There Is A Season For Roger McGuinn
Like Michael Corleone in The Godfather III bemoaning the fact that every time he tries to get out of his old life of crime and into a new, legitimate one “they” pull him back again. That thought comes to mind when considering that no matter what Roger McGuinn does he’ll always be faced with his days as a member of The Byrds. Over the past two years, he released Limited Edition and the four-disc Folk Den, which presented studio quality versions of the traditional folk songs that he records and makes available for free mp3 download on his website. But, of course, this scheduled interview focuses on the upcoming release of the four-CD/one-DVD Byrds box set, There Is A Season.
JPG: Let’s start things being a devil’s advocate, why another Byrds box set? What was it about the one released in 1990, that didn’t feel right?
RM: There wasn’t anything wrong with the 1990 one. It’s been out of print for awhile. The technology’s improved and Bob Irwin found new tracks in the Sony vault. There’s a demand for a Byrd’s box set out there, so I guess they decided to put one together.
JPG: What about your involvement with this one?
RM: I was not really involved in the last one. I really had nothing to do with it. This time they sent me the finished CD and text from the liner notes, David Fricke’s notes and so on. I got to approve that and we’re working with them on the art department. So I’m more hands on with this one than the last one. Also, though I didn’t do any mixing I haven’t had any input as to track selection. Bob, they gave him license to do that. He’s great at that. He has a background with Undazed, which is sort of a retro vinyl label. It’s just incredible what he does, all these really high quality, I think they’re either 18 or 22 gram vinyl records he makes like the old days. He finds obscure things and puts them out. That’s his background, and so he’s really good at finding obscure things.
When it comes to The Byrds, he managed to find some really good stuff with Clarence White and I think that had not come to life before. This last Byrds box set, Gram Parsons got the spotlight cause they unearthed seven tracks, his vocal tracks that he’d done, but for legal reasons, were not allowed to come out at the time. He signed to another label and he didn’t tell us about it. So, in the 1990 box set they put those out, all those tracks. Now, it’s Clarence’s turn to get a little limelight.
JPG: Listening to it from beginning to end, what thoughts and emotions went through your head in looking back? Do you still look at things with a critical eye or were impressed with yourself?
RM: Some of it is amazing and some of it is just good for archivists that are out there, if you’d like to have everything possible. So, you have to take it for what it’s worth. The sound quality of most of it is really great. As I said, the technology grew. What they’re able to do in the studio now is like being in the control room back in 60s or 70s when these were recorded. It’s really great.
JPG: Speaking of control room, working so often with the late Terry Melcher as producer, tell about the relationship between him and the Byrds and why you worked together so much?
RM: Well, he was assigned to us. So, we had nothing to do with the initial thing, but once he was, I got to like him right away. He and I were friends. It was really good. I enjoyed working with him. I thought he had a really good ear for making hit records. He had worked with Bruce Johnston who had been associated with The Beach Boys all these years. On the single, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” he used the Wrecking Crew plus me. The Wrecking Crew were on all The Beach Boys’ hits.
Terry knew how to put a hit record together. He only mixed in mono cause in those days AM radio was mono. FM radio didn’t play rock and roll. They played Classical and Jazz. So there was no point in mixing in stereo. He didn’t believe in it. He thought stereo was just a gimmick like people later thought quad were. The surround sound or whatever. So he mixed most of the hits in mono. I think Bob Irwin went back and found some of the stereo versions of these. Working with Terry was great. I thought he was brilliant in picking the right sounds and telling the engineer what to do and getting the sustain on the Rickenbacker guitar.
JPG: Now, you came from more of a folk tradition…
RM: All The Byrds were from a folk background.
JPG: Even Chris [Hillman]? Or was he more bluegrass than folk?
RM: Folk and bluegrass were closely associated. He grew up on Pete Seeger. Then, he got into bluegrass after that. So, he was coming from a folk background.
JPG: With that in mind, what was the turning point for you to move bring folk traditions into a rock?
RM: I have to back it up a bit, in 1963 in New York, I was working in the Brill Building for Bobby Darin’s Publishing Company. My job was to listen to the radio and write songs like what’s out there. The Beatles came out and I heard in The Beatles elements of folk music. I heard folk music chord changes that were not common in rock and roll at that time. I started going down to the Village and playing Beatle songs, some folk songs with Beatles-like arrangements. It wasn’t going over well.
I took it to L.A. and nobody was like it there either, except Gene Clark. So, how The Byrds got started, it was Beatles-like folk and Gene got it. He was one of the few people who got it and I got it. Then [David] Crosby came in and it all formed around that. Basically, the folk and the electrification happened a bit earlier than the actual Byrds.
JPG: Where does the material from the pre-Byrds groups, Jet Set and Beefeaters, fit in? (Examples of these bands on the first disc of the box set.)
RM: Beefeaters, we were just trying to do a Beatles single. That was a sort of commercial sell out, if you will. But the folk stuff was in our repertoire. We were doing “Bells of Rhymney” and a lot of folk songs.
We were in L.A. when we started. First, it was a duo with Gene, and then David came along, started singing harmony. We had a trio. David introduced us to Chuck Dixon who had a recording studio. We were given access to the recording studio at midnight every night. We’d play around with the tape recorder. We did that for a while and that was basically where some of the early tracks on this box set were from. Some of those were early early demos.
JPG: I could definitely hear The Beatles influence, although early on I notice your songs are heading in a little different direction, while you hear a British Invasion sound more so in Gene’s “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better.”
RM: Yeah, more like The Searchers. The Beatles influences were there, but the folk influence was running through the whole thing. Jim Dickson, he had overheard Paul Rothschild, who was an A&R guy at Elektra. Jack Holtzman and Paul Rothschild were in L.A . to see if they wanted to buy World Pacific [Records]. They were going to do that. Dickson was in the car with him and Rothschild said, Too bad Dylan can’t use that song he just recorded. It’s out of tune.’ This is before they were using a lot of multi-tracks. They just did one pass with Dylan singing and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott singing out of tune in the background. So they decided that they would shelf Mr. Tambourine Man.’
Dickson got a copy of it sent out from Witmark, a publishing company, bypassing Albert Grossman who managed Dylan. So, we had access to it. Crosby didn’t like it. He thought it was too folkie. He didn’t want to record it. So, I rearranged it with 4/4 time. Put a Beatle beat to it. And Dylan came down to the studio and we played it for him like that. He didn’t recognize it. He said, What was that?’ I said, That’s one of your songs. Also, All I Really Want to Do.’ We played the song. Bobby Neuwirth said, Oh, you can dance to it.’ So, we finally decided to do it.
JPG: That brings up the Dylan aspect of it. You covered nearly two dozen of his songs. What is it about his songwriting that fit so well with what you were doing? You were songwriters, but you kept going back to his work.
RM: Dylan already was a commercial songwriter. He already had a hit with “Blowin’ in the Wind’ with Peter, Paul and Mary. He just wrote great songs. It was obvious from listening to his lyrics that they were miles above what I was writing. Gene Clark was trying to get close to it, but it still sounded like it was to us, an imitation of Dylan. Although, he got better at it as time went by. We felt that Dylan’s material was the strongest possible material to use at least for the first single. Then later, once we had a number one hit with it, we thought it was a no-brainer to continue to use his material.
JPG: I guess it was an ego-less aspect to it.
RM: That’s right. We had to put our ego aside in order to do somebody else’s material, somebody else’s that we felt was better material.
JPG: Usually you run into songwriters who don’t want to bother with any
RM: Dickson was good with that. He always had the attitude, it’s much better to record somebody else’s great song than your mediocre song or your just alright song.
JPG: Does that always go over well, telling someone that your song is mediocre in comparison?
RM: Not always (laughs). But you got the point across, obviously.
JPG: With that we covered Disc One. Going on to Disc Two and reading about the influences of John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar on you, how were you introduced to them and what ways did you want to bring those sounds in without totally losing The Byrds Sound?
RM: We weren’t really thinking about a quote unquote Byrds Sound. So, that never entered into the picture. The motivation was to expand and to get out of the pigeonhole that we were put in by the press, which was folk rock. We were exposed to John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar around the same time. Ravi Shankar was a World Pacific artist so we had access to his material. We rented the John Coltrane, Africa, Indian Africa I believe was the album, Africa Brass on the road.
I brought a Phillips cassette recorder in London on a trip over there. It was at a time when pre-recorded cassettes were non-existent. So, we had a blank cassette with me and we stopped at somebody’s house and I dubbed Coltrane on one side of the cassette and Ravi Shankar on the other. And we strapped the cassette recorder on top of a Fender amplifier. And fired it up in front with AC power. We flipped the tape over continually. We listened to the same one tape with two sides, Coltrane and Shankar, for a month. Understandable that we got steeped in it, those two sounds by the time we got back to L.A. We were set up to record at the RCA studios, first recording of “Eight Miles High.” I’d been practicing scales on my Rickenbacker, eight hours a day. Listening to the Coltrane thing, he does a lot of scale-y things, starts and stops, modals and little riffs. And I loved that. I thought it was really, really fascinating and exciting stuff. So, it was my intention to emulate that on “Eight Miles High.” That was where it was coming from. And then on the flip side, on song called “Why,” we did some jams like a sitar on the 12-string and tried to emulate Ravi Shankar. Those are the two influences on the Fifth Dimension album.
JPG: And with those songs, which were recorded early in ’66, you were then viewed as a psychedelic rock act. Did you?
RM: The psychedelic thing was never intentional. It was purely subjective on the part of the listeners. People listening on LSD would think, Hey! This is psychedelic!’ I guess. We were listening to influences of Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane. They may not have heard of either form. So they assumed it was psychedelic. It wasn’t our intention to do that.
I guess the title of the song, “Eight Miles High” since the word high’ was going to get them thinking that it was about drugs. That wasn’t what it intended to be, although depending on who you ask… if you ask Crosby, he says it was. I guess a third of it was meant about drugs and the other 2/3rds was about an airplane ride to England.
JPG: What about the song, “5D (Fifth Dimension),” because that has an out of body experience to it.
RM: That was a spiritual thing. There was a little booklet that I got about how a spiritual world, how to go beyond what you see, normal, three, four dimensions. And we didn’t realize that somebody had actually passed through a fifth dimension in 1928, like a pre-string theory type of thing. There was somebody who had done that. I wasn’t one of them. Anyways, we thought fifth dimension was a spiritual realm. So it was not intended to be a drug reference, but a spiritual one.
(At this point the conversation moves to McGuinn, a major science and technology enthusiast, explaining pre-string theory. “All the particles in the earth are made of tiny strings. They shake at different frequencies.”)
JPG: As we move to Disc Three, the Sweetheart of the Rodeo portion, tell me about Gram Parsons entering the picture because there was an abrupt change of musical direction for the band.
RM: Well we experimented as early as the second album, Turn! Turn! Turn!, with country like “Satisfied Mind,” which sounds very much like Gram Parsons “Hickory Wind.” So, we were already into it, but we were not into it as an entire, you know, like do a whole lot of chocolate covered cherries, more like an assortment.
So, Gram came along and was really into going to Nashville and recording a whole album of country. He got us to go along on the bandwagon. I was really into it. I thought it was really wonderful music. I’d never been exposed to some of it and I really liked it. So, I agreed with Chris and Gram to go to Nashville and do this, which turned out to have been a really good decision. It’ll be 40 years in 2007. It was something, at times, that we did as a labor of love, not thinking of The Byrds sound or the folk rock fans or the country fans or the people who liked “Eight Miles High” and psychedelia. We just went into it because we loved the music.
We released it in all good faith hoping the country people would say, Hey, that’s cool.’ The rock people would go, Oh, that’s an interesting thing. I never thought of listening that.’ We didn’t expect the reaction we got. The country people thought, Who do these hippies think they are doing our music?!?’ The rock people went, What?’ and though we sold out to the rednecks. So, it was like a really weird thing that it fell through the cracks. It didn’t sell well.
Forty years later, it’s the number one thing the Byrds ever did. It’s unbelievable, the reaction then and now. Goes to show you that you can’t always go by what happens when. A lot of the classical composers and a lot of the painters didn’t get to see their material recognized in their life times. I think we’re fortunate that we lived long enough to see that people liked Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. I think that it proved it to be the labor of love that it actually was.
JPG: You finally shot back at your critics with “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man,” a reaction to influential Nashville DJ (and former host of a talk show on Country Music Television) Ralph Emery ripping the Byrds’ move to country.
RM: [The television show] was called Nashville Now and I was on it a couple of times. One time when I was on it Ralph said, Tell me Roger. Waylon Jennings was on last week and he told me that you wrote a song about me. Why don’t you tell me about that?’ Well, there’s a song called “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man”
Gram and I wrote it in London because Ralph wouldn’t play the single, You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ on his radio show. We went to [radio station] WSM and handed him a single, expecting him to play it at least once, but he put it on a preview turntable and he played about 15 seconds of it. Said, I’m not going to play this on my show.’ And we went, Why not?’ He said, What’s it about?’ I said, I don’t know. It’s a Bob Dylan song.’ He said, Ah, Bob Dylan. If he wore green socks, everyone would wear green socks.’ So, he didn’t like Bob, he didn’t like us and he didn’t play the song. And then he went into a commercial. He said, No matter what kind of a rig you drive, a Clark seat’ll fit it. So, go down to a Clark Truck Seat dealer and get a Clark Truck Seat to put in your rig today.’ So, Gram and I are cracking up on this guy coming off like he’s a trucker and he was not. We compared that to a drugstore Cowboy, kind of put the two things together with Truck Drivin’ Man. Started to write a song about it.
JPG: Prior to “Sweetheart” you recorded “I Know My Rider.” Were you familiar with the Grateful Dead doing it around that time or
RM: I don’t have a conscious memory of hearing The Dead do it. We may have. We played with them. I think we played with them at Mt. Tamalpais (near San Francisco) at one time, where the Hell’s Angels took us up the hill in their motorcycles. It was kind of a cool gig. But I don’t remember specifically listening to The Dead going, Hey that’s a great tune. I want to do that.’
Crosby was friends with them, I think. He used to go up to San Francisco a lot and hang with Paul Kantner and the guys from Jefferson Airplane.
JPG: As we get to Disc four, you’re still electric, but the songs emphasize the folk and country roots in a more traditional manner.
RM: Those are things we did with Clarence White when he was part of the group. We played bluegrass stuff. We played some Gospel things, “Glory Glory” “Jesus is Just Alright” and “Nashville West.” I guess Clarence wanted to go places where he shined.
JPG: With the DVD, it’s interesting to watch the look on your faces during some of those television performances. Was it a matter that everyone was bemused or embarrassed?
RM: I think so. We thought it was stupid doing lip-synch. We thought that whole process was less than honest. That probably counts for some of the looks you get, like when we were mouthing out the words. We preferred to have done it live, but they didn’t want to do that.
JPG: Taken as a whole, “There Is A Season” shows a number of musical areas that the band covered. I know that you said earlier that in the end it’s all based in folk traditions. Looking at from beginning to end do you feel good about the creative decisions made?
RM: Yeah. I do. On a whole, I feel very good about the legacy of The Byrds. That’s why I want to leave it that way and not mess with it anymore. Like doing any more gigs or recording.
JPG: I was just about to ask you with a more stable David Crosby to work with then what you probably had in 1990, if at some point you’d collaborate again.
RM: I think it’d work. And it’s really nothing to do with David. It’s not about him anyway. I really want to leave it as a pleasant memory.
JPG: As far as The Byrds’ legacy, it seems as if the final statement comes about with There Is A Season but are you sitting on any live recordings that could make up future releases or another box set that shows that different phases of the band?
RM: I have tapes that I haven’t gone through in a long time around that period on Disc Four (1970). Dinky Dawson was our sound man and he had a Revox two-track that he took with him everywhere we went and recorded the show. I have a number of large 16-inch reels that I haven’t listened to in years. I should go through them and dub em into Pro Tools.
JPG: Since we’re discussing box sets, you released Folk Den this year (a four-disc compilation of his recordings of traditional folk songs that are available for free download on his internet site.)
RM: My favorite subject. The one I did the other day is Katie Morey, an old folk song from the Ohio area. Cute little song. It’s a comedy song. I put one up every month since November of 1995, just for the purpose of keeping the old songs going. I detected a lack of interest in traditional music about 10 years ago. Now, you can say that’s not the case any more with Springsteen and everybody doing traditional music, but 10 years ago that was a proble. So, I started Folk Den. And after 10 years of it, I decided to celebrate the 10th anniversary of it. That’s what the Folk Den project has 100 songs re-recorded, digitally remastered and 25 songs per disc.
JPG: Since it’s on the internet, has the response to Folk Den been worldwide?
RM: The clients aren’t just American. They are some from Australia, England, Ireland. The response has been excellent. Uncut magazine in England gave [the box set] a really stunning review. Had a good review in Rolling Stone. The Wall Street Journal gave it a great review. It’s gotten really great press. I’m very happy about it. Selling exclusively on Amazon.com and our website.
We decided to not use the frickin’ Borders distribution chain because they have kind of an outmoded business model.
JPG: What do you think of iTunes and stuff like that?
RM: We didn’t put this up on iTunes because the songs are all available on my website. You get them on iTunes if you go to the podcast section and type in Folk Den.’ You can get em free there. They’re not the same recordings. The four CDs are real recordings, full CD quality. If you just want an mp3 of a song, you could probably get it for free off of iTunes or from my site. The previous album Limited Edition is available as a limited edition is available for download on iTunes and it’s $9.99 for the album and 99 cents a track. We have put them in some stores, into boutique stores.
JPG: And finally, what’s next for you?
RM: We have a spin off of the Folk Den project. We plan to do a Christmas album, a Gospel album, a Blues album out of the Folk Den, not necessarily the same tracks that are on the four CD set. Maybe another rock album like Back from Rio. New material on that we’d be recording. Got a lot of things in the fire.