The Gifts of Innovators: Six to Watch, Listen and Learn from in 2016…starting with Roger McGuinn

In our current era of corporatized innovation, and obsession with Silicon Valley’s unicorns, there’s a certain kind of person that I’m drawn to in the extreme  - the artist as innovator who uncompromisingly runs their own creative enterprise, on their own steam. I don’t know about you but I require massive amounts of inspiration to keep my engines humming.  As one year ends and another begins I am thinking about six of my favorite places to reliably seek and find inspiration that doesn’t quit.  They come bearing serious gifts.  They are each artists first, performers with singular voices and business models, historical observers and teachers, generous archivists, all at once.  Each uniquely represents a doorway they have constructed in and out of a whole tradition.  They’re tech-literate enough to build their own distinct distribution platforms and over decades have created whole worlds — bodies of work that spill out from those platforms onto YouTube, iTunes and myriad channels into the Zeitgeist. Which will make it very easy to share their work with you.  Where do they get their energy?  My guess is that they don’t have a choice — they love to work.  In fact it’s closer to passion then work, but make no mistake, it is hard work to do what each of these artists do. Their work is their gift.  Despite the very significant ups and downs of the creative journey, they allow us in.  In their honor, I want to make sure you don’t miss the chance to participate, starting with…

#1  ROGER MCGUINN – Bringing Space to Folk

“Ah, Folk Music and Rock & Roll…together.”  Roger McGuinn

Because….

He Expressed the Moment

Some people embody the flashpoints of an era, the moment when the era gets white hot,  signalling an upending, a cultural explosion.  Some artists take and weave, or forge and throttle those forces together into something new.  In Roger McGuinn’s case, he created a sound.  And when it rang out, intentionally or not, it became a masthead, an intro and an outro, a symbol of the times, that tipping point known as the 60s.  He was young, but he was there.  McGuinn, still in high school in Chicago, jumped headlong into folk music after hearing Bob Gibson play banjo at his highschool, the Latin School, and then, through studying at the Old Town School of Folk Music a few blocks away, became masterful enough to be hired by the LimeLiters, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and Bobby Darrin to perform with them while still in his teens.  His early career is a sound narrative of a teenager who brought his early training in folk to rock & roll.

Innovation Springs from Technique, and…

As a banjo player, he mastered “Travis picking.”  And he had quite an ear.  He recognized, and resonated with the Beatles’ use of folk chords together with a new stepped-up beat, the Liverpool beat.  He, Gene Clark and David Crosby, blended it in their band, the Byrds, with their own version of folk into a precise and special sound.  One that hadn’t been heard before.  The same year they formed, circa 1964, they went to see a Hard Days Night, and when McGuinn saw George Harrison’s Rickenbacker 12-string electric, he immediately traded in his banjo and acoustic guitar for one of his own, and invented that ringing, jangling mystifyingly amplified sound, that ushered in an era and that many fellow musicians, Dylan, Springsteen, Petty, Seeger and more acknowledge as…momentous.  Like so many innovators, I don’t think McGuinn was attempting to do something ‘new’ as much as do something that felt right to him.  When Steve Jobs told designer Clement Mok he wanted the first Mac’s aesthetic to have the verve of the early Beatles music, it wasn’t about doing something new, it was seeking an aesthetic aspirational vision.  That’s the art of innovation.  Not a formula.

What Does Space Sound Like?

In May 1961, President Kennedy set for the U.S. the goal of a manned spacecraft landing on the Moon by the end of the decade and space became SPACE, an idea, a possibility, a new territory for imagination.  McGuinn’s appetite for exploration translated into an entire genre, “space rock” that while sounding camp is much more visceral and when he sings about floating in it…you do.  His early fascination with gadgets, science, and tech melded into a career obsessed with using tech to stretch his craft and bend his technique, Moog-like, and with harmonies. To paraphrase music critic Greil Marcus writing about Dylan, “the whole of what is happening came through instantly and irrevocably.”  That was 50+ years ago.   Innovators capture the essence of their eras and help write the story line for the rest of us.  In the 60’s, McGuinn invited us into space with him in such a personal and soaring way – won’t you please take us along for a ride – that we just had to go.

Trifecta Move:  Innovating a Career

For me, his second greatest innovation is his career, and how he’s plied his craft, his technological prowess to the Folk Den and his solo performances.  What makes McGuinn such an iconic innovator begins with his technique…his picking, his songwriting, his voice, and his production…that enables such wide-ranging exploration.  While he’s focused on folk, he can still make Eight Miles High sound like there are at least 3 more guitars playing behind him.  He has established that he is a troubadour of multiple musical traditions, blended, continuously, into that joyful sound that the Psalmists wrote about.  For over two decades, McGuinn and his Grammy-winning producing-partner and self-declared “roadie” wife Camilla, have done just that.  He has taken his gift, their shared passion, and turned it into an evolving 50-year musical odyssey of almost endless collaborations.  There he is…singing harmony with Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Stephen King, Marty Stewart, and…audiences everywhere.  Go hear his one-man show with your voice on because you will be invited to sing (or scream.)  He is my first Inspired Innovator for 2016 and his work is worth revisiting if you haven’t heard him for a while.

The Historical Perspective

Bruce Springsteen said …“Roger invented Folk Rock, and Country Rock, and Sci Fi Space Rock. He was the inventor of these things. You were hearing the guitar jangle for the first time.  It (Mr. Tambourine Man) was the classic 12 string riff of all time.” If you delve into and track McGuinn’s musical evolution over 50+ years, marked by those numerous versions of the Byrds, fluid collaborations, album covers and hair, a semiotic language it of its own, you will witness continuous musical transformation.  He iterated the Byrds’ sounds from folk to folk rock to country rock to space rock back in multiple versions of the Byrds, to his solo career and then back to folk and more, in creative partnership with Camilla. It’s a career that arcs like Picasso’s in technical mastery and productivity.  Or paraphrasing McGuinn, it’s just “something he loves, and turned it into a lifestyle.”

The Hats He Wears

Any individual who runs their own creative enterprise by definition requires lots of hats. As Byrds Founder/Frontman and “architect of their sound” per Chris Hillman, he could have cashed in and done the re-uniting rinse and repeats like so many have.  But instead he chose to wend his way back from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to become, like Pete Seeger and Theordore Bikel, a travelling folk-singing Troubadour, who in his spare time is an archivist, teacher and lecturer.  It all seems fitting for someone who created music that anticipated Space.

Generosity / Archive:

In 1995 McGuinn began recording folk songs, sea shantys, and American treasures like the Yellow Rose of Texas and the Star Spangled Banner, and religiously uploading them once a month to the Folk Den, along with their lyrics and chords so you can not only enjoy them (for free) but play them, which just may be the point.  Done in collaboration with UNC Chapel Hill, Joan Baez said on Stories, Songs and Friends, that “without the benefit of the Library of Congress’ Roger is keeping the folk tradition alive.”

Gems from the Archive:

There are so many, but here are some of my favorites:

Start with the “book” on Roger’s life, the Friends DVD on Stories, Songs and Friends

Almost any version of Eight Miles High

Live from Spain

Roger singing Mr. Tambourine Man with Tom Petty at the Bob Dylan Anniversary Concert at MSG 30th… the whole evening insanely beatific.

And one from the many gorgeous songs from the folk den…The Sloop John B – or John B Sails sung with some of the Rock Bottom Remainders – the band-cum-authors including Stephen King, Dave Barry, Barbara Kingsolver, Greil Marcus, Amy Tan.

Coda:

As a musical innovator, Roger McGuinn gives new meaning to the phrase “what’s in a song.”  Apparently, a lifetime of creation, re-invention, a legendary fountain… and he’s not done. Find the 2016 Tour Dates here.

Next Up:

Craig Hatkoff and Rabbi Irwin Kula, Disruptor Foundation/Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards.

image credits: RogerMcGuinn.com, Bill Kollar, Michael Zorn

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Julie Anixter is the executive editor and co-founder of Innovation Excellence. She is also the incoming executive director of AIGA, the professional association for design.  The co-author of three books, she’s working on a fourth on how innovators transform disciplines.  She worked with Tom Peters for 5 years on bringing big ideas to big audiences, and has spent decades as a practicing innovator across industry, the US Military and the non-profit worlds.  You can follow her on twitter here.

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