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Exclusive Interview: Q&A with Roger McGuinn

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer brings his exceptional solo show to the Bankhead Theater

Diablo's Fall Arts Guide is on the cover of the October issue, and it’s packed with recommendations for all kinds of must-see performances in the coming months. One venue that’s doing a great job booking live music is Livermore’s Bankhead Theater. This Friday, October 9, the Bankhead presents an evening of music with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Roger McGuinn.

McGuinn, best known as a founding member of The Byrds, will present an evening of songs from his long career, interspersed with stories about his life, career, and love of folk songs and rock music. I have seen McGuinn do this solo show several times and it’s absolutely fantastic—a fun and fascinating trip through some of the most wonderful songs in American music history. I chatted with Roger earlier this week to talk about the show, his love of gadgets, and his collaborations with Bob Dylan and Carl Hiaasen.

Roger, such a treat to speak with you. It has been awhile since I have seen your solo show, but I remember that its packed with personal stories, such as you as a young musician changing the dial on a transistor radio and hearing “I Want To Hold Your Hand” on every radio station.
You are combining a couple of stories there. The transistor radio I had was the one  I heard “Heartbreak Hotel” come out of, and Elvis just blew my mind. Years later, I was working as a song writer at at the Brill Building, and I had three radios to listen to. When they were all playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on three different stations at the same time, I knew the Beatles were really onto something. (Laughs)

I’m a fan of your Folk Den project, in which you record a traditional song and release it online. It’s such an interesting intersection of new technology and songs that were written before there was amplification or radio or the Internet.
It’s really nothing new. The earliest recording machines were about 300 pounds, and Alan Lomax would take them in a cart to the edge of the Appalachian Mountains to record these old songs. Using technology to preserve old things isn’t new; I’m just a techie who likes these kind of projects.

What technological invention, that has come along in your lifetime, has changed your life for the better?  I can think of at least three. The transistor radio was a game changer. You could listen in private, with out parents interfering.

Certainly, when Les Paul figured out to use multi-track recording, that was very significant.

Finally, the computer, with all of its capabilities—it is such a multi-purpose tool. The computer, when used as a recording machine, is very freeing. A young musician does not need to book time in a studio to get their music out. They can do it in their home.

I write a column about movies, so I wanted to ask you a few questions about some of your songs that have played such an important part in great movies. First of all, the “Ballad of Easy Rider” from Easy Rider is a gorgeous song that plays at a key point in the film. You talk about that one in your show—can you tell me how that song came to you?
I tell the story but don't want to give it away for those that are coming. I’ll just say it was half -written by someone when it came to me and I finished it off. You know, I I just saw (Easy Rider star) Peter Fonda in Maui a couple of weeks and we were talking about it.

The song plays such a great part in the end of that film. What were your thoughts when you first saw Easy Rider?
I loved the movie. It captured the whole feeling of the hippie moment, communal living, marijuana, and all of that. And it also captured the tragedy of Altamont, the bubble being burst at the end of the 1960s. It’s an incredible film, and the music they picked for the film is iconic.

Another soundtrack that you played on is Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Maybe not as well known a film as Easy Rider, but still a classic. And, what an amazing soundtrack record.
Yes, Bob (Dylan) was a friend of mine and came over to my house in Malibu after he got back from shooting the movie in Mexico. We got to talking about the music, and I brought my five-string banjo and Rickenbacker electric and we just started playing. A lot of good music came from that, most significantly “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” That song was used beautifully in the film, the scene where Slim Pickens is shot in the stomach. It was so poignant.

What is it like to see a song like “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” come out of the ether, and to be a part of its creation?
It just felt great, Bob is obviously a genius, and it was great fun to collaborate with him on that. It was great.

Speaking of Dylan, I can’t stop watching the recently released Blu-Ray of the 30th anniversary Bob Dylan. I spoke with Rosanne Cash recently, and she had great stories about that night.
Oh, I have fond memories of playing that night as well. There were just so many people there: Bob, and Tom Petty, and Neil Young, and George Harrison, and so many others. It was certainly a super band to be a part of.

Have you seen the new Blu Ray of the concert? Its unbelievable—it was filmed in HD by a Japanese part of Sony and the HD recordings were found in some vault. It has to be one of the earliest concerts filmed in HD.
I haven’t seen it; I will have to take a look at that. I remember seeing HD in the 1980s, we went to the Sony building in Japan and they had a demonstration for us. It looked amazing, but it did not take off for years after that.

Getting back to your show at the Bankhead Theater, when did you come up with the format of telling stories and singing the songs from your life and career?
It has sort of evolved over the years. I remember doing it at the Bottom Line (in New York) and that went well, and then more stories come to mind. I love to do it. It is kind of a theatrical performanceIt’s almost like an acting gig, like an evening with Mark Twain. I have to remember my lines and hit my notes.

Finally, I wanted to ask about the way you met a fellow Floridian, Carl Hiaasen, who named a character in one of his books after you.
Right, he named the dog in Sick Puppy, “McGuinn.”

It was funny, when the book came out, someone sent us a copy, and we thought it was just because it was set in Florida. Then, a few days later someone else sent us another copy and we figured out the connection.

Soon after that, my wife noticed in the newspaper that Carl was going to be at a bookstore right near us, so we went to see him. After he spoke, there was this huge line, it would have taken an hour to meet him, but someone from the local news crew recognized me and asked if we wouldn’t mind coming to the front of the line.

So we met, and hung out, and Carl asked if I would be interested in playing with this band he performs with called the Rock Bottom Remainders. The Rock Bottom Remainders lineup has Stephen King and Dave Barry and other best selling authors, and they play gigs for charity. I’ve been playing with them since 2000.

Kathi Kamen Goldmark, the woman who started the Rock Bottom Remainders, used to take authors around to book signings, and she got the idea because she said that every writer she talked to said they really wanted to be a rock and roll star.

Well, it’s appropriate that you’re in the band—you wrote the 1,2,3s about how to be a rock and roll star (in The Byrds song, “So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star”)
(Laughs) You’re right. I guess I did.

Roger McGuinn performs Friday, October 9 at Livermore’s Bankhead Theater. For tickets, call (925) 373-6800 or go here.

Click here for more information about McGuinn, The Byrds, and the Folk Den Project.