The Theory Conspiracy

Disinformation, as rather clumsily defined in Bob Burton's "clandestine operator's glossary of terms," may be seen as "untruths disseminated by placing misleading information in a friendly medium with hostile intentions." Actually, it can also accurately include misleading truths, half-truths or mixed fraction truths; lies and deliberate fancies used to manipulate belief structures and understandings; perceptions and receptions of pure information...for an entire spectrum of intentions.

Artists, poets, novelists and songwriters are able to create and inform through techniques which are inherently disinformational. For instance, take the last CD by Mr. Big Byrd, himself, Roger McGuinn (who will be performing at Kirkside Island Park in Roxbury on Saturday and the Bardavon 3rd Annual Hudson River Arts Festival on Sunday). Titled Live From Mars, it suggests you may have missed an important NASA-sponsored concert. You knew it wasn't really "live," didn't you? It is, after all, a cd and, unless there's some new method of instantaneously linking McGuinn to your cd player- which wouldn't leave him much time to tour or tend to his website, what they mean is that it was recorded during a live performance. I think we had pretty well grasped that concept by the time McGuinn appeared as an uncredited accompanist on The Limeliters' classic Tonight:In Person album. Swift wits that we are, we realized right away that RCA Victor hadn't recorded, manufactured and distributed the package all in one night.

Beyond that, many of us had calenders to refer to and they admitted right on the back of the jacket that it was recorded in Hollywood on July 29, 1960. Not "tonight."

Recalling this slim deception, McGuinn harkens back to his early days as a writer's son in the Old Town area of Chicago and a solo coffeehouse gig he was playing one night; "Afterwards, I'd go down to the Gate of Horn, which was a famous folk club, and (this night) there was a jam session going on with The Limeliters and Theodore Bikel," McGuinn remembers. "They invited me to play my banjo with them and we jammed until about 5 o'clock in the which time they said, 'you know, we were thinking of doing an album in L.A. and we'd like some additional backup musicians. How'd you like to play for us?' I said 'great,' so they gave me an (earlier) album and I had to audition for them the next day. They said 'you've got the job- when can you start?' I told them I got out of high school in June and they said that was fine, that was when they were planning on recording. So, in June, they sent me a plane ticket and I flew out to record with The Limeliters."

At that time, he was J.J. McGuinn III or, rather, just Jim McGuinn and his name got around to Frank Freed, who was managing the Chad Mitchell Trio and who flew him to New York to appear on two of their early classics, Mighty Day On Campus and At the Bitter End, this time with credits. In fact, there he is, the fourth guy in the trio, toting his banjo on the cover.

McGuinn also worked with Judy Collins in the heyday of the 60's folk revival and was an integral part of the vastly underappreciated early folk period of Bobby Darin. And he was (and is) still “James” when he started his trek toward the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by founding The Byrds in 1964.

"I changed my middle name from Joseph to Roger back in 1967 (when) I got involved with this Indonesian...kind of a cult," McGuinn chuckles. "This guru thought it would be a good idea if I changed my name, so I changed my middle name to play it safe. He said I'd vibrate better with the universe. I didn't question it- I just sort of did it. Back in the 60's, we were experimenting with a lot of different things. Oh, my God- groovy. So, after all these years I've kept it Roger although I prefer Jim, really. I've been Roger so long and, in fact, I can't go back to Jim if I want to because there's already a Jim McGuinn in AFTRA; a deejay. I forget where he's from but he took my name."

The Byrds historic flight was launched with their folkrock rendition of Bob Dylan's yet-to-be-released "Mr.Tambourine Man," a huge hit which solidified the one-shot deal Miles Davis (yep, Miles Davis!) had gotten them at Columbia. Dylan and The Byrds began to electrify the folk world at about the same moment, a pattern which would repeat itself, with different twists and turns, as they steered trends this way and that over the years, almost as if they were in cahoots. Tunes like "Turn, Turn, Turn," long familiar to Pete Seeger and Limeliters fans, plowed new aisles of young enthusiasts who would follow the groove through a moog and psychedelic loop toward a country rock turn and a Christian tilt. The hits piled up, with liberal dosages of Dylan tunes, all treated with what became recognized at The Byrds "sound" stitched tight in Roger's 12 strings. Some, like "Mr. Spaceman," alluded to UFO abductions.

When Dylan took his cryptic "night off" in the country, many artists followed his lead and the same symbolic language began to appear in the work of diverse songwriters paying tribute to "Uncle Bob." It was all very mysterious, like spontaneous contributions to a subcultural mythos provided to reinforce a hidden structure. Dogs, Gabriel, face, Pegasus ponies, long winter references, captains and gamblers, on and on like some secret interlocking code too complex to detail here, the songs form a landscape of signposts pointing to an upcoming momentous event. When Arlo Guthrie told an interviewer from a counterculture generation who once believed they held mankind's destiny in their hands that "contact has been made" and "spaceships were coming to take people off of the earth," how many of us misread the twinkle?

It seemed to be a case much like that of the various authors who independently helped expand the Cthulhu mythos of H.P. Lovecraft (1896-1937), which involved fearsome prehuman extraterrestrials based halfway between New Zealand and Chile reawakening in our age. (Incidentally, the September 1998 issue of Fortean Times mentions a Discovery Channel program earlier this year about the US Navy SOSUS system's recent detection of a mysterious Cthulhu-like "immensely powerful acoustic emanation" from precisely the co-ordinates indicted by Lovecraft, who, also incidentally, reported an abductee-type experience in his childhood).

One of Bruce Rux's thick and curious books is called Hollywood Vs. the Aliens: The Motion Picture Industry's Participation in UFO Disinformation (Frog, Ltd. 1997). Rux examines disinformational ideas quite familiar to Ex-Fileophiles. The Theory Conspiracy. Spooks, ex-spooks and military or government employees "leaking" or expounding UFO theories so outlandish that you can no longer take the baby as seriously as the dishwater. All those "Men In Black" files suggestive of governmental involvement with UFOs? Forget 'em after the movie. Michael Craft (Alien Impact, St.Martin's, 1996) gives us the standoff reaction we're supposed to have: "Conspiracy theories are the lifeblood of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis and its believers. The latest anonymous rumors of secret military experiments on cattle and humans, government treaties with aliens, CIA-sponsored "Men In Black," even Nazi and U.S. saucer programs are all carelessly tossed around as 'proof.' One author's secondhand hearsay is rehashed by the next as documented evidence." Except, of course, the theories aren't "anonymous" and the one thing their proselytizers see to have in common is a "fed" connection. Does all this keep independent ufo investigators and the general public confused? You bet. Rux could have used these lines from Disney World: 20 Years of Magic (1991) in his introduction: "When Billy Graham once strolled with him through the Eden of the Magic Kingdom. the evangelist congratulated Walt on having built such a marvelous garden of fantasy.

'This is the real world here,' Walt sternly replied. 'The fantasy world is outside'."

One area of persuasion Rux leaves unexplored is popular music. Now, an investigator might be prompted to ask McGuinn, who contributed several songs to this unsung mythos, what the symbology they used was about. But McGuinn, perhaps leery of finding a weberman in his garbage, would of course reply; "Uh, symbols? You know what? They say if you were really in the 60's, you don't remember. I don't remember any of that stuff" and he would chuckle meaningfully.

Meanwhile, Dylan, in the albums before his last (which uses a Philip K. Dick title- another alleged abductee) delved deeply into his folk blues roots. McGuinn is also featuring traditional material in his current act and on his websites. Coincidence? (Aw, knock it off, Yarg...)

"I preserve some of the traditional songs that aren't getting a lot of attention these days," McGuinn claims, citing his shows and and addresses. "You can listen if you have real audio or a sound card with a wavefile player, which most people do nowadays...I noticed that a lot of the new folksingers are writing their own material, which is wonderful, but I thought I'd do my bit to keep these songs alive. I put the lyrics and chords in 'em; a picture that goes along with that; descriptive text. It's kind of like a coffee table book but you can listen to it."

Into computers since the early 80's and www since its inception, McGuinn hosts a sophisticated site with lots of clickable logos which will get you to his roots, from the Old Town Music to his Darin days to his vacation on Mars. Well, I haven't found the ET click yet, actually, but try the 12 String logo and there's his Happy Traum Homespun tapes video, recorded in Woodstock. Click on the lava lamps and "it'll take you to Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerovac; the whole beat poetry section with the poets and where they came from because, in the 50's and 60's, during the folk movement, that was part of the culture and I was involved in that (even before) I moved to Greenwich Village and saw people, like Hugh Romney (laugh), read poetry at the Gaslight."

McGuinn's narrations during his sets, about his career or, in the old folksinger tradition, about the songs, give a showman quality to his performances which transcend the one number-to-the-next progression of most contemporary acts. Also, if you get hold of the superb 4-cd Byrds Boxed Set and play the tracks with moog backwards, it sounds like the call of Cthulhu.

-Irv Yarg