Ex-Byrds Leader Thrills Great Neck

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Roger McGuinn onstage at Great Neck North High School

You’ve heard of music fans who will drive thousands of miles to see their favorite artist, but how about a famous artist, who drove thousands of miles just to perform onstage at Great Neck North High School?

Such was the case last week with Roger McGuinn, a ’60s music pop icon and lead member of the groundbreaking Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group, The Byrds, who gave a stunning one-man performance before a packed auditorium.

McGuinn and his wife of 35 years, Camilla, actually took three days to drive up from their Orlando, FL, home. There were no other musicians with the McGuinns, no large equipment trucks, roadies, agents, publicity reps or other things normally associated with a performance by a singer-songwriter-musician responsible for creating some of the most readily identifiable music of the rock era.

The concert was actually part of the Steppingstone summer concert series arranged by the Park District. Manny Falzon, who works with
the Park District to book many of the shows, said that they’ve been trying to get McGuinn to appear for six years.

“He only plays theaters,” said his wife, married to the 73-year-old McGuinn for 37 years. “If you find us a pretty theater,” she said, while standing in the auditorium lobby, “we’ll drive long distances. He likes it when people feel like they’re in his living room.”

They have no children but she adds, “We’re the kids.”

“We took our time,” McGuinn’s wife said of the trip. “It took three days.”

When she was asked where the couple was going next she answered, “Home. Then we go to Hawaii next week.”

McGuinn didn’t just sing and inspire many in the audience to sing and clap with him as they recognized some of his hit songs (“Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Eight Miles High,” etc.). McGuinn also effortlessly wove stories about the songs he’s written, the memorable guitar runs he created and the many artists he worked with into his almost two-hour show.

McGuinn easily alternated among the three guitars and banjo that he brought with him, displaying an expertise on each one, reinforcing his early reputation as a much sought after studio musician.

As he walked out on stage to begin the show playing his Rickenbacker electric twelve string, the guitar he used to create the jangly Byrds sound that inspired the folk rock era and many imitators, including George Harrison of The Beatles, loud applause and cheers broke out.

McGuinn’s worldwide fame is mostly attributable to his work in the rock field, but it was evident throughout his performance that his roots lie in folk music. Though he played short versions of many of his pop hits, much of his program was folk oriented.

His first song was Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” one of the bigger hits by The Byrds. McGuinn’s symbiotic relationship with Dylan is well documented.

One of the most memorable moments of McGuinn’s performance last week was his presentation of two versions of Dylan’s
“Mr. Tambourine.” The first version, he explained, was based on Dylan’s idea and was much too long for pop radio.

He then explained how he shortened the song and came up with a new 12-string guitar introduction, which has become one of the most instantly recognizable beginnings in pop music.

After playing the first version on an acoustic guitar and then following it with his electric version, many in the audience stood and applauded in appreciation. The electric version was the No. 1 song in 13 countries in 1965.

Many in the audience joined in with McGuinn to sing another of Dylan’s songs, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”

Throughout the evening McGuinn kept the audience entertained with anecdotes about the many performers he’s worked with, including Bobby Darin, Judy Collins and Tom Petty.

Another Dylan story drew laughter. Peter Fonda asked Dylan to write a song for his movie with Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider. Dylan backed away from the project. “Bob writes some notes out on a paper napkin (for Fonda),” McGuinn explained. “He said ‘Give this to McGuinn. He’ll know what to do with it.’

“Fonda takes the napkin on a plane and flies to LA and comes over to my house,” McGuinn continued. “And this napkin was like the Holy Grail.’

“I made a tune for it, finished off the words. When the movie soundtrack came out I gave Bob half credit for the song.’

“A couple of weeks later I got a call about two o’clock in the morning. It was Bob. He said, ‘What’s this credit? I don’t need the money. You can take it all.’

“So I did,” McGuinn said as he began to sing “The Ballad of Easy Rider.”

McGuinn admitted that he and the other members of The Byrds were heavily influenced by seeing The Beatles in A Hard Days Night to the point of going out and buying instruments just like the ones used in the movie. It was George Harrison’s electric Rickenbacker that led McGuinn to purchasing one and coming up with his own signature sound. Harrison, himself, freely admitted to being influenced by McGuinn’s style on some of his own recordings.

A Bobby Darin experience also drew laughs. McGuinn and Darin had made a failed attempt at mimicking surf music, even starting a group, The City Surfers, and writing a song that was somewhat of an embarrassment, “Beach Ball.”

“Some years later in Florida the Bee Gees were in the next studio over and I bumped into them in the hallway,” McGuinn recalled. “They said, ‘Hey we sang backup on a song you wrote.’

“I couldn’t imagine that a song I had written was recorded by the Bee Gees. They said, ‘Yeah, it’s number 6 in Australia.’”

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