||The Byrds in 1965: (left to right) Michael Clarke, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn, and Gene Clarke.
Through his widely influential band the Byrds, Roger McGuinn inspired a generation of rockers with his often-imitated 12-string electric guitar. A dedicated folk music addict, McGuinn turned up the volume and added an irrepressible backbeat to the storytelling genre perpetuated by folk pioneers Pete Seeger and Bob Gibson, among many others.
After seeing the Beatles’ A Hard Days Night, the Byrds ditched their acoustic act and borrowed $5,000 to purchase electric guitars, amplifiers, a drum kit, and matching black suits with velvet collars. John Lennon prompted McGuinn to adopt the Rickenbacker guitar, but it was McGuinn who got Lennon hooked on sporting tiny sunglasses. The rest is rock ’n’ roll history.
Black & White: Tell me what started the Folk Den you offer on your web site.
Roger McGuinn: There were a lot of folk music songs getting lost in the shuffle. And in the commercial music scene there wasn’t a lot of interest in traditional folk music anymore. The old folk singers are gettin’ kinda old, and I wondered what would happen in a few years when they’re not around anymore. So I thought I’d do my bit to keep those songs alive by recording them and putting them on the site (www.rogermcguinn.com) — one a month. And I’ve been doing that every month for six years. Folk had experienced tremendous popularity in the middle ’60s, and I think that it had become overly commercialized at that point. Rock ’n’ roll came along, the Beatles. We didn’t help folk much by mixing it up with rock ’n’ roll in the Byrds. Gradually people kinda forgot about it to the point where now they don’t even know what it is. If you say “folk,” they immediately think of some kid with an acoustic guitar who’s playing their own songs that they just wrote last night. They don’t know what you’re talking about when you say “traditional songs.”
B&W: Was being a fan of [early folk pioneer] Bob Gibson what got you interested in folk music as a kid?
McGuinn: That’s right. I was in high school, and I was into rock ’n’ roll at the time. Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, that whole rockabilly sound out of Memphis. I hadn’t listened to folk music at all. Maybe I’d heard a little bit of Burl Ives when I was a kid but I didn’t pay much attention to it. Bob Gibson came to our high school and did a 45-minute set on a five-string banjo. Blew me away. I just loved it. I couldn’t believe it. It was so energetic and he’s doing all these fancy picking things on the banjo. These great melodies and stories and songs. I went, “What’s that?” I asked my music teacher, and she says, “That’s folk music. There’s a school that just opened up in Chicago. You ought to check it out. It’s a folk music school.” So I went over there to Old Town School of Folk Music and enrolled. I studied there for three years before I got my first job as accompanist for the Limelighters.
B&W: How did you and Tom Petty get to be pals?
McGuinn: When I first heard Tom Petty I was looking for songs for an album I was gonna be doing. And Tom was just coming out with his first album. I didn’t know who he was. My manager was playing me songs from different writers. One of them was [Petty’s] “American Girl.” And it sounded so much like me, I kidded my manager and asked, “When did I record that?” And he said, “It isn’t you. It’s this new kid Tom Petty.” So I said I wanted to meet him, because I loved what he was doing. And he came over the next day to the house. We got to be friends, and we’ve been friends all these years.
B&W: Tell me about your years working with Bobby Darin.
McGuinn: That was cool. Bobby was a very talented guy. He was very multi-dimensional. He could play the vibes and dance and play piano and guitar and sing and tell jokes. He was an old school kind of showbiz guy. Almost a Vaudevillian. One of the things he did was incorporate a folk music segment into his act. He was scouting around looking for somebody to back him up on that. He was in California at the Crescendo Club to see Lenny Bruce. I was with the Chad Mitchell Trio at the time, and we were opening up for Lenny Bruce. So he saw me and offered me a job and I took it, ’cause it was better money.
B&W: That must have been an experience, opening for Lenny Bruce.
McGuinn: Yes it was. Lenny was so amazing. I’d say the guy was a genius. He was very bright. You never knew what he was gonna do. He was kind of coming off the top of his head all the time. And there was always this mystique that he was kind of stoned or something (laughs). He was really amazing. We looked upon him with a great deal of amusement. It’s funny, he was actually put in jail for some of the stuff he said on stage.
B&W: I didn’t realize that you wrote songs with the Brill Building crowd (legendary New York songwriting group that included Carole King, Neil Sedaka, and Neil Diamond, among others).
McGuinn: Yes. Bobby (Darin) had rheumatic fever when he was a kid, and his heart wasn’t very good. At one point, performing became difficult for him, so he decided to concentrate on his other business, which was a publishing company he’d bought into. We all moved to New York, and he hired me as a songwriter at the Brill Building. My job was to go to work everyday, like a nine to five thing, and write songs.
B&W: Are the descriptions of life in the Brill Building pretty accurate — the cubicles with a piano in each?
McGuinn: Absolutely. That’s what it was. A cubicle about 12 feet by six feet. Almost a jail cell with a piano in it (laughs). Barely enough room for an upright piano and a couple of chairs. You’d sit in there with another guy, he’d work on piano, I’d play guitar, and knock out songs all day.
B&W: From reading your statements on your web site, you seem to always be up on the latest technology. Were you ever involved with developing guitar gadgets?
McGuinn: Not really. The only thing I ever did with that was use after-market stuff and kind of build it into my guitar. I would take the VOX treble booster — it came in a chrome package — and I took the electronics out of that and installed it into my Rickenbacker. I did kind of develop what later became the pig-nose amplifier [a small practice guitar amp]. I had one of those back in ’65; I’d just make them for my friends and give away.
B&W: Tell me about the Rock Bottom Remainders.
McGuinn: I met Carl Hiason. He wrote a book called Sick Puppy, and named the dog McGuinn — after me! I went to a book-signing of his because I wanted to meet him. We got to know each other a little bit. He mentioned that he sometimes played with this band with [columnist] Dave Barry and Stephen King, and asked would I like to do that sometime. And I said, “Yeah, that sounds like a ball.” So he lined it up and then we all did it. I was going to do it this year, but I got too busy with Judy Collins going on the road.
B&W: How did you come to testify at the Senate hearings regarding MP3.com?
McGuinn: MP3.com was an outfit that I hooked up with a couple of years ago. They saw my Folk Den and said, “Why don’t you bring some of this stuff over here, make some CDs, and we’ll pay you 50 percent on ‘em.” So I said, “Good deal,” because record companies never pay more than 10 percent or something like that. When all this lawsuit stuff came out and the hearings and everything, like Napster and that whole furor about that, the record companies got a vigilante mentality, and they were going after everybody that had the word MP3 in it. So I went to the Senate to defend MP3.com because I thought they were the good guys ’cause they were paying royalties to the artists.
B&W: How long have you been doing solo shows?
McGuinn: Oh, since ’81. Ramblin’ Jack Elliot got me into it. I was on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour with Bob Dylan, Ramblin’ Jack, and Joan Baez. One time Ramblin’ and I were hanging out, and he said, “You know Roger, the best fun I ever had was when I’d just throw the guitar in the back of the Land Rover and hit the road and play all these little places, and it’s so much fun.” And I was in a band situation where you got trucks and all these logistics of people and you got to worry about the drummer being drunk and stuff like that. So I was looking to get out of that. It was too much trouble and it wasn’t as much fun as I wanted to have on the road. I wanted to take my wife with me and do it like Ramblin’ Jack said. It’s my favorite way to tour.
Roger McGuinn will perform on Saturday, October 20, at the Kentuck Festival in Northport (Tuscaloosa) Alabama. Call 205-758-1257 for details.