Rock icon sings a new tune, sort of

05:00 AM, Apr 11, 2013

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Roger McGuinn, formerly of The Byrds, says he's no longer part of the music industry's 'big machine.' (John Chiasson)/

Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

If you go

What: Roger McGuinn.
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday (April 15).
Where: The Jewish Community Center, 1200 Edgewood Ave., Brighton.
Tickets: $35, or $100 for front-row seats and a post-show meet-and-greet reception, available at (585) 461-2000 or All proceeds benefit the JCC’s Camp Seneca Lake.

This new thing Roger McGuinn is into — it’s actually an old thing. “Sea shanties, work songs, cowboy songs, blues, things written by anonymous authors years ago,” he says. “Things not paid attention to since the folk boom of the ’60s.”

McGuinn is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His jangly electric 12-string Rickenbacker guitar is one of the defining sounds of a ’60s psychedelic era dominated by The Byrds and hits such as “Eight Miles High,” Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” And now he’s singing dusty old songs about sailors going down with the ship?

Why do we need old Victorian homes,” he says, “instead of tearing them down and putting up steel and glass houses?”

No definitive answer to that question exists, especially since paying the heating bills in a drafty old house isn’t a big concern where McGuinn lives now, Florida. Riding out hurricanes, that’s more his gig these days. “In 2004 we had three hurricanes, all intersected in Orlando,” McGuinn says. “We were here for all of them. The power went off during one, so we bailed and went up the road to a hotel. We have solar panels on the roof now. When the power goes out we don’t even know it.”

He notes that, in the past couple of years, the big hurricanes have skipped Florida anyway and hit higher up on the East Coast. “I’m not gloating over it,” he says. “It’s an interesting change of events.”

Change. In writing it’s what we call the story arc, one that McGuinn brings to the Jewish Community Center on Monday (April 15). Only he calls it, “A sequence of events.”

Sort of a one-man play, with stories and songs,” McGuinn says. “Except I don’t do the same songs and tell the same stories each night. But I try to tie the whole thing together.”

It’s the story of a kid interested in playing music, who gets involved in the work of rock music, meeting interesting people, and who eventually returns to his folk roots.”

The Byrds are a big part of that story, and McGuinn will accommodate with the songs. “People who come to see me want to hear them,” he says. “But they’ve morphed. ‘Eight Miles High’ has changed quite a bit. I’ve added different finger-picking patterns to fill in for the missing drum and bass parts.

But the Byrds were pretty folk-based anyway. It was taking Dylan and Seeger and tuning the music into pop songs.”

The story arc embraces spiritual changes as well. While still with The Byrds, McGuinn says he met a Greenwich Village mime who recommended he look into an Indonesian religion, Subud. (Yes, I know, but mimes are allowed to speak on their days off.) In particular, the mime told McGuinn about a spiritual exercise called the latihan, a deep psychological practice that seems to allow its participants to bring to the surface their innermost thoughts and urges.

I wasn’t a real fanatic about it,” McGuinn says, but he did stick with it for 12 years. Then in 1977, he met a blues piano player, a born-again Christian, who planted that seed. “I was at my girlfriend’s house, and I started feeling this heavy oppression,” McGuinn says. “I said, ‘Hey, God, how can I keep from feeling like this?’ And the answer came to me. Accept Jesus. It was a moment. A cry for help.

Actually, it was right after Elvis Presley died. I was concerned about my own lifestyle. I was using speed, valium. I was a part of the old drug culture, everybody was into something. I decided, ‘I’m going to clean up my act.’ “

His born-again life has not caused him to turn his back on rock and roll. “The devil’s music?” McGuinn says with a chuckle. “I thought it was just good fun.” But perhaps the reflection that comes with age — he’s 70 — has brought him back to, as his musical story goes, his folk roots.

I was not hearing traditional music anymore,” says McGuinn, who finds himself particularly enchanted by sea shanties. “I first heard them back in the ’50s, at a Pete Seeger concert at Orchestra Hall in Chicago. He explained their use, to synchronize labor on a ship, like when you pushed the capstan around to raise the anchor.

Today, we have so many machines to do the labor. You’re not going to devise a new song that way.”

So he created Folk Den, kind of an archive for these Victorian houses of songwriting. “I knew how to record songs and put them on the Internet,” McGuinn says. No charge. “I consider it,” he says, “a public service.”

He recorded his first one in November of 1995. ” ‘Old Paint,’ a cowboy song I remembered from the ’50s,” McGuinn says. “I learned it back when I was a kid. I liked the tune, I liked the melody, I liked the story. It’s about a guy who, when he dies, wants to be put on the back of his horse to ride out west.”

Also in the Folk Den you’ll find “Henry Martin,” an old pirate song that he first heard done in 1960 by Joan Baez. Which begs the question, Joan Baez sang pirate songs?

Very sweetly,” McGuinn says.

They’re human interest stories, real people, working people. They have a certain truth to them that you don’t always get in songs.

I’m not in the music business anymore, putting out new albums, hoping they get on the Billboard chart, hoping to get a review from Rolling Stone. That’s not interesting to me anymore. It’s a big machine to do that. I’m not 20 anymore. It didn’t seem worth the trouble. It’s more fun being a folk singer.”