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Interview with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds

February 14, 1970, Indianapolis Coliseum

By Vincent Flanders

(Copyright © 1996 Vincent Flanders)

One of the best interviews Roger ever gave he gave to me back in 1970. This interview was before the days of spin doctors and 14-page forms interviewers had to sign about which questions they can and can't ask.

Note #1: Originally, this interview was thought to be from the Byrds concert of February 14, 1970. It turns out that a small part of this interview was taken from an interview Austin Chandler and I did at DePauw University on May 10, 1969.

Note #2: There's an interesting story behind this photo of Roger on the right. The main Byrds site was originally at the University of Arkansas and they had a link to this interview, but took it down. Here's the e-mail from September 6, 1995, explaining why:

Sorry man. I made the link, but I got a letter from Roger asking that I remove it due to some statements he made that he now considers inappropriate I guess. He didn't like himself looking fat in the picture either. We all have our little vanities. I thought it was a good interview myself.(

As Al Pacino said in the movie Devil's Advocate, "Vanity, definitely my favorite sin." Of course, Rolling Stone magazine has a picture of him where he looks really fat -- but I guess that's OK.

Flanders: What happened to Gene Clark?

McGuinn: Gene Clark is earlier in the picture, right? Well, it was a combination of things. David was sort of riding and hounding him. David had a better background in the English language, sciences, mathematics, and other things. He took advantage of those things to make Gene feel inferior. Gene is really an intelligent person, but he's not well educated. He's a nice guy and he's a bright cat really -- underneath it -- but he's hung up and awkward and like a country boy -- you know what I mean? Like he's not really a city slicker. And Crosby like took advantage of his country background, of Gene's country background, and sort of hounded him into giving up the guitar, in the beginning so David would get to play it.

David wasn't playing guitar at first -- Gene was. It worked for about a year-and-a-half. Gene went flying with us and everything. But one day all the pressure and a bunch of bad experiences with a chick Gene went through with -- after all this he had a crisis on an airplane just about to close the doors and take off for New York from LA. We were all going to do a Murry the K special. Gene flipped out on the airplane, man -- couldn't stand it, got off the airplane. We said, 'Hey man, if you get off the airplane, if you can't fly you can't be in the group any more.' Gene said, 'I know that, but if I stay on it I'll go crazy,' so he split.

Flanders: What happened to Mike Clarke?

McGuinn: Well, after the big Beatlemania thing sort of faded and the girls stopped rushing the stage trying to get our clothes off and everything, or just touch us or whatever they were after -- I don't remember exactly what it was, something -- that was the gig to Michael. He's turned into a drummer, but at the time he wasn't. Like when we got him off the street he never played traps before in his life. He played conga drums and he was pretty good at it.

He's intelligent and has talent in other areas -- he can draw and so on. He's very good at that. But he had to learn how to play the drums and he learned cold with the Byrds. I thought he faked it pretty well I thought.

Flanders: Why, in the beginning, didn't you get a good drummer? Why was it Mike Clarke instead of someone like Gene Parsons?

McGuinn: We were not very systematic about the formation of the group. It happened very naturally. Gene (Clark) and I just sort of blended together one night (McGuinn was singing Beatle songs at the Troubadour, an LA club) and decided to form a duet. And the very same night, within ten minutes after we had gotten our thing together with some songs that we both collaborated on -- like (we'd) written a couple of songs in two minutes, right? -- David Crosby comes along and says, 'Can I sing harmony?' and we said 'Sure' cause I'd known David from 1960 when I was out on the coast working with the Limelighters. And so there was David singing and we had a trio.

David took us over to Jim Dickson who had a gig at World Pacific Jazz. Dickson started us off when we were all broke, busted out on the street before the days of 'Any spare change?' If you said 'Any spare change?' to somebody back then, you'd get your mouth busted in. We just scuffled. Dickson supported us. One hamburger a day was our diet -- we got emaciated but we worked hard and everything.

We saw Michael (Clarke) on the street man, and he just looked right. David had met him up in Big Sur playing conga drums and he said, 'Hey man, you wanna be a drummer?' and Michael said, 'Sure.' so we all got together and did it.

David was originally going to be the bass player and Gene was going to be the rhythm guitarist. Well, David didn't want to learn to play the bass and Gene's timing wasn't that hot at the time -- he's got it together now, but his timing on the rhythm wasn't together -- he was a little slow on the beat. So as I said, David swiped the guitar away from Gene and we had to get a bass player so we got Chris (Hillman).

That (hiring Chris) was Dickson's idea. Dickson found Chris working at a place called Ledbetter's which is owned by Randy Sparks who started the New Christy Minstrels. Chris was playing mandolin at the time with a group called the Greengrass Group, I think. It was a horrible, watered-down, Disneyland kind of version of bluegrass. Chris was just in it for a steady $100 a week and all the beer you could drink at the club or whatever. So that was it.

Flanders: Did you ask Mike to leave?

McGuinn: He was unhappy with it. It wasn't happening for him. He didn't dig the way things were going and it was a low point in our career. I say 'our' collectively -- the Byrds as an institution rather than a group of people. When Michael left it was really sort of down. The record we came out with during that point was nice (The Notorious Byrd Brothers), but it hadn't been released. That was the last record Michael was on.

Flanders: And then you got Kevin Kelly and...

McGuinn: That was Chris's cousin, see...

Flanders: Was that sort of forced on you?

McGuinn: Yeah, sort of. Chris said, 'I've got a cousin that plays drums' and, again, I wasn't very selective. I sort of trust in nature that things work out all right. I really don't try and force things together. Kevin was okay -- except under pressure on stage. If you had a big crowd, he'd sort of break up a little bit -- his timing would go bad.

Flanders: And Kevin left?

McGuinn: No. Actually he was fired -- another dismissal.

Flanders: And Gram (Parsons) was fired because he wouldn't go to South Africa?

McGuinn: Gram didn't quit, he was let go because he didn't want to go to South Africa with us (July 1968). He said he wouldn't play to segregated audiences. We went down there as a political thing -- to try to turn their heads around -- but he didn't want to participate in that, but it wasn't for political reasons. It was because he wanted to stay in London. He dug it there, dug Marianne Faithful and the Rolling Stones and he wanted to stay in that scene.

He refused to go to South Africa and his reasoning was sound from one point of view, but he didn't understand, or he was unwilling to comprehend my point of view. I'd known Miriam Makeba since I'd worked with the Mitchell Trio back in the early 1960's. Miriam was from there and she managed to escape with the help of Harry Belafonte or somebody. She told me what a horrible place it was. I knew all the political strife they were into and I wanted to go over and do what I could to help it out -- help the black people get liberated.

I know they're arming. I went over and told the white press over there that the blacks were getting armed. I personally knew people who were sending money over there to arm the blacks. I told them there was going to be a bloodbath unless they let up on their apartheid laws. Well, that's like going to Georgia and telling them to integrate. We got threatening letters, telegrams, phone calls in Durban.

Climatically, I enjoyed the country except I had the flu there. I got about a 103-104 degree fever. I had to work through it because we had this (pejorative term deleted) promoter from England who had hepatitis and went to South Africa to recuperate because it was summer down there when it was winter in England and vice-versa. It was winter down there and I caught the flu and they don't have heat in the hotel rooms so I would be sweating all night long and it would be 40 degrees in the room. I kept the flu about two weeks.

Flanders: Why did David Crosby leave the group...

McGuinn: He was fired.

Flanders: For what reason?

McGuinn: He just wasn't making it, man. He's a great talent, you know, and a nice cat -- I like him you know -- but he was getting a little too big for his britches, you know, trying to rule the machine, you know; getting hard to work with, you know. So it was by mutual consent, you know like the three remaining Byrds got together and decided that it would be better if he wasn't around any more. (This section shows you why you have to edit an interview. This is a word-for-word transcription. If I had a dollar for every "you know," I'd be rich.)

Flanders: Where did you find Clarence White?

McGuinn: Clarence worked on Younger Than Yesterday as a studio musician. And at the time when I first heard him I said, "Wow, man that's far out," and I wanted to hire him then but he was busy. He was with a group of his own with Gene Parsons. He was working with Gene and a couple of other guys and he worked on that project for awhile until it didn't happen. Finally, he was available and I hired him as soon as I could. Gene Parsons came along shortly after that, right around the time Chris quit.

Now Chris didn't get fired, he quit. He got uptight one time playing his bass. He didn't want to play the bass any more so he threw it down and quit. He was my equal partner. We were 50-50 partners by that time. It went from a 5-way partnership down to a 50-50 partnership. Then Chris quit and he still hasn't legally relinquished his 50%, but technically speaking, if he went to any court, they'd throw it out because I've been working with the group and he hasn't, so he shouldn't get any of the proceeds. I went to my lawyer and got a profit-sharing system worked out so the guys in the group now are partners. I don't get 100 percent of the profit.

Flanders: About 25 percent then.

McGuinn: It's actually more at this point, but I'm still sharing with them. I'm doing administrative things as well. I'm the manager so I get a percentage for that.

Flanders: Do you do the hiring and firing yourself?

McGuinn: I'm the only one left so I do now. But at the time it was always a democratic vote thing.

Flanders: I read about your musical in Jazz and Pop and that it's going to be happening hopefully this year, right?

McGuinn: Yeah. It doesn't really matter whether it happens this year or next year, but I'd prefer to see it happen this year. It's contemporary, like country-rock oriented. It's got hard rock; it's got country. They're going to do rear projection films and slides and tapes -- mixed media. (It's a) McLuhanistic musical idea with a pit orchestra -- cause you have to have that, the union says you have to have 26 pieces at least but we want that anyway. We have a cat who's going to orchestrate the whole score. I just wrote the tunes and he's going to put it to fiddles and celli and so on.

Flanders: At the time you recorded Sweetheart of the Rodeo Billboard magazine said you recorded ten other tracks. When will they be released?

McGuinn: That's not true.

Flanders: You didn't record ten other tracks?

McGuinn: No.

Flanders: In other words, Sweetheart of the Rodeo was not supposed to be a double album, as Billboard said?

McGuinn: We said we were going to do that, but there was a change of mind in the organization so they released a country album instead.

Flanders: Since the Byrds are usually one step ahead of what's happening, do you think country music hurt you -- even though Sweetheart was accepted and Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde wasn't?

McGuinn: Possibly, I don't know. I don't think Sweetheart was that well accepted.

Flanders: It was accepted but...

McGuinn: The reason Sweetheart didn't do well was because the AM stations didn't go for country and neither did the country people, although the underground FM stations did. So we had a minority of the radio listening audience.

Flanders: What about the electronic music album?

McGuinn: Well, I have the Moog (synthesizer) at home. I'm working on it. It's a slow process. I'm waiting for a guitar keyboard to come out. They don't have one yet so I'm forced to play piano which I don't know how to play -- that's my basic hang-up about doing an electronic album.

Flanders: Will it be a Byrds album or something on Columbia Masterworks?

McGuinn: I think it should be a separate album. I want to do something really significant with it which is why I'm holding off. I like George Harrison personally -- I haven't seen him in a couple of years -- but he released an album (of electronic music) -- he just got his Moog and he put it all down on tape and released it right? Which I could have done too, but I'm not George Harrison.

Like what he did with it, if I'm allowed to be a critic for a minute as a Moog synthesizer musician, was something you do the first day you get it home and you try it out if you put the tape recorder on and let it roll. He went into a bunch of white noise riffs, a bunch of oscillator warble riffs -- things that are very simple man and really just show off the novelty gadget style -- it wasn't musical.

Flanders: When I talked with you last year you talked about your producers ("We got rid of Terry Melcher for sort of internal political reasons because he was doing one thing and we wanted to do another -- musically. And then the second one we got [Allen Stanton] left the company to go with A&M -- he got a better position over there. And then we got Gary Usher, but he was fired by Columbia so we inherited Bob Johnson and I'm very happy about it. He's a gas to work with.) you said Terry Melcher was fired for "internal political reasons" and on this last album (Ballad of Easy Rider) he's back. What's the story on that?

McGuinn: I decided that he would be good to get back again because he has a great deal of know-how in the arrangement area and the A&R department. He's really good and I didn't appreciate him at the time back in the early days until we had to go through Allen Stanton. Gary Usher was good, but he got canned from Columbia. He put out an album by Chad and Jeremy called The Ark that cost $75,000 to produce and it didn't make it back. Seventy-five grand went down the drain and so did Gary Usher's career at Columbia. So he's got his own label now -- Together Records. I like Gary. He's a nice guy.

Flanders: What was your reaction to Preflyte -- which was put out by Together Records?

McGuinn: I was allowed to hear it before they put it out -- they needed our written permission before they could do it. I gave permission because I thought it would be an interesting historical trip. It's like a time capsule, something that was recorded -- like going out in the field and recording folk songs which doesn't happen any more. It's sort of in that area. If you're interested in the Byrds as an entity -- you want to see what they started with -- you can see the Beatle influences which show up much more vividly on that than they do on our first Columbia album.

Flanders: You've released some singles like Lady Friend...

McGuinn: That were never released on albums. That's because they were bombs as singles so why should we put them on albums?

Flanders: What about She Don't Care About Time?

McGuinn: I love that song, I really do. I don't know why that never got on. That was for the Turn Turn Turn album, right? I think we had enough stuff already -- except that I'm not too happy with the last four cuts of that album. I'm sorry about Oh Susanna. That was a joke, but it didn't come off, it was poorly told. It was a private joke between Dylan and I, actually.

I was riffing with this song -- we were trying to rock anything and Stephen Foster was a funny thing to rock with. Dylan said, "Yeah, you gotta do that on your next album, right?" He didn't really think I would. He didn't think I had the guts to do it so I said, "OK" and I did it. It was a bomb. As far as I was concerned it didn't come out well. We could have done it much better. If we had, it would have been funny.

Flanders: Paul Butterfield, in an article in Hit Parader magazine said that on like the first two albums or so you brought in a bass player and drummer...?

McGuinn: The first single was the only time we ever used -- well, we actually did use outside musicians here and there, sparsely. Clarence was used. But we did use Hal Blaine, the drummer here and there. He's a studio drummer in LA. He's on -- you just name a hit and he's been on it, like anybody coming out of LA. He's one of the hotter studio drummers, like all the Mamas and Papas stuff is him.

Flanders: Who's R. J. Hippard?

McGuinn: He's a friend of mine, Bob Hippard. He and I share a fondness for science fiction and a frustration to communicate with extraterrestrial life.

Flanders: Some people took the song Mr. Spaceman about trying to communicate as a hoax.

McGuinn: Well, the song lends itself to that type of thinking because it is silly in the middle. "Blue-green footprints that glow in the dark" is a silly line and I sort of regret putting that in there, but I was trying to put out my feelings. I had just read a flying saucer book or two, or three, or four and I had just gotten into flying saucer books, testimonials -- highway patrol officer so-and-so was driving down highway such-and-such and he saw this orange light come in front of him and his car stopped and he got out and flashing red lights came on. Like all those books have the same reports in them basically. Some of them are real and some of them aren't. Incidentally, I'm glad they closed up Project Blue Book. Nobody's recorded any flying saucers lately, have they?

Flanders: If they are, they're not getting any press coverage.

McGuinn: It might be boycotted -- blackballed. It could happen.

Flanders: Have you recorded any songs that haven't been put on albums? Like I remember reading an advertisement for The Notorious Byrd Brothers that said Moog Raga...

McGuinn: Yeah, we did the Moog Raga. It's in the can at Columbia, it's in the library and will never be released because it's out of tune -- that's the only reason. You have to stack with the synthesizer. Stacking, for those of you who don't know about what it is, it's putting one layer or channel of tape over another -- overdubbing. It was a stacked thing. We first put down the tambura sound, then we put down the melody line. The melody line was out of tune with the tambura sound. the 'whaangyang' sound was all right, but when we put the 'dodooyadoooyaa' I was doing it on a linear controller on the Moog. Man, it's really hard. It's like learning to play the violin immediately -- you play it across from right to left. Like it's horizontal and you play it by pushing your finger down on a Teflon strip about a half-inch side and about 1/5 of a millimeter in thickness and it's about one millimeter off the graphite undercoating -- what it is is a big potentiometer.

And so I put black grease pencil marks on the strips to find the notes, but sill my ear was a little off that night is what it was. I just wasn't hearing in tune correctly the night that we did it and we never got to return to it and clean it up. Like I can do it better now from scratch because I know the synthesizer inside out -- electronically. My only hangup, as I say again, is the keyboard. I'm not a keyboard cat. I'm waiting for a guitar neck to come out or otherwise I have to make one myself and I'm not in town long enough to really get involved in the project -- it'd take six months to get a working guitar neck.

Flanders: Are they trying to make one?.

McGuinn: Paul Beaver, the west coast franchise for Moog, is allegedly trying t make one. I don't know if he will or not or how he'll work it. It's a difficult proposition because of the mechanics involved. You'd have to have switches that are small enough to put six across per fret -- on the guitar neck -- which is very small. In fact, they don't make switches that small yet. They make little buttons that small, but the switch itself is about an inch long so logistically it can't be done that way.

I had a solution in my head that I haven't proposed to anyone in the electronics field. My solution was to make a converter that would take the actual tone of the guitar through a preamp and then convert it into a voltage that would control the oscillators. It sounds good, but it would be hard to do.

Flanders: What's the next single going to be?

McGuinn: We're not sure yet, we'll have to record some more stuff. Right now it looks good for Lover of the Bayou which is a reject from my musical, Tryp -- not because of the musical quality, but because the scene that it was in was cut because of time. The musical ran 4 1/2 hours on the first reading so we had to cut it down to at least half of that. So the bayou scene where Gene Tryp, the main character, was in the bayou area selling guns to the Confederates and rum to the slaves. The slaves find out about it and Big Cat sings this song (Lover of the Bayou) to Gene Tryp to scare him.

That's what the story line was, but that segment's been cut out of the play. I talked to Jacques Levy three weeks ago in New York and he told me that song was clear -- we could use it. I've been sitting on this stuff for over a year now waiting for them to cut it.

Flanders: Any chance for Gunga Din as a single?

McGuinn: I think it's too late for that. Once you put an album out and have a single or two released off it you shouldn't go back. It would be like going back to The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Columbia Records does that sometimes without our approval. In the contract it's worded very sneakily -- like we have the "right of comment". It must be shown to us for our comment, but doesn't say what the hell they'll do with it after we see it.

So what usually happens is they don't even show it to us. In this last case they didn't. (Columbia put Wasn't Born to Follow as the flip side of some copies of The Ballad of Easy Rider. The original release had Oil in my Lamp.)

Flanders: The next album (which turned out to be Untitled) is probably going to be the same -- hard rock?

McGuinn: We're going to get harder rock and less country -- soft country.

Flanders: So you feel that Sweetheart hurt you.

McGuinn: It hurt us financially -- as far as sales go.

Flanders: Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde did even worse didn't it?

McGuinn: Yeah, it did. Well, it really wasn't as good an album -- musically. At least Sweetheart had some integrity whereas Dr. Byrds was a more or less contrived departure. I'm not too happy with that one. That doesn't mean you should stop listening to it if you have it. An artist should never be satisfied with his own work anyway. I can't really say that I'm satisfied with anything we've ever done. I can find holes in anything we've ever done -- which is a healthy symptom, I think.

Flanders: On the Dick Cavet Show you did a version of Jesus Is Just Alright; you did another version tonight, and you did one when I saw you last year that was about 4 1/2 minutes long and had a really beautiful "McGuinn" guitar solo in it. How did the sliced-down version happen on the single?

McGuinn: The single was cut for down for time reasons because in our position we can't afford to do over 2:06. If you're the Beatles, you can go 3-4 minutes. It depends on who you are. At one point we could go three minutes. Turn, Turn, Turn was 3:35. Some stations would cut it off after the third verse -- they'd chop it and go into a promo or commercial. Most of them played it because at the time we were hot. Right now we're getting hotter. We're not getting any colder -- we can't get any colder. Like most groups would have broken up and quit by now. There's something inside me that drives me to do it. I feel that my spirit is driving me into this. I feel I'm doing a service of some kind or other.

Flanders: It seems, when you really get down to it, you are the Byrds.

McGuinn: Well, not really. Clarence White, Gene Parsons, and Skip Battin should not be discounted. You can't say that about them and not discount them. So you have to say I started the Byrds and that I sustained them, but the contributions are made by the other guys in the group are very strong and worthy of comment. Too many people jump to the conclusion that the Byrds would be the same no matter who else was in it besides me. I never wanted to have it that way.

Flanders: The Byrds have sort of a constant sound -- but changing at the same time.

McGuinn: Yeah. That's been part of our fun. We knew about getting locked into a bag like so many groups did. They had success for a while and they were locked into their bag and their bag just fell down and they fell down with it. Like we would do a Houdini from every bag that we got locked into with handcuffs on. We'd pick the locks and jump out of the bag. Tah Dah! Here we are in the country field; here we are in the rock field; here we are in the jazz field -- we're doing a number on the public which they didn't really take too well, but at least we didn't get locked into a bag. We're not folk-rock -- you can't say that about us any more, really. We do it. We do the old stuff as well or better than the original group did live. Right?

Flanders: The last time you were here (Indianapolis, Indiana) a cherry bomb was thrown at you.

McGuinn: Really? I don't remember.

Flanders: You did about 15 minutes and a cherry bomb was thrown at you and you split.

McGuinn: I like cherry bombs. I throw them myself but not at people. I didn't take it like they were throwing them at me. I have no mental record of it -- I may have repressed it.

Flanders: Gene (Clark) had just left when you were here...

McGuinn: Ah! 'Where's Gene?' I remember that. People saying, 'Where's Gene?' -- like greasers -- 'WHERE'S GENE?' Well, he got uptight on the airplane...

Flanders: Do you think you'll ever get back the popularity you once had?

McGuinn: Yeah. I can't guarantee it, but I know one fact about show business. Take Sinatra. He was down for 7 years and then he came up bigger than ever. If you keep plugging away at it and if you love it -- I just saw Jimmy Durante, he just had a birthday the other day and he wouldn't divulge his age, but he's in his late 70's right? And they asked, "Why do you stay in the business so long?" and he said, "Because I love it." And that's my answer -- I love it. I have this passionate love for the music business and show business in general.

Flanders: Are you going to be a musician forever?

McGuinn: Yeah. Whether I'm doing it professionally or at home I'll never stop being a musician. I mean, there's no way of getting out of being a musician. Once you learn how to play, you're hooked on it. It's like drugs or something -- it's like coffee or cigarettes. Music is really a great release for your emotions.