|Barry McGuire Interview with Richie Unterberger
Known for "Eve of Destruction," the #1 hit that was the most controversial folk-rock smash, Barry McGuire actually had a long career that encompassed the New Christy Minstrels, films, Broadway, and key boosts to the launch of the
Mamas & the Papas. He spoke about his 1960s folk-rock days in late 2000.
What were the key motivations behind your switch from the commercial folk you were doing with the New Christy Minstrels to folk-rock? Going with Lou [Adler]. Well, I left the Christys. We did 300 concerts a year for three years, four years. There was a lot of things going on. I didn't think we were being dealt with fairly financially. And I got tired of singing "Green, Green." When I wrote "Green, Green," it was like a really a statement of where I was at philosophically in my life. "I don't care where the sun goes down, I'm going to lay my weary head, green, green rocky road, I'm gonna make my bed, green, green, I'm a traveling guy," you know. But times changed, and I changed, and I didn't feel that way anymore. The Beatles were happening. I think that was probably the main thing. The Beatles just changed the whole world of music. I'm finding that the Beatles are cited as the biggest influence in the shift to folk-rock, more than Dylan. It was so much fun. It was really fun. Well, Bobby was just basically a folk singer. He didn't play with any bands or anything, like all the rest of us. Just played his guitar and sang his songs. And then when I left the Christys... (chuckles) Roger McGuinn, he wanted to get in the Christys and we were full and wouldn't let him in. And so did David Crosby. He was all pissed off because he couldn't get in the Christys, and Hoyt Axton couldn't get in, and all the guys that were loose in the streets, a lot of them, wanted to get in. The Christys was happening, and everybody was looking for work and wanted places to sing and people to sing to. So I went out to Hoyt's one time, and Hoyt [Axton] was living in Topanga Canyon, and Roger McGuinn was living in his poolhouse. So I was sitting out, and Roger says, "hey, come here, let me sing some songs for you." So he started singing some songs, and he said, "What do you think about this stuff?" And it just blew me away. "Can you think of anybody who'd like to hear this?" And I said, Roger, that's awesome, just wonderful. And he told me one time that when he heard the little 12-string, electric 12-string riff that the Beatles did, I think it was the end of "Hard Day's Night," right at the end of one of their songs. And Roger went, that's it, that's it! And that's where he got the style for "Tambourine Man" and "12 [sic] Miles High" and basically, the Byrds' sound. So he was opening night...I was out of a job, and I'd been to every producer in Hollywood trying to get a job singing. But nobody wanted to know me. And so Roger says, "Well, we're opening up at Ciro's." The press was saying that everybody was going to be there. I'm like, "sure." So I was there that night, and Bobby Dylan, 'cause they were opening, that was their debut for "Tambourine Man." And Bob was there, and Lou was there, and a whole bunch of people were there. And I was just dancing on the floor. And Adler came in and said, hey, you're Barry McGuire? "Yeah." "Well, what are you doing these days?" "Nothing." He said, "Would you like to sing some songs?" I said, "Well, yeah." He said, "Well, come over to my house next week." And Phil Sloan was there that night. P.F. Sloan. We're all sitting at the same table. Sloan is, and Adler, and Dylan. I spent most of the time dancing. I kind of forgot about it. A week went by, another week went by, and Adler says, "I thought you were coming over to my house." I said, "Well, I lost your number." He said, "Where are you?" I told him, and he said, "I'll send a car." (laughs) So he sent a car to get me, and I went over, and I heard Phil's songs, and I really liked them. So I think, for me, it was more what Roger had done with "Tambourine Man," to kind of move my traditional folk style into an "Eve of Destruction" kind of a feeling, to the whole feeling we had [with] all the songs. And then the Mamas and Papas came out to California, and they were looking for a recording company, and I knew Cass and Denny real well, and they actually called me and asked if they knew somebody they could record for. And I said, well, Lou Adler, I'll introduce you to him. So I went over to her house one night to hear what they were doing. She was ironing and John and Michelle and Denny were sitting on the floor. We never sat in chairs in those days for some reason. And they started singing, and it just knocked me out. "Well, wait'll Lou hears this." So, a couple of days later, I had a recording session. Lou was knocked out. They did the backup vocals on that album. And you also did the version of "California Dreaming" with the same backing. Well, it was my track. It was going to be my next single release. And when they were doing my backup vocals, they started doing a counterpoint with (sings) "all the leaves are brown, and the sky was grey," well that all came together on my recording session. And they heard it and thought, "that's the sound. That's what we want, that counterpoint thing." Then John asked me if they could release "California Dreamin'" as their first single, and I said, "Hey, you wrote the tune. Do whatever you want." So they did. They took my voice off, and put Denny's voice on, and they had that flute player guy come in and [he] did a toodle-toodle in the middle of the song. And it was a monster hit for them. If you listen to the left track on their album, if you get The Best of the Mamas and Papas, you listen to the left track, you can still hear a little bit of my voice. My son discovered that once. So that was the crossover. I think it was the Beatles influencing Roger, and the Byrds, and when "Tambourine Man" hit, man. And then along came Sebastian and the Lovin' Spoonful, with all his great music that he wrote, and it was just off and running. I think Roger had more of a game plan than anybody else had. Because he heard stuff and listened to stuff. I've never been much of a musician. I'm kind of like, you've got a bunch of guys out on surfboards. Well, some guys really calculate the waves. And I'm just out there. And a wave happened to come along and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and rode it all the way to the beach. But Roger, he calculated and thought, and figured out what he wanted to do before he did it. That's the impression I got. Gene Clark was in the Christy Minstrels. He left. And so when Gene and David and Roger got together with Chris, and then off they went. The big turning point, really, was the Beatles' influence on American folk music, and then Roger took it to the next step, and then along came the Lovin' Spoonful and everybody else. What attracting you and Lou to covering so many P.F. Sloan songs? Well, he was a staff writer for Dunhill. And he wrote some good songs. I really liked "Let Me Be," I really liked "Child of Our Times." I really liked "This Precious Time" was a great song, and the Mamas and the Papas backed me on that song. And I've never been much of a songwriter. I mean, I wrote "Green, Green," but I've never been much of a songwriter. To have a songwriter that wrote so specifically what I felt to be true...I've never been much of an actor either. If something is real for me, then I can do it. But I can't really pretend I can do it if it's not. That's why I had to quit the Christys, 'cause it wasn't real for me anymore. That's why I had to leave Hair on Broadway, because I did it for about a year, and one night I was doing the show, and I realized, well, this is not real. I told the director. He says, man, it was a killer show tonight. The audience didn't know you were faking it. He says, you're getting to be an actor. I said, I don't want to be an actor. And I quit the show. (laughs) And Phil wrote those songs that were just tailor-made for me. He told me years and years later that "Eve of Destruction" became a #1 tune without any payola or manipulation on behalf of the distributor record company, the networks in the industry, that it made kind of an end run. And all of a sudden it was a hit tune. There was a report that used to come out back in those days, I don't know if it was the Gavin Report or something like that. And they said, no matter what McGuire comes out with next, we're not gonna play it. Because their feeling was that I was like a loose cannon in the record industry, and they wanted to get me back in line. Rather than a career maker, "Eve of Destruction" turned into a career-breaker. We did some great songs after that. I did a little song that Travis Edmondson wrote called "Some Rainy Afternoon." It was a great song. And it got a little airplay in, you know, in Maine. (laughs hard). Some disc jockey that hadn't read the Gavin Report or something. Phil was also a recording artist himself. Did you sense any frustration on his part that he was writing hits that were more successful as covers than his own records were? You know, the music business is like the Lotto. Just put your numbers down and sometimes they hit, and sometimes they don't. There's just no rhyme or reason. I know great songwriters. Fred Neil would come up when he was in L.A., we all used to hang out. He would sit there and sing, and we would just melt. I mean, we would go to his recording sessions. He was like this folksinger's singer. I was there when he recorded (sings) "skipping over ocean, like a stone." We all wanted to be like him, and he couldn't get a hit record. And then another guy, Nilsson, comes along, does the song, big monster hit. Everybody thought he wrote the tune, and we all kind of got miffed a little bit that he was copping Freddie's thunder, you know. At least Freddie got some songwriting royalties on it. But there was never a better, more awesome songwriter-singer than Freddie Neil. And it just never seemed to open for him. He was very involved in this drug abuse. I think that kind of scared everybody away. Even more so than the rest...we were all...I mean, I'm only speaking from my personal perspective. I was very laced with drugs myself, but Fred seemed to be even more so than me. That might have had something to do with it. That might have had something to do with nobody wanting to play my records, too, I don't know. How would you rate Lou Adler as a producer? Well, you know, I don't know. He was an entrepreneur. He was the one who hired the musicians and booked the sessions and he had the ear. He heard the Mamas and Papas and said yes, immediately, yes! And so he did have, I guess, that producer's gift. And yet, when my second album came out, and my second release, "Child of Our Times" and "Let Me Be," when they didn't make it commercially, he didn't know what to do to, how to package me to make it work again, you know? It was kind of a fluke. So I think he did kind of work with the material that came his way, and when it ceased to be commercial, he went on to the next whatever was happening. That's what most producers seem to do. They take the cream off the top of the milk, and then when there's no more cream left, they go through a new bottle. (laughs) But he certainly was easy to work with, and a very congenial and did his best to assist all of us. On Dunhill Records, the session musicians had a lot to do with the label's sound and success. Absolutely. Hal Blaine and Joe Osborne, Larry Knechtel, those were all his house guys. Those were the three main guys. And then of course every once in a while, Herbie Albert would sneak into the studio and do a little lick or two. That didn't hurt (laughs). Him and Herb were very good friends. Did the actual label folk-rock bother you, as it was an industry term put on the music? I never gave it a second thought. In fact, you saying it right now is the first time I've ever considered it. No, not at all. Not for me. It was really fun. I mean, the Modern Folk Quartet, did you ever hear any of their stuff? Just a little, aside from their two Warner Brothers folk albums. They hardly ever recorded at all in their rock phase, unfortunately. I mean, killer stuff. It was fun. I would go over when they were playing and dance for hours. They would do "Swing Me." (sings) "Swing me," and I mean, I would leave the planet. How do you think it was that the larger society itself was changing in a way that both helped bring about folk-rock, and made the music successful? For me, it was a whole search. There was an undercurrent. And this is only my personal perspective. I can't say everybody would answer the same way. There's as many different reasons as there were people involved. But my reason was, I left the Christys searching for a deeper meaning to life. I had done years on the road, I'd performed at the White House. I saw all this opulence and wealth. People that were so famous, Elvis Presley, Sammy Davis Jr., people that I knew, some of 'em I performed with. And none of 'em were happy. I felt, why should I spend my life trying to get like them? Frank Sinatra one time, he's got his head against the wall, he's got a drink in his left hand, he's punching the wall with his right hand, and he's saying, "I'm bored, I'm bored, BORED, BORED." I said, well, he's Chairman of the Board, I guess. And I said, why do I want to spend my life getting like that? I left the Christys looking for...it was kind of an excursion into Eastern mysticism that was taking place at the time. And I thought, maybe there's some answers, spiritual answers that I'm missing. Like there's something spiritual about us human beings. And a friend of mine in the Christys, we used to sit up at night and talk and read and wonder if reincarnation, and if it wasn't reality, what would happen to the human spirit when the body dies? Is there an afterlife? Just questions like that. So I left the Christys really in search of some answers. And I thought, well, the only way I'm going to find the truth is if I speak the truth. And so I really tried to be a truth speaker. And the songs that I heard, if it wasn't true for me, I couldn't sing it anymore. And I remember one time, in the Monkees, Mike Nesmith came to me with a song he'd just written. "You and I, travel to the beat of a different drum." Well, he wanted me to record the tune. He'd just written it. And I was just coming off of "Eve of Destruction," and I looked through the tune, and I said, well Mike, I don't think we travel to the beat of a different drum. There's only one drummer. We all travel to his beat. Well, I couldn't sing his song. Because for me, it wasn't a truthful statement. Well, Linda sang it, and it was a monster for her. So for me, it was a spiritual search. The songs that I heard were...I discovered a lot of truth in those songs. And I would speak truth in the songs, like, when I heard Between the Buttons, the album that the Stones did. Some of those songs...I found little sparks of truth. Then I wound up doing Hair on Broadway, because I thought that was, for me, was a statement of spiritual expansion, understanding, awareness. And so that's what was happening to me. And there was a real shedding of the old dogma, like boundaries of morality were being broken down and everybody was into the new party mode of just loving on each other. Which destroyed thousands of us. I lost 16 of my personal friends through that lifestyle. One time I was with a friend of mine who's dead now, and we had this big block of cocaine about the size of shoe box. And we were slicing off lines and I was just ready to spoon a spoonful into my nose, and as I did I just started holding one finger on one nostril. I looked up, and here's these posters on the wall, this house we were at. And there's Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and Marilyn Monroe and Lenny Bruce and all these posters, and I looked at them with my one eye open and I turned to my friend and I said, maybe this stuff ain't good for us. Like, what are we doing here? And now he's gone. I mean, all those great wonderful friends are gone, because of the lifestyle we were living, without boundaries. I remember we woke up one morning at Denny's house and John Phillips called. He said, you guys okay? We said, yeah, what's wrong, what's going on? He said, well, everybody's dead over at Sharon's house at Terry Melcher's place. When it all finally started to unravel what had happened, I said, well, maybe we should have one rule: we shouldn't kill each other. So gradually, and then I had an Italian roadster that I built, it took me five years to build it, it was stolen from me and stripped. I said, well maybe we should have another where we shouldn't steal from each other. So then there was a lady that I was desperately, madly in love with who went off with a friend of mine, Scott McKenzie, and I said, well, maybe we shouldn't rip each other off for our old ladies. So gradually, I just adopted the Ten Commandments (laughs). 'Cause I started to see a reason for 'em, you know. Why can't we do these things? Because you just can't do those things. I didn't know why. So I threw all the rules away, and everybody starting dying around me, and I wound up desolate and bankrupt, and I said, oh, that's why. So I adapted that into my life. How often do you perform now? I did about a 100 concerts this year. All over the United States. We're cutting back next year to about 40. We generate money for an organization called Mercy Corps. 92, 94% of the money they get goes to the people in Kosovo and Korea. Right now they're working in North Korea. Three million people have starved to death in North Korea, and we're spending all our time looking at who's going to be President of the United States. I mean, we're so out of touch with what's happening in the world. Are you doing any acting? No, I'm not an actor. I gave it a shot. My problem is that I can't remember my lines. I couldn't get in the Boy Scouts, because I couldn't remember, you know, "a boy scout is clean and trustworthy and happy..." I couldn't remember all those things. My buddies worked with me for weeks, and I went up to take my test, and started crying because I couldn't remember the words. I can remember songs. If you put it to a melody, I would have sung it to 'em in a minute. But I'm the kind of a guy who, I can't remember phone numbers. But I can remember where the numbers are on the dial. I can remember the pattern, you know, like little triangles and patterns, and I can push the buttons that way. But if somebody says, what's your phone number, I'd have to look at a telephone, draw a picture, and put the numbers, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0. Then I could tell 'em what the number was, because I can remember the pattern. I liked your appearance in The President's Analyst. I was in one called Werewolves on Wheels. It's one we can all get together and forget. But that's the last film I did before I left Hollywood. See, what happened to me is, I read a New Testament, and the writings and the life of Jesus. It's not like Christianity, like Western Christianity. There's a depth and a truth that I found in the teachings of Jesus that really put my life together for me as I applied those truths to my daily choices, attitudes. So just before I left Hollywood, that was the last film I made, was The Werewolves on Wheels." (laughs) A great movie to leave Hollywood by. That film [The President's Analyst] was a very, very futuristic film. It's on TV every once in a while, and I'll watch it just for fun. The kids can see Daddy when he was young. Then around town, everybody jokes at me, wherever I go (laughs). "Hey, I saw you last night on TV!" contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2003