Barry McGuire’s Living Room Anthems
Barry McGuire was around in the 1960s, and remembers them well enough to present a historical narrative of songs and stories for the benefit of those who either need reminding or want to reinforce their recollections.
McGuire and guitarist John York, who also remembers, do an occasional show called “Trippin’ the 60s” where they perform many of the era’s anthems mixed with anecdotes about the times that reinforce the idea that all this “love one another” stuff wasn’t just lip service.
McGuire had one huge hit, 1965’s “Eve of Destruction,” which pretty much embodied the “protest song” label. At the time he hung around with the LA Jet Set, the Mamas and Papas, the Byrds and others, and was immortalized in John Phillips’ “Creeque Alley:” “McGuinn and McGuire, just-a getting higher…”
I saw McGuire and York perform in a high school auditorium in rural Washington State, where the venue was filled half with aging hippie types and the remainder with those who looked like my grandparents used to, , although in more comfortable clothes. This can be a little disorienting until you realize that the audience is made up of people who dug this music when they were kids and have come out tonight to see it performed with a modicum of authenticity.
The trouble with nostalgia is that no one wants to pop the bubble and suggest that it wasn’t as groovy as some people remember. McGuire keeps it light onstage, peppering his recollections with a lot of pot tales, but offstage he’s willing to put the myths rest.
“We were looking for freedom but freedom without rules will kill you,” he said during a phone conversation earlier in the week, for a preview I wrote for the local paper. “Back then we were like a bunch of puppies poured out on a kitchen floor out of a cardboard box, running around spilling the milk, getting into the trash, getting under the sink, we were eating stuff that was killing us. We didn’t realize that rules are there to protect us and not inhibit us.”
McGuire performs “Creeque Alley,” noting that “McGuinn and I are joined at the hip by that song. McGuinn’s modern performances are comparable to McGuire with his own recent tour, which walks the audience through his career with a musical/verbal biography that seeks to provide an account of how it really was, from one who was really there.
McGuinn’s trip through the past draws mostly on songs that he wrote or originally performed, while McGuire performs a grab bag of tunes, mostly covers, with which he has only a peripheral connection. While engrossing, McGuinn can be scholarly and stiff and would not be out of place in a college classroom. McGuire acts like he belongs in a living room or a coffee house.
Onstage McGuire is spontaneous and relaxed, you get the feeling that it wouldn’t be any different if you went over to his house and they broke out a couple of twelve strings. This is helped along by the set, a randomly selected imitation living room with chairs, end tables and lamps.
He kicks off with “Green Green,” one of the first songs he ever wrote and a hit for the New Christy Minstrels. I saw this performed on “Hootenanny” and am surprised that I remember the words and the tune so clearly. And while most singers on the revival circuit will put their biggest hit at the end of the show McGuire slips in “Eve of Destruction” about a third into the first set, making it part of the narrative.
While he is known to update the lyrics this time he plays it straight, only modifying the last verse slightly and adding a “when will they ever learn” coda from “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” With all the doom-and-gloom lyrics the “a handful of senators can’t pass legislation” gets the biggest reaction.
McGuire doesn’t have a booking agent or a manager, he’ll come play for a group if he’s asked.
“I don’t have an agenda,” he said. “I’m a color and people can paint me into the picture, if they like my color I’m available, if they don’t like my color I’ll just stay home and work in my flower bed.”
Since small town daily journalism isn’t exactly rocket surgery reporters will often build a feature article around softball questions to anchor the story. Here, this became a query about McGuire’s most positive and negative 1960s experiences.
McGuire said that the high point of the 1960s for him was appearing in the original Broadway production of “Hair.”
“It was like going to a party every night where you were singing and jumping and screaming and laughing and getting paid for it,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how much fun it was.”
The low point was hearing about the murder of Sharon Tate and four others by the Manson family.
“When I heard about that I adopted a rule back into my life, that maybe we shouldn’t kill each other,” McGuire said. “I had turned people on to drugs who died of overdoses and I had murdered two unborn babies who would be here now if they hadn’t been aborted. I have a son who is now 51 years old and I wanted to have him aborted but his mother wouldn’t have it, I would have murdered him if I had the chance.”
I thought that quote would cause a stir in a town full of knee-jerk liberals but left it in place, with no slant. It is one thing to see someone with a vacant stare waving a jingoistic “Abortion is Murder” sign, but quite another to hear someone explain how they reached that conclusion.
The story was soon appended by comments from people who just didn’t want to hear another viewpoint and would rather that McGuire just shut up and sing.
One of the comments is from someone named Mike, who pretty much missed the point. It’s presented here in its unedited glory, underscoring Barry McGuire’s observation that he’ll always be confused with Roger McGuinn.
I just want to know what all the right wing BS has to do with the show did he need to rant or what? So nice that as you call it ken that left wing paper let him spill that garbage on us. Great he doing a show to help my hats off to him for that, but why the hate Roger. Why to Chrstains hate so much ? Why do they see things one way and are unwilling to let others live their lives. This would have been a nice artical about a nice thing but poor old Roger McGuire had to tells us all the things he hates about half of the country (Actualy more than half) sad old man.
Not what he said, Mike. But thank you for proving that not all the hate, stupidity and bad spelling isn’t restricted to people on the right side of the political spectrum.
McGuire’s show is fun, but not particularly challenging. If you want complicated art you can go see the ballet, or U2. This is just a coupla white guys sitting around playing, and their continued enjoyment of these tunes makes this show a nice way to remember it all or learn about it if you weren’t there.
color photos: Charlie Bermant
Charlie Bermant has written about music since forever, and has collected the best of his interviews in A Serious Hobby, which is available here.