Barry McGuire with John York Brings Trippin’ the 60’s to the Guthrie Center
There are times when it seems like all roads converge into one big highway. One American place where music transcends dreams; some vision takes over and the Spirit just seems to soar. It’s been like this with the music and art of these three roads:
Arlo Guthrie, Barry McGuire and John York.
Arlo and I go way back. Well, he really hardly knows me. We’ve met a few times and corresponded via email for articles. I first heard about Arlo at the Inglewood Forum in Southern California on August 15, 1969 after a Blind Faith concert. There were flyers for this new movie, Alice’s Restaurant, to be released the following week, all over the parking lot. I was 14. On the same weekend, Arlo was flying over New York skies into Woodstock where he’d be forever immortalized in the movie released in 1970. After that, he had my attention.
Completely separate from that, I discovered Woody Guthrie. Woody came through Dylan. Arlo was always his own artist to me who happened to be Woody’s kid and sounded a bit like Dylan until you listened closer. I saw him the first time at the Hollywood Bowl in 1970 with Joan Baez, Peter Fonda, Country Joe, Ramblin’ Jack among others in a tribute to Woody who had just died three years before. It was a revelation to hear Arlo sing “Oklahoma Hills” the first time live. It was the coming together of the hippies and the hillbillies and I felt right at home.
That began a 40 year habit of going to see the Folksinger whenever he came to town. I saw him with his band, without his band, with Pete, without Pete, with his kids growing up on stage before our eyes. Once, in the late 70’s, I read an interview he did in a Catholic journal called Radix. He talked about joining Franciscan monks for a time. He talked about prayer in terms that I had thought about, but hadn’t heard anyone else express. Later, I’d read the same kinds of thoughts in words of Thomas Merton, St. John of the Cross and Meister Ekhart.
Arlo, in many ways, helped to define what we call Americana music today.Through his music and his early albums I discovered the the songs of the great singing cowboys like Gene Autry, Jimmie Rodgers, I heard real ragtime(before The Sting)& Scott Joplin, Piedmont blues, the songs of Hoyt Axton and Hank Williams. And every once in while he’d throw in something from his dad. It was his sensibility about great American music and themes that led him to record Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” when even Johnny Cash turned it down. But, most of all, it was and still remains, his stories that captivate and inspire. Yes, they’re funny, but listen to “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You,” and you’ll get the essence of what he does beyond his more famous story songs, “Alice’s Restaraunt” and “The Motorcycle Song.” He takes Elvis’ familiar song, places it in a historical setting with him and Pete and a free Europe. Suddenly, American music is universal and we are all touched by the song and the story.
In the early 90’s I attended the Carnegie Hall Pete and Arlo show where, thanks to Jackie Guthrie(Arlo’s wife), I was invited back stage. A few years later, I decided I really wanted Arlo to play McCabe’s in Santa Monica, California at least once. By some miracle, I was able to connect Arlo’s management with producer, John Chelew, who was booking for McCabe’s at the time.Arlo was booked for three nights. Just him and his son, Abe. I remember standing on Pico seeing him jump off the huge bus in front of McCabe’s. I stayed around that night before and after the show quietly taking it in. I remember when John announced, “Alan Ginsberg wants to visit with Arlo…He’s stopping by!” Within fifteen minutes I was shaking hands with one of the great American poets of the 20th century. He went up stairs to visit with Arlo and I left with Arlo’s driver, Dennis, and we hung out on the bus. Soon, Abe came running in looking frantically for a copy of the Alice Brock illustrated version of Mooses Come Walking Up Over The Hill, a children’s poem by Arlo. It was a funny moment thinking of Arlo giving the book to Alan Ginsberg. In the years since, it’s just been a natural kind of thing where it seemed like at the right time, Arlo’d show up to town, right when I needed a spirit lift.
But, I didn’t sit down to write a piece about Arlo. I came to write about Barry. Remember Barry? No? Read on…..
Barry McGuire is a legacy. He’s a walking work of folk art, a Christ-like Buddah inside a restless Irish-American soul and a body & spirit that defies his 75 years on the planet He’s been shaped by a lifetime of hard times, good times, sucesses and failures, come backs and paybacks, spiritual break throughs and creative inspiration. He’s gone unnoticed much of the time, but he’s always out there spinning his tales and songs for people who want to hear. Known for his gravely voice on the huge folk hit by The New Cristy Minstrels, “Green, Green” and then, his solo success with the epic protest song that managed to make even Dylan a bit envious,”Eve of Destruction,” Barry’s probably the best folk singer you never heard. Why? Long story. In 1971 he became one of the first figures of the counter culture to embrace a spiritual experience with Jesus. Had the figure been Buddha or Krishna, he most likely would’ve been accepted, even embraced. But, the counter-cuture discarded him even though he was a major figure in the folk-rock movement with the success of “Eve” and his part in helping to establish The Mamas and the Papas introducing them to Lou Adler. Jesus just wasn’t hip yet. But, Barry followed his heart rather than the trends.
However, during the Jesus years, no one knew quite what to do with Barry. He released some fine gospel-rock albums. But, he was often exploited and used in ways that don’t spell out the love of Christ espoused by the flock or the folk. On his 70’s recordings, it seemed he was trying to be heard over the storm. I saw Barry live several times during this period and hearing him solo, just him and his 12-string guitar, was the true experience of hearing a gifted storytelling troubadour. He was never a preacher. He just communicated great stories & songs and his voice engaged and could rock your world with the soul and sheer devotion of his commitment to a Christ not often represented in the world of evangelicals and fundementalists: One of absolute and total unconditional love. This was the same McGuire who was known for his parties in Laurel Canyon in the late 60’s. It was the same McGurie who frequented the Troubadour hanging out with Hoyt Axton and even drinking with Arlo Guthrie. But, during the late 70’s he was clear-eyed and a crystal cosmic spiritual folk singer who could take a song like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and turn it into a spiritually transforming experience perhaps even beyond the writer’s intent. The problem is this was hard to capture on record. When he let go of the gospel curcuit, he found a strong, new voice in telling his memories and capturing and interpreting the songs, some of which are familiar, like “Creeque Alley,” or “California Dreamin'” and some off the beaten path to allow the audience to discover overlooked artists like Fred Neil and Tim Hardin.
I caught up with Barry almost four years ago as he was beginning his current, “Trippin’ the 60’s” show at the Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena, California. I wrote a review of the show and then worked with him booking the show around the southland. Trippin’ the 60’s was and still is a phenomonal journey through some of the finest musical moments of the 60’s. Barry was there. He was both a witness and a creator. When we sat down to talk, I found, he hadn’t lost the Jesus he loved and spoke of so much in the 70’s, but he had come to embody him in a subtle and authentic way; through his love for the people who come to see him, the people whose stories he told during the show and his ability to be simply present in the moment; be it to the song, the story or the person.
At the time, in 2007, Barry was not happy performing with his partner, Terry Talbot. While Talbot is a great musician and fine entertainer, it seemed they were at cross purposes. With many years together on the gospel music circuit, the tension grew and showed up in the music, which sometimes felt rushed and rigid. After scheduling several shows, Barry called me from Australia telling me to cancel the shows we had booked for the spring of 2008. He and Talbot had parted ways and he was going to have to scrap the show.
Here’s where a bit of magic happened. I had just started writing articles for the L.A. based FolkWorks. I had done an interview with John York. John was in The Byrds in 1968 during the Easy Rider period. He is a prolific performer and artist. He toured with The Mamas and the Papas, Gene Clark, Hoyt Axton, Rick Danko and Richard Manual. Like many of the artists of the era, he was looking for an outlet, for more gigs, but with the economy and all of the changes in the music business, he wasn’t getting much work. So, like finding two dangling power cords with sparks all alive and hot; I introduced John to Barry. No gigs were cancelled. Instead, for the last three years, John York has toured the world with Barry McGuire, including Europe, Australia and North America, bringing the songs and stories Barry tells so well to audiences of all ages. It’s a perfect folk-rock fit. The dynamic John has brought to the music has allowed Barry the space to nurture his own Voice and to explore the songs as they both discover new meanings and dimensions to the familiar and the undiscovered gems they perform during this show.
Meanwhile, John York, has been able to develop his own solo show, “The Byrds and Beyond,” highlighting many of the songs from his years in the Byrds and other influences. John is a fine musician, a skilled vocalist who brings his own charisma to the stage. It’s been a pleasure to witness the musical output that has come out from him in the last few years. His solo songwriting has a tinge of Gene Clark influence alongside his own deeply felt love for both lyric and melody. He is the example of what could be described as an apostle of music. Certainly he is a minister in that he sees and hears music as a way to be of service to others. This is not something he speaks of with any kind of ‘holy’ attitude, but a simple stark reality of his own life within the world of music he loves and shares through performance, recordings and his daily life.
Being able to see Barry perform with John at The Guthrie Center brings together those streams that came out of that time in the 60’s. But, it isn’t only about one period of time. It’s about the ongoing journey of spirit and creativity represented by all three artists. While Arlo is out on the road this weekend, it is still a kind of reunion being there at the place the epic comic tale of Alice’s Restaurant took place. Maybe, on Sunday night, he’ll have a beer in honor of the reunion of Troubadours there at the church.
So, for me, this weekend is a time when these three roads merge into that highway…..ribbon of highway I might add. After I type this, I’ll get up at sunrise and Journey On to the Guthrie Center to meet up with Barry, John and their wives, Mari and Sumi for the Sunday night show and then turn around and come back to Southern California. A good beginning to a new week: To share in the carrying a simple gospel message of the love of the song, the story and the people, to the home of one of the great storytellers and troubadours in America today, Arlo Guthrie. Thanks, McGs!
(Barry McGuire and John York will be performing at The Guthrie Center in Great Barrington, Massachusetts as a part of their on going Troubadour series on July 24 and July 29th. For information click here)