November 20, 2022

FTV: Roger McGuinn’s Detour


     On the eve of the September 20, 2022 release of the book The Byrds 1964-67, band co-founder Roger McGuinn shared his thoughts on their career on Steve Hyden’s UPROXX indie mixtape series.  The book is a collectable art book about the band with input from McGuinn and the other surviving members of the band, David Crosby and Chris Hillman.  Hyden noted that the 80 year-old McGuinn, “Remains a sharp and spry musician, as evidenced by how often he slipped into Byrds songs on his trademark 12-string during our Zoom call.”  They started out with Hyden coaxing out McGuinn’s recollections about his career and some of the pivotal albums The Byrds released.

     McGuinn aspired to be a folk singer before he became a Byrd.  He did a lot of studio sessions for Elektra Records including 12-string guitar for Judy Collin’s third album (for which he also acted as the musical director) and on the demo version of Paul Simon’s The Sound of Silence.  He must have already been playing his iconic 12-string Rickenbacker electric because he notes that he asked the company’s owner, F.C. Hall why he decided to make the model in the first place. Hall replied, “I did it for the folk scene.”  Roger told him, “But folk singers don’t play electric guitars,” while adding for Hyden, “Maybe it was a prophetic thing.”  

     When the early Byrds went in to the studio to lay down their first album, Mr. Tambourine Man (1965), it was recorded with the session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew and McGuinn.  Back then, they had to have a hit single before Columbia Records would let them record an album.  The single of Mr. Tambourine Man opened that door, but Roger said, “We used the Wrecking Crew for the single and the flip side because producer Terry Melcher knew we weren’t a real band yet.  I played the 12-string with them and then Gene Clarke, David Crosby, and I went in and did the vocals.  I mean, Michael Clarke (no relation to Gene) never learned to play the drums at that point.  These guys saved us a lot of money because studio time was expensive.  We knocked both tracks together in three and a half hours.  The Wrecking Crew had a bond.  They were like fish and kind of swam around together.  We didn’t have that yet.”  

     The first version of Mr.Tambourine Man had some deficiencies that needed to be taken care of before it was destined to become a hit.  First off, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot sang it with Bob Dylan on a rough demo and he was a bit intoxicated.  Cooler heads prevailed and Dylan didn’t release the track.  When The Byrds heard it while looking for a song to record, Crosby said, “I don’t like it, man.  That’s 2/4 time, that’s not rock ‘n’ roll.  It’s not going to play on the radio.”  To ‘Byrdify’ the arrangement, McGuinn said, “I rearranged it with a little Bach kind of stuff on the front and the back.  It was four and a half minutes long and radio wouldn’t touch it if it was longer than 2 and a half minutes, so I cut it down to one verse for time, and it was a hit.”

     The fact that when The Byrds recorded their next album, Turn! Turn! Turn! themselves (1965), it took 77 takes to get the title track down on tape.  They were a new band and still getting used to playing and recording together.  “Michael Clarke did become a really good drummer eventually,” Roger recalled.  “By the time he got to Firefall, he was a really good drummer.”  McGuinn was familiar with Turn! Turn! Turn! because he was a big Pete Seeger fan and had been listening to Pete’s version since 1959.  Roger also played the song with The Limelighters but they did it in a real folksy manner (calling it Everything There’s A Season) but, “they didn’t put a beat to it.”  After working on a version with Judy Collins, McGuinn, “Put the rock ‘n’ roll beat to it, and that made a difference.”

     By the time the Fifth Dimension record came out in 1966, The Byrds were topping the charts and everybody was anxious to hear what they would come up with next.  When the lead single from Fifth Dimension (1966) came out, some stations refused to play Eight Miles High because they assumed the word ‘high’ meant it was a drug reference.  Certainly someone considered that 42,240 feet (5,280 feet per mile times 8 miles) might actually be in reference to flying in a passenger jet at that altitude…but probably not.  The radio bans simply made the single forbidden fruit which spurred massive single and album sales.  Roger says now, “People misinterpreted it as being psychedelic,  They thought we were stoned, which we were, but . . . we didn’t intend it to be psychedelic.  In my opinion, it was an emulation of John Coltrane, a respected jazz musician.  I was trying to do jazz.  And I did, but nobody got it.”

     The other influence that found its way onto Fifth Dimension was Ravi Shankar.  McGuinn had an early Phillips cassette recorder that he used to record Ravi Shankar’s music.  Repeated listens were sure to have slipped into the songwriting process at that time.  Roger mentioned the benefits of finding themselves Number One on the charts:  “The Beatles wanted to meet us and we hung out with them and The Rolling Stones and went on tour with The Stones.  And we were hanging out with Bob Dylan.  I remember one night Bob Dylan, Phil Spector and I were at the Troubadour and we were backstage.  And Phil Spector turned to me and said, ‘You know what?  You’re in with the in-crowd.’  That was exactly what we were shooting for.  We got there and held it for a couple of years.”

     Younger Than Yesterday (1967) was also propelled up the charts by another quasi-jazz song.  McGuinn and Hillman were thumbing through a pile of teen magazines and started talking about some of the bands featured:  “We were kind of amused by the one-hit wonders.  They’d be there one week and you’d never see him again,  And we thought it would be fun to write a song about that.”  Ths guitar lick came from Millard Thomas who played for Miriam Makeba.  McGuinn showed it to Hillman and So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star started to come together.  “We got Hugh Masekela to play on it,” McGuinn remembered, “Again, we were doing jazz.” The rumor about Crosby leaving the band because producer Melcher wouldn’t put his song Triad on the album, McGuinn says, isn’t true:  “That was just the cover story for his attitude.  Terry Melcher didn’t like David and wouldn’t put any of his songs on the album.  Subsequent producers also had a hard time dealing with David.”

     When The Byrds started out, they were labeled a ‘folk rock’ band.  Covering Bob Dylan songs might have had something to do with that, but McGuinn emphasizes they were experimenting with a lot of different types of music.  At the Monterey Pop Festival, he saw Paul Beaver demonstrating a Moog Synthesizer so he went out and dropped $9000 for one of his own.

Though the early Moog was not as sophisticated as today’s synthesizers, McGuinn set about to try and explore different types of music with it.  He had the idea to do an album that represented the history of music, starting with Gregorian Chants and up to and past the present using the Moog to ‘take it out into space’.  While this project never came to be, The Byrds next project would find them making a right turn into country music.

     The Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) album resulted from a chance meeting Hillman had with Gram Parsons in a bank in Beverly Hills.  Roger explained, “Gram had a trust fund and he was a rich kid.  We didn’t know this when we met him but Chris ran into him at the bank when he was picking up his allowance.  It was after Crosby left The Byrds and it was not working on stage because I was playing lead, Chris was playing bass, and his cousin, Kevin Kelly was playing the drums.  We needed someone to play rhythm guitar after Crosby left so Hillman invited Gram over to the rehearsal studio to see if he could play some McCoy Tyner type piano.  He played a little Floyd Kramer-style piano and I’m like, ‘Well he knows how to play piano.  We can work with him.’  We had dabbled in country a little but it wasn’t until Gram came along that we decided to go to Nashville and record the Sweetheart album.  Gram was so in love with country music it was infectious and we just fell in love with it, too.”

     The session guys in Nashville didn’t quite know what hit them when The Byrds came to town.  They were used to playing the music put down in front of them so having The Byrds tell them, “Hey, do whatever you want, man.  Come in when you want, stay as long as you want.”

Roger says they would play poker during the day back at the Ramada Inn and then record at night:  “It was like a party and we had these great A-list studio guys to work with.  They loved it.  They had never worked on sessions that were so unstructured.”  The only hitch came when they found Parsons was signed to another record label.  To prevent a lawsuit, they had to go back and change some of the vocals he contributed.  They were finally put back in place on their 1990 box set The Byrds.

     It seemed the newly countrified Byrds could do no wrong but they found the audience at the Grand Ole Opry a bit standoffish because they had long hair (they were booed).  The album confused their old fans and there was much consternation among the suits at their record label.  Their luck didn’t improve when they made the decision to accept an offer to play in South Africa.  Roger recalled touring the American South in the 1960s as a member of the Chad Mitchell Trio.  They had Miriam Makeba touring with them and McGuinn found himself constantly apologizing for the way her band was treated.  She was the one who said, “You ought to see my country.  If you ever get a chance, to go South Africa.”  The Byrds had big money waved at them to do just that so they stopped to hang with The Stones in England on their way to Johannesburg.

     As it turned out, Keith Richards and Parsons hit it off and became good buddies.  When Keith told The Byrds there was a ban on musicians traveling to South Africa, Gram decided to quit the band and stay in England to chum around with Keith.  Roger continues, “We went on without Gram and it was just horrible.  We got death threats.  We didn’t get to play to mix audiences as we had been promised.  I got the flu, and then we didn’t get paid.”  Roger forgave Parsons for quitting The Byrds.  Gram and Hillman would later join up to form The Flying Burrito Brothers:  “I was just blown away by all the great songs they were writing together.  Gram and I played pool and rode motorcycles together, like a bunch of hillbillies or something.”  Five years later, Parsons would die from apparent heart failure but it has always been suspected that drugs and alcohol may also contributed to his untimely end.   

     Early in his career, McGuinn was offered a chance to get into the movie biz.  He turned it down and was told, “You won’t ever get to work in Hollywood after this!”  He gleefully ends this story with, “And I never did,” but that is not entirely true.  In 1969, Peter Fonda flew to New York City to talk Bob Dylan into writing a song for his new movie.  He screened the flick for Bob who scribbled some lyrics on a cocktail napkin before giving it back to Fonda.  Peter got on a plane to Los Angeles where he presented the napkin to Roger saying, “Bob wants you to have this, man.”  McGuinn got out his guitar and finished The Ballad of Easy Rider.  “We finished it and it did really well.  A few weeks later, Bob called me up and said, ‘Take my name off the credit.’  He didn’t want a credit on it.  The album was a hit.  It sold a lot of copies and generated some income, but the band was, at that point, doing kind of watered down material.  The rest of the record didn’t really have any Byrds hits.”

     The Byrds would fly again in 1973 when Crosby talked David Geffen into financing a reunion album.  Roger says, “The album wasn’t bad.  It wasn’t great.  It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t a reason to continue with the name of The Byrds.  It was more of a party than a recording session.”  By mutual agreement, The Byrds were grounded.  As a solo artist, McGuin put out six albums over the next twenty years.  The strongest, Cardiff Rose (1976) and Back From Rio (1991) kept him on tour and the latter record reached #44 on the charts.  After several decades on the road, Roger decided to do something he always wanted to do.

     He broached the subject with his wife Camile who told him, “Call your agent and have him book some dates.”  What McGuinn told her he wanted was to, “Toss his guitar in the back of the car and go on the road as a solo act.”  My wife and I got to see this version of Roger McGuinn at the Calumet Theater some years back and it seems he is perfectly happy with his decision.  He guests on other’s albums and will occasionally show up on one of those PBS Rockin’ Oldies fundraising shows to sing a couple of Byrds’ hits, but being on the road with his guitar and wife has been his life in the new millennium (not to mention is now ever present wide brimmed hat).

     As for The Byrds, Roger McGuinn summed up the career circle he has traveled:  “I regard The Byrds as a nine-year detour from my dream of being a folk singer like Pete Seeger.  We wanted to be like The Beatles, and we got that.”  When all is said and done, he really has realized his original dream to be like his idol Pete, so that can’t be a bad way to wrap up his story. 

     During his performance at the Calumet Theater, some glitch took place with the equipment off stage.  After a couple of god-awful squelching sounds blurted from the house PA, Roger stood up and stalked off behind the left stage curtain.  A few minutes later, he strode back to center stage.  Whatever adjustments he had to make fixed the problem and he finished without even mentioning the incident.  There are alot of pampered rock stars who would have exploded over something like this, but not this old folkie.  If McGuinn managed to work with the mercurial David Crosby and not punch his lights out, why would he lose his cool over a small technical problem?  Seems like Roger is doing his thing and enjoying the ride.


Top Piece Video:  Why can’t 8 Miles High be about flying in an airliner?  Roger claims that is exactly what it was about!  This is alter version of the band circa 1970 when they got a little more ‘jammy’.