McGuinn proves that genius is ageless

October 4, 2004


A major music venue just north of Detroit was filled to capacity recently for a charity event. The $150 per ticket "pre-party" was a chance for the wealthy to meet and talk with some of America's most popular and successful authors such as Stephen King ("The Shining") and Amy Tan ("Joy Luck Club"). Oddly enough, nobody seemed to care about any of the multimillionaire best-selling authors. They were crowded around a single man who was sitting in with the band: Jim "Roger" McGuinn, Byrds mastermind and America's most influential rock musician.

McGuinn created The Byrds in late 1964 as a synthesis of Beatles musical sensibility and the social and political content of folk music, which he had played professionally since his 18th birthday in July of 1960. He played an audition for The Limelighters, a national recording act, and got the job as their stage guitarist. Luckily, the tour started after July. They didn't realize "Skinny McGuinny" was a high school kid who was allowed into the Gate Of Horn by a sympathetic doorman.

McGuinn toured with The Limelighters, The Chad Mitchell Trio, and Bobby Darin, who hired him away to write full time at Darin's music publishing company in New York. McGuinn was a professional songwriter on salary while his friend Bob Zimmerman (Dylan) was roaming the streets playing for tips. When Byrds manager Jim Dickson wanted McGuinn to rewrite the unreleased demo of "Mr. Tambourine Man" that Dylan's publishing company sent over, Dave Crosby refused to do it. Only Dylan's sweet-talking the various band members at a meeting persuaded them to go along with Dickson's wishes. McGuinn wrote the signature guitar line to open the song, rearranged the melody, tempo, and edited the lyrics, and played the song with Hal Blaine on drums, Larry Knecthal on rhythm guitar, and various other session players. Crosby and Gene Clark were allowed to sing backup vocals. The Byrds first #1 hit single was born.

The industry papers dubbed it "Folk Rock" and dozens of imitators sprang up with their own hits. By the time the first album was released, The Byrds were called "the American Beatles" and every kid in America were wearing cheap knockoffs of McGuinn's tiny rectangular sunglasses. Tens of millions were sold, but McGuinn never made a single penny from it. John Lennon was fascinated by them because he thought it was a way to wear his specs without looking like a dweeb. Lennon was one of the very few people in the world to know that McGuinn's glasses were actually prescription sunglasses that he had custom made.

Eventually, John settled on the John Sebastion-style old fashioned round lenses. By 1967, McGuinn moved on to start the "aviator" wire rim craze that lasted to this very day. He wore them on the cover of "Notorious Byrd Brothers", released January 1968. His friend Peter Fonda gave them a lot more exposure in "Easy Rider", a film McGuinn wrote the theme for and contributed a revamped Dylan song along with "Wasn't Born To Follow" from the "Notorious" album. According to Crosby, McGuinn also contributed the inspiration for Fonda's character in the film. Between Fonda's shorter hair, glasses, and perfect imitation of McGuinn's general behavior, it would seem to bear out Crosby's claim. Dennis Hopper did such an amazing job of becoming Crosby in hair, mustache, fringe jacket, and idiot hippie demeanor, it seems nothing else could be possible. They played Jane Fonda's 21st birthday party, fer chrissake; it isn't like they were strangers. Fonda even wrote the liner notes to the following Byrds album "Ballad Of Easy Rider".

McGuinn now tours the world as a solo act and plays benefits with the Rockbottom Remainders, a band of famous authors and journalists. He has also released his greatest solo album in 30 years: "Limited Edition", the first to rival Byrds albums in overall brilliance. McGuinn opens with a tribute to his longtime friend George Harrison, "If I Needed Someone". Harrison freely admitted that he based the song on McGuinn's arrangement of Pete Seeger's "Bells Of Rhymney" and the two stayed in touch since first meeting in 1965. The rest of the album is McGuinn originals and traditional folk and blues classics. McGuinn uses his new signature Epiphone Byrdland six string on many of the rock and blues songs as well as his Rickenbacker 12 string on some of the others. These, along with his Martin acoustic 12-string and new 7-string make him the guitarist with the most "signature" models by more guitar makers than any other guitarist in history.

After inventing the micro-amp (which he used on "Eight Miles High"), Folk Rock, Space Rock, "Raga" Rock, Jazz Rock, Country Rock, Jesus Rock, and adding synthesizers to rock before anyone else, it's amazing they don't have a statue of him in front of the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. He was even named repeatedly in the chorus of a Mamas & Papas hit ("McGuinn & McGuire, still
gettin' higher in LA, ya know where that's at...").

The interesting thing is, everyone who meets him walks away saying "I can't believe he's so NICE! He treats you just like a close friend, even though you never even met him before!" If they knew what he's done secretly for his old friends and former friends, they'd probably start crying. McGuinn has an impish sense of humor, but his good works would earn him the nickname "Saint James" if the world ever knew the whole truth. His friends and family have let some details slip out, but the public will never know. That's the way he is; he's the Anti-Crosby. He still feels bad for firing Dave Crosby as his backup singer, but "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo" would have never existed if he didn't and even "Bong" Crosby admits he deserved to be fired. He did, however, buy up the rights to the Byrds name in an attempt to get McGuinn to do a reunion. "I love the guy" McGuinn admits, "I just don't want to play with him".

Very few rock stars won't do absolutely anything just for "the money". On the other hand, there is only one McGuinn.

Onto the gig. After a few competent renditions of 60's cover tunes plus a strangely out-of-place cover of Billy Joel's "You May Be Right" sung by Detroit sports writer Mitch Album, the host cautiously announced the appearance of a "real rock
star". At that point, McGuinn took center stage and launched into an extended version of "Mr. Tambourine Man".

The audience acted as though God took the stage and was handinding out $1,000 bills.

He then went on to "Turn, Turn, Turn" and pullled a surprise by following it with "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" from the legendary "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo" album. In the absence of a pedal steel guitar, McGuinn played the lead lines on his electric 12-string to remarkable effect. It sounded as that was the way the record should have sounded in the first place.

He then quietly disappeared into the wings while Mitch Album returned to the mike for what was probably the worst performance of "Paperback Writer" you could possibly imagine. Hey - they pay him to write sports, not to sing. This was a chance for authors and journalists to play at being musicians, and Album is actually a very competent keyboard player. The rest of the band was far
more than adequate and really not bad in most cases. The singing was spotty, but Bob Dylan gave everyone else an excuse to sing onstage decades ago and the press have worshipped him ever since. Now we know why.

"Limited Edition" is available only at