Musician Interview: Ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn

The Byrds in 1965 (McGuinn on right)

Thanks to the Rolling Thunder Revue, which revitalized his spirits, and the new Cardiff Rose LP, which has given his career a major boost, Roger McGuinn now speaks of his musical future with understandable confidence and exuberance.

Not long ago, however, he appeared to have little reason for such optimism. The Byrds, with whom he’d scored numerous classic hits and helped to popularize folk-rock, had lost their muse and fallen victim to internal frictions. And McGuinn, trying to fill the gap with a solo career, was coming up short.

“I was tired,” he now explains. “But once you’ve got this machine rolling, the record company people and everything, it’s very difficult to avoid recording, You say, ‘Oh, no, man, I’m not ready.’ But they say, ‘You’ve got to do it; it’s in your contract.’“

When McGuinn finally encountered a project that excited him—Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue—contractual obligations again created problems. “The night Bob first asked me to come along on the tour,” recalls the ex-Byrd, “I couldn’t figure how I could do it because I had other dates in front of me. I thought I’d get sued if I didn’t do them. But I was upset by it, so I talked to the promoters and they were very understanding. I just told them I wanted to go play with Dylan and they said ‘OK.’ They’d have to feel the lowest of low if they wouldn’t let me do that, right?”

Though McGuinn’s role in the tour earned him much critical praise, he occupied center stage for only a short time each night. During the Revue’s first six weeks, he performed just “Eight Miles High” and “Chestnut Mare,” a pair of Byrds evergreens. The tour’s second six-week leg found McGuinn’s role expanded, but only by two songs.

“One night on the bus,” remembers the singer, “I pulled out my guitar at somebody’s request and played every song in the world. The reason was that I was quite frustrated, because I was used to doing at least an hour by myself and, on the tour, I was down to like six minutes on stage.”

For reasons that transcend his own musical part in the proceedings, however, McGuinn terms Rolling Thunder “the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was 130 people, a paramilitary commando team, going out and just taking on the country. Everybody was really tight and together. Nobody was making any errors. I mean, you’d break a guitar string and somebody would change it in 10 seconds. The lights were perfect, the sound was perfect, we covered everything.

“And it was so power-packed—so many stars, so much good music happening—that you couldn’t help but get off on it.”

Leaving little doubt that he himself “got off on it,” McGuinn’s new Cardiff Rose demonstrates how markedly the tour has influenced his music. The album, which opens with a lilting tribute to “the greatest show on Earth,” features McGuinn’s most heartfelt vocal work in years and songs by Dylan and such other Rolling Thunder stalwarts as Joni Mitchell and Bobby Neuwirth. Mick Ronson, another tour regular, winningly handles the production. And members of Guam, Dylan’s backing band for the concert series, provide engaging instrumental support.

“They came right off the road and into the studio,” McGuinn says, “with all their energy and excitement from the tour and no place to put it but my album. And Mick Ronson, what a great producer he is! Very businesslike, very aggressive, and very together. He’d been my drinking buddy on the tour, so I hadn’t seen this side of him. He’s one of the most professional people I’ve ever worked with. He had all kinds of great ideas, and he never got bogged down, frustrated, or angry. He just worked all the time.”

Sounding as satisfied with the material as with the production and backup crew, McGuinn runs down several of Cardiff Rose’s key tracks.

• “Up to Me”: “I learned that from a Blood on the Tracks outtake. I’m purposely trying to sound like Dylan there; It’s my way of saying, ‘Hi, Bob.’ But I think our version is better than his. We souped it up . . . I’ve always used his material like an actor uses a script. I go on my own trip with it and put a whole lot of my own meaning into it.”

• “Rock and Roll Time”: “Kris Kristofferson and Bobby Neuwirth and I were all hanging out at my house in Malibu and we were staying up until about eight o’clock In the morning. Bobby said, ‘Boy, this is rock and roll time!’ And Kris said, ‘Who’s got it?’ I said, Who’s got what?’ He said, ‘Who’s got that song title?’ I said, ‘Nobody, I guess.’ So we wrote it.”

• “Friend”: “I won’t say the name, but it’s about a friend of mine who got murdered while he was doing something illegal. He came over to my house about two nights before it happened and said he was gonna do it. He didn’t want to tell me the details. I don’t even know what he was selling or buying or whatever. But he said that it was almost too good to be true. I said, ‘Well, sometimes things that seem too good to be true are too good to be true.’ He said, ‘No. It’ll be OK,’ but we both knew he was making the wrong decision. When I heard the news of his death on television, I started to write the song immediately. It’s not an l-told-you-so song, but I am sort of yelling at him even though he’s dead, saying, ‘You dumb guy, why didn’t you do the right thing?’“

• “Partners In Crime”: “That was Jacques Levy’s trip; it’s all his lyrics. He’s been with the Yippies and I think he’s putting them down for being inactive or something like that. He got a big kick out of Tom Hayden running for government. I think that’s funny, don’t you? A former member of the Chicago Seven running for Senate! I mean, that’s ridiculous.”

Jacques Levy, the co-author of “Partners In Crime” and three other Cardiff Rose tracks, has long served as McGuinn’s collaborator. “He’s an old pal of mine,” remarks the singer, “and I was the first rock performer to work with him. He used to be a psychologist, but he quit to do off-Broadway production. He used taped Byrds music in one of his plays and, later, we started writing songs together. Stuff like ‘Chestnut Mare’ and ‘Lover of the Bayou’.

“I told Dylan about Levy. I said that probably the reason he’s so good to work with is he’s a professional psychologist; he knows how to deal with the human mind, how to put you back in a constructive pattern when you might be drifting. Anyway, Dylan bumped into Levy in a park in the Village a couple of months later and they went out to Long Island and wrote some songs. Seven of them appeared on Desire, which sold two million copies.”

McGuinn, who emphasizes that he “didn’t physically introduce Levy and Dylan, takes a larger share of credit for the recent change in the latter’s stage personality. Noting that Dylan (the apparent subject of Robbie Robertson’s “Stage Fright”) once seemed quite reticent in concert situations, McGuinn opines, “He’s bloomed over the past several years into a really fine performer and I think I’m partly to blame for that. I’m a rock and roller and he watched me work a lot during the Rolling Thunder thing. I believe he was impressed because he tried to imitate it a little bit here and there.”

According to McGuinn, however, Dylan has not done a complete turnabout. “He gets really friendly and outgoing at times,” explains the ex-Byrd. “Other times, he’s off in a corner on his own thing. You can’t invade his privacy no matter what, and you don’t want to.

“He has a mystique to me as well as to the public,” adds McGuinn. “He won’t let that down. On the other hand, we can do something together which is quite remarkable. We can communicate telepathically . . . for hours. He’s got a very good working telepathic sense. I can’t prove this; it’s weird stuff. But I know it’s really true.”

Has McGuinn talked with Dylan—telepathically or otherwise—about what led to the creation of the Rolling Thunder Revue? “Not really,” he says; “but I think he did it because there was absolutely nothing else happening that was of any interest to him. He was just looking for a way to get the public and himself involved in a good thing.”

Might Dylan now be considering a new round of Roiling Thunder touring? “We’ve discussed it,” McGuinn reports, “but there’s no final word. I can’t give you any quotes. It should happen, though, and I can’t wait to do it again if it does.

“Meanwhile, I’m going to make another album. Probably I’ll use these guys I’m working with now, Thunderbyrd, two of whom are from the Lost Planet Airmen. Then we’ll do some more touring and . . . hopefully get to be the best band in the world. Why not?”

(originally published 1977, in Rock magazine)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.