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Roger McGuinn on His New Live Album and ‘Cryptic’ Talks with Bob Dylan

Roger McGuinn
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

On his new collection, ‘Roger McGuinn: Stories, Songs & Friends,’ the singer and guitarist weaves Byrds favorites with folk, blues and sea shanties, the core of much of the music produced by the band some called “the American Beatles.”

Recorded in concert at the Fox Tucson Theater in Arizona, McGuinn tells tales of how iconic Byrds tunes like ‘Chestnut Mare,’ written with Jacques Levy, ‘Eight Miles High’ and ‘Ballad of Easy Rider’ were produced. McGuinn reveals how he and bandmates David Crosby, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke met in Los Angeles and describes the genesis of folk-rock.

As a young songwriter in 1963 working in New York’s Brill Building, McGuinn had an idea: set the folk songs he loved to the Beatle beat that was sweeping the airwaves. By night McGuinn sang in Greenwich Village coffee houses; one posted a sign outside promising “Beatle Imitations.” The black turtleneck crowd was underwhelmed with McGuinn’s new take on folk music. But once the Byrds formed on the west coast, the new genre of music took hold.

“Roger really invented folk-rock,” says Bruce Springsteen on the concert DVD; The Boss claims the Byrds’ first hit introduced him to the music of Bob Dylan. “I had not heard Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ before… I was a child of Top 40 radio and I heard it through Roger and the Byrds. It was an amazing creation.”

The DVD also includes interviews with Tom Petty, Chris Hillman, Joan Baez and Judy Collins, who discuss McGuinn’s influence. The two CDs allow McGuinn to cover many highlights of his fifty-plus years as a songwriter, performer and interpreter of the work of Dylan and other great musicians; in all, an entertaining course in music history.

The set will be released on February 1, 2014 and available on McGuinn’s website. McGuinn talked with Ultimate Classic Rock about the new recording and the creation of classic Byrds tracks like ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’

Where did you play in Greenwich Village when you were starting out?

I used to go to Gerde’s Folk City for the open mic hootenannies there. I had pretty steady work at the Café Playhouse, which was a place where John Sebastian and Richie Havens used to play all the time. And Peter Tork, who later joined the Monkees, was there. The way you got money from it was you’d do your set and then pass a little basket around. John Sebastian said you didn’t want to do it after Richie Havens because if you got on after Richie, there was no money left. Richie was doing a version of folk-rock before there was such a thing.

You included ‘You Showed Me,’ which was not a well-known Byrds song, on the new CD. Why?

I’ve got a certificate from BMI on my wall that says “Congratulations for one million radio plays.” It’s one of the most recorded songs that Gene and I wrote, the other being ‘Eight Miles High.’ The Turtles got a big hit with it and then it was recorded later by Salt-n-Pepa; Kanye West and U2 sampled it so it’s a big song in my catalog. The Byrds didn’t get a big hit with it but it was a hit for the Turtles; I think No. 6 on the Billboard charts.

What did you think of their version? It was very different than yours.

I like it, it was very pretty. I think they hit the nail on the head by slowing it down, which was an accident when one of the guys from the Association, Chip Douglas, showed it to Howard [Kaylan] and Mark [Volman] of the Turtles. He was demonstrating it on an organ that had a leaky valve so he couldn’t play it any faster than he did, which was the tempo they recorded it at. And I think that tempo made it sound better because we were doing it too fast and it sounded kind of nervous. It didn’t have the romantic side to it.

How did you work with songwriting collaborators like Gene Clark and Jacques Levy? Did you share duties on the music and lyrics?

When I worked with Gene, we worked on both lyrics and music at the same time. In the case of ‘You Showed Me,’ I came up with the chord changes and we came up with the melody and the lyrics together. But when I worked with Jacques Levy, it was different. He was a lyricist primarily and I was the melody man. He’d come up with an idea for a poem and pretty much write it out and I’d come up with a tune for it. So it worked differently for different people.

Do you know a song is a hit when you’ve just recorded it?

I remember when I first heard the playback of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ we were sitting on the floor of Studio A, Columbia Records on Sunset and Gower, and they had these big speakers that rolled around on wheels. And [producer] Terry Melcher pulled a couple of them up and he called for a playback of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and I just was amazed at how good it sounded. Now I didn’t know it was going to be a hit but I was surprised that we had accomplished that; even though it was the Wrecking Crew playing the band track, I was playing my Rickenbacker on it. It definitely sounded really good and I just didn’t know the business well enough to know what would be a hit but it did become one.

I knew ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ was a really good song but we had internal struggles with that because Jim Dickson, who was our manager at the time, thought it was inappropriate because of its religious background, that it didn’t fit with the rock ‘n’ roll audience; he wanted us to do another Dylan song. But Terry Melcher liked it so much that he went on a one-man campaign to get the song as the next single. And went to the extent of driving up and down the California coast to deejays and playing it for them so they would play it on the radio. It became a regional hit in San Francisco before it became a national hit.

How did you record the Byrds’ harmonies? Were they overdubbed or did everyone sing at the same time?

We sang at the same time a lot. The way it worked was, it was Terry Melcher’s idea to combine Gene Clark’s and my vocals in unison and then David Crosby doing all the harmonies. That was how we really did it. We never did three-part harmonies, it was always two-part with Gene and I doing unison and Crosby poppin’ around between thirds, fourths and fifths. He had kind of an ear for jazz so that’s what gave him the ability to do that. He’s still a brilliant harmony singer and he’s come along as a solo singer as well. I like some of the stuff on his new album, ‘Croz.’

How did you come to record ‘Jesus Is Just Alright,’ originally a gospel song?

Gene Parsons, who was my drummer in the Byrds at the time, came up with that. He’d heard the Art Reynolds Singers, who wrote the song, do it on a record and he introduced us to it. And we thought it was a good song to work up. The Doobie Brothers came out with almost an identical arrangement to the one we had done but they got the hit with it. It just had a real uplifting beat to it. We had a fun time singing it and recording it.

What qualities does a song have to have for you to record your own version?

It’s a combination of melody and lyrics. It’s got to mean something to me personally and it’s got to sound pretty – I like pretty melodies. A good example is Dylan’s early stuff where he was relying on a lot of folk tunes that were ancient Celtic melodies that he wrote lyrics to. The lyrics were interesting and poetic and deep. Some examples were obviously ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ but ‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune’ and ‘Just Like a Woman’ were wonderful melodies and the lyrics were tender and sweet.

Did you ever have a long conversation with Dylan about your versions of his songs?

I’ve never had a long conversation with Bob over anything. He’s very cryptic when he speaks and sometimes speaks in a language that only he and maybe [Dylan friend] Bobby Neuwirth understand. I remember when I first met them they were talking in some kind of poetic double-talk, it was hard to know exactly what they were saying. But generally speaking, Bob came to our rehearsals when we were learning ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and he and Neuwirth reacted positively to it. And in fact gave us permission to do it, to release it before Bob got it out. And [Dylan manager] Albert Grossman tried to stop it but it was on its way up the charts. But Bob was friendly about it, he let us do it.

We never had a conversation about it, it was just sort of a nod, like, “You can do that.” Neuwirth said you can dance to it and that appealed to the both of them.

Next: Top 10 Byrds Songs

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