A techno troubadour

Roger McGuinn, founder of the Byrds, is on a solo tour in the UK. He tells Paul Lavin how he stays connected to his fans and his folk roots
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The Independent Online
The Internet creates some strange bedfellows. Can you imagine the Web being used as a means to preserve centuries-old music traditions? Roger McGuinn can. The founder of the Byrds is on a solo tour of Britain promoting his latest CD, Live from Mars, and along with his Martin guitar, he's travelling with an IBM ThinkPad coupled to a Motorola StarTAC GSM phone and Cellect2 modem. "It's like that credit card advert says: 'Never leave home without them'."

On tour, McGuinn will not be subject to dodgy hotel phone systems. He is even planning to go online while travelling by rail. GSM is a marvel that we enjoy here, but the US hasn't gone digital with the same abandon as we have. "GSM's great - you can move all over Britain and Europe and still keep one telephone number. Roaming inside the US is possible but often very expensive. And there can be problems. While the 9600bps data rate isn't as much as I'd like, it's way better than zero!"

McGuinn's ThinkPad not only serves as the basis for his mobile communications system but is also useful as a navigational aid. "With my Garmin GPS receiver it's much harder to get lost. Microsoft Autoroute for the UK and Europe are great for trip planning." McGuinn even has software aboard, Voyetra Digital Orchestrator, which lets him turn a hotel room into an impromptu recording studio.

But a lot of McGuinn's keyboard time is Internet-related. He is a frequent contributor to the Usenet newsgroup rec.music.folk and alt.music.byrds, which started out as an online fan club for the late, lamented band that McGuinn led through the Sixties and Seventies. "It's a pretty exotic combination of people who all love rock, folk and country music - old and new. Sometimes it turns into a technical seminar about Rickenbacker guitars, though."

The jingle-jangle of McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker is one of the most distinctive sounds in the Golden Age of rock music. You can hear it in the classics "Mr Tambourine Man" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!". Other rock artists have "sincerely complemented" McGuinn by borrowing his sound, including REM, Teenage Fan Club, Tom Petty, the Bluetones and the Smiths. And the Lightning Seeds were in the charts recently with a McGuinn song, "You Showed Me".

McGuinn started down the PC path back in 1982 with a Tandy that had DOS and Basic in ROM. "I still love DOS. There's nothing like a command line interface for fast access to the files and programs in your PC. That's been taken away with graphical user interfaces."

His online odyssey started in the early Eighties with a bulletin board system called Easy Net in the US (no relation to the Internet service provider). He was a CompuServe member for years and dallied with AOL for a while. Now McGuinn is firmly connected to the Internet with Netcom.

"For this tour I got upgraded to global roaming and it's like I never left Florida. Whenever I tour in the US, I always take my ThinkPad and stay connected. When I got here I had a few problems getting connected, but the UK Netcom support staff were great - even with the somewhat exotic GSM link."

About a year ago, McGuinn put up his first Web pages as an attempt to collate the various Byrds and folk music sources he had found on the Internet. "I initially got involved in preparing the FAQ [Frequently Asked Questions] about the Byrds."

Another McGuinn project is the Folk Den, which uses the latest communications technology to replicate a function in the folk process that was getting lost. "The folk tradition is essentially an oral tradition. People would perform songs they knew for each other. With the ascendancy of the modern recorded music business, some of the great old traditional folk songs were in danger of getting lost," he explains.

"Every month with Folk Den, I record another traditional folk song. I've done songs from the American West, the canals, songs from the era of sailing ships and devotional songs. I post audio files along with the lyrics and guitar chords, a story and a picture that helps pass along the context in which the song was created."

"The future of the music business" McGuinn says, "- and certainly forms of music like folk music - is to move away from 'plasticware'. You can download music very quickly via satellite dishes hooked to the Net. Today only a few do it, tomorrow maybe everyone will."n

Roger McGuinn will be performing at the Corn Exchange, Cambridge, tomorrow; The Stables,Wavenden, on 12 June; the Shepherds Bush Empire, London, on 13 June; the City Varieties Music Hall, Leeds, on 16 June; the Leadmill, Sheffield, on 17 June; and Portsmouth's Wedgewood Rooms on 18 June.

The Folk Den and Byrds FAQ