An Interview with Roger McGuinn

The founder of the Byrds on his current one-man show — which comes to Millville’s Levoy Theatre Thursday, April 21; sharing a mic (and a song) with Bob Dylan on more than one occasion; his ongoing Folk Den Project; hanging out with the Beatles, and embracing the Internet prior to the World Wide Web.
By Jeff Schwachter
Here is the extended interview SNJ Today’s The Grapevine conducted with Roger McGuinn. You can read the original article, previewing McGuinn’s Millville performance here.
You’re home?
Yeah, I’m home. Uh huh.
Okay. You had quite a few dates earlier this month, earlier, didn’t you?
Yeah, uh huh, we did. We did a bunch of them, but I have some time off now. We go out again in about 10 days or so.
Yeah, well, first of all I really appreciate the time and we’re really looking forward to you coming to Millville, New Jersey. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Levoy Theatre. It’s an old refurbished theater, about 100 years old. Really beautiful theater.
I don’t think I have. I love old theaters. It’s a wonderful thing to be on stage and go out  [thinking], like, “George Burns played here back in the ’30s!” or something.
Yeah, right. Judy Collins performed there December. It was a fantastic show. Great acoustics, and great atmosphere.
That’s great. Yeah, Judy is always great.
I’ve been listening to your music for several decades, and I have listened to some of the Folk Den recordings you’ve done between 1995 and 2005. Now there’s a 20th anniversary collection coming out. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yes. It’s another hundred songs from the Folk Den starting, well, after 2005, and to the present so, so, the 20th anniversary. And I’d say over 70% of them have been totally re-recorded because I didn’t use the mp3s. I did [the recordings] in multi-track form and reduced them down to CD quality, which is 44.1 kh and 16-bit. So they’re high quality recordings and they’re better performances than on the free “Folk Den” that we did. So, it’s something I’m really excited about. And the place where we send them off to be, to be mastered and printed said it’ll be ready on the 29th [of March] and we’ll have them for this leg of the tour coming up. They should be pretty ready real soon.
That should be exciting. Have you heard any of the mastered stuff yet?
Well, [my wife and I] mastered it here [at home] so I’ve heard it all, yeah, the whole thing.
Well, I guess you wouldn’t release it unless you heard it, duh.
So 70-percent of the tunes you re-recorded folk songs and 30-percent are the originals?
Right, well some of them we had good multi-tracks on them. My recording process has evolved over the years. It started off with a DAT machine with a few tracks and then gradually I got into multi-track computer recording. And after a while I started getting sessions from like PBS and other people in Pro Tools and the whole industry had shifted over to Pro Tools, so I did that too. I think starting around 2006, everything that I recorded after that I had a Pro Tools session, although some of them got lost. I don’t know what I did with them; I put them on a hard drive somewhere in the house — so I had to re-record some of those. … Anyways it was quite an involved process. My wife and I did it together. She’s learning to be a pro tools engineer and she’s pretty good at it. And she’s got a great ear.
With the original free MP3s you gave away on your site from the original Folk Den recordings of folk songs, and so many other folk-song compilations out there, such as the Folkways Harry Smith Anthology of Folk Music and all the others have been released over past 20 years or so, what was the impetus to re-record the Folk Den songs again?
Well, I just love them. I just wanted to keep it going. I mean, yes, in the last 20 years a lot of things have come out, the Harry Smith Anthology; I do use that as a source for the material. I just like to record them and make them available for free on the Internet, and then we sell them at venues. It’s just a labor of love. It’s kind of a hobby. And it gives me something to do. It keeps my studio chops up.
Is it important to you to preserve the history of these songs; do you try to stick with the original lyrics at all times or throw in other verses that have evolved over the years?
Yeah it is. I do that. I employ what Charles Seeger coined the “folk process” and I put my own sort of stamp on them. Sometimes I’ll put some Rickenbacker parts in, or change the words, like on “Colorado Trail” we changed to “just like Willie and Dale.” So it’s sort of a childhood memory that I threw in there. And some of them I really radically change. I put like hip-hop drum beats on some of them. But it’s something fun for me to do.
You started working with the Internet since its early days; you embraced it very quickly.
Yeah, a friend of mine gave me a NetCom book in 1994, and I got into it and started going to the newsgroups and checking out. And this is before the World Wide Web! So when the Web popped up, and I saw I could put music [on it], use it as sort of a platform to share these songs, and it really was. There was sort of a neglect of the traditional side the folk music back in the ’90s, so I thought it would be a good way to get these songs out there and get world wide distribution for free, and it was originally sponsored by the University of Arkansas, and then UNC Chapel Hill came up with better format and more, uh, more space, more online storage space, because Arkansas only gave you 6MB. I’d have to take the song — I could put maybe two songs up, then take them down, then put two more songs up, and that way I put them all up.
Where is home? In California?
No. We moved out of California about 30 years ago. We live in Orlando Florida right now. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place. The weather’s great.
Like one of the artists who you have had a long-standing musical relationship with, Bob Dylan, you have been ahead of your time with respect to many aspects of your career. First with marrying a Beatles rock beat with Dylan’s song “Mr. Tambourine Man” 51 years ago; later being credited with fusing country and rock and folk to create folk-rock and eventually country-rock; and, among other milestones, recording intimate tracks on your own solely for your Web site (initially) and then actually embracing the Web — before others, as well as MP3s, and taking control of your career — turning your back on the music industry corporation mentality and recording, touring on your own - for your own reasons. Speaking of your gravitation to the Internet early on, you’ve been ahead of the curve — just like Bob Dylan — for the past 50 years.
Well, thank you for noticing that. (Laughs) It’s been a lot of time. You know, these are just things that dawned on me. When I heard the Beatles and I heard their chord changes, it was an obvious thing to put the Beatles and Dylan together. And then, moving on to John Coltrane, where they misunderstood that and thought it was a psychedelic drug song — “Eight Miles High” — and it’s just about an airplane trip, but anyway, and then the country thing was fun. I was considered the country part of folk music so it wasn’t really a big stretch. The career thing, well, after my Back from Rio experience [McGuinn’s last solo major label release, on Arista, from 1991] I just realized the record companies were too demanding; they wanted you to do too many things, and I thought: We should just take over and do this on our own. And what prompted us to start our own label was there was a George Harrison tribute album by some label, and they said, OK, you pay for the recording in Nashville and we’ll reimburse you. Well, they never did, so we took the recording and it became one of our first projects, and we continued to work as an independent label from that point. … That was the first CD we did on April 1st Productions, which we have seven of them now —seven productions.
How did that name come up, April 1st Productions?
It’s [my] wedding anniversary.
When did you first meet George Harrison?
R: I met him in 1965 in London. He and John [Lennon] showed up at the Blazes Club that we were playing, and Derek Taylor had accompanied us on the trip. And he’d been working for the Beatles and had moved to California, and took on new clients, the Byrds and the Beach Boys. I’m not sure who else, but anyway he came with us to London for that trip, and arranged for George and John to be at the club and meet us afterwards in a room upstairs. So I met George then, and then we kept in touch and when they’d come to the States, they’d send a limo to pick us up, pick us up from the mansion they were renting in Beverly Hills. It was really wild.
In 1992 you shared the stage with Bob and George at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary celebration concert at Madison Square Garden.
R: Oh yeah, it was great. It was fun backstage, more fun back stage than on stage, but it was great on stage as well with that super group with all the guys — George, and Tom [Petty], and Neil Young, Clapton, and Dylan. It was great. I’d been on a tour with Tom Petty and Dylan in 1987, as well. It was called the Temples in Flames Tour. We toured all over Europe with that, and George joined us when we were in London.
That tour started in Israel didn’t it?
Yes, my first date was in Tel Aviv.
Back to the 1992 Madison Square Garden show. The big grand finale performance of “My Back Pages” must have been surreal for all involved. What are some of your memories of that concert?
Oh, it was just a great feeling. I was honored that they used my arrangement because Bob had done it in 3 /4 time originally [but] they used the Byrds’ [original] arrangement and I had to teach it to the guys, they didn’t really know it. Here’s a funny anecdote. They had teleprompters, and I was looking down and I’d learned the song off the record, so some of the words I’d guessed what they were and Bob had written “romantic facts of musketeers,” but I always thought it was “romantic planks of musketeers” and a couple of other things like that that sounded like words, but different. I’ve been doing it wrong for about 50 years!
I guess it wouldn’t be wrong in the folk tradition and, of course, with Dylan’s.
Well, I don’t know. When it comes to Bob, he doesn’t like you to mess with his lyrics. I got it wrong with “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” I sang “pack up your money and pick up your tent” and he had written “pick up your money and pack up your tent.”
Though he has free reign to change all the lyrics he wants within his songs night after night in concert; even on subsequent recordings of the same song.
Oh yeah, he does, he does such radically different versions of his songs that you can’t recognize them anymore sometimes.
The song “Mr. Tambourine Man” had a big affect on you obviously and the Byrds. Do you remember picking up the album Bringing It All Back Home for the first time?
I can’t remember the actual experience of picking up the record. I remember listening to his stuff. Well, [the Byrds’ manager Jim] Dixon turned us onto “Mr. Tambourine Man.” He had a demo of it before Bringing it all Back Home came out. But I just loved everything Bob did, really. Especially the early things where he used a lot of traditional melodies, like the Celtic melodies that some of the songs he used. Like “Masters of War,” that was really “Nottamun Town,” the Jean Ritchie song.
Right. And back then you could appreciate the roots and origins of the tunes with your folk background?
Right. I was steeped in the folk music traditions, so yeah.
Which was almost like the opposite of Dylan, where he was steeped in rock ‘n’ roll — growing up on Little Richard, Buddy Holly and guys like that before turning to the folk world.
Right, right. And then when he did play folk music, he went into the Woody Guthrie department, which I never really did. I was more of a Pete Seeger fan.
Forty years ago the Rolling Thunder Revue tour with Bob Dylan was still going and you were a part of that legendary tour. There’s footage of the original taping of what would eventually become the live Hard Rain TV special, broadcast on ABC, from that tour. The clip I saw was you singing “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” with Dylan, but it was filmed inside somewhere, not outside like the TV special.
Oh, OK. Yeah it was filmed at a hotel in Clearwater, Florida. It was a big, sort of sprawling wooden hotel. It was maybe a three-story building and they had a ballroom there, I forget what it’s called.
Do you know why it was decided to film another show after that one for the actual one-hour TV special?
I’m not sure. I think Bob watched what they had. Burt Sugarman shot it in Florida, and he wasn’t terribly pleased with it so he wanted to redo it. I’m not sure what was wrong with it but they didn’t like it, so.
Well, from all the footage I’ve seen of that tour it seems it was a great time — a legendary time with quite a cast of characters. Allen Ginsburg, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and others were among your fellow guest artists of the revue.
We were all having a big party. It lasted for several months. It was pretty wild.
You were part of the original rehearsals for that tour, even before the musicians knew there was a forthcoming tour being planned, correct?
Yeah, well, I bumped into Bob and Jaques Levy at — I think it was the Other End Club [in Greenwich Village, NYC]— because I had some time off in the Village and I just went down there. They said, “Hey Roger, we just put this tour together. We’d like you to go on it.” And, at this point I had a band on the road and some dates booked and I was like, “I don’t know if I can get out of them but I’ll see.” And so I called my agent and asked if he could postpone the dates, and yeah, he did, and so I was able to get on the tour and so we started out rehearsing at FIR in Manhattan, and then we just got on these buses and cars like a caravan of different vehicles, and went up to Plymouth, Massachusetts and started the tour and just went on from there. Every day was a different city and it was impromptu. We got to Plymouth and somebody called a radio station and said Bob Dylan and his friends are in town. We’re going to do a concert at the local theater. I don’t know who, you know, who booked the theater or how that, what the mechanics were, because we were just the entertainers. We didn’t have anything to do with the administration.
Yeah, it seemed pretty low key and laid back.
Very laid back, yes. It was great. And Bob always put us out in these resort hotels and all expenses paid. It was just incredible! It was like being on a cruise ship or something.
Have you ever read the book On the Road with Bob Dylan that Larry Sloman wrote about the tour?
Yeah, I did. I read that, yeah. There was also Sam Shepard put one out a couple years after that.
Yeah, the Rolling Thunder Logbook.
Yeah, he called me a “mad bomber.”
Did Sloman’s book paint an accurate picture of the tour?
Yeah, I think so. He did. He was on the thing and at first he wasn’t allowed access to anybody. Bob kept him at arm’s length. Gradually he ingratiated himself to Bob and they became kind of friends and Bob let him hang out. And Larry and I got along fine. Yeah, we were having fun together. He painted a favorable picture, I think, of the whole thing. I really liked his book.
You’re one of the few people who have actually shared a microphone with Dylan on several occasions. That must be a thrill. How’s his breath?
Yeah, well, he doesn’t have bad breath, no. He was never offensive on the mic.
He must have a lot of respect for you.
Well yeah, I’m honored to have shared the stage with him from time to time. He’s invited me other times too where it wasn’t recorded like when he came to a town where I happened to be. Or I’d happen to be in a town where he was performing. Just sort of show up at the venue and he’d invite me up to do “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” or something that we had in common. It’s always fun to play with him. But you have to be careful because everybody wants to do that and he gets a little tired of it. I remember one time he told me, I won’t name names, but there was a guy in San Francisco that showed up every night, like a week-long thing. He felt obliged to him to share the stage, and he gets tired of it after a while. So, you got to be careful with it.
He’s a very singular and independent person it seems; always wanting to do his own thing. Even these days, almost 75 years old, he’s embracing American standards on his last and upcoming new album Fallen Angels.
Well, they’re beautifully crafted songs and they don’t write songs like that anymore — like really wonderful lyrics and melodies, and it was kind of like the golden age of pop music. I can see what his attraction to those songs is. I haven’t really listened to his recordings of those. I’ll probably check them out today on YouTube. Someone probably put them up there. But I can see why he would do it, because they’re great songs.
How do you think those songs fit into American song history?
Well, it’s just, I mean, I can just see his appreciation for all those different types of music, and he goes from one thing to another, I guess, you know, for variety’s sake. The Christmas album [2009’s Christmas in the Heart] was a crack up. And some whimsical things he does like that Victoria’s Secret commercial, and then that IBM commercial where he’s talking to a computer!
You know him better than a lot of people do. What do you think makes him want to do something such as that Victoria’s Secret commercial?
I think it’s just, someone pitched him on it and he found it sounded like fun. He delights in doing something you don’t expect him to do. So that’s what that’s about.
For the seminal 1960s film Easy Rider Dylan was able to convince the producers to use your version of his song “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” even though they really wanted to use his original version. He also scribbled some lines down on a napkin and gave it to, which turned out to be “The Ballad of Easy Rider”?
Yeah, that’s true. I tell this story in the show. You’ll love it — the story telling in the show. Basically, it’s that he didn’t like the ending [of Easy Rider]. He thought, you know, there should be revenge or something — that those guys shouldn’t have gotten away with killing the two stars. But that was his reason for not wanting to be involved with it. And then he thought it was going to be another low-budget motorcycle movie … and so he didn’t want to be involved in it. And so he wrote some notes. He wrote: “The river flows / It flows to the sea / Wherever that river flows/ That’s where I want to be.” And I came up with the second verse and made up the tune for it, and then I gave him credit for it. But he called me a few weeks later and said, “Take it off. I don’t need the money.”
Did you keep that napkin?
I have no idea where that napkin is. I lost, lost track of it. I wish I had it. It would probably be worth money now.
What can people expect at the Millville show?
Yeah, it’s just me and four instruments. I have an acoustic 7-string that I kind of designed for Martin guitar, an acoustic 12-string, 12-string Rickenbacker, and a five-string banjo, and I do a variety of things. I do folk songs, I do traditional, and I do songs from my various solo albums and Byrds stuff. I’m not one of those artists who say, “I don’t do my old songs.”
Right. They’re good songs!
Yeah. Fortunately we didn’t do bubblegum [pop], so yeah, I guess good songs. And then I tell stories. I set each song up with a story about that song. ... It’s sort of autobiographical. It’s like a one-man show.
How long have you been doing this type of show?
I think it’s been probably since about the mid-’80s. The way this came about was interesting because, in the ’60s, it was considered uncool to talk on stage. You’d do a song, and then say “thank you” and do another song and that was the format, and I kept on doing it like that even in my solo work. And I was playing with John Prine. I believe it was in Dallas, and I opened up for John, and John tells wonderful stories, you know, he just gets the audience really wound up in his stories, and the review came out the next day, said, “Well, unless you were a really big Roger McGuinn fan, it was kind of boring because all he did was sing some songs.” And I took that as constructive criticism and said, “You know, there’s something to that,” because I watched John and he was so amazing with the storytelling. So my wife and I started writing some scripts to put in between the songs, and over the years that kind of evolved into a complete one-man play. I’ve got all these different stories and these different songs, but the whole format is — it’s like The Life of Will Rogers without it being about Will Rogers.
I guess that’s the ideal situation — to be engaged with the audience.
Yes. You’ve got that right, for sure. I’m very comfortable up there and people notice that I’m having fun and they have fun. And when asked what they liked best about the show, they usually say the stories. And then they go, “Oh, I like the music, too.” But I’m very comfortable. There’s a hump to get over with that, so like, I’ve gotten over it, and — I remember reading Joan Baez’s autobiography some years ago, and she talked about performing being like standing in front of a firing squad. That she really feared it, and I’ve been through that in my life, where the first time that spotlight comes on and you can’t see anything, you imagine you could be shot or something. But gradually, you get over that, and you kind of embrace it, and it’s home. It’s a part of your life.
Finally, any upcoming projects?
Well, we’re taking a break after [this leg of the tour], because it took us about a year to put all the new Folk Den Project songs together — mix them down, and master them and everything — so we’re just taking a little break. I think the next thing we’ll do will be a Christmas album, because that’ll be from the Folk Den. They’re songs we’ll just make a compilation of, Christmas songs.