Roger McGuinn takes fans on a journey at Smothers Theater

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Singer-songwriter and Byrds co-founding legend Roger McGuinn played the Smothers Theater (Lisa Smith Wengler Performing Arts Center) at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA on Monday night. McGuinn played a solo show that also included storytelling and how his songs were written.

McGuinn walked out with a Rickenbacker guitar to perform his first song which was Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages.” McGuinn then sat down in the middle of the stage surrounded by a few trees, his guitars, and cases to talk about influences like Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Bob Gibson, and Gene Vincent.  McGuinn did impressions of each and played a bit of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Be Bop a Lula,” and “Daddy Roll Em.’” After a few covers, McGuinn played one of the biggest Byrds’ hits “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season).” This song was actually written by Pete Seeger and in a perfect impression of Seeger McGuinn told a story of Seeger reading a letter involving the song, and had no idea McGuinn had met him years earlier at a performance at Chicago’s Navy Pier. The show included a mix of covers and Byrds classics. McGuinn talked quite a bit about the Old Town School of Folk Music in his hometown of Chicago, IL which is where he discovered many great folk artists. 

Prior to the Byrds, McGuinn had a successful career as a side-man to The Chad Mitchell trio which he left for Bobby Darin and worked in the Brill Building for Darin. In high school McGuinn had played with the Chad Mitchell Trio then went back to school and got a call to come to L.A. so he bought a one way ticket there. Later he would take a greyhound to San Francisco and then flew to NY from there. While opening for Lenny Bruce in Hollywood, CA with the trio he met Darin who offered him to come to Las Vegas, NV to add folk music to his show there. McGuinn played a total of 28 songs broken into two sets and an encore. The first set was 13 songs ending with “NPR Interlude Music,” McGuinn joked that he would stay to practice in between songs before walking off. 

After the intermission McGuinn came out the same way he did in the first set playing an electric guitar and standing stage left, but this time played several songs before sitting down and picking up an acoustic. McGuinn opened the second half with The Byrds “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star. On song three McGuinn paid tribute to Tom Petty who he was friends with for over 40 years “Tom Petty,” with an emotional rendition of “American Girl.” McGuinn followed with “King of the Hill,” a song he co-wrote with Petty. He would go on to share how he and Petty had met in 1976 and later he would be the opener for Bob Dylan’s tour with the Heartbreakers and played with everyone at the end of the show each night. McGuinn then shared his story of being part of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue along with Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Mick Ronson. It was the bus rides on this tour that inspired his song “Jolly Roger,” since he felt that it was like being on a pirate ship when the tour bus would roll out late at night and everyone on the bus was dressed in black. 

Another great story came about the song “Beach Ball,” that McGuinn wrote that was to sound like a Beach Boys song since he was meant to write hits and would listen to existing ones on the radio and tried to sound like those. “Beach Ball” was recorded by The City Surfers of which McGuinn was part of when he was known by Jim short for James his real name and Darin played drums on it in 1963 for Capitol Records. 

This was followed by The Beatles “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” a song McGuinn heard on the radio and noticed that it was made up of folk chords. Another great story was the formation of The Byrds starting at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, CA. McGuinn had met Gene Clark and later David Crosby had come in then joined the band. At this point they had no drummer and Michael Clarke could play bongos so he was offered to join, and Chris Hillman became the bassist. McGuinn told a few stories behind songs he wrote with Gene Clark. The Byrds lasted nearly 10 years before breaking up. In that time they released 12 albums and 29 singles. After the Byrds split-up a few groups to come from Byrds members were Crosby, Stills, and Nash, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Desert Rose Band, and McGuinn Clark & Hillman. In 1991 the band was inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of fame and it would be the last time the original band would perform together before Clark and Clarke passed. 

The last two songs before the encore was one of the Byrd’s biggest hits a cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and “8 Miles High.” McGuinn shared that the Byrds needed a new hit and suggested “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but Crosby turned it down originally. He first played the Dylan version in Dylan’s voice as well and explained how they changed it. The story behind “8 Miles High,” was that he was on a plane with Clark and wanted to come up with a song like “Eight Days a Week,” but that a plane flew seven miles high and he changed it to eight. McGuinn said people figured out that eight was incorrect for a commercial airline. Also McGuinn talked about him and The Byrds seeing The Beatles A Hard Days Night and noting the instruments they played like George Harrison with a 12-string Rickenbacker, Ringo Starr playing Ludwig drums and John Lennon playing a Gretsch Country Gentleman. The two song encore was Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom,” and “May the Road Rise to Meet You,” which he both played on his Rickenbacker. Two years ago McGuinn celebrated his 60th anniversary in music and this July he will turn 80. 

Words and photos by Alex Kluft