First, there was the word. Then the song, then AM radio, or was it soft tacos--it doesn't matter, anyway. For a while the bird was the word--as in that forgettable song by the Trashmen. Then the Byrds were the word. Then came that distinctive sound, a bunch of memorable songs and a spot in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.
"Well, I've had a couple of people congratulate me, but so far, that's about it," said Roger McGuinn in a recent phone interview discussing life after his recent induction in the hall of fame.
Always the biggest Byrd of them all, McGuinn, is now just a famous dude with a big 12-string Rickenbacker guitar and a new album. He'll perform at the Ventura Theatre Saturday night with another memorable guitar god--but one with a much shorter resume--former Blaster and former X string picker, Dave Alvin.
McGuinn's been here before. Just last year, there was the mind-bending Byrds reunion tour. Long before that, the Byrds played Santa Barbara High School in 1965--in between, the Byrds became famous, suffered the inevitable "creative differences," and broke up.
McGuinn has been around so long he used to be somebody else. Born Jim McGuinn, he changed his name to Roger for no apparent reason in the mid-'60s. And before the Byrds, he was even mellow--mellower even than pop rock, than folk rock; he was a folk singer.
"I got turned on to Elvis in about 1956," said McGuinn. "Then I got my first guitar, four years later."
McGuinn got his first job in the early '60s as a teen-age guitarist and banjo player for folk legends, the Limeliters, and then later, the Chad Mitchell Trio. After that, McGuinn hooked up with pop singer Bobby Darin and played with him for several years. Next, McGuinn worked with folk singer Judy Collins, and then as a solo folk act.
In 1964, at a gig at the happening folk hangout of the day, the Troubador in Los Angeles, McGuinn met Gene Clark, another folk singer. One night, McGuinn and Clark were performing when they were joined onstage by a another young singer from Santa Barbara, David Crosby. And then there were three. Soon after, drummer Michael Clarke and bass player Chris Hillman joined, and the Byrds were ready to fly.
Don't be surprised if Clark or Hillman show up to the Ventura gig. Hillman, a country star with his Desert Rose Band, lives in Ventura. Clark lives in L.A. "I don't know if they'll show up--I haven't talked to them yet," said McGuinn.
The Byrds signed with Columbia in 1965 and had a hit with their first song, a rocked-out cover of a Bob Dylan song, "Mr. Tambourine Man." The most memorable thing about the song was McGuinn's chiming guitar sound achieved with a 12-string Rickenbacker.
"The 12-string makes a big chiming sound that I like," said McGuinn. "Also, not too many people play one. I got turned on to the 12-string by watching 'A Hard Day's Night.' George Harrison was playing one in that movie. But basically, I just like the way it sounds."
Just as filmdom's famous fin-head, Jeff Spiccoli of "Fast Times At Ridgemont High," caused a mini-fashion revolution with his checkered tennis shoes, so did McGuinn 15 years earlier with his trademark Ben Franklin specs.
Besides being fashionable, McGuinn and the Byrds had a ton of hits, such as "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "Eight Miles High." The recent CBS Byrds' retrospective package contains three CDs. They also invented a new genre of music-folk rock, a sound that later influenced bands such as R.E.M. and Tom Petty. In their spare time, the band also invented country rock, but that's another story.
"I don't know what folk rock is," said McGuinn. "Some writer somewhere made it up." When asked to describe his current music, McGuinn was quick to reply, "Folk rock."
McGuinn has been performing as a solo act for most of the past decade, playing small halls from sea to shining sea. But with the success of his new album, McGuinn has a lengthy nationwide tour lined up and a new band behind him. "Back From Rio," McGuinn's first album since Jimmy Carter was eating peanuts in the White House, has a hit on it: "King of the Hill." The music sounds a lot like that of the Byrds.
"I just enjoy getting up in front of people and making them happy. I live in Florida now--it's a lot more laid back there. In fact my band, the Headlights, are from Florida."
Don't forget where you are--he's a rock 'n' roll star.