Barry McGuire: Pioneering Jesus music, Trippin' the '60s

Wednesday 22nd April 2009

The "Eve Of Destruction" man BARRY MCGUIRE has been singing for close to 50 years. He spoke at length to Mike Rimmer.

Barry McGuire
Barry McGuire

It's 1981 and the solitary figure of Barry McGuire stands alone on the Mainstage at the Greenbelt Festival. Respected as one of the pioneering Christian music artists and the maker of the seminal Jesus music album 'Seeds', the murmur of the crowd around me is defeated by McGuire's gruff vocals and solo acoustic guitar. It's not an easy gig, headlining a large festival armed only with a guitar! McGuire is a big hairy bear of a man and years of live performances have made him a consummate professional, undaunted by the task. It's one of his spoken narratives that really unlocks the crowd. "If the warning comes that they're about to drop the Bomb I'm going to take my wife and kids and go up onto the roof of our house in California and wait for it. So when it drops it'll be instant rapture."

Nearly 30 years later McGuire is still a big bear of a man but there's much less hair these days. He's tried to retire but in recent times has started to tour with a '60s nostalgia show which he has developed, sharing songs and stories from the era. Of course, it is with the '60s that Barry is most often associated thanks to his huge international hit, the Dylanesque protest song "Eve Of Destruction".

However, it could easily have been a totally different story. It's probably easiest to begin by explaining that McGuire stumbled into singing almost accidentally. Born in Oklahoma City in 1935 Barry's background was decidedly blue collar. He remembers, "My life was kind of a mixed bag of different things. My stepfather was a construction worker so every time he would finish a job we would move to a different town and so I went to about five primary schools. Then when I was 16 years old I quit school and lied about my age and joined the Navy. Then they found out I was only 16 and they told me they appreciated my patriotism but told me I should go home and grow up. When I got out of the Navy I didn't want to go back to school so I started working in construction, and I worked in commercial fishing for a while. Then I got into pipe fitting and put in overhead fire sprinkler systems for five years. Then one evening I just happened to stumble into a little coffee house in Laguna Beach, California, in a place called The Frankenstein Café. This was before hippies, back in the beatnik generation. It was kind of a Beatnik hangout where they would read poetry and there was a guy over in the corner playing classical guitar singing folk music - English and American folk songs. I just fell in love with it. I couldn't believe how accessible the songs were and how they just resonated inside of me. I wanted to learn how to do that. So I bought a guitar and first thing I knew I was offered a job to go sing. I couldn't believe it. It was like going to a party and getting paid for it! So I never auditioned for anything. I didn't set out to be a singer, I just liked doing it and people liked listening to me."

In 1962 Barry, with fellow folkie Barry McKane, recorded an album 'Here And Now' for Horizon Records under the moniker Barry & Barry. But their versions of "Gold Wedding Ring", "If I Had A Hammer" et al didn't sell. Success was to come with a larger ensemble.

The first I ever remember hearing McGuire's gravelly voice was on a children's song called "Three Wheels On My Wagon" which was featured on television accompanied by a humorous cartoon illustrating the words. The song was part of the repertoire of The New Christy Minstrels, the group who first gave McGuire commercial success.

The New Christy Minstrels were a decidedly unhip ensemble who'd emerged out of the quasi-folk hootenanny era of the late '50s/early '60s. Their throng consisted at one time or another of actress Karen Black, future Byrd member Gene Clark, Kim Carnes, John Denver and Kenny Rogers - in addition to some members of The Association and Rogers' First Edition. They sang regularly on TV's Andy Williams Show and it was McGuire who wrote and sang lead on the Minstrels' first and biggest hit, "Green, Green" (number 14 in the US singles chart in 1963). Also in 1963 Horizon Records released 'The Barry McGuire Album' on which Barry was backed by The New Christy Minstrels singing songs penned by himself, Hoyt Axton and Rod McKuen. Business-wise things were fraught with The New Christy Minstrels and in 1965 Barry had left the group. Shortly afterwards Barry was at a gig in Southern California for the first public gig of the Byrds who had just released their first album. Remembers McGuire, "I was at their opening night, dancing! [Record label owner and producer] Lou Adler was there and he called me over to his table and said, 'Hey McGuire, what are you doing?!' And I said, 'I'm dancin'!' And he says, 'No, no; are you singing?' And I said, 'No, I'm dancin', they're singin'!'" McGuire laughs at the memory and continues, "Adler says, 'Sit down!' So I sat down and he says, 'Would you like to be singing?' And I said, 'Well yeah, I would.' He said, 'Well I got a guy here, Phil Sloan (P F Sloan); he's written all these tunes. Why don't you come by the office and have a listen to them?' So I did. About a week later I went over to his office and three weeks after that man, I recorded 'Eve Of Destruction'."

Barry McGuire: Pioneering Jesus music, Trippin' the '60s

The song would be a huge hit for McGuire and stylistically, it was a million miles from The New Christy Minstrels. McGuire comments, "'Eve Of Destruction' was really one of the first social comment songs. Dylan had written some really heavy tunes - 'Chimes Of Freedom', 'Times They Are A-Changing' and "Blowin' In The Wind', but he was the first one that really had some kind of magic that just captured the hearts of the American people because of what we were going through socially at the time with all the racial injustice and the political mistrust. Vietnam was kicking in and people were really unhappy; with soldiers at Kent State University and kids getting shot, and Martin Luther King Jnr down on marches and him getting shot. The '60s was a heavy time in the United States."

If you take the time to download the song from iTunes, you'll, no doubt, be amazed at how the lyric of "Eve Of Destruction" still sounds eerily relevant. "Tragically that's true isn't it?" McGuire ponders. "I think the song is probably even more valid today than it was back in 1965. I mean you look at the news; there are more people being slaughtered per minute as we speak right now in this interview than were slaughtered per minute in 1965. I mean, around the world there's more social unrest, there's more political distrust, more racial hatred; it's just crazy! The world has gone insane!"

In 1965 Dunhill Records released Barry's successful 'Eve Of Destruction' which also included the folk songs "Child Of Our Times" and "That's Exactly The Matter With Me". But two more Dunhill albums, 'This Precious Time' in 1966 and 'The World's Last Private Citizen'. But no more hits followed. Why was that? I asked the veteran. "Well, a couple of things; one was that I really wasn't looking to be a major artist. I was on a spiritual search and 'Eve Of Destruction' had no answers. I remember John Lennon saying the song was a negative song and yes, it WAS a negative song; it was like a mirror, a societal mirror that you hold up and say, 'Look at ourselves folks! Look at this! This is what we are!' And nobody wanted to look at it. Everyone wants to live in denial. No one wants to admit that we're all a bunch of hypocrites murdering each other, you know?"

He continues, "I saw Hugh Hefner on TV one time and they asked him when his daughter was going to put on a 'bunny' suit and join the party. He kind of puffed his pipe and he said, 'Well you know there's the one area of my philosophy I've never been able to work out; I don't want my daughter to be a 'bunny'.' And so I thought about the hypocrisy of Hugh Hefner's life and it was just like, man, he wanted to do to other men's daughters what he didn't want other men to do to his own little girl. Well then he's livin' a lie! And I saw that everywhere I went in society, everybody was empty and bored and longing for something that they thought they needed and didn't have. You know the most popular, famous people in the world - Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra - I mean just people that I really had admired and then when I really saw their lifestyle and what they were like, they were just lonely, empty, bored people and I thought, 'Well why should I waste any more of time trying to go after what they've got?!' So I went out looking for the answer to 'Eve Of Destruction'.

"I moved out of Hollywood. I didn't hang out with Hollywood people anymore and I wound up performing in the original Broadway production of Hair because Hair seemed to have a lot of spiritual foundation answers in it; saying that we were all spiritual beings sheathed in biological envelopes and that spirit is neither old, young, rich, poor, male, female, black, white. The spirit is other kind of stuff. So I went looking for a spiritual meaning to life and just kind of dropped out. I stopped recording and I moved to New Mexico; lived in a communal thing in New Mexico for almost a year looking for answers to life."

In 1970 Ode Records released his most critically acclaimed album, 'Barry McGuire And The Doctor'. Teaming up with Eric Hord ('The Doctor') the album featured members of the Byrds (Chris Hillman, Michael Clarke), Flying Burrito Bros (Sneaky Pete Kleinow), Dillard & Clark (Byron Berline) and the Eagles (Bernie Leadon). Despite the critics' praise, sales for the bluegrass-tinged album were poor. Barry later noted that he doesn't remember too much about the album, except for the mounds of cocaine he and the others consumed while recording it. Around this time McGuire starred in a tacky, low budget biker/horror movie called Werewolves On Wheels. But as Barry admits, the singer/songwriter was hitting rock bottom.

Barry McGuire: Pioneering Jesus music, Trippin' the '60s

His pursuit of enlightenment through drugs, rock'n'roll and various attempts at spirituality left McGuire empty. He remembers, "Roger McGuinn one time said, 'You know McGuire, you gotta know there's someone out there, something that knows your name and you can trust.' And so I said, 'Okay, that sounds good to me!' So I went looking for the person that knew my name; or the 'Being' as I had no idea what this entity is. So I went looking for answers. But before I could actually come right side up I had to be totally upside down. I had to see the absolute meaninglessness of everything the world had to offer and that left me truly at rock bottom. I looked around me and saw nothing but death on every hand. It was at that point that I had a spiritual epiphany and had an encounter with Christ and read the words of Jesus where he said to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, strength; and love your neighbour as yourself. And I thought, 'Well man, that's pretty simple!' And when I really thought about those two simple instructions I thought, 'Well if everybody in the world lived that way then we wouldn't need an army and a Navy and a police force and prisons and welfare systems. Just love God and love each other! And there was the answer to 'Eve Of Destruction'."

However like many of his generation, McGuire was attracted to Jesus but put off by the Church. "I didn't want to be a Christian," he explains. "I thought Christ was really a heavyweight but I looked at Christianity and all I saw was hypocrisy. So I struggled for nearly a year before I finally came down to the thing of where Christ. . . his voice whispered within me. I don't hear voices in my ears but I do have little things come bubbling up, nudging inside of me saying, 'Well what are you going to do with this truth that you've discovered here?'"

The turning point came in 1971. "In May of 1971, I surrendered to Christ and set out to do what I could do within myself. You see the 'holy war' is not going out and killing the infidels outside of us, or going out and burning the heretics at the stake, the holy war is to burn the heretics that live within ME! To burn the infidels that live within ME! The holy war takes place inside of ME! I can't do anything about your war or somebody else's war that you're fighting within your self, you know? Everybody's trying to change the world but the only way we can change the world is to change ourselves. To get, as Christ called them, the beams out of my own eyes."

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Reader Comments

Posted by Peter KNLEFM 88.1 in Austin TX @ 18:33 on Oct 1 2013

Loved the article. It is an example of what we are trying to do as Austin's only Independent, NonProfit, Non-Industry Station of 32 years. We would love to bring "Jesus Music back to the airways

Posted by Uschi Beck in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany @ 14:25 on Aug 28 2011

Dear Barry,

what a wonderful way to JESUS CHRIST!
Thank you for the story.

Be blessed with your familiy


Posted by david gilbert in las vegas, nv @ 04:40 on Jan 3 2011

thanks for letting the Lord use you all these years in so many ways. i know it sounds like a cliche but for someone who got 'seeds' in 1974 whose life was forever changed by Christ it was like i woke from a dream called religion and was given hope through christ's blood.

Posted by Paul W. Owens in Parkersburg, WV @ 13:23 on Apr 22 2009

What an absolutely beautiful story! I am a baby boomer who so appreciates this country and people like Barry who tell it like it was and how it really is. I loved "Green Green" and all the oldies, but I am so glad that JESUS saved me and I will see Barry when we cross over.

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