Plain folk

Roger McGuinn, still a Byrd man, doesn't wanna be a rock 'n' roll star

There are more people outside the club than in it. Dozens of them loiter about as they try to catch a whiff of what's cooking behind those closed doors. They lean against the outside walls, putting their ears to the bricks to hear just a little of what's going on inside the Cactus Café, a folkies' retreat snuggled away on the University of Texas campus. Every now and then, you can hear the crowd singing at the top of its collective lungs: "To everything, turn, turn, turn," they coo, a gospel choir on Sunday morning. "There is a season, turn, turn, turn, and a time for every purpose under heaven." Later, they begin again, their sing-along repertoire consisting of the eternal songs written and co-written by the man on stage, and if not written by him, then made famous by him -- "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Eight Miles High," and, finally, "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star."

It's during that last song that Peter Case, the once and future Plimsoul who ditched "rock" for the troubadour's lament, suddenly turns his head toward the Cactus' closed doors. Case -- whose one big hit, "A Million Miles Away," once flew on borrowed Byrds wings -- is due to go on next. Suddenly, he can't stomach the thought.

"Jesus -- Roger McGuinn, father of country-rock, folk-rock, psychedelic-rock, space-rock," Case says. He turns back around, hangs his head, and then speaks in a tone of voice full of awe and not a little resentment. "Listen to him -- Roger McGuinn, singin' 'So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star.' How the hell am I supposed to follow that?" He pauses, grins, shrugs. "You just can't."

The Byrds in December 1969, from left: Clarence White, Skip Battin, Roger McGuinn, and Gene Parsons. White -- "an unsung hero," says McGuinn -- died four years later.
The Byrds in December 1969, from left: Clarence White, Skip Battin, Roger McGuinn, and Gene Parsons. White -- "an unsung hero," says McGuinn -- died four years later.

Earlier that day, sitting in the Driskill Hotel, McGuinn insisted he had shown up at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference just to "hang out" and, yeah, pitch a little product: some new Byrds reissues, a folk-song Web site he maintains, and a series of new CDs. During the festival, McGuinn shows up everywhere: sharing stages with the Jayhawks twice in one night, playing by himself at the Cactus, and trading music-biz war stories with Chuck D and Peter Case during one of two panels on which he appears. Yet for some reason, McGuinn travels throughout the conference unmolested, while Patti Smith's and Neil Young's every move and word are recorded by awe-struck journalists. Perhaps McGuinn doesn't carry their cachet because he has released only a handful of solo records, a scant two of which remain in print: 1991's Back From Rio and 1996's Live From Mars. Perhaps he's one of those pioneers people consider past his prime, a hallowed vestige instead of a viable option.

But even if we are foolish enough to assume McGuinn's best days are 30 years behind him, there's no disputing his legacy. The man is responsible, in large part, for two of folk-rock's touchstones: Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn! even now breathe fire while so many albums that came out in the mid-1960s cough up ash. They sound like something Bob Dylan cooked up during an all-night smoke-out/hootenanny with John Lennon. The Byrds borrowed from the Beatles and Dylan and even the Beach Boys, then reshaped pop and folk into their own jingle-jangle image. Theirs was the sound of a 12-string guitar rendered as enormous as any orchestra, of sweet harmonies soaked in bitters, of a back-porch past dressed up in Los Angeles' neon future. And the Byrds would reinvent themselves every few months: 1966's Fifth Dimension was a swirl of psychedelia, and 1968's Sweetheart of the Rodeo, with Gram Parsons on board, gave birth to that bastard known as "country-rock."

Theirs would be a short-lived existence, but their sound would reverberate long past the band's demise. The Byrds were one of those bands that was so influential, they inspired those who had once been their role models. And they would spawn dozens of children, from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to R.E.M. to Uncle Tupelo to Crowded House to the Jayhawks. Listen only to Hüsker Dü's reverential cover of "Eight Miles High"; not even the punks could destroy what McGuinn, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, Gene Clark, and Michael Clarke built in 1965.

"I knew what we were doing was, well, important right after The Byrds got popular and we were kinda influencing what the Beatles were doing," McGuinn says, speaking in hushed, modest tones. "I realized that we were doing something that other people were picking up. I think they were drawn to the feel. It's a love of those chord structures and the jingle-jangle thing, the story-songs and the melodies. It's almost the antithesis of what's commercial today. Nowadays, I think of bands like Wilco and Son Volt and the Jayhawks. I feel most comfortable with them and the kind of crossover artists who do rock and country.

"And it's a big thrill to find out you're an influence. It's amazing. I get e-mail from people daily, and the standard e-mail I get is, 'I'm in my 40s, and I grew up on your music, and you've influenced me,' and some are professional musicians who bought a Rickenbacher or a Martin or whatever, a 12-string, because of my work. I feel, like, honored. In a way, it's such an overload of that that I can't relate to it, and I kind of just tune in to it. It's like, 'Another one!'" He laughs slightly. "That's great."

That the Byrds wouldn't last for long was no surprise: Crosby and McGuinn were best friends and bitter enemies, always fighting for control of the band. When Crosby was kicked out by McGuinn and Chris Hillman in 1967, the band began spinning the revolving door. Seven years later, they would bid a shrug of a farewell with a self-titled toss-off on Asylum.

But despite the band's efforts to sully its reputation, Sony Legacy has done a remarkable job in recent years of restoring a little shine. A few weeks ago, the label released the Byrds' final albums for Columbia -- 1970's (Untitled) and 1971's Byrdmaniax and Farther Along -- in addition to a never-before-heard concert disc, Live at the Fillmore -- February 1969. All of them contain bonus tracks: (Untitled), in fact, contains so many lost-in-the-vault live, studio, and alternate-take discoveries, it has been retitled (Untitled)/(Unissued) and spread out over two CDs. Though reviled by critics and ignored by the public, each disc contains its share of epiphanies. The live album is especially significant for the opportunity to hear guitarist Clarence White and McGuinn render the intro to "Eight Miles High" a nearly indecipherable mishmash of notes and catharsis.

That McGuinn is even willing to support the Legacy reissues is almost astonishing: In interviews in the 1980s and '90s, he could often be found lamenting that he did not break up the Byrds in 1969, after so many tumultuous personnel changes left him the only remaining charter member in the band. "The whole thing was a mistake," he told Edward Kiersh in 1986. "I should have gone solo right then," McGuinn said, referring to the moment when Hillman and Parsons went off to form the Flying Burrito Brothers.

That he's out there touting them is more a testament to White's contributions to the band than it is to his own. White, a Maine-born bluegrass picker who invented his own string-bending device, lasted six years in the Byrds, and he would nearly reinvent the band in his own image. That he has faded from memory is no surprise: He was killed in 1973, struck down by a drunk driver. If nothing else, McGuinn would like history to remember White more fondly; perhaps these reissues, each full of White's lightning, will help.

"Putting these together, it was very heartwarming to hear Clarence White that close when you could isolate him and it was just Clarence playing, you know?" he says, smiling. "It was just like he was alive again, and that was a good thing. My feeling about these reissues is it's a great way to get Clarence White's name more recognized, because he's kind of an unsung hero as guitar players go. You see these lists of top 100 guitar players -- he oughta be in the top 10, man. And he isn't, and I think this stuff will help him out. Not that he physically benefits" -- McGuinn again emits a small, gentle laugh -- "but I see Gram Parsons elevated to a level like Jim Morrison, and I think, 'What about Clarence White?'

"And I look at all of these reissues, and I look at the overview of the whole thing, and I'm happy with the whole texture of what the Byrds did. Any place you enter it will lead to somewhere else, and in a way, it's kinda neat that people can start somewhere a little more advanced down on the line and then go back to the early thing, which was more pop. I mean, it wasn't bubblegum, because of the content of the lyrics, but the approach was very Top 40 when we were trying to get a hit with 'Mr. Tambourine Man.'"

If nothing else, these reissues allow McGuinn the opportunity to close the door on the Byrds; he promises there will be no reunions, no matter how hard Crosby pushes for one. Instead, he spends his time recording for his Folk Den Web site (http://metalab.unc.edu/jimmy/folkden/songs.html), where, each month, McGuinn posts a brand-new recording of a long-forgotten folk song and often includes its detailed history. (This month's tune, "Dink's Song," is accompanied by a story from John Lomax.) McGuinn began the project in November 1995 (first song: "Old Paint") and has amassed such a collection, they're available on three CDs from MP3.com for only eight bucks each. McGuinn likes to think of it as "community service," his way of preserving a crumbling bit of the past. Including, maybe, himself.

"About seven years ago, I started to worry about the longevity of these traditional songs, because of the nature of the music business," he says. "Not much was being played, and it wasn't really rewarding for artists to go into traditional music, so I thought I'd do it for free and keep the songs going. Folk music had its commercial run in the late '50s and early '60s, and then kind of got ground up by the Beatles. There was nothing after the British Invasion.

"I don't know if it's ever going to be as big as it was in the late '50s or the '60s, but I just love this stuff, and I feel very comfortable doing it. I feel at this stage of my life that it's more...it has more artistic integrity to be doing that on stage than to be trying to be a rock star. I just feel more comfortable in that image, so that's where I'm going with my life. I want to model myself after Segovia, who was in his 90s when he was booked into Carnegie Hall -- only he died, and he didn't make it."

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