Roger McGuinn—an appreciationPosted - Jul 16, 2017
My two sons were surprised. None of their high schools friends had ever heard of the Byrds. They’d heard of the Beatles—of course—and Simon and Garfunkel, and the Rolling Stone, all from the 1960s. But the Byrds? No. At our house the Byrds was a staple, old friends whose songs never wore out their welcome: “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” “Eight Miles High,” “So You Want To Be a Rock ’N’ Roll Star” to name but a few.
There was something beguiling about the choir of multi-tracked vocal harmonies, the jingle-jangle of electrified 12-string guitar, and the twangy vocal stylings of space cowboy Roger McGuinn. McGuinn was more than the Byrds’ frontman. He was the visionary who combined folk and rock to create a whole new sound. Band members came and went. It didn’t matter. McGuinn was the Byrds. When the Byrds’ franchise wore out its welcome in the early ‘70s, McGuinn moved on to a solo career and toured with the likes of Bob Dylan and Tom Petty. When that ran its course, he joined with two ex-Byrds to form a new outfit—McGuinn, Clark and Hillman. Despite a host of new songs in tune with the slick ‘80s pop aesthetic, the trio failed to recapture the magic. McGuinn returned to flying solo and discovered he still had a large and devoted following, not only in America but in Canada, England, the Netherlands, and Germany. Indeed, McGuinn continues to tour America and Europe, in the company of his third wife who doubles as his manager and keeper of the McGuinn travel blog.
Below are reviews of three albums that testify to McGuinn’s unique artistry.
MR. TAMBOURINE MAN (1965)
When "Mr. Tambourine Man" broke big in the summer of 1965, faster than you could say “folk-rock,” the Byrds were hailed as America's answer to the Beatles. The funny part was, the Byrds weren't true rockers like the Beatles. Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby were folkies. Columbia Records signed them because their vocal harmonies sounded Beatlesque. Ambitious as the three were, they weren’t ready for success. After "Mr. Tambourine" topped the charts, they scrambled to perform in public like something they weren’t—seasoned rock `n' rollers. They also scrambled to come up with enough quality songs to fill an album. Gene Clark was the group’s sole romantic and most proficient songwriter but all his songs tended to sound alike. Management said variety was needed to showcase their talent. Fights were common. McGuinn and manager Jim Dickson argued over the direction the band was taking. Crosby was upset because his songs weren't considered worthy. And producer Terry Melcher presented yet another point-of-view, that of Columbia Records, which was banking heavily on the band’s success. Despite bruised egos and at least one black eye, the Byrds added three more Bob Dylan songs, sang three-part harmony until they were hoarse, while studio engineers discovered a way to make McGuinn’s 12-string resonate huge as an orchestra. The result was a pop masterpiece.
Entitled "Mr. Tambourine Man,” after the hit single, the album was an overwhelming success—embraced by the kids and the growing counter-culture, praised by music critics on both Coasts, and by the Beatles themselves, who announced to the world that their favorite American band was the Byrds. What made the album stand out was its sound: the Byrds' gothic harmonies intertwined with resonating guitar solos. McGuinn put it best when he described their sound as a "krrrriiiiisssshhhh" jet sound. "It's the mechanical sound of the era," he said, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. Whatever it was, no other band could duplicate the Byrds' unique 12-string symphony and ethereal harmonies. Thirty years later, critic Richie Unterberger pronounced the Byrds' first album as "One of the greatest debuts in the history of rock. `Mr. Tambourine' was nothing less than a significant step in the evolution of rock & roll itself."
NOTORIOUS BYRD BROTHERS (1968)
The Byrds were at a creative peak when they entered the recording studio on Sunset Boulevard to make this brilliant yet flawed album. Producer Gary Usher created the appropriate sound world in which countrified steel guitars blended perfectly with psychedelic electric guitars, grounded with the baroque sound of a string quartet. But the Byrds' famous vocal harmonies suffered as a result. Part of this may have been due to David Crosby's dismissal midway through production, and part of it may have had to do with the recording mix. As it is, the krrriiissshhh of vocal harmonies sounds an octave higher than usual, as if the recording engineers speeded up the tape. No matter. This a wonderfully inventive album that abounds with creative confidence and compares favorably with the Beatle's "Sgt. Pepper." Standout cuts include McGuinn's magnum opus "Get to You,” plus "Goin' Back,” "Natural Harmony,” Crosby’s “Draft Morning,” and "Wasn't Born to Follow.”
When future musicologists get around to sifting through Roger McGuinn's solo albums and Byrds’ records, they're going to place "Thunderbyrd" somewhere near the top. As one of his songs says, "It's not the singer, it's the tune." With this, his fifth solo effort, he finally had a superb song playlist to record, and sang the songs like he meant it.
"Thunderbyrd" was recorded at a low ebb in McGuinn's career. The Byrds had long-since disbanded, and his modest solo career was going nowhere. He was still working with lyricist Jacques Levy, and the pair wrote four enticing tunes: "Dixie Highway", "It's Gone", "I'm Not Lonely Anymore", and "Russian Hill." To these were added five others: "American Girl" by Tom Petty (“a long-lost Byrdsong,” as McGuinn wryly put it), "All Night Long" (a Peter Frampton tune), "We Can Do it All Over Again", "Why Baby Why" (by George Jones), and Bob Dylan's "Golden Loom.”
When recording began McGuinn realized his backup band wasn't up to it, so he fired them, and recruited a new band. The new band was up to it, consisting of future Fleetwood Mac guitarist Rick Vito, drummer Greg Thompson, and bassist Charlie Harrison. With a strong set of songs to sink his teeth into—and McGuinn re-committed to being a Rock ’N’ Roll star—the recording sessions were magical. Every song sounded right, and "American Girl" joined McGuinn's short list of most requested songs ("Mr Tambourine Man", "Turn! Turn! Turn", "Eight Miles High,” “My Back Pages” and "So You Want to be a Rock N Roll Star”).
It wasn't long after the release of "Thunderbyrd" that McGuinn began performing again with Gene Clark and Chris Hillman, two of his old bandmates from the Byrds' days. The results were mixed. While the trio wowed audiences from coast-to-coast, their studio albums failed to click. "Thunderbyrd" stands as McGuinn's one truly inspired album outside of the Byrds.
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July 11 is John Quincy Adams’ birthday. That’s John QUINCY Adams, sixth president of the United States, and son of John Adams, second president of the United States.
It’s the exceptional leader who foresees coming events and foretells the likely outcome. John Quincy Adams was one of these rare individuals. His sterling character is portrayed in the movie AMISTAD. More about that in a moment.
SEVERING THE BONDS OF SLAVERY
As early as March 1820, as secretary of state under President James Monroe, Adams told his cabinet colleagues, in connection with the passage of the Missouri Compromise, that slavery was inconsistent with the Declaration of Independence. Adams was not ready to say so publicly, but that night he wrote in his diary: “If slavery be the destined sword in the hand of the destroying angel which is to sever the ties of this Union, the same sword will cut in sunder the bonds of slavery itself.” As “calamitous” as a civil war would be, “so glorious would be its final issue, that, as God shall judge me, I dare not say that it is not to be desired.”
After the cabinet meeting ended, Adams walked home with Secretary of War John Calhoun, the Yale educated former congressman from South Carolina and fierce slavery advocate. Adams later recorded what Calhoun had said to him, “that the principles which I had avowed were just and noble; but that in the Southern country . . . they were always understood as applying only to white men.” Manual labor was “the proper work of slaves,” Calhoun said. “No white person could descend to that.” Adams, however, said he “could not see things in the same light. It is, in truth, all perverted sentiment—mistaking labor for slavery, and dominion for freedom.”
The Missouri Compromise made a decided impression on Adams’ thinking. He realized the Constitution’s bargain between freedom and slavery “is morally and politically vicious, inconsistent with the principles upon which alone our Revolution can be justified; cruel and oppressive.” By treating slaves not as persons “to be represented themselves” but as a reason to award “their masters . . . nearly a double share of representation” in Congress, the bargain ensured “that this slave representation has governed the Union.”
During the 1830s and 1840s, after Adams’ four years as president, he argued that the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution, was the nation’s founding document—“the ark of your covenant,” as he told his fellow citizens in a famous 1839 speech. Abraham Lincoln after him would arrive at the same conclusion.
That same year, speaking before the Supreme Court, Adams cited the Declaration of Independence once again, arguing for the freedom of 39 African captives liberated from the slave ship Le Amistad. The scene is featured in the 1997 motion picture, AMISTAD. It’s a powerful drama that underscores the cruel and inhuman acts of converting innocent free men and women into slaves. The movie features the courtroom drama that freed the captives, and the key role played by Adams. It’s a case of noblesse oblige at its very best—men of high station helping those caught up in a living nightmare—of disinfecting a monstrous miscarriage of justice before the judicious light of truth. In one of the most moving scenes of American cinema, Adams points to the Declaration of Independence on the wall inside the courtroom as his clients’ greatest defense, in particular the phrase, “All men are created equal.” In a unanimous decision, the Court agreed, and the African captives were freed at last. The cast is special: Morgan Freeman, Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, and the perfectly cast Anthony Hopkins as the wise and discerning John Quincy Adams.
Happy Fourth of July.
Could it be? William Shakespeare—the world’s greatest playwright—was better known in his day as one of the great actors of the London stage? This is among the insights of independent scholar Marchette Chute in her book, “Shakespeare of London.” A great deal of scholarly speculation has shaped our view of Shakespeare because so little is known about his personal life. On the other hand, much is known about his career in the theater, and this is the focus of Ms. Chute’s marvelous portrayal. Chute’s account is of an ambitious man who made his reputation (and his fortune) as an actor—an actor who happened to write plays as a sideline and didn’t earn a farthing for the effort.
Unlike so many biographers, Ms. Chute doesn’t speculate on the state of Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne Hathaway, or why they separated, or why he moved to London to take up acting. Her account of the Bard’s life really doesn’t begin until 1594, when Shakespeare joined the famed acting troupe known as the Chamberlain’s company. The Chamberlain’s company was—to draw an analogy from sports—the New York Yankees of their day. They recruited the very best actors, routinely drew the largest crowds, played before the queen each Christmas season, and were so successful they financed construction of their own theater—the Globe.
Before joining the Chamberlain’s company, Shakespeare began writing plays. His first three were histories (Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3) followed by a tragedy (Titus Andronicus) and a comedy (The Comedy of Errors). They were not great plays by Shakespeare’s later standard, but great enough to attract the envy of another writer, Robert Green, who wrote a pamphlet warning his fellow Oxford graduates in the literary scene that their rights were being encroached by a mere actor.
Shakespeare did not attend Oxford, as most Elizabethan playwrights did, but he did attend an exceptional grammar school in well-to-do Stratford. The emphasis was on Latin, Latin and more Latin, but also on devising speeches (written in Latin) appropriate to historical figures, and reading them aloud in a school where eloquence was highly prized. In other words, Shakespeare’s education, which stopped at about the 8th grade, prepared him well for a career in the theater.
Shakespeare was fortunate to arrive in London at a time when the theater was enjoying something of a golden age. The first theater in London, called the Curtain, hadn't been around all that long when Shakespeare began auditioning for parts around 1588. Prior to the Curtain, the companies produced their plays in the open courtyards of various inns around London. At the same time, thanks to the advent of the printing press, books were cheap and reading had become a middle-class obsession. Where else for sophisticated Londoners to find entertainment but in the Elizabethan theater where the use of words, and especially blank verse, were a constant delight? There were no English dictionaries at the time, so truly creative talents—and Shakespeare most of all—invented hundreds of new words that became a part of the English language.
At first, authorship of Shakespeare’s plays was unknown outside of the theater. But as Shakespeare wrote hit after hit, the public gradually caught on and demanded his plays be published. As a result, a number of plays written by other playwrights but performed by the Chamberlain’s company were passed off as Shakespeare’s. And his plays that were published were corrupted by cuts and inaccurate texts and hardly representative. It wasn’t until publication of the First Folio, eight years after Shakespeare’s death, that all such errors were corrected. Why didn’t Shakespeare publish his own plays, as did his friend Ben Jonson? Because there was no money it. The money was in acting.
Acting was not an easy profession. Nearly all plays involved some kind of fighting. In staging hand-to-hand combat the actor’s training had to be excellent. The average Londoner was an expert at fencing, and he did not pay money to see two professional actors make ineffectual dabs at each other with rapiers when the script claimed they were fighting to the death. They also expected to see real blood spilled. Sheep’s blood did the trick, carried in a hidden bladder; when stuck with a blade blood splattered onto the stage as for real. Actors also had to be very agile, able to leap from balconies, tumble, do pratfalls on queue, and dance with élan. Also required was the ability to play not one but several musical instruments, and to be fluent in Latin and French. Actors needed a great voice, so that everyone in a large theater could hear all their words distinctly. Finally, an Elizabethan actor needed an excellent memory, because the repertory system was used and rarely was a play given two days in succession. Every night, the actor played a different part.
A busy actor like William Shakespeare did not have much time to write. His mornings were taken up with rehearsals and there were performances in the afternoon and sometimes special shows in the evening, to say nothing of the strenuous period when the company made its annual tour of the provinces. As a result, few actors actually wrote plays. How did Shakespeare do it? He wrote fast, says the author. He thought out the play very carefully in advance, and then wrote every chance he got. He also happened to be a genius. The texts he handed over to the copyists rarely showed signs of corrections. Shakespeare averaged two plays a year, which is not a lot compared with other Elizabethan playwrights who produced five or more plays per annum. Nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays are based on older plays—tired, trite and uninspired stories that in the Bard’s hands were elevated into something timeless, exalted, and magical.
Shakespeare didn’t hit his stride until writing The Taming of the Shrew, and revealed his true genius with Romeo and Juliet. When it came to writing history plays, he did not bother much with the facts. Rather, he plumbed for potential conflict, emotion and character development. As a result, generations of English people have accepted as historically accurate Shakespeare’s account of King John, of Kings Richard II and Richard III, and of the Henries—Henry IV, V, VI and VIII. In fact, these plays are mostly works of fiction. Shakespeare did not bother much with geography, either. In one of his plays, he has landlocked Bohemia fronted by an ocean.
Omnipresent in Shakespeare’s London were the Puritans—who believed the theaters were sin-filled places and the devil’s work—and Elizabeth I, the beloved Queen, who could not enter a room without creating a stir. Members of her court were forever trying to shut down the theaters, but being an intrepid theatergoer Elizabeth would hear none of it. Attending the theater was one of the few joys in her stress-filled and often unhappy life. She set the tone in so many ways for the English people, particularly in making theatergoing respectable. London women followed suit and like opera goers today made an evening at the theater a special occasion.
When Elizabeth died, King James I continued the tradition as a theater-going head-of-state. When he died, the London theater died with him. Much to the Puritan’s delight, Charles I shut down the theaters for a good long time. Thus ended a glorious age that had produced several great actors whose fame is known to this day, and a number of inspired playwrights, of whom William Shakespeare is greatest of all. As was said of another time in English history: “Don’t let it be forgot / that once there was a spot / for one brief shining moment / that was known as Camelot” (in this case, Elizabethan London).
Shakespeare died in 1616 blissfully unaware of the immortality of the 36 plays he had written. More important to him, perhaps, was that he retired on his own terms, as a wealthy man. He invested wisely in Stratford real estate and spent his last years in and out of court protecting such property that he had. Much has been made of this by present-day biographers, but Ms. Chute points out that at the time this was a common enough practice among men of property. Indeed, the Elizabethans were a litigious bunch. Why should Shakespeare have been any different?
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It was the huddled masses all over again. Only this time it wasn't immigrants seeking work, it was American citizens seeking work. Twenty-five percent of the nation’s workforce was unemployed, some reduced to selling apples on street corners. In cities across America, including the nation’s capital, unemployed and unhoused workers gathered in shanty-town “Hoovervilles,” while countless more left their homes and communities to drift across the land by train and on foot, presumably in search of work, but, in reality, often without any defined or definable objective (one of them was folksinger Woody Guthrie, who would write “This Land Is Your Land” and inspire Bob Dylan to pursue a life in music).
In the White House, meanwhile, Herbert Hoover was cajoling business leaders to keep their factory doors open while initiating public work projects to create new jobs. Hoover was up to the task but fighting an image problem—he was perceived as cold, aloof, and out-of-touch. His successor, Franklin Roosevelt, on the other, was the very image of confidence and warmth, the self-styled “Happy Warrior” who upon taking office had as his theme song, “Happy Days Are Here Again.” When it came to substance, did FDR know something Hoover didn’t? Not really. To spur economic recovery, Roosevelt would try many of the same things Hoover had tried. The biggest difference was FDR’s willingness to ignore the budget and spend-spend-spend (Keynesian economics) as a means of jump-starting the nation’s stalled economy. The economy responded, only to slump again during FDR’s second term. By then, the winds of war were stirring and, with American industry fueling the war effort, the U.S. economy kicked into high gear. The following is a brief account of our 32nd president.
32. FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT (1933 - 1945)
The banks were closed and nobody was able to get cash, not even Eleanore Roosevelt, who wondered how she was going to pay the bill at the Mayflower Hotel, where she and the president-elect were staying prior to inauguration day. The Great Depression had gotten this dire, even for a family with the wealth of the Roosevelt’s. The following day, Saturday, March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in as the 32nd President of the United States. The combination of Roosevelt’s reassuring grin, a national bank holiday, and emergency bank legislation, enabled confidence to flow back into the system. Given a certificate of health by the government, most banks were able to reopen and trade normally when the obligatory closure came to an end after the following weekend. The process was aided by the first of Roosevelt’s wide-ranging press conferences on March 8, and the first of his Fireside Chats on March 14. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” Roosevelt said.
It was not easy ending the Great Depression, or leading the nation through the perils of World War II, or having to deal with polio, which left FDR crippled for life. Who could know the demons Roosevelt faced—as a man, as president, as commander-in-chief of the allied forces? He disguised his feelings behind the facade of an infectious confidence that inspired the nation at a time when it was needed most.
Roosevelt had charisma—loads of it. Journalist Louis Howe—possessed of an exceptionally shrewd political sense—spotted it early on, in 1911. He encouraged FDR to run for office, and thereafter remained his confidant, advisor and cheer-leader through a number of elections, until his death in 1936. Roosevelt was not a liberal as is often thought, but an activist. “He was much more of an improvisor than an ideologue,” writes his biographer Roy Jenkins. “He nudged his way forward. If something did not work, he was always willing to try something else.” Polio, which struck FDR in 1921, was a devastating setback to his life, never mind to his political career. Somehow, he found strength within himself to face the illnesses head on (he never lost faith that he would walk again). He never felt sorry for himself, and to prevent others from feeling sorry for him, exuded vigor, stamina, and infectious good humor, and an unsinkable confidence that quite literarily moved mountains. Republican congressmen who opposed him bitterly, having been called to the White House for a meeting with the president, found themselves agreeing to support a bill that went against everything they believed in. How could anyone resist this exceedingly confident and thoroughly charming man? His smile could thaw the frostiest opponent.
“Clearly the illness strengthened his tendency to dissimulate, to charm people while revealing little about himself as a possible,” writes Jenkins. “It was not entirely a coincidence that he signaled his return to public life in 1924 by what became famous as his ‘Happy Warrior’ speech, and that eight years later his campaign song for his first presidential election was ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’” The nation bought into it, and believed this supremely confident man—he of the jaunty fedora, the upward turn of the jaw, and the cigarette holder clenched in his teeth—cared profoundly about each and every one of them.
There followed a flurry of programs: the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which employed young men outdoors to build and refurbish camps, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which hired millions of unemployed people to carry out public works projects, the National Recovery Administration (NRA), which brought together representatives of government, business, and labor to promulgate codes of “fair practice” and set reasonable prices during the crises, and the Social Security Act, which established what is the primary means of support for retired Americans. Also, the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), which governs the securities trading industry, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which guarantees the safety of Americans’ bank deposits.
The economy recovered, only to slump again during FDR’s second term. Roosevelt was troubled by the Supreme Court, which had declared New Deal legislation unconstitutional in seven of the nine cases that had come before the Court. This resulted in Roosevelt’s “court-packing plan,” which was meant to remove, or at least greatly to modify, the court’s blocking power. It was bold but, according to Jenkins, would lead to FDR’s greatest defeat and launch his second term, in spite of an overwhelming reelection victory, on a path of frustration. By the late 1930s, with the economy still slumping, war in Europe and Asia absorbed more and more of Roosevelt’s attention, and led him to run for an unprecedented third term as president.
Well before the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt was pushing for American aid to allies, which bore fruit with passage of the Lend-Lease Act that aligned the U.S. with Great Britain and with the man who would become his close friend and ally, Winston Churchill. When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, Roosevelt rallied the nation with a stirring call to action. Three-and-half years later, having been reelected to a fourth term as president, and on the brink of victory, Roosevelt died, age 63. A nation wept.
“In war and in peace, faced with the threat of Hitler or the destructiveness of the Depression, FDR was the epitome of the man who rises to the occasion, rallying the nation with strength, intelligence, and the grit it takes to meet every challenge and persevere to victory” (from “American Presidents,” Athlon Sports Communications).
On the short list of presidential greatness, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is ranked third, behind George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Coming up: Unexpected greatness: the presidencies of Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
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"If Hemingway Had Written a Racing Novel" is a first-class collection of motor racing fiction. Each of these stories, excerpts of course, feel like the proverbial kid in the candy store with nose to glass.