Roger McGuinn at 81

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“It’s a shock and I feel great, but I’m 81 years old. The good thing is a lot of people look at me and say, ‘Oh, come on man, you must be kidding.’ So that’s nice.”

Rock stars aren’t supposed to get old, right? I mean, wasn’t it back in 1965 when The Who, in the song “My Generation” sang the lyric, “Hope I die before I get old?” So, it just can’t be that Roger McGuinn, he of those groovy little square blue specs and that far out jingle jangle twelve-string guitar sound, is now 81 years old. Truth is, he can’t quite believe it either!

“Back in the day we didn’t think we were going to live past 30. That was old age,” he said to Growing Bolder in a segment of Bolder Backstage. “Never trust anybody over 30. 30 was it.”

The flower-power generation got a lot of things right, but as many great musicians have proven in the years since, you can still rock at any age. It has been 57 years since McGuinn and his Byrds bandmates Gene Clark and David Crosby wrote the song “Eight Miles High,” but now that McGuinn is over eight decades old, he believes the view of his life is clearer than ever.

“Looking back, what I remember most is the excitement from when we were first getting it together in 1964,” said McGuinn. “The Beatles had come out and what they were doing looked like so much fun. That’s what we wanted to do, and we did. We had a number one hit, we got to meet the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and it was just incredible. And then it kind of went downhill from there.”

The ’60s was a tumultuous decade and the cultural revolution took a toll, especially on the musicians who were there at the forefront. “I think drugs had a profound effect on it,” McGuinn said. Drugs were seen as a means of reaching a higher consciousness. Many believed that getting high would unlock another level of creativity and expression. McGuinn, who admits taking his share of narcotics, believes the benefits were an illusion. “Drugs do not make it better,” he said. “Maybe they make you think it’s better while you’re doing them, but it is not better. I was doing drugs. I did amphetamines, downers, Quaaludes, I smoked pot and did cocaine.”

It wasn’t until 1977 when something happened that profoundly changed him — the death of Elvis Presley. “Something about that shocked me enough to make me see where I might be headed myself,” said McGuinn. “I thought, ‘Man, I better clean up my act.’ So, I did. And in the process, I accepted Jesus.”

Faith helped him see through the illusion of fame and celebrity and reminded him of what was truly important.

He married Camilla Spaul in 1978 and they have been inseparable ever since. He grew frustrated with the challenges of touring with a full band and remembered something famed folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliot told him. “He said the most fun he ever had was when he threw the guitar in the back of the car and he and his wife barnstormed around the country, just the two of them,” McGuinn remembered. “And I said, ‘Man, that sounds like fun, I want to do that.’”

So, he did. Camilla took over the role of road manager and booked a tour of one-man shows where McGuinn would tell engaging stories between his many memorable songs. McGuinn said it instantly felt right. “When I was a kid, I was a big fan of The Weavers and when Pete Seeger left them, I wondered if he could pull it off as a solo artist. Well, he was amazing. He had the audience singing along in three and four-part harmony. And I went, ‘Man, that’s what I want to do when I grow up.’ And now that’s what I do.”

There was something else. He has always had a great appreciation for traditional folk music. He wanted to find a way to preserve it and make it accessible to everyone. “Those old folk songs are like old literature,” he explained. “They are human interest stories that deal with life, love and death. Musically, they have intricate melodies with a lot of grace notes. It’s music that just makes you feel good.”

For most of his life, McGuinn has been listening to, researching and studying folk music. He challenged himself to use his knowledge to find, record and post a song every month in “The Folk Den” at mcguinn.com “The idea was to make the songs, lyrics and backstory available for free download,” he said. “Like a coffee table book.”

He posted the first 27 years ago and “The Folk Den” now contains well over 300 songs. It has become a unique and invaluable archive; one of the greatest reference sources of folk music anywhere in the world.

It may seem a lot for an 81-year-old, but McGuinn disagrees. “It’s kind of a cliche,” he says. “But if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life. People always ask me if I miss fame, and the truth is I really don’t because what I’m doing is so fulfilling. I have faith, love and music. This is truly one of the best times of my life.”

This article is featured in the Fall 2023 issue of The Growing Bolder Digital Digest.

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