McGuinn’s Back Where He Began --26 Years Ago
Roger McGuinn’s concert at the Bacchanal on Monday night will mark an anniversary of sorts. It was almost exactly 26 years ago--in May, 1965--that a 22-year-old guitarist Jim McGuinn (he later changed his name to Roger) led his band, the Byrds, onto the stage of San Diego’s Golden Hall for its first major concert appearance.
The group had released its debut single, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” only a month earlier, and its live performances had been limited to some well-publicized club gigs in its native Los Angeles. Adding momentum to the inaugural road
venture was the fact that the band was opening for the Rolling Stones. McGuinn retains very distinct memories of the occasion.
“At the time of that San Diego show, our entire repertoire consisted of about 10 songs,” McGuinn recalled by telephone Tuesday from his hotel room in Madison, Wis., where he had performed the night before. “But the Stones were late getting to the hall, so, after we played our 10 songs, the promoter was making stretching signs at the side of the stage--he wanted us to keep playing. We looked at him in a panic, like, ‘What are we going to do? We don’t know any more songs!’ And he’s going, ‘Stretch, stretch.’ ”
After some nervous moments, the Byrds extemporized a solution that could have caused even more problems.
“We started playing Stones songs that we knew, like “Not Fade Away” and stuff like that,” McGuinn said. “We were about two or three songs into that when the Stones arrived. I never did hear directly from the Stones what they thought about our covering their material, but later someone told me that Mick (Jagger) thought it was pretty funny.”
Lack of material won’t be a problem this time around. After that San Diego gig, the Byrds went on to become one of the best and most influential bands in rock history. The bristling sound of McGuinn’s Rickenbacker 12-string guitar became the group’s trademark, both cincturing its close, glorious vocal harmonies and lending a metallic futurism to the Byrds’ folk-informed rock.
In the band’s various incarnations--all of which featured McGuinn--the Byrds recorded a dozen albums between 1965 and 1973. Columbia Records released much of that material late last year in a lavishly packaged set of four compact discs that has won kudos from critics and consumers alike. In January, McGuinn and the other original Byrds--Gene Clark, David Crosby, Michael Clarke, and Chris Hillman--were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during ceremonies held in New York.
All of the retroactive attention paid to the Byrds has cast a secondary, but no less intense, light on McGuinn’s own recent work, “Back From Rio.” The album is his first solo studio effort in 13 years, and is widely regarded as the most consistently rewarding of his six solo projects, which date back to 1973’s “Roger McGuinn.” (Columbia Records is preparing a compilation of material from McGuinn’s five previous solo albums for release in June).
Such contemporary notables as Elvis Costello, Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, Jules Shear and Tom Petty either wrote or co-wrote several of the tracks with McGuinn, and backing vocals were contributed by ex-Byrds Crosby and Hillman, as well as by Costello, Petty, Michael Penn and former Eagle Timothy Schmidt.
It would be easy to attribute the high quality of “Back From Rio” to the creative energy derived from those collaborations, or to McGuinn’s long, regenerative period of abstinence from the recording studio. The 48-year-old guitarist and his wife, Camilla, live near Clearwater, Fla. For a few years before beginning work on the new album, the two leisurely toured the country while McGuinn played solo gigs in small, intimate venues. But McGuinn credits the album’s artistic success more to a personal return to roots.
“I just finally got my artistic integrity together,” McGuinn said. “I retrieved my original sense of values and perspective. I took a look at my past work and listened for what it was that I liked. On my solo albums for CBS in the ‘70s, I was sort of spinning my wheels, trying to be someone other than who I was--you know, a little Mick Jagger, a little Bob Dylan--and it wasn’t me. So, I finally came back to myself, to where my strength is.”
The material on “Back From Rio” (released on the Arista label) sounds entirely contemporary while echoing some familiar elements from McGuinn’s past. These include lush vocal harmonies, an update of McGuinn’s Byrds-era fascination with technology (“Car Phone”), a stylistic foundation of country-folk, and the almost literally patented sound of the electric 12-string (McGuinn worked with the Rickenbacker company to produce a limited-edition “Roger McGuinn” model that he promotes at industry trade shows).
McGuinn again is fronting a band for his current tour in support of “Back From Rio” and its hit singles--"King of the Hill” and “Someone to Love.” And though he thoroughly enjoyed the back-to-basics approach of his pre-"Rio” solo performances (which brought him to Humphrey’s on a bill with the Roches in July, 1986), he admits to a rekindling of the old feelings for ensemble play.
“It has actually been a lot of fun--more than I expected,” he said, “largely because it’s a great bunch of guys involved in this tour--a great bus driver, a great road manager and a great band.”
A couple of musicians in McGuinn’s road band are “on loan” from his friends. Guitarist John Jorgenson, a versatile phenom who received “Best Country Guitarist” honors on Wednesday night’s Academy of Country Music awards show, is a member of ex-Byrd Hillman’s Desert Rose Band. Drummer Stan Lynch is from Petty’s group, the Heartbreakers. The current tour repertoire includes songs from “Back From Rio” as well as vintage coins from the Byrds mint, such as “My Back Pages,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” “Chimes of Freedom,” and the timeless “Eight Miles High.”
Considering that McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman occasionally perform together (a mini-tour brought them to a sold-out Bacchanal in January, 1989), and that both McGuinn and the Byrds legacies are riding a high-profile buzz these days, one might assume that there would be interest among the Byrds to record a new album together. But McGuinn said such a project is unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future.
“I think everybody’s too busy to do something like that right now,” he said. “I haven’t even had a chance to think about a follow-up to “Back From Rio.” Of course, if you asked me right now to start writing songs for the next album, they’d probably be in the same vein (as the new album) because that’s the mood I’m in musically. I’m not about to start doing Carioca music, or anything. But I’m enjoying the present too much to worry about the future.”
If McGuinn hasn’t given much thought to the music for the next album, he might already know what to call it. The title of his current opus is McGuinn’s little joke on the music world. In 1967, he changed his first name from Jim to Roger as part of a process of personal redefinition during a brief experimentation with the Eastern religion, Subud. Somehow, that set in motion a rumor that (Jim) McGuinn moved to Rio de Janeiro and left the Byrds in the hands of his brother, Roger. In a small way, the tongue-in-cheek title is backfiring.
“Everyone keeps calling the album ‘Back to Rio,’ when the correct title is ‘Back From Rio,’ ” McGuinn said with a hint of exasperation. “I think there’s a movie or something called ‘Back to Rio’ and people are getting the two confused. Maybe I should name the next one ‘Back to Rio,’ and the new story will be that Jim McGuinn is going there permanently!”
Monday night’s Roger McGuinn concert, originally scheduled for the Spreckels Theatre, has been moved to the Bacchanal. Dave Alvin of the Blasters will open the 8:30 p.m. show. Toy Matinee, the band originally scheduled to play the club on that night, will be rescheduled.