Roger McGuinn: Hendrix, Clapton, Lennon, The Byrds and me
He played the Whisky with Jim Morrison and was part of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder revue. He gave John Lennon granny glasses and Brian Wilson speed. He's The Byrds' Roger McGuinn
Reel off any number of watersheds in rock history and it’s odds-on you’ll find Roger McGuinn was involved. He was singer and guitarist with The Byrds, whose 1965 chart-topping take on Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man bridged the gap between folk and rock. The following year’s Eight Miles High, propelled by McGuinn’s dizzying Rickenbacker riff, ushered in a new era of space-rock, while 1968’s Sweetheart Of The Rodeo album brought country to the hippie crowd. McGuinn’s solo career hasn’t been bad, either; he’s played with Dylan, Springsteen, Tom Petty and Bo Diddley. “The 60s were very hectic and intense,” he tells Classic Rock. “You always had the feeling people were gonna pull your eyes out”.
In the early days The Byrds worked with Little Richard when Hendrix was just the sideman playing guitar. We shared the stage at [Sunset Strip club] Ciro’s for a month or so. Then after Clarence White joined The Byrds, Hendrix came backstage at the Whiskey A Go Go, walked over to Clarence and told him how brilliant he was. He was a big admirer of Clarence’s guitar work, as we all were.
I also had the rare opportunity of jamming with Hendrix and Clapton in a loft in New York. We were at a club somewhere and Eric came over and said: “Hey, I’ve got a loft nearby. Do you guys wanna come over and jam? I’ve got amplifiers up there.” So the three of us went to Eric’s loft and it was wild. I remember we played all these old blues songs; not really whole songs but a lot of riffs and licks. There was healthy competition between Clapton and Hendrix.
Clarence was up there with all the best guitar players. He was a wonderful picker. He was very quiet and reserved, like Hendrix, with a subtle, dry sense of humour. He was funny but didn’t say an awful lot. He really expressed himself through his playing.
I saw him the day before he died. It was my birthday on the 13th [July, 1973], and he was killed a day later [White was hit by a drunk driver at 2am while loading stage gear into a car after a gig]. He’d come to my house for a birthday party and we’d talked about getting back together and playing again. At Clarence’s funeral I was actually in the limo when Gram Parsons told [road manager and best buddy] Phil Kaufman that it was all too sad, and that when it was time for him to go he didn’t want to go that way. So that story really isn’t a legend, it’s actually true [when Parsons died two months later, Kaufman absconded with his body and cremated it in the desert].
John was my favourite Beatle. I liked his wit; he had a real firecracker humour. He could be a little mean-spirited, but he was funny. He was kind of dangerous, too, but Paul’s personality mellowed him out. In The Byrds, I’d got the idea for wearing granny glasses from [the Lovin’ Spoonful’s] John Sebastian. I was walking down MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village one night, about three in the morning, and Sebastian was walking towards me with these little round shades. He said: “Try ’em on, man. Look up at the street lights and move your head around; they’re groovy!” So when I got out to LA, I dug out a little pocket money and went to the optometrist’s to have some made up. I told John Lennon about that and he went: “Aah, yeah!” So that’s where he got the idea for his.
One time I was hanging out at The Beatles’ house in Bel Air when they were invited to go and meet Elvis. I asked George if I could tag along, but he said he just didn’t think it would be right. So I waited at the house until they got back. When I asked them later how it was, they told me he was sitting on the arm rest of a couch and had a bass guitar plugged into his stereo. John had said: “Hey, Elvis, you used to make some really great rock’n’roll records. What happened to you?” Elvis just sort of mumbled: “Well, I’m makin’ movies now.” And that was the extent of the meeting.
I met him once on a 747 airplane, when they used to have a bar upstairs. He was just on his way down to Dane County for his trial [In September 1970, Morrison was convicted of lewd and lascivious behaviour at a gig in Miami]. David Crosby didn’t like him, but I always had a lot of respect for Jim Morrison. We played together at the Whisky but didn’t really get to know each other well then. He was very clever and artistic, into things like Kurt Weill. He was a really sharp guy, and knew a lot about how to project an image. When you talked to him he was just a regular guy, but he really played that image of his well. He was an actor.
The Byrds toured with Bo Diddley as part of Dick Clark’s Caravan Of Stars . He kind of kept to himself. On the bus there was a rolling poker game he always played. I didn’t get involved with, but he was there all the time. Those Dick Clark tours really weren’t that good to be on, though The Byrds did manage to get our own transportation: a Clark Cortez, which was one of the first medium sized motor homes. It didn’t have a TV but it had electricity, so we plugged a Fender Amp in there, taped a cassette player on top and listened to John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar. That’s where I got the idea for the riff for Eight Miles High.
I first met Dylan in the early days of The Byrds. He really hadn’t changed by the time he asked me to do the Rolling Thunder tour with him [in 1975]. He was often a visitor at my house in Malibu. He liked the house a lot and wanted to rent it from me. One time we were up there and he said: “I wanna do something different, man.” When I asked what he meant, he said: “I dunno, maybe something like a circus.” Six months later I was in New York and bumped into him in the Village. That’s when he invited me to go on the tour. He wanted to revive the spirit of Greenwich Village with Rolling Thunder. It was like a travelling artists’ colony. There were about 300 people on the road with him.
Mick and I were drinking buddies on the Rolling Thunder tour. We’d be taking advantage of the hospitality suite every night. We’d both be hitting the vodka, mostly. Mick was a Vodka Collins man, which was a sort of lemonade with vodka. He was great. We’d play guitars and hang out. I remember running him around the Belleview Biltmore Hotel in Clearwater, Florida, in a wheelchair. Everybody stopped and just stared at us. The Rolling Thunder tour parked there for a couple of weeks. It must have cost Dylan a lot, because he was putting us all into luxury resorts. The level of quality was incredible; we were all living high on the hog. Mick never talked about the old days with Bowie and the Spiders From Mars, he just blended in with everyone else on that tour. He was just like one of the folkies. We’d both wait until we were summoned by Dylan.
I met Tom in 1976 after my manager played me American Girl. I told him: “I need to meet this guy!” So we became friends, and went on tour together in the States. We kind of lost touch for about 10 years, then we went to see him play at the arena in St Petersburg, Florida. My wife got hit in the eye by a frisbee and went backstage to get medical attention. Tom was back there, he invited me up on stage and we did some Byrds hits. I went to his hotel the next day and he mentioned he was going on tour with Dylan in Europe. I told him how great the Rolling Thunder tour had been. So he asked Bob if I could go on this tour with him. Bob said yes, so I ended up doing that too. Incidentally, I first met Springsteen at Tom’s 40th birthday party, at his house in Ventura.
Brian came up to my house in Malibu one day in his station wagon. When he came in he said: “You got any speed?” I said yeah, I had some somewhere around. So I found some amphetamines that I gave him. He took them, and started playing piano, while I pulled up a chair and got my guitar. We started working on a tune and came up with this line and a chorus. But that was it. Because of the speed, he kept playing the same thing over and over. He just wouldn’t stop. In the end I went up to bed for seven hours of sleep. When I came back down he was still playing exactly the same thing at the piano. It was like something out of a strange movie. He was very overweight and a little crazy back then.
The song was never finished, but he still recorded it [Ding Dang, on 1977’s Beach Boys Love You]. Then I ran into him about 20 years later. He just pointed at me, went “Ding Dang!” and carried on walking.
I first met her in 1960. She was 19 and I was 18. I was with the Chad Mitchell Trio at the time and Chad asked her if she’d like to join, but she graciously declined. But I was so impressed with her. I think the next time I saw her was up at The Beatles’ house. She was hanging around the pool with John Lennon. I didn’t really get to know her until the Rolling Thunder tour though. She’s very laid back and funny, not at all like the public image of her as serious and very politically strident. She’s actually very fun-loving and whimsical. I think she and Dylan rekindled their relationship on that tour. They sang together and then played boyfriend-girlfriend in [Dylan’s surrealist flick] Renaldo And Clara. Sara Dylan was suspicious of all that. She kept saying: “Hey, what’s going on here?”