I feel those of us who spent our teenage years watching guitar bands owe something of a debt to Roger McGuinn.
My arrival on the London gig circuit properly came in the mid-’80s, amid a plethora (or a plectra, maybe?) of ‘jingle-jangle’ indie bands. Some stood the test of time, others soon foundered, but it was a healthy scene all the same.
There were a host of influences offered up, and alongside those frequent Velvet Underground mentions there was also a nod to The Byrds.
The Long Ryders were part of the stateside variation on the theme – on the so-called Paisley Underground scene – that caught my imagination, and pretty soon Sid Griffin’s band led me to investigate further the work of McGuinn’s outfit.
I already liked radio staple Mr Tambourine Man, but there were many more great songs I was soon switched on to.
The inspiration behind the band was even-name-checked in Orange Juice’s Consolation Prize, Edwyn Collins’ glorious take on unrequited love informing us:
“I wore my fringe like Roger McGuinn’s, I was hoping to impress.
So frightfully camp, it made you laugh, tomorrow I’ll buy myself a dress (how ludicrous)”
A 20-track Columbia CD compilation followed that into my collection in the early ’90s, culled from a new boxed set.
And in more recent times came the shabbily-packaged original album classics five-CD box featured material up to the country-tinged The Notorious Byrd Brothers.
From that you’ll gather I’m no completist, but this is still a band that mean a lot to me, from those glorious harmonies to the Rickenbacker sound that triumphantly announced the arrival of folk-rock.
And although I value Bob Dylan as a songwriter and have a great love for the albums he made when he went electric – notably 1965/66 offerings Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde – The Byrds’ covers spoke more to me.
Now you know where I’m coming from I’ll carry on, and while – admittedly – I haven’t studied Roger’s solo output greatly, he remains something of a musical hero.
And I’m pleased to say he’s still hard at it all these years on, not least through his work with the Folk Den project these past 20 years, recording a different folk song each month.
Of course, he was plain Jim McGuinn before he was Roger, his adopted name coming out of a flirtation with Subud spiritualism.
Word has it that he changed his name in 1967 after Subud’s founder told him it would better ‘vibrate with the universe’.
Apparently, he was given an ‘R’ and asked to send back 10 names starting with that letter. A fascination with airplanes, gadgets and all things science fiction ensured his list included names like Rocket, Retro and Ramjet, but it was the term used during two-way radio conversations in aviation that won out. Roger that. By the late ’70s, Roger and his new wife Camilla had turned to Christianity, something that still looms large in his life. But the name stuck.
And this American guitar icon who fused folk and 1960s beat music with the help of his trusty 12-string is now back visiting the UK, giving me an excuse to catch up with him while publicising two North-West dates this November.
I was still on my holiday at the time of his press commitments, and accordingly had to make the call to his temporary London base from my big sister’s house down on the Surrey/Hants border. But it was worth the diversion.
As it turned out, the 72-year-old was not a big talker. At least it seemed that way. Perhaps he felt uncomfortable having someone talk so fervently about those mid-’60s glory days. It’s all a long time ago now, after all.
But while succinct and rarely opening the door to introspection, he was nothing short of polite, courteous, helpful and honest.
Chicago-born Roger – who along with Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, David Crosby and Chris Hillman helped open up a new world of musical possibilities with The Byrds – was no doubt a busy man when I caught up with him.
With just a short time-frame available, it proved something of a whistle-stop Q&A. But we covered a fair bit of ground, and a learned a little more along the way.
Furthermore, to this day he contributes to literacy charities – something he clearly feels strongly about.
“Yes, I tour with the Rock Bottom Remainders sometimes, doing charity work for literacy. They’re award-winning authors who’ve always wanted to be in a rock band.
“They get their dream come true, and I get to play with them and hang out. And it’s a pleasure to be with them and be in their company – they’re all so bright and witty.”
Incidentally, it’s quite a line-up too, past and present members including Stephen King, Amy Tan, Scott Turow, Matt Groening, Greg Iles and Maya Angelou, while fellow guests have included Bruce Springsteen and Warren Zevon.
So was that enjoyment of books and music around you while you grew up in Chicago?
“Yes, my parents were very much into that, and all their friends were in the arts and theatre. When I decided to become a professional musician they were all for it.”
I gather you heard Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel when it came out, and something clicked.
“Exactly. I had a transistor radio – like the smart-phone of its day back in the ’50s – and heard Elvis come over on that. It was what made me want to play music.”
In fact, Elvis returned the compliment between songs on his NBC TV Comeback Special in 1968, talking about the modern bands he appreciated, name-checking ‘The Beatles and The Beards’. And who am I to correct The King?
Has Roger ever contemplated what he might done with his life if it wasn’t for your music?
“Well, I was interested in broadcasting, so I might have become a broadcaster or technician, something like that.”
Having grown up with country music and rock ‘n’roll, then discovering folk music, Roger perfected his guitar skills and played five-string banjo in the late ‘50s.
In fact, when one of his folk heroes passed away at the turn of the year, Roger remarked: “Pete Seeger was the person who inspired me to play five-string banjo, 12-string guitar and to achieve my life long dream of becoming a troubadour.
“It was his guitar and banjo style that I carried over into the instrumental sound of the Byrds.”
Roger – then known as Jim – made his name on the folk circuit and moved to California, where his big break soon followed.
So was that West Coast move what you needed? It was certainly an exciting era. And was meeting fellow Byrd Gene Clark a big turning point?
“Yeah, it was serendipitous. I was living in Greenwich Village and working in the Brill Building, a studio musician at night. Once I got the gig in California, everything kind of fell together.”
It was work with singer, songwriter and actor Bobby Darin that opened that door, with Roger taken on as a writer alongside the likes of Gerry Goffin and Carole King.
Something of that story was told a while ago in a BBC 4 documentary, Troubadours: The Rise of the Singer-Songwriter, concentrating on Carole King and James Taylor but also including contributions from Roger McGuinn and David Crosby.
As it was, Roger soon discovered the music of a certain Liverpool band – and applied this new spin on all he’d learned from the folk circuit, with the help of his fellow band-mates.
How important do you think it was that you had that ‘apprenticeship’, playing in bands and writing for people like Bobby Darin?
“The Brill Building was a great foundation, for having the discipline to know how to write songs properly.”
“I think so – there’s a saying that as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another, and that was definitely true in the Brill Building.”
It’s now 50 years since The Byrds formed. Are those early band days still fresh? Only the music certainly remains so.
“It is still fresh, and I have fond memories of getting The Byrds together. It was sort of organically grown, with Gene Clark and David Crosby then Michael Clarke and Chris Hillman joining.
“Then we got a record deal, and it was all sort of magical. We went from literally starving on the streets to number one in the charts.”
Before I called Roger, I was playing The Byrds’ She Don’t Care About Time, something written two years before I was born but a track that really resonates.
For me, it works in the same way that perhaps The Beatles’ Rain – released a year later – does. Both were mere b-sides, yet so evocative of that special mid-‘60s era. And I think Roger agrees.
“I always loved She Don’t Care About Time, I thought that was one of Gene’s best compositions. I have fond memories of recording it too – because George Harrison was in the studio when we put that together.”
That was new to me at the time, although when I looked back at the sleevenotes for second Byrds LP Turn! Turn! Turn! I saw that George Harrison and Paul McCartney’s visit to the recording studio was mentioned.
You have such a wealth of material you worked on over the years. Is there an album or track you’re most proud of?
“Well, I always liked Turn! Turn! Turn! I love the melody and it’s sort of a reassuring text.”
That was a Pete Seeger cover of course, The Byrds’ powerful version of his inspirational take on words from the Book of Ecclesiastes, serving as another nod to Roger’s religious beliefs.
The original band, after a few fall-outs over the years in between, put aside their differences to appear together at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City for their induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 – what turned out o be their first outing as a five-piece in 18 years.
They performed Turn! Turn! Turn! then Mr Tambourine Man and I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better. But as it turned out, Gene Clark and Michael Clarke had both died by the time 1993 was out.
Does Roger see anything of fellow surviving band-mates David Crosby or Chris Hillman these days?
“No, but you’re calling on David’s 73rd birthday, and I plan to email him, wish him a happy birthday.”
This coming UK tour includes dates in Liverpool and Manchester – my excuse for speaking to Roger – and I put it to him that he’d already hinted that North-West England’s musical legacy was important to his work.
“Absolutely, and the Mersey Beat prompted The Byrds to make Mr Tambourine Man what it was. Before that it was in folky two-four time – so we borrowed that beat!”
America may have shown the way as a nation with the Blues, Elvis and all that, but the UK then took the initiative on through bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Did that drive you on?
“Oh yeah! You could see the influences of Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers in The Beatles, and all kinds of influences. But they blended them together in such a unique way, and we just loved it.”
I always felt you made Bob Dylan’s songs sound even better – from Mr Tambourine Man through to My Back Pages. Are you proud of that legacy?
“Well, yeah. It was definitely a time to experiment, and mixing Bob Dylan’s lyrics with a rock’n’roll beat was a real pleasure to do.
“I don’t know if it’s better or worse, but it’s certainly different! It also made it more commercial, I guess.”
“I haven’t seen Bob in a long time. He’s always on the road, and …”
Roger tails off at that point, and after a brief lull I move on to how I felt various indie guitar bands from the ’80s onwards still acknowledge a debt to him. So is it nice to still be properly appreciated?
“It’s a very nice feeling.”
Talent goes with hard work though, and I’m sure you spend a lot of unsocial hours perfecting your guitar craft. Do you still have to keep your hand in?
“I do. I practise an hour a day.”
The Byrds, by then with Gram Parsons on board, also opened the door to country rock and that whole new strain of alt country still with us today.
Moving on to today, you’ve been critical of downloads and contractual loopholes over royalties etc. Yet you’ve also embraced the internet through your Folk Den project and even blogging.
“I’ve always liked the internet, and I wasn’t really against downloads so much as the business of streaming, not paying people whose work was recorded prior to 1971. We came out against that.
“But I think the internet is wonderful and a levelling thing. It’s great for all kinds, and when I want to hear something I just go to YouTube – it’s always there.”
Can you properly switch off from music after all these years? And have these past seven decades flown?
“The thing about time is it progresses at a very steady rate. The earth revolves on its axis and goes around the sun, there’s the atomic clock and decay of the caesium atom.
“There’s a very specific science about it. It doesn’t go faster or slower, but our perception of time changes as we get older.
“I can go back 70 years in a flash, so it seems like those seven decades took a flash … but it’s an illusion.”
It seems that Roger really opens up on this theme, and I put it to him that he clearly remains spiritual in the way he looks at life. So how important is his Christian faith and the love of his wife – and fellow blogger – Camilla?
“Camilla and I read the bible every morning, and that’s a good foundation for the rest of the day.”
You have a healthy family life as well, don’t you?
“Oh yes. Camilla and I travel a lot together, but I’m in touch with my kids, and everything’s cool.”
Does that reach to grand-children as well now?
“It does. I’ve got three grandchildren, aged 18, 14 and then seven.”
Any of those looking to follow in your footsteps as a musician?
“Well, they play music, yeah.”
It can’t be easy to get a set-list together these days, with such a vast back-catalogue. Is your Stories, Songs & Friends live format your way of addressing that?
“Yes. It’s kind of a one-man auto-biographical play. I do that in concert, although the set-list might vary.
“The formula is to feature some Byrds hits, songs from my solo career, and some of the Folk Den tunes as well.”
Is that what we can expect on this tour? I take it that you make the most of having that luxury of changing things as you go?
“That’s exactly what I’ll be doing, although I can’t say what songs. I go by how the audience is reacting. For instance, if I do a country song and they really love it, I’ll do a couple more. If they don’t, I won’t. It’s variable.”
And I’m guessing that when you get all these interviews done, you’re looking forward to getting going and back out there again?
“Absolutely … chomping at the bit!”
Roger McGuinn’s latest UK tour starts with four dates in late September at Bristol St George’s Hall (25th), London Cadogan Hall (26th), Leeds City Varieties (28th) and Gateshead The Sage (29th).
He’s then back for eight more in early November at Milton Keynes The Stables (1st), Birmingham Glee Club (2nd), Cardiff Glee Club (4th), Brighton St George’s Church (5th), Manchester Royal Northern College of Music (7th), Liverpool Capstone Theatre (8th), Nottingham Glee Club (10th) and Cheltenham Town Hall (11th).
All shows are on sale now through the venues or Ticketmaster (0844 847 1616).
* With thanks to Andy Kettle at CMP Entertainment