Photo credit: John Chasson
Roger McGuinn’s a living legend. He emerged from the world of folk, and successfully changed rock and roll forever, with his rock version of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” (with his band the Byrds) back in December 1965. He then proceeded to out-play every guitar player in the process with his “Folk Meets Rock” genre-building. Who else performs banjo-rolls on a 12-string electric Rickenbacker (a guitar that’s notoriously hard to play), and still manages to sing like an angel on top of it? Nobody, but that hasn’t stopped countless people from trying to approach McGuinn’s folk-rock sound and domain. Tom Petty, Teenage Fanclub, the Eagles, the Jayhawks, REM, Counting Crows, Rain Parade, the Shins—the list goes on and on, regardless of decade or musical scene. You can hear Roger McGuinn’s influence everywhere you turn your ear.
Once you see McGuinn perform onstage, even today, it’s apparent he was the head Byrd for a reason. While Gene Clark, David Crosby and later Chris Hillman each contributed their own great songs and contributed to the trademark Byrds harmonies, McGuinn was the definitive Byrds “sound.” He used his guitar like a weapon in “Eight Miles High”, but he could also made it sound like an orchestra (note the guitar breaks in “What’s Happening?!” or the bag-pipe sounding outro in “5D”). The Mamas and the Papas famously paid tribute to McGuinn in “Creque Alley” with the line “McGuinn and McGuire still gettin’ higher,” as well as the late George Harrison, who claimed his song “If I Needed Someone” was directly influenced by McGuinn’s ascending and descending Rickenbacker intro in “The Bells Of Rhymney”.
Upon learning he has a new album out called Limited Edition I snagged myself a copy and soon found myself playing it on my stereo, over and over again. It’s safe to say McGuinn is back on top, and in rare form. His singing and playing have never sounded better, and it’s apparent he’s only gotten better over the years. It’s as if the man has jumped into a fountain of youth, taken the best of what the Byrds had to offer, and put it all right here on his latest record, and it’s a great ride worth taking. I decided to get the man on the phone and talk to him about how this great album came to be, and to pick his brain about technology, the Internet, and the current state of US Radio.
PopMatters: You have a new CD out, Limited Edition. It’s great to hear you rock again. This is following your Treasures of the Folk Den CD right?
Roger McGuinn: Yeah, that’s why I did this CD. I was getting a lot of email from fans going “Hey Roger, we like this folk stuff, but we’d love to hear the Rickenbacker again.” The last rock CD I had done was Back From Rio, which was 12 years ago.
PM: The first song on the disk is a great version of “If I Needed Someone” by George Harrison. I was reading in your press packet that he had sent you this?
RM: Yeah, back when the Byrds and the Beatles were more or less hanging out together, George had listened to the Byrds’ version of “The Bells Of Rhymney”, the Pete Seeger song, and on it I had done the riff with the Rickenbacker going (de-de-de, de-de-de), so he took that and made the tune “If I Needed Someone” out of it. They had recorded it for Rubber Soul and they gave a preview copy to Derek Taylor, who was working with them in London as their press officer, and he was working for the Byrds in that capacity too. He flew back to L.A. and came to my house and said “George wants you to have a copy of this, and he wanted you to know that “If I Needed Someone” is based on the riff from “The Bells Of Rhymney”. It was kind of a cool cross-pollination in a way.
PM: What is your opinion of the current standards of production? I imagine there’s positives and negatives to it right?
RM: Yes, you’re right. A lot of CDs that are out, that are in the Top 40, the hip-hop stuff, it’s all done with loops and there’s not a whole lot of musicianship, and not even vocal melodies, but I’m not slamming that, ‘cause people like it, it’s good dance music and everything, but I have to say the production tools that are available to artists now are really wonderful. You can record an entire studio CD on a laptop, it’s just gotten wild.
PM: So it’s safe to say you’re a fan of home recording?
RM: I’m a HUGE fan of home recording. I think it levels the playing field. You don’t need $100,000 to record a studio CD.
PM: Are you fully digital now? In terms of recording, or is it sort of a marriage between digital and analog?
RM: Well, the only analog equipment I use now is an analog board,. And I use a good diaphragm tube consenser mike. I’m not really into analog sound, but I’ve heard different theories about it. Like if you record your bass and drums into a 2-inch track machine “you’re going to get more saturation,” but I feel pretty good about the sound we got.
PM: It’s almost like “I have saturation but no definition.”
RM: Right, it diffuses it.
PM: You testified in the U.S. Senate a few years ago about copyright infringement, and Lars Ulrich was there, as well as several other musicians expressing their opinions. Do you still get the impression that musicians might be missing the point about online music’s promotional value?
RM: I think so. I think the mainstream musicians don’t get it. Though Janis Ian and Courtney Love get it for sure. Basically the point is that it’s bad for record companies, but it’s good for artists, because it’s like radio. And I think the statistics tend to show that when people hear it, they want to buy it. It’s not really a bad thing.
PM: The Byrds’ influence has obviously been far and wide, and radio played a definitive role in exposing people to your music, same with the Beatles. What is your opinion of the current state of U.S. radio, with Clear Channel domineering and all that business?
RM: I think it’s gotten awfully corporate, and narrow in its focus on the musical spectrum, but NPR’s great, and college radio as well. I think the Internet is an awful lot like FM radio was when it broke out in the late ‘60s. It’s kind of a wild and wily kind of format. They could play 20 songs in a row that had the word “blue” in them, or whatever they wanted to do. [laughter]
PM: It’s like back then you’d probably hear the Mothers of Invention, but now.
RM: Yeah, you’d hear the Mothers of Invention, and then Peggy Lee! It was very eclectic.
PM: You actually co-wrote a number of the songs on this record with your wife. Does she play guitar as well?
RM: Well not so much, but she actually studied guitar at UCLA, and we’ve been co-writing songs since 1978. We started back with McGuinn, Clark, and Hillman. We wrote the title track for the record City that we did together actually [back in 1980].
PM: The song “Shady Grove” is like a hip-hop beat with a tambourine on it, and it works really well.
RM: I really like the drums of hip-hop, but I don’t like the in-your-face four letter words and that sort of thing, but I’ve always loved the drums of that kind of sound and I thought “Gee, I wonder if I can use this!” so I figured it out.
PM: On the song “Parade of Lost Dreams” you’re commenting about Hollywood Boulevard’s cultural decline, and on paper, the lyrics come off disenchanted, but the psychedelic guitar work, and the mood is very uplifting in a way. Was this a conscious decision?
RM: Yeah the words are scathing, but it’s really not negative, it’s tongue in cheek really.. We were sitting in a sidewalk café, my wife and I, on Hollywood Boulevard, sort of looking at the parade of people going by and. [laughter]
PM: Then you’re like “What the hell happened?”
RM: [laughter] Yeah, then the song goes into more of “world situation” viewpoint.
PM: “Made in China” is a great song, where you’re confronting the U.S. media’s denial of issues over there, but I thought your comment about “Hey, now they can’t bootleg my album there now” was hysterical.
RM: Right! That’s a big problem in China. They don’t copyright intellectual property, and if we put ‘em down they’re not going to bootleg it [laughter], though they probably will.
PM: When I heard your song “May the Road Rise To Meet You” I thought, man, this is the story of your life in that you clock in tons of miles on the road every year. Would you say Andre Segovia’s your inspiration at this point?
RM: Yeah, I would say so. As far as musical integrity and longevity. He was playing into his nineties before he died, and he was booked into Carnegie Hall. I thought it was great that he could still play at that age and let alone be well enough to play there. The only reason he missed the gig was because he died.
PM: A lot of the people that played with you on this record are friends you’ve collaborated with over the years?
RM: Oh yeah, these are people I know and love to work with. All of them, Stan Lynch and John Jorgenson especially. I have to tell you a funny story about them. When the Byrds box set came out back in ‘91, Sony Music said “Well, would you guys be willing to do some new tracks?”, so we went to Nashville and Crosby and Hillman were there, and we did a couple of songs together, then it was time to do my song, that Stan Lynch and I had written together called “Love That Never Dies” right? So Crosby and Hillman bug out. They said “Well you guys can handle it.” [laughter] So Stan Lynch, John Jorgenson and myself were the Byrds for that song. There are no other Byrds on that song, and it got played on the radio—it was like a Top 40 hit.
PM: Oh, I’m sure they were thrilled about that!
RM: I don’t think they even noticed it. [laughter] I think it’s funny because it goes to prove the name “Byrds” is just a name alone, really.
PM: Thanks for your time Roger, I think you answered all of my questions.
RM: Thank you!