clive Davis, president of Columbia, saying, “How would you like to work with Dylan?” and we’d previously discussed doing albums with other Columbia artists and so I said, “Sure thing, let’s get together. Just tell me when and where.” So I called Dylan and he wasn’t there, but he returned the call and said, “Did Clive Davis call you about doing an album?” and I said, “Yeah, but I don’t know what we’d do. Do you have any ideas?” and he said, “No, I haven’t thought about it myself. Maybe if you come in with some of the old stuff and I do too that’ll be all right.” I think he meant some of his old stuff, so it would be all his publishing. So I said, “Well, the only thing we could do is go into the studio and see what happens, right?” And I asked him if he had any material to spare and he said no, that he was kind of hard up, that he hadn’t been writing as much as he used to and I mentioned that we all get fat and lazy and he laughed. And we wound up the conversation by saying that we’d be in touch with each other, nothing definite.

So we got to New York and did a couple of gigs — Felt Forum and Queens College — and that took care of the weekend. By Monday we were still in town, but waiting for some kind of word. Finally the guys took a 12:00 plane back to the Coast. And at 1:00 I got a call from Billie Wallington, a friend of mine at Columbia, and she said that the session was in Studio B at 2:30. Well, I explained to her what the situation was, and she called Dylan and he was pissed off that we didn’t have the courtesy to sit around and wait for his phone call. Well, the crux of it all was that Clive was supposed to come down to the show the night before but he didn’t show up, and we could have settled it all right there. The other thing was a political thing with Bob Johnston. We’d fired him as our producer, right, and Bob Johnston, as producer, is responsible for notifying the musicians of the time of the session within 12 hours. It’s a union regulation. He knew where we were, but he didn’t call us and Clive didn’t call us. Like I say, it was political.

What I think it would have amounted to is that we would have been backup musicians for Dylan, like the Band, on a couple of cuts on his new album, which he never mentioned to us. He said it could be a separate album, the Byrds and Dylan, and I asked him what kind of billing we’d get on it and he said well, he didn’t know, but Clive assured me that we’d be getting at least 33 percent billing on it.

I would have liked to have done it, if it had worked out at all. In view of the circumstances, I’m just as glad that we didn’t get on … this … particular … album … that came out, because it was poorly prepared, that’s my opinion. He came into the studio prepared to use a lot of outtakes from Nashville Skyline and a lot of the Isle of Wight stuff, which is just a remote, just a live recording rather than anything musically McGuinn good. The New York stuff, “Wigwam” and a lot of those, are pretty good.

So I understand the album thoroughly. I understand why there are repeats to fill up time because he didn’t have enough new material to do it, why he used a lot of old folk songs that everybody’s known for 10 or 12 years.

Why is he claiming he wrote them?
He’s probably taking publishing on them as re-arrangements of public domain material. It’s a standard trick. I’ve done it myself. But I usually make a few changes. “Old Blue.” That’s one.

Why did you take the South African gig?
I was curious. I was hip to it, knew it was a fascist country and Miriam Makeba — I’d worked with her with the Mitchell Trio and the whole Belofonte Enterprises trip — she told me the whole thing, how the Nazi stormtroopers work down there, shooting people in the head in the middle of the street and just leaving them there. The kids in the village would go out with slingshots and shoot out the streetlights at night, and they’d come looking for them and shoot them to death for shooting out streetlights. I mean, the fact that they’re not allowed into public halls is totally irrelevant when you get down to that. I was curious to find out where the people were at to allow things like that to go on. And in spite of all the bad press we got for it at the time, I thought it was a valuable experience. I think we got some of the people who were kind of on the fringe of deciding whether they wanted to be apartheid or not to come over to the other side, and we got some of the spade people there who were aware of what we were doing and what we were saying.

I was extremely paranoid, because it was just after Bobby Kennedy had been shot, and I was afraid, but Miriam Makeba had said I should see it first hand, and you weigh that against Mick Jagger telling me not to go…. I mean, it might not be hip, but it sure was interesting and valuable. But I was scared, especially in Durban, where we got threatening phone calls — “Get outa South Africa if you know what’s good for you”— we were famous down there. We’d walk into a bar and people’d turn around and say, “Are you the ones who’ve been talking about our apartheid laws?”

Wasn’t it Chris Hillman who called the South Africans “backward and spiteful”?
I think I said that too. We’d just finished playing Port Elizabeth, which really is a kind of a backward town, very pretty, but it’s about 400 years ago down there. They were shouting and jeering from the audience when we were playing. We were just doing a set, but it was like an I Spy or Mission: Impossible kinda trip. Like, the fact that we were playing music was just a cover for the fact that we were collecting data on them or something.

Anyway, the clippings that we got back from South Africa were the only things that got us back into the English musicians’ union. They have a clause that says that any musician who plays in any apartheid country will be banned forever from the union and their domain. We had to prove that what we did down there was not in keeping with the apartheid laws and that we didn’t play ball with them, that what we did was really fuck them over. I think that what we did was more valuable than a boycott because a boycott deprives the people and makes them even more ignorant. If ignorance is a problem, you don’t starve their information sources.

So I was down there kind of doing a Don Rickles routine with them — “So this is South Africa, hey ..?” We played for a mixed audience in Salisbury, Rhodesia. Since then, Rhodesia has gone through some political changes, but I was sure glad to get to Rhodesia at the end of the tour. There was a press conference and I said, “Whew, it sure is good to be outa South Africa,” but they didn’t dig that too much because they were just beginning to turn sour then.

I can’t even think of any band that’s ever played South Africa.
The Everly Brothers. How do you like that? I wouldn’t recommend for anyone else to go there. We almost got killed, you know.

Well, what ever made the State Department pick you guys in the first place?
The State Department? Maybe they knew about it, but it was an independent venture. We certainly didn’t do any good for the relations between the United States and South Africa. We were sponsored by some English guy who had gotten hepatitis and went down there in the winter, because it’s summer down there, for his health. He screwed us out of a lot of money.

Were there any white kids doing rock and roll down there?
Yeah, there was a band with short Beatle haircuts and Beatle suits. About the only thing they have going for them down there is that all the clothing is imported from France, and so is the music. Television is illegal. You’re not allowed to own a television receiver. Their rationale is that they have a bilingual country and half of the people speak Afrikaans, and they couldn’t handle that, although Canada does it very nicely. The other reason is that they’re waiting for color. They’re not gonna go through the black-and-white phase.

There’s gonna be a real bloody riot down there. I know of people who are saving up money for guns and stuff, and actual firearms are getting in even though they have a good Nazi secret police and everything.

The clincher for South Africa, though, was that we were almost caught by the CID — comparable to the CIA here — and we could have been incarcerated until the United States Embassy found out about it, or maybe we would have all just accidentally died of heart attacks or something. They just missed us by minutes — we got right on the plane. They were uptight because no white person in South Africa says the kind of things we said. We had some sympathizers on newspapers down there, and they couldn’t say what they wanted, so they had us say it for them. We went down there and kind of lanced a boil. It was painful but it was worth it.

Anyway, this guy who had booked us was holding a lot of money that we had earned legally on the grounds that we were dope addicts and he had signed affidavits to prove it from these bellboys at the hotel who said that we had bribed them to go and get dagga for us. And there was the matter of a Ritalin prescription that he had paid for, ostensibly for us, but he gobbled them all himself. I couldn’t have because I had the flu. He said that to prove our innocence we’d have to come back to South Africa to get the money.

What happened to your musical, Gene Tryp?
That’s sort of in limbo. Jacques Levy, every time I approach him with it, he says it’s gonna be together, and it’s his department, really, to see that it gets together. He’s got all the people. We recorded some of the songs on this next album — “Chestnut Mare,” “All the Things,” “Just a Season”; we recorded “Kathleen’s Song” but we didn’t use it, and one more, uh, oh yeah, “Lover of the Bayou.”

Besides the adaptation of “Peer Gynt,” what is the…
Motif of it? 1840s in the southwest. Or whatever the Western frontier was at the time. It follows the “Peer Gynt” play pretty closely. It’s got a wedding scene where Gene Tryp comes up and steals the bride and takes her up into the hills and runs into these Indians, this Indian chick, and gets into trouble with the Indians, and then gets back with this other chick, Kathleen, and they build a house together. He’s out one night collecting firewood and this thing called the Berg, which is in the original “Peer Gynt,” comes and holds him, like a forcefield, you know, and he can’t get back to the house. And he tells him that he’ll have to go around this tremendous circle which will take him the rest of his life, to get back to the girl. And he goes through all these circumstances, like he’s a preacher, and he’s a gun-runner, and all kinds of things. It’s got a lot of topical things in it; a lot of sex and violence, all the essential ingredients for a good play.

But they cut the budget from $750,000 to $300,000, so that’s gonna kill a lot of the special effects. They were gonna have a river running on stage in one scene that’d have to run in and out on wheels, and all kinds of expensive props that’d kill you if you ever tried to take the show on the road. They told me to go and see David Merrick about it, and he’s a very practical businessman, having been a millionaire and lost it and gotten it all back, so he’s very practical about it. He asked me who was gonna be in it and I believe that Jacques had told him that he might get John Voigt to play the lead part because he sings and plays guitar, and Merrick said it’d last six months or a year and then it’d drop off like a rocket. He was very practical about it–just rejected it flat out.

But we’ve got Don Kirshner interested in it, I’ve known him since Bobby Darin days, and he’s sorta committed to doing something with it. Columbia came up on their bid from $50,000 to $150,000, so I think that with some help from other sources, it might get financed by sometime in ’71. But it might not.

Well, I’m sure your average rock audience would want to go and see it at least once. How would you do the music?
Some of it would be on tape, and some of it would be done live on stage with mikes and guitars. The union requires that you pay for a pit orchestra of 16 pieces whether you use it or not, and they’re doing orchestrations from the basic themes that I’ve written. We’ve got a good Juillard cat to do the charts. He hasn’t done them yet, but he’s OK.

The stuff on tape would be the Byrds?
Well, yeah. It was thought to be the Byrds. But if Kirshner got it, he’d probably want to form his own group for it and do it that way, but we’ve been discussing it in terms of the Byrds.

And you wrote the music and lyrics?
Well, Jacques wrote the book and he claims all the lyrics and I claim all the music, but really it’s a give and take thing. We collaborated right here in the living room for a month or so, working every day at night from about midnight to about five in the morning. It was really quiet and there was nobody around to bother us.

Jacques is hung up right now with the Chicago Seven trial thing, I think MGM is backing him. He’s got two films coming out about it. One will be cinema verite and the other’ll be a fictional version of it, sort of like the Marx Brothers or something. He’s a good director. He’s an ex-psychologist with a PhD, and he was a practicing psychologist and he just dropped out and got into theatre. That’s where he got his gift for working with people. I mean, he got me off my ass to write 26 songs in 30 days, and most of them are good. Besides coming up with the basic ideas for most of them, which is half the problem.

What is this thing you’ve been doing with the Music Educators’ National Conference?
It was a filmed interview with Zubin Mehta for distribution to junior high schools, sponsored by Coca-Cola. It was gonna be an interview with Mehta, but he kind of dominated the proceedings. At one point, though, he really blew it, and I said, “Mr. Mehta has just admitted that he’s just capitalizing on rock and roll to appeal to a younger audience because his older audience is dying off.” He did say that in almost so many words, and I just sort of encapsulated that whole thing. And he was doing one of these loud numbers where rock and roll musicians don’t really know what’s going on in classical music these days.

That’s because there is nothing going on in classical music these days. What do you think the young kids are gonna come up with after all this?
Jesus Christ. It scares me. If we presented this much of a problem to our elders, and yet we’re already kind of Model Ts…

I think there’ll probably be a large right-wing faction of them because they haven’t found anything wrong with the old way, and the very fact that their older brothers and sisters are causing so much trouble will make them want to be good kids, and therefore they’ll come up with the old party line trip. Then there’ll be others who’ll want to be like their older brothers and sisters, and it’s hard to say which percentage will be larger. I wouldn’t want to make a guess.

But there are a whole lot of kids who will be becoming adults in the next ten years, and they’re more highly programmed than we are, and we’re more highly programmed than our forebears were at our age. In fact, the Bible has a prophecy that says that men will be ruled by women and children towards the end. So it’s looking weird, what with Women’s Lib and children being so demanding…

Sure, there’s even Children’s Lib these days.
And then you got the skinheads…. Did you see that stuff they just released on Nagasaki and Hiroshima?

Whew. I always thought it was a horrible thing, right, but when you actually see newsreel-type footage of it shot by cats who are obviously gonna die of radiation poisoning because it was shot the day after. It gets into showing the immediate blast area, and there are people just burned into the ground like the War of the Worlds, and, like, skeletons and piles of bones where a trolley car got blown off the tracks, disintegrated and all the flesh was missing and there was just a pile of bones. I mean, it was worse than the German footage of the mass graves and everything.

Then it got down to the radiation aftereffects 18 days later, with the skin peeling off. It showed people touching it and it was just like putty, rolling off down to the muscle, fleshy fat, you know. And there’s a new wave of it now, the twenty-fifth anniversary, a new wave of radiation deaths as a result of the original exposure. Like a certain half-life or something.

Also, Jim Dickson tells me that the Japanese are harvesting porpoises at the rate of 50,000 a day for human consumption and fertilizer. Being made into protein powder in plastic bags. The only civilization to harvest porpoises, or even kill them at all. The ones that are intelligent. Our brothers, the porpoises. See, they don’t have thumbs, that’s why we discriminate against them. Also they copped out; they went back to the ocean, see …

One more question. Why have there been so many Byrds?
For the same reason that so many groups have broken up. Probably the reason there have been so many Byrds is because I’ve wanted to keep the name, the package, together as a vehicle.

A vehicle for what, your musical ideas?
Yeah, my musical ideas, as opposed to being Roger McGuinn and His Backup Musicians. I thought of it as a package, you know. Established.

So you’re satisfied with the state of the package now?
Yeah. Skip kind of provided the final link in the chain. I think that the Byrds as they are now will hold together for a while.

Sort of like the most efficient module for the package?
Right. The most efficient module.

Hey, we’ve run out of beer. I have this urge to get some more.

* * *

Well, of course, we did. Especially as Ianthe had cooked up a fine spaghetti dinner for us. So Roger got on his metal-colored bike with the radio in it and zoomed down to the local beer mart. In no time he was back, and I had slipped into the pool room to watch Ed Caraeff and Billy James slug it out in a rough game of 8-ball. The live record from the new album provided background music from the audio-visual center which separated the pool room from the living/dining room. This center also contains several televisions, a full tape/disc audio facility, and a movie and slide facility. Some of the televisions are hooked up to the camera in the driveway.

The electric eye buzzed, as it did when Roger had gone out to get the beer, and it became apparent that there were some more dinner guests. I don’t know who they were, other than old friends of Roger and Ianthe’s, but we sat down to dinner, which was delicious, in spite of the fact that their older son, Patrick, wouldn’t eat it because “I saw Mom making it and it’s eccchy.”

After dinner, Ed announced that he’d be leaving, and, seeing that I had gotten a pretty complete interview, I asked him to drive me back to the city. Roger was concerned that I’d gotten everything. “Well, I’ve got about two and a half hours of tape,” I said, “and I think it’s mostly useable. Very little dross, if you know what I mean.”

“Very efficient,” he said. “I like that.” We shook hands and Ed and I left. Pulling out of the driveway, the headlights of Ed’s car outlined Roger’s Cadillac, with its smoked windows and funny antennas. Black.

In This Article: long reads, Roger McGuinn, The Byrds


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