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The Byrds' Roger McGuinn is still flying high

The Summer of Love has long since passed, but many of the musicians who crafted its enduring soundtrack — like The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn — are still alive and well on today’s music scene.
The Byrds in 1967

The Summer of Love has long since passed, but many of the musicians who crafted its enduring soundtrack — like The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn — are still alive and well on today’s music scene. While The Byrds’ soaring harmonies are one of the group’s trademarks, McGuinn’s inimitable guitar work on the 12-string guitar added another dimension to its sound. So what was it like being in the thick of things in the 1960s musical scene? Goldmine’s Harvey Kubernik finds out in this revealing interview from 2006.

(Dig deeper into the legacy of The Byrds' Gene Clark)

Goldmine: What were you doing in 1967, and during the Summer of Love?
Roger McGuinn: “Younger Than Yesterday” LP produced by Gary Usher was mostly recorded in late 1966, and released in (early) ’67. “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” as a single came out in January. In June, we performed at the Monterey Pop Festival. I was on the board of directors. In August, Columbia released a “Byrds Greatest Hits” album. Later that year, we recorded the album “The Notorious Byrd Brothers.” It was a whirlwind, because we had to do two albums a year for Columbia Records, and then we went on the road between those.

Gary Usher was wonderful, a very creative guy. I really enjoyed our (previous) producer, Terry Melcher, but Gary had some tricks up his sleeve that Terry didn’t have, more technological stuff. Terry was more like nuts and bolts, get the sound, the big AM-radio sound. And Gary was more alternative and into experimenting, like getting the phase shifter for “Old John Robertson,” and the doors slamming. Things like that. Chris (Hillman) and I knocked that off “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” in very late 1966 at his house. It really wasn’t about The Monkees. We were looking at a teen magazine and noticing the big turnover in the rock business and kinda chuckling about it. You know, a guy was on the cover that we’d never seen before and we knew he was gonna be gone next issue. A funny little song. People didn’t know how to take it. We just meant it as a satire.

We got along well, and we wrote well. Actually, (David) Crosby and I wrote well, too, for a while together when we were writing, and so did Gene (Clark) and I. We had some good times writing songs. Chris Hillman played us “Have You Seen Her Face” in the studio and we cut it. We weren’t into making demos back then. Demos came along in the ’80s (laughs). Chris Hillman is a very gifted musician. The way he transitioned from mandolin to bass was amazing. I don’t know if he was completely influenced by (Paul) McCartney, but he had this melodic thing, I guess more from being a lead player. He incorporated a lot of leads into his bass playing. David Crosby and I, on our early stuff, I guess like when we had “The Airport Song,” (pre-”Mr. Tambourine Man” song) enjoyed the direction that was sort of jazzy ... He’s an incredible singer for harmonies and he’s written some wonderful songs, as well — a good songwriter. I thought he had a great command of the rhythm part of it, and also finding interesting chords and progressions. He was the one who in “Renaissance Fair” and “Tribal Gathering” was very jazzy and found the off-the-beaten-track chord changes that were really cool.

Roger McGuinn of The Byrds

Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. Photograph by John Chiassson.

The Byrds’ vocal blend?
RM: We sang together well. I give the credit to Crosby. He was brilliant at devising these harmony parts that were not strict third, fourth or fifth improvisational combination of the three. That’s what makes The Byrds’ harmonies. Most people think it’s three-part harmony, and it’s two-part harmony. Very seldom was there a third part on our harmonies.

“My Back Pages,” one of The Byrds’ covers of a Bob Dylan song, was recorded in the first week of December 1966 and garnered a lot of airplay in the Summer of Love in 1967. How did you get to record it?
RM: I was driving my Porsche up La Cienega, and got around to Sunset, and Jim Dickson, our former producer and manager — he had been fired by The Byrds shortly before that, he still liked us, or some of us — and he pulled up in his Porsche, and signaled for me to roll my window down. “Hey, you ought to record Dylan’s “My Back Pages.” I said, “OK. Thanks.” The light changed, I drove back up into Laurel Canyon and pulled out the Dylan album that had “My Back Pages” and learned it. I then took it to the studio and showed it to the guys. And Crosby hated it ... he was mostly upset because he wasn’t getting his own songs on the album, and the reason why he left the band. There was a rift in the band, and he wasn’t getting as many as some of us. So anyway, I liked “My Back Pages” and don’t remember any resistance from anybody else in the band. And it was a hit and a good tune. I’m real happy with it. It was Dickson’s suggestion, and I hadn’t thought of it as a song for The Byrds’ repertoire. I liked the wisdom of the song, and it’s a very insightful song on the thing that happens when you think you’re so knowledgeable and wise when you’re real young. And then, when you get a little older, you realize what you didn’t know. Dylan’s stuff is brilliant. I coined the term that he was the Shakespeare Of Our Time. It was like knowing Shakespeare. Dylan was carrying on Kerouac and Ginsberg. The baton had been passed... We did (Dylan’s) “Chimes Of Freedom” at Monterey Pop. I loved the imagery. You can’t pin it down as a peace song, or whatever, but it’s got overtones of that. It’s brilliant. I just identified with it and could relate to it. I love “All I Really Want To Do.” It’s kind of a simple little love song, you know, but it’s got a really sarcastic, whimsical attitude. He doesn’t want to be hassled. He just wants to be friends. We changed the arrangement from the 3/4 time to a 4/4 time. We became his “unofficial-official” band for his stuff. I remember when Sonny And Cher got the hit with “All I Really Want To Do,” Dylan went, “On man, you let me down …” Normally, a writer would be happy to get a hit with his own songs. Who cares who did it? He was on our side.

Tell me about the Summer of Love and what did it achieve, if anything?
RM: We rode up to the Mt. Tamalpais festival on the back of Hell’s Angels motorcycles to do a gig up there. We believed all the peace and love stuff, and I mean we thought we could change the world. And some things did change for the better. You can’t say we didn’t do anything. The feeling was a euphoric one. I mean, aside from the substances, we were feeling really good about everything. It was a good time. The Monterey Pop Festival. I discovered electronic music there. Paul Beaver had a booth at Monterey, and I saw my first Moog and resolved to get one. And I got one as soon as I got back to L.A. The funny thing is this $9,000 instrument then — $50,000 in today’s money — didn’t have an owner’s manual. And Bob Moog felt that if you didn’t know how it worked you didn’t deserve to have one (laughs). That was a funny thing.

Peter Lewis of Moby Grape told me he enjoyed talking to you at the Monterey Festival, discussing equipment, meeting your family at the gathering, but Lewis also mentioned, and this was in a chat he had with Peter Fonda at the time, that the Summer of Love wasn’t all beautiful vibes, happy times, and musical camaraderie.
RM: Well, I guess those are things that just are inherent in human nature that didn’t go away ... I just remember the good part of it: the flowers, the attitude of a lot of people really loving each other. It was a good feeling. Positive things that were planted then have stayed with some people. In concerts today when I do “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” especially, I see a lot of people get misty-eyed out there. It really has an emotional impact.

What was the best record you heard in 1967?
RM: Might have been John Coltrane’s “Africa/Brass.” We were on the road, and I had bought a Philips cassette recorder in London, and it was such a new invention at the time, there were no pre-recorded cassettes on the market. But, I had a couple of blanks that I picked up. And we stopped somewhere in the Midwest, Crosby knew somebody there, so we went over to this guy’s house, and he had the latest Ravi Shankar and “Africa/Brass.” And, so, I guess this is music piracy, but I dubbed “Africa/Brass” on one side of the cassette and Ravi Shankar on the other. And we strapped the cassette player to a Fender amp on the bus and we just kept turning the cassette over and over and listened to that thing for a month on the road. We loved that music, which influenced “Eight Miles High” later. The break on “Eight Miles High” was a deliberate attempt to emulate Coltrane, like sort of a tribute to him, if you will. We had heard Ravi Shankar earlier. I had a physical response to that Coltrane album the first time I heard it. It felt like a white-hot poker was searing through my chest. It cut deep into me, and it was a little painful. But I loved it. It just opened up some areas in my heart and head that I hadn’t known about. I think what I loved about “Africa/Brass” was the improvisation, of course, but his attitude comes through — a forceful, rebellious attitude, like rock ’n’ roll. It really knocked me out. I loved “Sgt. Pepper’s” and thought it was a brilliant album. We loved everything The Beatles did. They were our heroes. They could do no wrong as far as we were concerned. “Sgt. Pepper’s” was just incredible. I may have liked some of their earlier stuff a little better, but I did like the production values of “Sgt. Pepper’s” and the fact that it all kind of ran together and had a theme, a story.

The Byrds in November 1965

The Byrds in November 1965. Publicity photo.

In 1965, The Byrds went to England to do an initial tour of the country. In 1967, the band returned for a gathering at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse venue, coordinated by the almost-2,000 members in your Byrds fan club who even signed a petition for you to return to the country and perform live again.
RM: There were brilliant moments on the first trip over to England in 1965. We met The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. We had met The Stones before, but we got to hang out together in England. We met a lot of people and hung out at a lot of parties. (Paul) McCartney gave me a ride in his Aston Martin at night at a club, The Scotch of St. James. It was amazing. George (Harrison) and I went over our first guitar licks and talked about them and compared notes. Stuff like that. It was incredible. The audiences then in 1965 were basically little girls. And they were screaming and liking it. But the press ate us up because we were billed as “America’s Answer To The Beatles.” And it was like a football game to them. It was a competitive thing, where they couldn’t let us get away with that, which is understandable. And the fact was that we were a green band. Michael Clarke was very inexperienced as a drummer. I remember at the Blasé Club, Chris Hillman was so nervous that he broke a bass string, which is really hard to do (laughs). He did! We weren’t firing on all cylinders there. It wasn’t musically that great. And we got some awful reviews. Then, I got the flu, and Michael wanted to quit. It was kind of a nightmare. On the good side, we hung out with The Beatles and The Stones then. In 1967, when we came back again, we did a fan club event at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse that I remember. That was fun. At the end of the tour, the Byrds played a surprise gig at Blasé, which Paul McCartney attended.

In 1967 you became a follower of the religion Subud, and your name changed from Jim McGuinn to Roger McGuinn.
RM: I had been flirting with it from The Village. I got interested it in New York and sorta followed through in L.A. By 1967 I was into it. By ’67 I was into it whole hog. Legally, I only changed my middle name. My first name is still James. If someone wrote a check to Jim McGuinn, I could still cash it (laughs). I switched my middle name. It was Joseph, and I switched it to Roger. And started using Roger as a first name. There was a Subud house in downtown L.A. on Hope Street, and The Beach Boys used to hang out there. I remember that. Then, Brian (Wilson) formed his own chapter at his house during his “sandbox” phase.

Not to dwell on the drug trip, but when did marijuana and LSD first show up in the music world of the early ’60s?
RM: I saw weed in The Village. Absolutely. Alcohol was definitely a square thing to do. Only the tourists drank alcohol. Like, you’d be at the Gaslight, and you would hear, “This tourist came in and asked for a martini.” And, everyone would laugh. “Are you kidding?” I tried my first acid in 1961 in San Francisco when it was totally legal. It was from the Sandoz labs. It was great. I loved it. I noticed all the colors that were intense and everything was kinda dreamy. We were living in a commune in the Mission District. A bunch of us were living in a house. It was a wild scene. It was fun ... Crosby and I took acid and we’d walk around, and I remember going to Wil Wright’s Ice Cream Parlour on Santa Monica Boulevard. Oh man, that brings back some memories.

No one really discusses fame the fame and adulation aspect of it, but if someone from The Byrds went to a record shop, or a clothing store, or a food joint, circa 1964-1967, people would be talking about it the next morning.
RM: Yeah, there was a minute there, after the success of both “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” where I could go out and go to restaurants, be approached and followed home. Like, little girls would follow you home, which is kinda flattering on one hand but … (laughs). It never got to the stage where Dylan talks about in his book “Chronicles,” where people are up on the roof and trying to get in. It didn’t get that crazy, but it got pretty crazy. They would tackle me from the gig to the limousine, and try and get something. They stole my glasses, my Byrds glasses. I got them at De Voss in Hollywood. The story goes that John Sebastian, I knew him from the Village in New York, I was living there and he had these little round cobalt-blue sunglasses, and I said, “Wow. Cool shades!” And, he said, “Yeah!” Somebody from Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band had just given it to him. John said, “Here, try them on. Look up at the streetlight and move your head back and forth. It’s really groovy, man.” And I did, and it was. So, when I got out to L.A., I was nearsighted. I went to a clothing shop on the Sunset strip, De Voss, and I got these little wire frames and took them to the eye doctor and had him put in cobalt blue rectangular lenses.

And in your mid-‘60s television appearances you wore those glasses.
RM: Yes. The reason I wore the Byrd glasses all the time was because Jack Good, the producer of “Shindig!,” he said, “Wow, what a great gimmick! Everybody needs a gimmick. You gotta wear those all the time. Day and night.” I had been taking them off, like, to do TV, or whatever, Just wearing them around. He encouraged me to wear them for everything, onstage and off stage. So I did. And it worked, and it became a bit of a style fashion.