Old rock stars don’t fade away like old generals. A contemporary and friend of Dylan and the Stones, legendary Byrds guitarist Roger McGuinn recently paid a visit to Chapel Hill. Though in town mainly for a conference on creativity, innovation and intellectual property, he also gave a spellbinding talk and performance for Jocelyn Neal’s class on the history of country music.
A longtime technology buff (McGuinn made a reference in the class to the 300 Baud modems he used years ago), McGuinn has been hosting his Folkden site on UNC’s contributor-run digital library, ibiblio.org, for 10 years now, and last week he released a four-CD set of the 120 tracks (some re-recorded) he’s posted, one a month, for the last decade. He created the site to document folk standards and classics “out of a sincere concern that this stuff could get lost.”
McGuinn’s own legacy is certainly secure. Besides the string of hits such as “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” his jingle-jangle, 12-string Rickenbacker guitar playing (which he often picks five-string banjo style) has become a part of the contemporary musical lexicon, appropriated by everyone from Tom Petty and R.E.M. to an entire generation of English bands from the Smiths and Wedding Present through The Clientele.
McGuinn fell in love with music upon hearing Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” when he was 13, and was given a guitar for his 14th birthday. Within a year he had enrolled in the just-opened Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, where he learned guitar from future Weaver Frank Hamilton. By the time he was 18 he was in L.A. playing with a number of folk trios, and then in 1963 Bobby Darin hired him as a songwriter for his new publishing company in New York’s famous Brill Building.
“It was like a day job. You go there in the morning and sit in your little cubicle with a writing partner. Some of the people played piano, some of them played guitar,” he recalls. “It is very weird–it’s really unnatural, but that was what the Brill Building was all about. It was a factory where they made music.”
Already a fine guitarist, McGuinn saw this as an opportunity to build his songwriting chops.
“Because of the nature of the job, listening to the radio and writing songs like what was out there, I tuned my ear to pop music in a real analytical way. I was able to craft songs that were in the genre of whatever I was listening to. Then the Beatles came out and that was a real big breakthrough. It’s what got me to mix folk and rock. I started doing it right there at the Brill Building,” he says.
Soon though, McGuinn left and moved back out to L.A., where he met Gene Clark, David Crosby and, later, Michael Clarke and Chris Hillman, forming The Byrds. They didn’t even have instruments at first, and when they recorded their first hit (a reworked cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tambourine Man”), McGuinn was the only member who played. It was an enormous hit and from 1965 to 1968, they released six amazing albums.
“The second album [Turn! Turn! Turn!] was a strain because we had to learn a bunch of new material, and it was more difficult. There was a lot of infighting and tension in the band during that recording. It took like 77 takes to get the band track of ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’,” he recalls.
In 1966 they released “8 Miles High,” which according to McGuinn, was really about their first trip to England. Clark left shortly after its release, unable to cope with all the air travel.
“There are a lot of things in the song that are just about that trip to England. The eight miles high is based on the airplane altitude, we were originally going to sing six miles high–like 37,000 feet, but the Beatles had a song out called ‘8 Days a Week,’ and Gene liked that, and liked eight instead of six. He thought it was more poetic,” McGuinn says. “Of course, you just had to take a look at us to know there was something going on. We definitely weren’t all there, but the song wasn’t about that per se.”
By the fourth album, things were growing contentious. David Crosby was fired and Michael Clarke left the band by the completion of Notorious Byrd Brothers.
“There was a lot of stress going on and jockeying to see who got their songs on the album. Crosby wasn’t happy with his number of songs on the album,” McGuinn says. “He wanted to take over the band.”
The move proved fortuitous, as McGuinn and Hillman brought in Gram Parsons and released Sweetheart of the Rodeo, one of country-rock’s seminal albums. But it wasn’t necessarily the direction McGuinn initially intended.
“My general direction was more into jazz fusion because I really liked what happened with ‘8 Miles High’ with the 12-string Rickenbacker kind of emulating John Coltrane’s saxophone parts. I wanted to continue with that, and that’s why I auditioned Gram Parsons as a piano player. I thought maybe he could play some McCoy Tyner kind of stuff. He actually ended up playing more like Floyd Kramer. It was a surprise,” McGuinn says.
“I like all kinds of music and I embraced country music at that point. It really wasn’t a strain for me to do it; in fact, it was almost like role-playing,” he continues. “I got some clothes and a hat. I bought a black Cadillac Eldorado, and I just got into the role of being a country guy.”
A year later Hillman and Parsons would leave to form the Flying Burrito Brothers, ending the Byrd’s most creative period. They improved however, as a live act, as McGuinn added esteemed country picker Clarence White (“It was like having Jimi Hendrix in your band,” McGuinn says). The Byrds broke up several years later, in 1973, and McGuinn has continued releasing albums both solo and, for a while in the late ’70s and early ’80s, with old buddies Clark and Hillman. But it’s taken him until now to make money off any of them.
“Last year’s Limited Edition CD broke even the first month. We sell them on Amazon, my site [McGuinn.com] and at venues, and sell a ton of them. It’s the only time I’ve ever made money on a CD. [Back From] Rio sold half a million and they never paid me any royalties,” he says. “They do that. They don’t play fair. My first deal with Columbia I got .0007 cents per album.”
A true “early adopter,” McGuinn has worked on Pro Tools for years and, ever true to the DIY spirit, he welcomes the digital revolution.
“The revolution is going on, and if you’re on the cutting edge of it it’s really great for a young artist,” McGuinn says. “You don’t need a label–you don’t need to sell your soul to the company.”