Acts of Class, Act II: Rekindling the Fire In Barry McGuire
By psychologist Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen, a.k.a. Dr. B.L.T., the Rock Doc
My students studied the history of Barry McGuire prior to his arrival as a special guest at Chapman University. Since History and Systems of Psychology is a class built on philosophy and Barry McGuire and his music were once on the cutting edge of a revolution in philosophy, my students and I thought he would make a great guest. After reading about his exciting life story, my students had a hunch he would enlighten us. But they had no idea of the transforming power of his presence and his testimony. I did.
I was present at a performance he delivered just a couple of years prior at New Hope Church in Sacramento with Terry Talbot. The experience moved my wife, Roxie, and I to tears. It gave me the courage to approach him about interviewing him for an article that would later be published in __The Phantom Tollbooth__. It inspired me to write a song by the same title as the article, “The Fire in Barry McGuire.”
Since the class was already familiar with the details of his life, I introduced the class to him via the song that he inspired. He spontaneously joined in with a few harmony lines on the chorus. To experience Barry McGuire backing me up on my own original song was a singularly distinct honor. By the same token, I was deeply humbled by the experience. It’s usually the unknown singer who backs up the famous one, not the other way around.
For those of you who do not know of Barry McGuire, allow me to introduce him. He had one of the biggest folk rock hits of the sixties, “Eve of Destruction.” He refers to himself as a one-hit wonder but this is spoken out of his sincere modesty, and is not entirely accurate. Prior to his dramatic breakthrough as a solo artist, he played a lead role in the creation of some of some of the most memorable folk hits of that inimitable era as one of the most valuable members of the New Christy Minstrels. He also landed the lead role in the original cast of the Broadway version of the musical Hair. This was only the beginning of his musical legacy.
Admittedly, hitherto, he has never managed to match the level of commercial success that accompanied “Eve of Destruction.” But he went on to profoundly influence many lives as the man, the music, and the message behind his music became increasingly Christ-centered.
Though you would never guess it by his energetic stage presence and the vitality of his personality, Barry is no young, new-kid-on-the-block rocker. I lacked the temerity to ask him his age, but figure he must be at least as old a Mick Jagger, who just celebrated his 60th birthday. Though both rock in their own unique ways, Barry, like Mick, has no intention of be caught rotting in a rocker. True, Barry has backed away from performing at large churches and other massively populated venues. But downsizing has no down side for Barry. He knows that he could still draw a large crowd if he chose to go that route but he loves the intimacy associated with a smaller group of people.
It didn’t take long for Barry to engage my students. Through his bubbly, affable personality, he was able to establish an instant rapport. The witty narrative and colorful musical storytelling he presented that night only served to strengthen that rapport. His wife Mari’s insightful comments and complementary illustrations greatly enhanced what was already turning out to be a scintillating evening.
I had encouraged my students to arrive prepared with formal questions that probed into the life of this living legend and the songs that served as moving tributes to his tears, trials and triumphs. Instead of leading Barry, (or distracting him) with a mountain of questions, it seemed more fitting simply to allow the spirit of God to lead the way, with Barry as his mouthpiece. What a splendid mouthpiece Barry turned out to be!
He started with some of his early stuff-from the New Christy Minstrel era. These were timeless treasures that made me wonder what was really new and improved in this modern musical era. His unplugged version of “Green Green” made the grass on the other side of the fence pale in comparison. He seamlessly shifted from song to story, even as each song added its own chapter to his tales of spiritual warfare.
He sang his signature “Eve of Destruction” folk-rock anthem, then spoke of the philosophy behind it. He described it as a song replete with questions, and bereft of answers. The musical journey he led us on that night would eventually venture into territory that would cover some of those answers. The playfully metaphoric “Bullfrogs and Butterflies,” a perennial favorite among children, was a one particularly noteworthy example. The answers would become more apparent, if never complete, as he continued to turn away from his own personal self-destructive course and to make Jesus the center of his music and his life. This dramatically altered his philosophy. There came a point when his winning streak came to an abrupt end. Mixing it up with the Mamas and Papas, The Byrds, and other celebrities in the midst of a string of big hit songs and movie roles, sometimes made him feel like a has-been. But when he met the great I AM, he found out that there is no such thing as a has-been. There’s only one kind of has-been that describes Barry since that moment: He has been bursting with a creative élan, blossoming with a deep love for the Lord, and burning brightly with passion and conviction. Needless to say, it didn’t take much to rekindle the fire in Barry McGuire. His guitar pick was the match; his guitar strings, vocal chords and heart strings were the kindling-and rest was history.