Deckle edge

Roger McGuinn
by Chris Flisher © 1994 /
(first published March 1994 Worcester Phoenix)

Roger McGuinn
It is difficult to overstate Roger McGuinn's influence and lasting impact on contemporary rock music. As leader of the Byrds, McGuinn's trademark Rickenbacker guitar permeated their songs with a steely twang that rode above the music with a crystal clarity. It is a bright sound, crisp, compelling and still appealing today. R.E.M., Matthew Sweet, The Bangles, 10,000 Maniacs, and Michael Penn are among many other current artists who have borrowed from the style pioneered by McGuinn. The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and especially Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who unabashedly trace their roots to McGuinn and the Byrds, also drew heavily from that sound, born of the marriage of folk and rock.

But more than the jingle, jangle appeal of McGuinn's guitar, it was the type of songs he and the Byrds sang that really distinguished them. Fusing the mass appeal of rock with the social conscience of folk, they helped to shift the focus of popular music away from simple baby-I-love-you songs, to music that carried a message. The band is best known for taking the biting, often-acerbic and commercially-limiting music of a then-young Bob Dylan and re-interpreting it via their own appealing style. The result is seen in the rise of folk-rock throughout the remainder of the 60s and into the 70s, prompting Dylan himself to plug-in and go electric.

Later, after the original Byrds scattered to various solo and group projects, McGuinn held fast to the name and blazed yet another trail, joining country-music pioneer Gram Parsons, on an experiment that was to signal the birth of country-rock. Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, released in 1968, drew the music of America's heartland into the rock arena, combining country, hillbilly, bluegrass and rock. Although limited commercially, the influence of Sweetheart can be seen in the work of a whole generation of country rockers and rockers who later went country.

Folk-rock, country-rock and just plain rock, McGuinn, spoke in a recent interview from his home in Florida, reflecting on his career, "Of all the variations of the Byrds, I'd say the original band is still my favorite. The first two albums (Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn, Turn, Turn) are my favorites. We were fearless and music was less of a business then. It was fresh and exciting."

Exciting to say the least. Mobbed by screaming teenagers, playing to sold-out stadiums, and enjoying chart-topping singles, the Byrds soared, buoyed by their unique sound. But it is their lasting appeal that led to the group's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1989, permanently locking their contributions to a time and space in rock history.

Today, as a solo artist, McGuinn works hard to avoid the aging-rock-star syndrome and come-back artist tag. "It is a double-edged thing," laments McGuinn. "You get a lot of recognition for what you did and I appreciate that, but then again people want to keep you in that time frame. They don't want you to change. They remember 'Mr. Tambourine Man' and that's what they want," he continues. "But, I don't worry about it too much and I still enjoy doing the hits, so I just go with it."

Performing songs written and popularized over 20 years ago by a group of five (give or take) musicians, has its own set of challenges for a solo artist. "I do the songs differently each time to keep them fresh and current. I have tried to avoid the Holiday-Inn-syndrome," laughs McGuinn, referring to the all-too-familiar come-back trail. "Each gig is another opportunity to interpret a song in a new way. I get something new out of them each time and it is easier to do that as a solo artist, because it leaves me room to improvise."

After playing to huge crowds, sharing stadium stages with the who's who of rock (witness the recent tribute to Bob Dylan), the relative quietude of a friendly coffeehouse presents an intimacy that can be surprisingly daunting by comparison. "I am actually more comfortable on a stage in front of 100,000 people because it is so far out of reality that I can't relate to it. But when you are judged by a small intimate audience it is much more intense. You have nothing or no one to hide behind," he comments. "When you play a small venue, the people who come to see you are the die-hard fans who are really interested in seeing you play, so you are really scrutinized, but in a huge stadium you are about a 1/4 of an inch tall to most people because you are so far removed that it doesn't even seem real."

Through all his various musical roles, in front of audiences large and small, McGuinn remains comfortable as a solo act, recalling his distant past. "I am back to my folk roots with just a guitar and a banjo." It is a logical and familiar path, for prior to forming the Byrds, McGuinn cut his chops as a genuine folkie, playing acoustic guitars and banjo with the Limeliters, the Chad Mitchell Trio and Judy Collins. "I wanted to use the banjo in the original Byrds," he remembers. "But (David) Crosby dissuaded me. He thought it wasn't hip enough."

Watching his fellow musicians over the years, McGuinn is philosophical about his survival, attributing much to his deeply-held sense of spirituality. "My spiritual side is like a pilot light and it is soothing to have it in my life. My life was very shallow at one time. If you count all the different versions of the Byrds, there are four former members (Clarence White, Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, and most recently Michael Clarke) who died as a result of the lifestyle. Not to mention the others."

McGuinn is currently writing his forthcoming autobiography which details his career and is appropriately titled, So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star. Taking stock in his career has put him in a reflective frame of mind. "If you do something well, you should really keep doing it. I never understood people who did something really well and wanted to break out of that and try something else, something mediocre," he observes. "It is nice to do something well and that people enjoy and that you're known for. I remember Paul McCartney told me to get rid of the Rickenbacker about 20 years ago. He said, 'Get rid of that guitar and those glasses [referring to McGuinn's other trademark—the small square glasses he wore on the early Byrds' album covers] and you'll have something.' I still don't know what he meant by that."

Chris Flisher

Deckle edge