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.
"When they assembled the box set, they didn't have the multitrack masters for all of it," McGuinn says. "They were using third-generation two-tracks that were played almost until they were worn out. So the sound quality is much better on these reissues. And the Super Bit Mapping technology they have now is much better than the 16-bit technology they used for the box set. The end result is that the [new CDs] are much more like analog. They are warmer and fuller-bodied."
And this time, McGuinn had direct input into the reissue process. "[Columbia/Legacy] forgot to involve me in the last group," says McGuinn with a tense giggle. "And then they made the mistake of saying that I had been involved and I had to deny it, because I wasn't -- Oops! Somebody forgot to call Roger! -- so they called me up."
Actually, says McGuinn, there wasn't much for him to do. He made a few minor changes here and there in the liner notes, but otherwise left the music to stand or fall on its own. The period covered by the four rereleases was a rather messy one in Byrds history. Indeed, there were plenty of moments when it seemed that McGuinn's stubborn resolve was all that held the group together -- or even worse, that the Byrds were a band in name only. By the time Ballad of Easy Rider was released in 1969, Byrds founders Gene Clark, David Crosby and Chris Hillman had left, prime C&W catalyst Gram Parsons had come and gone and everyone else key to the band's inception -- and its evolution -- had vanished. Everyone, that is, aside from McGuinn, who carried on under the Byrds name with various help until 1973.
But while the late '60s might have paled in comparison to the more concentrated brilliance of the Byrds' early years, the period was no less interesting for its lack of cohesion. And it did yield 1968's Sweetheart of the Rodeo, an invaluable "how-to" manual for the country-rock movement of the 1970s, the roots-rock underground of the '80s and its scrappier alt-country counterpart of the '90s -- not to exclude, of course, its influence on the commercial twang Nashville commonly calls country music nowadays.
"At the time [Sweetheart] came out, nobody liked it," says McGuinn. "The country people thought we were a bunch of hippies trying to make fun of them, and the rock audience thought we had sold out to the enemy. Guess that's the price you pay for being a visionary."
Substituting the weepy ebb and flow of a pedal-steel guitar for the Rickenbacker's chimelike precision, the Byrds might as well have been another band completely, and for the most part, they were. Sweetheart saw the group's lineup augmented by a gaggle of Nashville session men, and its direction -- once largely decided by McGuinn's dual obsession with the Beatles and Dylan -- spun due south by the country alliance between Hillman and Parsons, who later went on to form the Flying Burrito Brothers.
"It was all so new to me," recalls McGuinn. "Even though I had dabbled with it on earlier Byrds albums, I'd never got into the lifestyle of it -- going to Nashville and getting into the whole country thing. People thought we were putting them on, but we were so sincere about it. Chris Hillman [a bluegrass mandolin player before he joined the Byrds] had been going in that direction, and when he found Gram as an ally, the two of them balanced it in that direction, and I was happy to go along with it."
Happy, really? "Well, if you want to get into all that stuff, there was kind of a power struggle there," admits McGuinn. "That's always kind of ugly in a band. Gram wanted to make us his country band, and I didn't want that to happen. But we remained friends through all of it. We played pool, drank beer, rode motorcycles together and had a good time."
While acknowledging Sweetheart's groundbreaking reputation, McGuinn says that if he had to pick a favorite among the new reissues, it would be 1968's The Notorious Byrd Brothers. It's the most blatantly experimental of the four discs and, as such, often sounds the most dated. Nevertheless, McGuinn sees its studio indulgences (Moog synthesizer, phase-shifted horns, tape loops, electronically altered vocals) as innovative for their time.
"It's kind of a gumbo," says McGuinn. "The Beatles' Revolver gave us the inspiration to go in that direction."
As for the stylistically unhinged Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde and Ballad of Easy Rider, both released in 1969, McGuinn's comments move further toward criticism.
"Those two were [made] after Hillman left, and I was stuck with the band name on my own," he says. "Basically, they were sort of a searching thing. We carried on a little bit in the country-rock tradition, we experimented with a little more synthesizer. It was kind of a hodgepodge; we got a little too democratic. We probably should have named ourselves something else, but we didn't."
Roger McGuinn began his folk career not as a singer/songwriter but as an interpreter, and he still prides himself on that fact. A native of Chicago, McGuinn was barely out of high school when he landed his first gig as a sideman for the Limelighters in California. In the early 1960s, McGuinn went by his birth name, Jim, which he changed to Roger in '67 at the urging of an Indonesian guru. You had to be there to understand, says McGuinn, who was just as caught up in the spirit-magnifying hubbub of the '60s as anyone else in his line of work.
By 1963, McGuinn had diverted temporarily from folk's customary path, working as a songwriter churning out tunes in New York's fabled Brill Building. He even co-wrote a surf single, "Beach Ball" (a version of which he performs on Live from Mars), with Bobby Darin. But it wasn't long before McGuinn felt the pull of his roots. He returned to the West Coast and began performing solo at the Los Angeles folk institution the Troubadour. It was there in 1964 that the core of the Byrds came together.
Among other things, the Byrds can take credit for being the first pop band to electrify folk music on a national scale. Their harmony-rich, Rickenbacker-embellished version of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" was a hit before Dylan shocked purists with his rock and roll debut at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Even so, McGuinn prefers to credit Dylan -- and the Beatles -- for changing the way people viewed the folk idiom. The Byrds, he says, were just following their lead.
"Blame it on [them] for [moving] the genre of traditional folk songs into the singer/songwriter era, which we're still in now," McGuinn says. "Before, it was a sort of unwritten law that it was too commercial to write your own material -- that you were not being a folk purist if you wrote your own songs, or had any electric instruments or even drums on your recordings. Not only did it have to be pure, but it had to be a valid version of that folk song. You couldn't even change around the words to suit your whims. Then Dylan came along and shattered all of that. Now you're not a valid artist unless you're a singer/songwriter."
That's precisely why, McGuinn says, he's pitching in to preserve the interpretive tradition. Last year, he created a World Wide Web site called the Folk Den. Enthusiasts can access the Folk Den through McGuinn's home page (www.mcguinn.com), and those users with sound capability can download and listen to his traditional interpretations of standards such as "Sailor Lad," "Alberta" and "Old Paint." The music is accompanied by related artwork and an information capsule on the tune, lyrics and guitar chords.
"I was getting requests from people who wanted me to do a folk album," says McGuinn. "There's probably not a big market for that, so somebody suggested I just put it on the Internet."
McGuinn quickly made the Folk Den one of his passions. Each month, he prepares a new package in his home studio and ships it off to the University of Arkansas, where a computer technician launches it into cyberspace. Add the web site to a list of projects McGuinn has assigned himself to kill time when he's not on the road. But it's more than just a diversion, he says.
"What it boils down to," McGuinn says, "is that nobody really knows what folk music is anymore."
And few are better qualified to educate the masses than rock's most resilient Byrd.
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