It’s Saturday, Sept. 20, 2016.
Although the days are getting shorter and the nights are getting cooler, inside the Bergen Performing Arts Center (BergenPAC) in Englewood, NJ, excitement abounds as Roger McGuinn — singer, songwriter, guitarist, and founding member of The Byrds — is about to present an intimate solo evening of songs and stories for a house filled with admirers of the iconic ’60s folk-rocker.
A red velvet curtain frames the stage on which two potted palms and a variety of stringed instruments — notably several guitars and a banjo — have been carefully placed.
Entering stage left is McGuinn, who stands in the shadow of the spotlight dressed in a red-feathered hat, black vest, rectangular glasses, and dark pants and boots singing Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages.” As he vocalizes the song’s ubiquitous refrain, “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now,” the audience joyfully sings along.
“Do it again!” McGuinn exclaims!
With a voice sounding strong — his signature vibrato ringing out — McGuinn strums his famous Rickenbacker 12-string guitar, its swirly sound filling the BergenPAC auditorium with a myriad of crystal clear vibrations.
“Thank you! You guys can sing!” proclaims McGuinn.
A compelling singer and storyteller, Roger McGuinn, 74, introduces himself to his fans by telling a tale about a recent songwriting workshop he conducted for children.
“Here’s a song I learned 40 years ago from Bob Dylan,” he told the kids during the mini-symposium, and then proceeded to play the song for them on his guitar.
“He’s pretty good,” said one child to another.
“Yeah,” responded the other, “he’s been playing for 55 million years.”
Following hearty laughter, McGuinn performs three tunes which he tells the audience were done for “a motorcycle flick” — Easy Rider.
First, he plays the theme song from the picture, “The Ballad of Easy Rider,” which he co-wrote with Bob Dylan. He follows that up with another tune from the film’s soundtrack — Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Wasn’t Born to Follow.”
Lastly, he performs another Dylan song, “It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” rhythmically playing a novel descending chord pattern on his guitar. His left leg dancing as it taps along, McGuinn’s staccato vocal phrasing pleases the audience, whose members make their presence known with enthusiastic hoots and hollers.
“With The Byrds, we didn’t want to be stuck just doing folk-rock,” declares McGuinn, “so we did some experimenting with jazz — they called that ‘psychedelic.’” Then McGuinn further adds, “But we didn’t want to be stuck in that box either, so we did a country album called Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”
At this point, McGuinn performs the single from that album, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” yet another Dylan composition. As he sings the lilting melody, the audience cheerfully joins in on the “Whoo-ee ride me high” chorus, with McGuinn doing an excellent job of vocally improvising his own countermelody.
McGuinn says that because a DJ in Nashville refused to play “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” on the radio, he and Byrds’ colleague, Chris Hillman, decided to write a song about him called “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man.” After performing this country waltz, whistling throughout, McGuinn follows it up with a folky Woody Guthrie tune, “Pretty Boy Floyd” — a song about the 1930s-era bank robber — featuring some neat country pickin’ on the guitar.
Announcing to the audience that, “One good outlaw story deserves another,” McGuinn plays a lilting version of “Bag Full Of Money.” According to McGuinn, he wrote the tune about DB Cooper, a criminal who, in 1971, hijacked a Boeing 727 and extorted $200,000 in ransom money before returning the stolen plane — along with all its passengers — to the authorities.
Following the enthusiastic reaction of the crowd, McGuinn exclaims, “I just love the sound of 12-string guitars!”
Going on to disclose that Leadbelly was the “king of 12-string guitar,” McGuinn explains that the great bluesman earned that moniker because he used to perform on the street where he needed the fuller sound the instrument can provide. At this point, McGuinn performs an energetic rendition of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line,” his percussive feet dancing again as he plays and sings.
Referring to the current election cycle, McGuinn proclaims to the crowd, “This is the ‘silly season’ again,” launching into The Byrds’ tune, “I Want to Grow up to be a Politician,” a jaunty ditty featuring McGuinn’s considerable banjo expertise.
Going on to further relate, “And since this has been an especially silly season!” he takes out his mobile phone and plays the Twilight Zone TV show ring tone for the amused crowd at BergenPAC.
Segueing into The Byrds’ hit, “Hey, Mr. Spaceman,” McGuinn has the entire audience singing along with him, especially on the song’s playful chorus: “Hey, Mr. Spaceman/Won’t you please take me along/I won’t do anything wrong/Hey, Mr. Spaceman/Won’t you please take me along for a ride?”
“Clap your hands now!” McGuinn calls out, as the audience delightfully obliges.
Next up, McGuinn performs a beautiful and poignant original composition, “Russian Hill,” a song which contains such poetic lines as, “We ate in Chinatown, we rode the cable car/We did what tourists always do/But in the dream you were a movie star/And I was someone, too/Was that the two of us in love?/Why did it end so soon?/I don’t believe in fallin’ out of love/I never met the man in the moon/If it’s so hard to find the key/It’s not the singer, it’s the tune.”
As the audience responds with more whistling and clapping, McGuinn informs the audience that, “We also did a CD of sailor songs.” Simply entitled CCD, McGuinn skillfully performs a sea chantey from that album, “Rolling Down to Old Maui,” a Gordon Lightfoot-like tune with a real folksy feel.
His voice sounding strong and resonant, McGuinn goes on to sing a classic composition which he refers to as “one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs.” With a unique syncopated accent in the guitar accompaniment, the audience jubilantly joins him in singing the chorus of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.”
“One more time!” he says.
As the audience again chants the chorus, McGuinn’s voice floats above the impromptu choir, adding a charming and ethereal vocal descant.
As he plays a short guitar solo, McGuinn jokingly tells the crowd, “This is your NPR interlude music,” before taking a brief intermission.
As the second act begins, several members of the audience begin to squeal as McGuinn enters stage left again and stands in the spotlight performing a sprightly version of “So You Wanna Be a Rock n’ Roll Star,” a tune he wrote in 1967 and Tom Petty covered in 1985. Following the energetic chorus — “So you want to be a rock and roll star?/Then listen now to what I say/Just get an electric guitar/Then take some time and learn how to play” — everyone joins him in singing the “la-la-la” coda.
McGuinn goes on to discuss a book he once read about John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas. Entitled Papa John, McGuinn says the story inspired him and Tom Petty to write a song about Phillips, “King of the Hill,” which he performs for his enthralled fans.
He follows that up with a discussion about former Byrds’ member Clarence White and sings a “Cat’s in the Cradle”-type song entitled “Bugler,” a moving tale about a boy and his dog, which he earnestly dedicates to the memory of White. Calling White “the best guitar player I ever played with,” McGuinn demonstrates his significant guitar chops by also playing a bluegrass “fiddle tune” which White taught him how to play on the 7-string guitar.
In fact, so interested in guitar architecture did he become, McGuinn reveals it was he who designed his own 7-string guitar. Evidently, others who tried it liked it too, and to this day, the Martin HD-7 Roger McGuinn Signature guitar — with what McGuinn describes as “an extra string in the middle” — is still available. Playing this unusual instrument, McGuinn performs a tune “about a boy chasing after a horse,” “Chestnut Mare,” in which he intones, “I’m gonna catch that horse if I can/And when I do I’ll give her my brand/And we’ll be friends for life/She’ll be just like a wife/I’m gonna’ catch that horse if I can.”
Revealing even more about his personal musical journey, McGuinn tells a story about how, in LA, singer Bobby Darin once hired him away from The Chad Mitchell Trio. Moving to NYC, he went to work at the Brill Building, where he was told to listen to the radio and create songs based on hits he liked.
There, upon hearing The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” McGuinn says he decided to add the famous “Beatle beat” to a folk song he already knew, “The Water is Wide,” which he performs for the crowd tonight.
According to McGuinn, back in the ‘60s, his version of this song “didn’t go over so well” when he performed it at a club in NYC’s Greenwich Village, so he decided to try it out during a gig he had soon after at The Troubadour in LA, opening for singer/songwriter, Hoyt Axton.
McGuinn acknowledges that the song didn’t get the reaction he’d hoped for there either, but at a table in that very club, he and Byrds’ co-founder Gene Clark sat down and created a song which went on to become a Top 10 hit for The Turtles, “You Showed Me.”
Also, at the club, reveals McGuinn, “A chubby guy came up to me and said, ‘I want to sing in your band.’”
At this point, McGuinn tells the riveted audience the story of the genesis of The Byrds.
According to McGuinn, Crosby was a person of interest to both him and Gene Clark because Crosby told them he had access to a recording studio.
In order to round out the band, McGuinn and Gene Clark convinced their friend, Michael Clarke, a conga player, to learn to play the drums using cardboard boxes.
Next, they gave their buddy Chris Hillman a $35 bass.
But after seeing The Beatles’ movie, A Hard Day’s Night, the guys decided to go out and purchase the same exact instruments the Beatles used: a set of Ludwig drums, a Gretsch guitar, and McGuinn’s now-famous Rickenbacker 12-string electric.
Needing a name for the band, sitting at the Thanksgiving table, the boys decided on The BIRDS. Since, as McGuinn explains, “the spelling was the same as that for the British slang word for girls,” however, they considered BURDS, but eventually settled on BYRDS.
Practicing at their manager’s house, the executive’s daughter — hanging out in her bedroom — immediately came downstairs upon hearing The Byrds’ music; evidently she thought they were The Beatles! Luckily, jazz legend Miles Davis just happened to be at the house, too, at the time and he said, “Kids have a way of knowing what’s good.”
As a result of Davis’ experience, he called Columbia Records in New York and recommended The Byrds, who were then offered a recording contact to cut a single.
Needing “that one song,” McGuinn reveals they came upon the long version of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” At this point, McGuinn plays “all four minutes and 19 seconds” of the song for the audience, imitating Dylan the entire time, the audience reacting with huge applause.
Continuing on with the story, McGuinn discloses that David Crosby didn’t like the song, but McGuinn, who had been practicing Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring,” created an introduction and ending based on Bach’s piece on his 12-string Rickenbacker and, from there, simply sandwiched in a segment of Dylan’s song between the Baroque-inspired intro and coda.
Here, McGuinn plays The Byrds’ version of the tune, and even though it’s a one-man performance, it sounds like the original recording, particularly with respect to McGuinn’s distinctive voice and his jingly-jangly Rickenbacker guitar. The entire audience joyously joins McGuinn as everyone sings together the famous “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man/Play a song for me” chorus.
McGuinn goes on to tell yet another tale from the 1960s, when he and The Byrds went to London to “hang out with The Beatles.” After the trip, McGuinn decided to write a song “about that airplane ride to England.” Originally, he wanted to call it “Seven Miles High,” but he changed the title to “Eight Miles High” because of the success of The Beatles’ hit, “Eight Days a Week,” calling that “a cooler number.”
At this point, McGuinn plays a simply incredible unplugged version of “Eight Miles High,” which he says was “influenced by the work of John Coltrane, Ravi Shankar, and Andres Segovia.” His flamenco-influenced guitar work rocks the house and the appreciative crowd responds with a rousing standing ovation.
For an encore — standing in the spotlight with his Rickenbacker 12-string for the third, and final, time this evening — McGuinn performs a compelling version of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” inviting the entire congregation of devoted fans at BergenPAC to stand, shoot video, and take photos. Ending with a heartfelt rendition of “May the Road Rise to Meet You,” he leaves the audience on its feet wanting more from their musical hero.
After the show, fans in the audience take time to weigh in with their opinions of McGuinn’s performance.
Rich, from Cliffside, who reveals he attends many concerts, says, “He’s fabulous! People just don’t play like this anymore.”
Mark, from Manhattan, goes on to add, “It was awesome! How do you top this? I saw him 25 years ago in the city, but he just keeps getting better.”
“It flowed like a story,” exclaims a smiling Beth, who hails from North Jersey. “He was so lively… and he was even giggling because he had so much to tell!”
And Beth’s husband, Dave, surely sums up the feeling of many regarding this evening of stories and songs, when he thoughtfully refers to this memorable experience simply as “a night of living history.”