The Fire In Barry McGuire
Where does it come from? Where is it going? What keeps it burning?
A Rock ‘n Roll Role Model interview by Bruce L. Thiessen, Ph.D.
Was “Eve of Destruction” just another hit song? Hardly. It was a defining moment in the history of popular culture. It was an abrupt wakeup call and the world has yet to catch up on its collective sleep.
Barry McGuire’s prophetic folk anthem “Eve of Destruction” became an internationally revered #1 hit in the mid-sixties. This and other McGuire songs, along with the man himself, spawned a massive following. “Eve of Destruction” so poignantly captured and reflected the turbulent 60’s culture that it would create an enduring, haunting, musical echo. To this day, that echo reverberates around the world, piercing as it deeply penetrates the hearts, minds and souls of listeners worldwide.
I caught one of Barry McGuire’s performances at New Hope Church in Sacramento on a sleepy midsummer Sunday morning. McGuire was joined by his talented musical companion, Terry Talbot, a musical marvel in his own right. Having heard about the resplendent talent of Barry McGuire, I was expecting a great show. What I wasn’t expecting was my wife and I so moved with the man, his message and his music, all marked by an unspeakably fervent passion, that we would be in tears throughout much of the performance.
Legendary artist Barry McGuire is a true rock ‘n’ roll role model. To borrow a line from McGuire’s song, “Firewind,” it is my desire to “fan the flame,” in hopes that the fire of Barry McGuire will spread even faster, farther, and more furiously than it already has.
Thiessen: Barry, when I hear your music, and when I watch you perform, I am struck with a contagious energy and fire. Where does that fire come from and what keeps it burning?
McGuire: It comes from a burning desire and love for truth. There is truth in everything that surrounds us. The songs we choose are songs that represent the truth. When I speak of truth, I am not suggesting that any of us have a handle on the truth. We only know the truth as we perceive it.
Thiessen: So you’re saying that the truth is relative?
McGuire: Well, not exactly. There are relative aspects of truth, but there is also a greater, absolute truth that is independent of our perceptions. As human beings, we experience truth in a very personal way. We do not experience truth in its fullness. It’s kind of like a diamond. It exists in all of its radiant fullness, but how we perceive it depends on where we are standing in relation to it. A diamond has many facets to it, yet it stands alone as one complete piece. The same can be said of truth.
Thiessen: I noticed in studying your songs that you aren’t afraid to speak the truth.
McGuire: Yes, I have a love for the truth. Yet the truth is something I never completely arrive at. I am still in the process of that journey.
Thiessen: Where would you say you’re going with your music right now?
McGuire: Well, there’s no real agenda. We just keep traveling and performing where people invite us to play. It’s all very spontaneous.
Thiessen: What are some of the favorite songs that you’ve written and what makes them your favorites?
McGuire: There are quite a few of them, some of which were never actually recorded. One of these is called “Final Day”. It’s one of my favorite songs because it is so deeply personal. It’s about a man who wakes up and realizes that it is the last day of his life. Basically, the song is about saying good-bye.
The Final Day
Words and music by Barry McGuire, (c) 1988 (Shaunda Music):
“When I woke up this morning
and saw the rising sun
I knew that my final day
Had finally come
Look, here comes my Captain
Walking right through the door
With amazing grace
all around his face
He’s moving across the floor
He’s holding out his hand to me
And he’s saying its time to go
Honey, be strong
‘Cause it won’t be long
You know I love you so . . . “
Thiessen: That’s beautiful! There is a lot there. I noticed that many of your songs make a very strong social statement and they seem to be as relevant today as they were in the 60’s. What do you think a young person can do today to make a difference in the world?
McGuire: I would tell them exactly what I tell my own children, to speak the truth, in all circumstances, no matter how difficult that may be. I tell my children that if they consistently tell the truth, others will learn that they can be trusted and depended upon. If young people simply learn to speak truthfully about things, they could make a difference in the world.
Thiessen: That makes a lot of sense. Are teens, and/or the times they live in different today than when you wrote “Eve of Destruction”?
McGuire: No. Nothing has changed. People still face the same hedonistic disillusionment as they climb the ladder of success. When they reach the top, they find themselves empty and bored.
Thiessen: Yes, I agree — that is the end result when a person clings to materialistic values. It seems to me that the underlying message contained in your songs is really timeless. I’m wondering what sort of timeless values you might have to pass on to teens and others living in our current society?
McGuire: I’m sure you remember Rodney King’s words, “Why can’t we all just get along?” Well, historically, for human beings to get along with one another, they have had to either rely on a common God, or a common enemy.
Thiessen: I’d have to say that your right. I noticed that you are not afraid to speak the truth through your music.
McGuire: Yes. It’s like this: One person can’t change the world, but if that one person is able to communicate truth, as that one person perceives it, to another, and the other person receives that truth and incorporates that truth into his or her life, then the person who spoke the truth has already begun to make a lasting difference in the world. This one truth could have an impact on multiple areas of that person’s life, their relationships on the job, their personal relationships, and, if they are married, their marriage.
Thiessen: So by sharing the truth, as you perceive it, with another person, you may not have single-handedly changed the world, but you may have begun to make a change by making that one person’s life more meaningful.
McGuire: That’s right.
Thiessen: Is there a certain story you’d like people to hear concerning your life?
McGuire: My whole life has turned out to be a story. That’s what I love about folk music. It tells true stories about people’s lives. It’s the story that makes a song endure over the years. The stories contained in the songs are just as valid and meaningful as they were years ago when the song was written.
Thiessen: Now let me zero in on the real purpose of this interview. I regard you as being among those whom I refer to as rock ‘n’ roll role models. When I speak of rock ‘n roll role models, I speak of those individuals that, people, and young people in particular, can look up to, whose lives, and music, have made a difference in the world.
Now even though it is obvious to me that you clearly fit what most people agree are the characteristics of a star, you are more than that. My idea of a rock ‘n’ role model is like that of the Star of Bethlehem. It led the way to a much brighter star, the son of God, and instead of simply reflecting its own light, it reflected the light of the son of God. You also seem to uphold that light. So how do you feel that light has affected your life?
McGuire: Well, I’ve come to know the salvation of Christ, but I’m still seeking after the fullness and searching for the depth of God. All of us are constantly growing and our perceptions are constantly changing. The more we get to know God, the more our perception changes. If your idea of truth doesn’t change, then you spend your whole life defending what you perceive was truth on the day you perceived it.
I was talking to Keith Green one day, and he told me that everything he had been preaching about for the past 5 years was a heresy. I responded that in another 5 years, he will probably say the same thing. We need to keep on being open to making changes in our perceptions of truth. My wife, Mari put it this way: “There is a lot of information out there. Unless you know 100% of what there is to know about any given subject, you cannot have an absolute opinion on the matter. Even if you know 99% of what can be known regarding that issue, that 1% that you don’t know, once you come to know it, could change your entire opinion.” We need to constantly be open to altering our perception of things. Sadly we don’t. We stop. Only as we allow for our perceptions of truth to be altered we can we grow and change.
Thiessen: Thank you for allowing me to share your story and your music in this way. Now is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?
McGuire: No, actually you’ve asked me questions that I’ve never been asked before. As far back as I can remember, I’ve never had anyone ask me the kinds of questions about the driving force within me that you’ve asked.
Thiessen: Well, that makes me feel good, Barry. I guess that, as a psychologist, those are the types of questions I’m interested in — questions about what motivates a person.
With that exchange, we said good-bye. The most eagerly anticipated interview of my career was suddenly over. There I sat in my car with the cell phone in one hand, and a cheap portable tape recorder in the other. Then there was my yellow pad of paper now covered with what appeared to be nearly indecipherable chicken scratches. I’ll be the first to admit, my methods were less than optimal, but hey, that’s rock ‘n’ roll! Barry didn’t quite see it that way. I always pictured Barry as a minimalist. I guess that didn’t apply to my sloppy, churlish crude methods of inquiry. I forgot to mention something. Actually, I think I repressed it until this moment.
My wife Roxie typically sleeps a little later than I do, and since Barry’s wife told me that the best time to catch him was around 7 o’clock in the morning, I planned accordingly. I took off with my cell phone in pocket, and headed for some coffee, a bite to eat, and some solid food for thought I was counting on Barry to provide. I wanted to avoid the jarring sound of grinding coffee machines in Starbucks and the sounds of idle chatter that often go on at Noah’s Bagels, planted right next to Starbucks. So I ensconced myself in an iron chair with a round matching table just outside of Starbucks and anxiously dialed Barry’s number. I had just spoken a few awkward, introductory words to Barry, when his response was drowned out by someone who came by with a dust-blowing machine. So I calmly suggested I hang up, move to my car for some quiet solitude, and call him back. He graciously obliged but before we said good-bye, Barry politely recommended that the next time I conduct an interview such as this, I pick up a recording device that I can attach to my phone. He even told me where I could pick one up for a nominal charge. I have to admit he practices what he preached. He had spoken the truth, in a gracious and compassionate manner. Now it was up to me to make a change. Now why didn’t I think of picking up that device myself? I guess I was so caught up in the fire that I had no desire for an extra wire.