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Still Flying

Roger McGuinn is happy to look at the past, but he's not ready to live in it

Roger McGuinn prefers to travel light; two guitars are all he carries, and a 12-string Rickenbacker is always one of them. At an age when many graying rockers are thinking about calling it a career, McGuinn, 54, is busy indulging the same wayfaring fantasy he's had since he was a teenager. Granted, a certain portion of his life these days is spent at home in Florida, feigning a condition that resembles semiretired bliss, but another large chunk of it -- 150 days in 1996 -- is spent roving the world with his guitars and wife/manager, Camilla, in tow.

"We call it a mom-and-pop operation. We're on the road a lot -- constantly," says Camilla, who has been by McGuinn's side since 1978. "We haven't stopped touring since 1982. It's the old folkie in him."

The last time McGuinn bothered with a full band was in 1991, when he toured with a group in support of Back from Rio, his defining midlife statement. And that tour could very well be the final time he travels en masse: Toting around all those extras, Camilla confesses, "takes the romance out of it."

The Rickenbacker McGuinn carries with him now is not the same one he traded in a banjo and another guitar to purchase more than three decades ago. That particular piece of rock history was stolen years back, and McGuinn still receives letters from people who claim to have the gig-worn thing. Not that its loss really matters. An instrument is only as good as the person who plays it, and, original or no, the Rickenbacker McGuinn plays today certainly sounds like the same guitar that rang in pop music's first-ever fusion of folk and rock on 1965's "Mr. Tambourine Man." The same one that jangled its way through the anticipatory psychedelic haze of "Eight Miles High." The same one identified with any number of other classics to which McGuinn will forever be tied via his nine-year stint as the unflappable navigator of the Byrds.

Nowhere is a well-picked Rickenbacker's ability to mesmerize more evident than on Live from Mars, the recently released CD that documents the one-man show McGuinn has been bringing to concert halls and nightclubs nationwide over the last two years. On-stage with only his guitar, his nasally tenor, his music and the stories behind his songs, McGuinn lays out a thoroughly entertaining testament to the power of simplicity. His detailed personal anecdotes add dramatic context to the stripped-bare renditions of "Mr. Tambourine Man" (acoustic and electric versions), "Turn! Turn! Turn!," "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star," "Chestnut Mare" and others.

"It's really a one-act play," says McGuinn. "I had been working on an autobiography [currently on the back burner], and this is an outgrowth of that -- little snippets of the autobiography between the songs. I did this thing for 140,000 people once, with just me and my acoustic guitar, and I got them off. That's a real challenge. But when it works, it's exciting."

If McGuinn's public profile hasn't been particularly high in recent years, at least it hasn't been nonexistent. Unlike many rock legends, McGuinn remains accessible to humanity in general. The Byrds may have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame six years ago, but McGuinn is hardly a museum relic. The even-keeled former leader of one of the most influential groups in pop music history has negotiated his place in the post-'60s universe with unassuming grace.

McGuinn has an unerring sense of where he's been, where he's headed and who he's influenced. He keeps tabs on his many disciples, and he often befriends them, as was the case with Tom Petty, whose "American Girl" McGuinn almost mistook for his own work the first time he heard it (or so the story goes). Fifteen years later, the two were collaborating on "King of the Hill," a song included on Back from Rio. That tune also appears in a more intimate form on Live from Mars, preceding a pair of studio tracks McGuinn recorded with the Jayhawks, part of a newer crop of Byrds acolytes that includes, among others, Wilco and Son Volt.

"We just had [Son Volt's] Jay Farrar over for dinner the other night," says McGuinn. "I feel like they're my musical kids in a way."

One reason McGuinn has so many musical progeny is that the songs of the Byrds have never really stopped being played. Like a rare few performers, they created tunes that seeped not only into the consciousness of their generation, but also the generations that followed. Last week, McGuinn arrived at yet another historical checkpoint when Columbia/Legacy released four remastered, expanded versions of the Byrds albums that came out between 1967 and 1969. Last April, Columbia/Legacy did the same for the group's first four efforts, among them the indispensable keepsakes Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn! And in 1990, an exhaustive, if flawed, box set kicked off the label's campaign to add to the Byrds' myth.

Those who already own the box set might be hesitant to fork over additional cash for the reissues. Still, for die-hard Byrds fans, there's considerable enticement to own this latest batch, which includes The Notorious Byrd Brothers, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde and Ballad of Easy Rider. Each boasts much-improved sound quality and contains previously unheard bonus tracks and rare additional artwork.

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