Roger McGuinn: The Byrd who can't fly from his past

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Roger McGuinn: The Byrd who can't fly from his past

The backstage meet'n'greet is usually an uncomfortable if not dire affair. Record company types, tour managers, promoter's flunkies and various levels of B-grade guests -- such a myself -- mill around waiting for that quick handshake with someone whose music you might like, and whom you'd probably not want to invite home for dinner.

I avoid the meet'n'greet for the most part, long prior experience convinced me that they were a waste of everybody's time.

And to illustrate that very point . . .

Some years back Roger McGuinn, the former Byrd, was coming to New Zealand on a solo tour.

To refresh your memory the Byrds were friends with Bob Dylan and the Beatles and morphed into the country-rock outfit The Flying Burrito Brothers. McGuinn's solo flight had been interesting but largely unspectacular, although at the time he came to Auckland for a gig at the Powerstation I still had an unnatural affection for his album Back From Rio of some five years before which included the chilling LA-cocaine song King of the Hill co-written with Tom Petty (who "borrowed" heavily from the Byrds in the early days of his career).

The album also had a vicious song by Elvis Costello (You Bowed Down) and some classic jangle-rock from McGuinn who had returned to his signature style which shot the Byrds off on their timeless flight.

Anyway, Roger was coming to town so I did the obligatory phone interview with him and he was chatty and interesting. (I guess he's still working on that autobiography, while his Byrd-mate David Crosby has now written two.)

He spoke of writing with Dylan's old song-writing partner Jacques Levy, causally dropped in a mention of the famous Rolling Thunder Tour with Dylan, said he was listening to a lot of classical music and so on. Nothing revealing or earth shattering, but interesting enough and it gave me a chance in the article to plug the Back From Rio album over his most recent, the part spoken-word tour through his backpages called Live From Mars.

I didn't bring up Bob Dylan or the Byrds because I figured you could read all that stuff in encyclopaedias -- and I said as much in the intro to my article, and that you had to sympathise with him being constantly asked about "Bob"..

He was good humoured and pleasant. I wrote the article up and forgot about it, although a few days later I went to the Powerstation to see him go through his routine.

It was a very under subscribed room and it was almost exclusively middle-aged males who doubtless remembered the Byrds and Bob.

I don't recall much of the show other than there was a woman at a table in front of me who jabbered away through every song in a loud American accent and then would applaud at the end of every song she hadn't heard. She was talking to someone I recognised to be the promoter.

At the end of the set the American woman leaped up and brayed for more and the promoter turned and saw me. She came over to say hello.

Then she introduced me to the American woman who turned out to be Roger's wife.

She was thrilled to meet me, she said, because as they were leaving LA they'd picked up a New Zealand newspaper and there had been the interview. Roger had really loved it she said because I hadn't asked the same old boring Byrds and Bob questions.

(Some years later I didn't ask Paul Simon about Art Garfunkel either and when confronted by an angry editor asking why not I said, "because I did't want him to hang up".)

When I'd told him at the outset I wouldn't ask him the same old boring questions -- then asked what his favourite colour was -- he'd laughed long and loud. We'd hit if off right from that moment.

His wife was now insistent I come backstage as Roger had said he'd like to meet me.

So I was ushered up the stairs to a small room where Roger was towelling himself off. We chatted amiably in no great depth and he offered me a beer. I accepted, and that was my mistake.

I crossed the room to get it and while I was finding an opener there was a small commotion outside on the stairs. The door opened and in came a group of earnest middle-aged record-shop guys who stood around nervously in the presence of Roger.

My exit was now blocked by a bunch of old Byrds fans who were in the company of genius -- but couldn't think of anything to say.

There was a yawning silence as I chugged my beer quickly in the hope of early escape, and then one of them spoke.

McGuinn turned and gave me a brief but telling glance. My heart sank just as his must have done.

The question was delivered in a voice just above a whisper but heavy with reverence and meaning.

"Have you seen Bob lately?"


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