Roger McGuinn

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded April 20, 2004, in Los Angeles.

Roger McGuinn: I’m Roger McGuinn, and I’m speaking freely. [Plays guitar and sings] “The times ain’t now nothin’ like they used to be. / Times ain’t now nothin’ like they used to be./ I tell you the truth. / Won’t you take my word from me. / Well, I’ve seen better days, / but I ain’t putting up with these. / I’ve seen better days, / but I ain’t putting up with these. / I had a lot better time / with the women down in New Orleans. / ‘Cause I was born in the country / you think I’m easy to lose. / I was born in the country. / You think I’m easy to lose. / She wants to hitch me to a wagon / and drive me like a mule. / I bought her a gold ring, / and I paid the rent. / Yeah, I bought her a gold ring, / and I paid the rent. / She wants me to wash her clothes, / but I got good common sense. / Well, sometimes I think you’re just too sweet to die. / Sometimes I think you’re just too sweet to die. / And other times I think you ought to be buried alive.” The James Alley Blues.

Paulson: Welcome to Speaking Freely. I’m Ken Paulson. Today our special guest: singer, songwriter, and Byrds founder, Roger McGuinn. Welcome.

McGuinn: Thank you very much.

Paulson: Great to have you here.

McGuinn: Good to be here.

Paulson: And you know, all those things are pretty good descriptions of your work — singer, songwriter, and founder of the Byrds. But it’s the latter that I think most people probably want to stop and talk to you about, that early moment in your career when you ignited the nation in terms of rock and roll, and some people described you as the American answer to the Beatles, which was kind of a heavy thing to carry —

McGuinn: That’s pretty heavy, yeah. I think it was a promoter in England who did that, and we billed as the — I guess it was like the Beatles, you know — can beat the Beatles or some kind of thing. It was blasphemy. And the British press really took up on it.

Paulson: Yeah, they did you no favors.

McGuinn: It was quite a scene, yeah.

Paulson: Well, we are seated here in a studio just off Sunset Strip, which is not far from where the Byrds kind of emerged.

McGuinn: No, right up the street. Ciro’s was down this way, I believe. And then the Whiskey a Go-Go and the Roxy and all those — the Trip — clubs we used to play back then.

Paulson: Well, where did the Byrds emerge from? I mean, you had — you’ve done this wonderful live show that was captured on a CD called Live from Mars. And it told the story of your career like I couldn’t possibly and punctuated by great music and talked about your early years with people like Bobby Darin.

McGuinn: Right.

Paulson: Chad Mitchell Trio. And then eventually, that talent makes its way to a like-minded group that makes a distinctly different kind of music.

McGuinn: I think the catalyst was the Beatles. I was a folk singer, although I was leaning toward rock, because I’d been working with Bobby Darin. And I was working in the publishing company in the Brill Building — his publishing company — listening to the radio. I had three radios going all the time. And my job was to write songs like were on the radio. And the Beatles came out. So I instinctively starting putting the “Beatle” beat behind folk songs, and Bobby had told me to always get in front of people as much as you can. Because it doesn’t matter how good you are in front of your mirror or at home. You have to test it under fire, because it’s — the pressure is on. So I would go down to the Village and play in coffeehouses, and I’d do these combinations of rock and roll and folk music. Like … [Sings] “The water is wide. / I cannot cross over.” And I’d pump it up with a — [Sings] “The water is wide, / I cannot cross — “ And the audience just didn’t quite know what to think of it. So I wasn’t, you know, really happy with the audience reaction. I came out to L.A., and I started doing the same thing. And I was playing at the Troubadour, opening up for Roger Miller and Hoyt Axton and getting the same kind of response. In fact, Roger Miller took me aside and said, “I like what you’re doing, but you’d do a lot better if you didn’t get mad at the audience.” [Laughing] I guess I was looking grumpy up there, so — I started being nicer about it. Gene Clark was in the audience. And he liked what I was doing. He was a fellow Beatles’ fan at the time. He suggested that we get together and write some songs. And so we were thinking about being a duo. We had a couple of songs that we’d written. And then David Crosby came in, and he sang harmony on it. And it was a band. And his kicker was that he knew somebody who had a recording studio that we could use as a rehearsal hall and record free every night. So we let him in the band.

Paulson: That’s great.

McGuinn: It worked out.

Paulson: And your most famous song — actually the initial hit for the Byrds — was “Mr. Tambourine Man” which was a Bob Dylan song that I understand David Crosby objected to.

McGuinn: Right, it was in this folky 2/4 time. [Sings] “Well, hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, / play a song for me.” And David said, “That’s — that folky 2/4 time is not going to play on the radio.” And he was right, because it was all like Beatles and Rolling Stones. So I had an idea of how to fix it. I put a little … Bach-like intro on it. [Plays “Mr. Tambourine Man”] and then we put a Beatle beat to it, and it really played on the radio.

Paulson: It really played on the radio and defined a sound, and you were the first to really bring the 12-string electric guitar to the fore.

McGuinn: I was playing an acoustic 12 at the time. I played an acoustic 12 for Bobby Darin. And I put a magnetic pickup in the middle of it to try to get the Beatle sound, but it wasn’t quite right. So the Byrds all went to see “A Hard Day’s Night.” We did a little reconnaissance tour, and we saw what looked like a six-string guitar from the front, but when George Harrison turned it sideways, you could see six more strings sticking out the back. And I went, “Oh, that’s a 12-string. I’ve got to get one.” So I traded in my acoustic Gibson 12-string for a Rickenbacker electric 12. And, boy, that made a big difference in the sound.

Paulson: Well, you began today’s show with a song from Limited Edition. The CD actually kicks off with “If I Needed Someone,” which is a George Harrison composition. And this was done as a tribute to George?

McGuinn: It was. And I have a little history with the song. The Byrds did a version of Pete Seeger’s “Bells of Rhymney.” [Plays] And that was the intro to it I did on the 12-string guitar. So George liked that, and he made the whole song “If I Needed Someone” based on that riff. He gave a copy of it to Derek Taylor to take back to the States and come over to my house and say that he wanted me to know that he wrote the whole song based on that.

Paulson: That’s remarkable.

McGuinn: It was quite an honor, yeah.

Paulson: Did you get to know George Harrison at all?

Paulson: Yeah, we knew each other pretty well. Yeah, we hung out and traded licks. I remember the first thing that he and I coincidentally learned on the guitar before we knew how to play any chords was a little lick from the back of — the flip side of “Be Bop A Lula,” a Gene Vincent song, and it was something like — [Plays] and that was it, basically. It was a little guitar break, and we both learned the same thing at the same time. That’s kind of — we were comparing notes.

Paulson: Nice. I mentioned at the outset that I’m sure when people first meet you that there is this temptation — they want to know all about 1965. But what a remarkable body of work you’ve had and in addition to those very early, very fruitful years with the Byrds — which came and went pretty quickly when you think about it.

McGuinn: About three years.

Paulson: About three years. You went on with a different version of the Byrds that introduced — actually may have invented country rock. Some would argue that —

McGuinn: We were in there, anyway. I think country rock was in the air. I think Dylan was doing it on his own with The Band in New York, and we didn’t know a thing about it. And Gram Parsons was kind of doing it with his International Submarine Band, and we didn’t know a thing about that. But when he joined the Byrds — I hired him as a piano player. I said, “Can you play any jazz piano?” And he played a little Floyd Cramer kind of piano. And I thought that was OK and thought he could learn. And he turned into a country artist, and I had no idea. Really, really good country artist.

Paulson: And you then went out and had an impressive solo career including a stint with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue. And over the years, you’ve really never not recorded. You’ve had various combinations of Clark and Hillman and derivates of the Byrds, you might say. And it was — you know, just when we hadn’t heard from you in a long time, then you had an album called Back From Rio that was incredibly well-received.

McGuinn: Yeah, that was a lot of fun.

Paulson: And then there was a live album, and now finally, quite a bit later, there’s Limited Edition. Why so long between CDs?

McGuinn: Well, I do one every five or ten years whether I really need to or not. I don’t know. I enjoy touring, and that’s the most important thing to me. And then every once in a while, we need to do a CD to get people’s attention so they’ll come out to the live concerts, and that’s what I really love the most.

Paulson: There’s a sound to the Byrds that you’ve described as a jingle-jangle sound and that fans of the band love. And there’s some of that, certainly, on the new CD.

McGuinn: Quite a bit of it, actually. We call it rich in jingle-jangle. All the songs have lead breaks that go up and down the G string on the… [Plays] on the 12-string.

Paulson: Before we leave the topic of the Byrds — as you know, this is a show that celebrates free expression, and we often talk about censorship. I understand that “8 Miles High” ended up on a lot of lists where radio stations were nervous about playing it because of the potential drug references.

McGuinn: That’s right.

Paulson: You know, David Crosby was on the show not long ago, and I’m not sure he confessed to doing a drug song, but he certainly winked at that. What’s your take on this most notorious of Byrds’ songs?

McGuinn: Well, David and Gene Clark and I wrote the song together. Gene came up with the chords. And it was my idea to sing it about an airplane ride over to England, and some of the high and touchdown were all airplane references. And Crosby was very much a proponent of getting everybody on LSD and grass and whatever he could do. So perhaps he was writing it about drugs and I wasn’t. But we had three writers.

Paulson: Only 1/3 of the writers —

McGuinn: Yeah, so it was 1/3 about drugs, perhaps. I had no idea.

Paulson: It didn’t harm the popularity of the song.

McGuinn: Well, actually, it did stop it from being played on the radio.

Paulson: Oh, really?

McGuinn: Yeah, the Gavin Report came out, and they just eighty-sixed it. It was totally off the radio after that.

Paulson: Could we hear a little sample of that?

McGuinn: Sure. [Plays and sings] “Eight miles high, / and when you touch down, / you find that it’s stranger than known. / Signs in the street / that say where you’re going / are somewhere just being their own.”

Paulson: Wonderful. It seems so wrong now for me to fill time with talk when the music’s that good. Why squander time on my asking questions. It’s a reminder, too, for people who have not seen you in concert to come out and see you because you’re not an artist who turns your back on the past. You celebrate it. And you actually — I mean, that’s from one of the more complex records of the ’60s. And you replicate it on acoustic guitar. It’s just — I hope the camera was right there on your fingers because —

McGuinn: Well, thank you. I love to play, and I’m very blessed to — I feel very proud of the work with the Byrds and everything else I’ve done over the years. I really love it, and we’re doing some new things too.

Paulson: That’s great. Now, you’ve — in addition to your musical career, you’ve been pretty visible — actually you testified before the U.S. Senate.

McGuinn: I did, yeah. I was happy to do that. I did on behalf of Thought that was a wonderful thing. Michael Robertson did that from a wonderful perspective, both as a businessman and as a philanthropist, really, because he was giving away something record companies never did do. He was giving 50% to the artist. And I was there to say, “Hey, MP3s are good for artists. They’re like radio. They get the signal out there. They get the message out there. They get people to hear your music, and then they go out and buy it.” It’s a good thing.

Paulson: And you’ve been one of the most prominent voices on the topic of Napster and, candidly, illegal downloading. You’re not endorsing that.

McGuinn: I can’t endorse it legally —

Paulson: But you are saying, “What’s the fuss about it?”

McGuinn: Well, what — my point of view was that you can record things off the radio and get just as nice a copy. So what’s the problem, you know? I said that. And Senator Patrick Leahy got upset with me. He was scowling at me. [Laughs] He was … coming from another point of view. And I understand that, although I really didn’t see what the fuss was about. MP3s are 1/10 of the quality of a CD track. And what you get off the radio is 32 kilohertz. A good, clean analog radio recording is going to sound better than an MP3.

Paulson: So if an eighth grader is intrigued by “8 Miles High,” wants to hear the drug lyrics, and downloads it illegally, how do you feel about that?

McGuinn: Well, the best way to get it is to probably buy a CD of it from Sony Music. You know, I’d say that. There are probably samples of it available other places on the Internet. I know that if he downloads it illegally, it’s not going to really hurt my pocketbook. I’ll put it that way. I’m not saying he should.

Paulson: I’ve read that you were never really enriched by your recording career. Is that true?

McGuinn: The contracts back in the ’60s were very much like the contracts in the ’50s for blues artists out of Chicago. I think we got a very minimal advance and then small royalties. They improved over the years, and we learned to get our own publishing, and finally, with Limited Edition, we have our own record company, so now we’re getting the lion’s share of it.

Paulson: It’s about time.

McGuinn: Yes, it is.

Paulson: And it’s interesting. Artists like you, people who have great respect in the industry and who have a body of work are the ones who are most comfortable with people sampling their music online. I’m thinking about Janis Ian, for example.

McGuinn: Yeah, she’s a big proponent of people getting music. It’s good for the artist, bad for record companies. And that’s the idea.

Paulson: And — but, you know, it’s a way to share art with people who otherwise would never be exposed to it.

McGuinn: I think it’s wonderful. The Internet’s a great medium for distribution. My Folk Den project has really done well because people can get free access to the MP3s that I’ve put up there.

Paulson: Let’s talk about that, because that’s an impressive project on several levels. In the first place, you’re rescuing music. You are — you’re recording every month a folk song and putting it online and making it available to people on your site free of charge. So there’s this sort of archaeology and preservation that’s going on that’s so important.

McGuinn: Along with the chords and the lyrics and a little story about the song.

Paulson: So people can learn to play it as well.

McGuinn: Exactly, the idea is to distribute these songs and get people to know them and play them so they won’t get lost in the shuffle, because the music business, unfortunately, focused on a very narrow segment of the spectrum of music. And the old traditional songs were getting lost.

Paulson: And the other very cool thing about this is, you’ve found a way to derive some revenue from this and share that music — retail that music, if you will.

McGuinn: Right, I did a retail CD of it a couple years ago with Pete Seeger and Joan Baez and Judy Collins and Odetta called The Treasures from the Folk Den.

Paulson: That had to be quite an adventure. You ended up driving up to Pete Seeger’s home in New York.

McGuinn: We went to all their homes except for Joan Baez. She happened to be in our home of Orlando at the time, but we went to Pete’s house, up on the hill overlooking the Hudson and set up recording gear in his living room, and, oh, it was just like a jam session. The two of us sat across from each other and played and sang all afternoon. It was great.

Paulson: I suspect that Pete Seeger is somebody you were particularly excited to spend the day with.

McGuinn: Big hero of mine, yeah.

Paulson: And I think most of the generation’s forgotten about Pete Seeger.

McGuinn: Well, you have to — it’s like Coca-Cola advertises every day. You know, if your name isn’t out there, if you don’t have a current product, people will forget, unfortunately. But I’ll remind people all the time of Pete Seeger. I try to in my concerts. I do several Pete Seeger songs every time I play. He changed the face of American music forever, absolutely.

Paulson: Wonderful, wonderful artist. And so what potential is there for an artist to distribute their own work online today? Is this going to work?

McGuinn: It’s better than it ever has been. There’s more of an online audience than there ever has been, and it’s increasing all the time. I believe the digital divide is narrowing and people are getting computers who didn’t have them before. And it’s increasingly easy to get — to download things with the speeds of internet access going up all the time and the prices getting better and so on. I think it’s a really good time for digital distribution of music, and we’ve signed a deal with the Orchard group, who has eMusic and several other distribution things online, and Limited Edition is available for MP3 download through eMusic right now. I think it’s good.

Paulson: Well, the Folk Den project reflects your great respect for, literally, singers and songwriters of several generations. What are the songs that have meant the most to you to record?

McGuinn: I love the sea shanties. I think it’s something in my blood about the old, you know, sea shanties. A lot of them just bring up images of being out there — swashbuckling, you know, rolling on the sea out in the great freedom of — with the wind and the sea breeze in your hair, you know, the mist. I just love it.

Paulson: Roger, you were born in Chicago.

McGuinn: I know. Well, as I said, it’s in my blood. It’s not something — it’s not something — I believe there must be, like, some sort of — you know, like, the DNA has some kind of memory — memory capability.

Paulson: That’s great. And who are you hearing from — are you hearing from younger people?

McGuinn: I got an email from an 18-year-old today who said he just discovered the Folk Den and the Byrds when he was 17.

Paulson: And now he’s a big fan.

McGuinn: Yeah, I get a lot of people in their early 20s now.

Paulson: You know, a lot of those people who are just being exposed to the Byrds and can find that rich body of work, you know, for them, it’s a disappointment they’ve never had a chance to hear the Byrds live. And I know when we did talk to David Crosby, he really wants to do it. I mean, he would love to — you know, in the first place, he’ll say — he says he’ll play with you anytime. And he would love to have some semblance of the Byrds, and that holds absolutely no interest for you, right?

Paulson: I’m just so happy touring with my wife, Camilla, and my guitar. When I was out on the Rolling Thunder Revue, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot was out there with me, and he said, “You know, Roger, the most fun I ever had was when me and Polly” — that was his wife — “threw the guitar in the back of the Land Rover and we just barnstormed around the country playing little places.” And that just sounded like heaven to me. ‘Cause I’d been going out with trucks and, you know, busses and guys, and you have to wait for the drummer to get out of the shower. And I was tired of that sort of life, and I love the romance of — it’s an endless honeymoon with my wife on the road.

Paulson: That’s great. And your wife, Camilla, shows up as a songwriter on much of the new CD. How does that work?

McGuinn: Well, we’ve been writing songs actually since we got married back in 1978. We wrote some songs on the McGuinn, Clark and Hillman albums. And we wrote City for the City album. And we’ve been writing ever since. So it works like this. We sit down and decide to write some songs. We’ll have a session. Maybe we’ll go somewhere like the beach or someplace and isolate ourselves and get down to it. And it’s kind of like a novelist or something. It’s work; you have to sit down and do it. And so we’ll do that for a week or two, and we’ll come up with a batch of songs, and we’ll pick the best ones out of them and develop them.

Paulson: That’s great. Are there creative tensions? Does she ever turn to you and say, “You’re no David Crosby”?

McGuinn: Something funny has happened. Sometimes I’ll say — you know, we’ll say to each other little bickering things like married people will do. Like, “Well, that line is really stupid.” And she turned to me one day, and she said, “I’ll bet when you’re writing with Tom Petty, you don’t say, ‘That line was really stupid,’ do you?” And I went, “No, you’re right; I don’t.”

Paulson: Well, that’s probably one reason this relationship has — that candor probably drives this relationship. One other thing I wanted to ask you about, because you are a pioneer in this — people are looking at ways to reinvent copyright. Because there’s so much good music, good art, that can’t be shared widely because of copyright restrictions. Can you talk a little bit about that?

McGuinn: Yeah, I was just watching the wonderful guy from the digital — Electronic Frontier Foundation talking about copyright that copyright is broken, that it’s always resisted change. Like when the piano roll came out, they resisted that. When radio came out, they resisted that. The VCR was illegal. We were all bootleggers for a while, and then it became legal. And in every case, they’ve been dragged kicking and screaming to the money tree because there’s more revenue in selling videotapes or DVDs now than there ever was just selling movies in movie theaters. And the same is true with digital distribution. And I think if they just get behind that, that’s going to be great. The other thing is that there’s the Creative Commons, and there’s sort of a middle ground between the hard copyright and something where you want people to share it but you don’t want people making money from it. And that’s what I’ve done with my Folk Den project. It’s all covered by the Creative Commons music license.

Paulson: And that allows people to download it, to burn CDs of it, to share them with each other but not sell them. And as we said earlier, no one endorses illegal downloading. And the key here is to find a way to match technology with the artists’ needs, with the public’s needs and —

McGuinn: Yes, there must be some way to compensate the artist and not rip everybody off. I think there’s a way to do that.

Paulson: We’ve covered a lot of territory here, and we’re just about out of time, but we cannot leave without hearing, perhaps, one more song from the new CD.

McGuinn: OK.

Paulson: Limited Edition.

McGuinn: All right, this is “Southbound 95,” a song I made up driving down Highway 95 — Interstate 95 and listening to the CB radio and all the truckers and what they had to say. And then my wife came up with the little chorus, goes like this … [Plays and Sings] “Drive ‘em high, drive ‘em low / in the rain and in the snow. / Drive ‘em high, drive ‘em low / in the rain and in the snow. / Well, I’m rollin’ down the Interstate / southbound 95 / dodgin’ little four-wheelers and trying to stay alive. / They be running in the hammer lane / and drivin’ real slow. / And they always cut in front of you / no matter where you go. / They hit their brakes and slow you down / and make you go around. / And when you try to pass them, / they stomp the pedal down. / They never use their blinkers / when they’re changing to your lane. / It’s enough to make an over-the-road driver / go insane. / Drive ‘em high, drive ‘em low / in the rain and in the snow. / Drive ‘em high, drive ‘em low / in the rain and in the snow. / Well, the Chicken Coop is open / at the Georgia 55. / They’ll be checking weights and log books / by the time that we arrive. / I know this truck’s loaded down / with more than they allow. / But I got to get ‘er down the southbound highway anyhow. / Got a thermos full of coffee, gonna make it all the way. / Gonna get this truck to Florida / before the break of day. / Some day I’m gonna go there just with my little girl. / Gonna see the sights and ride the rides / of Walt Disney World. / Drive ‘em high, drive ‘em low / in the rain and in the snow. / Drive ‘em high, drive ‘em low / in the rain and in the snow.”

Paulson: Roger McGuinn, our special guest today on “Speaking Freely.” Join us again next week.