Book review: In The Wings: My life with Roger McGuinn and The Byrds by Ianthe McGuinn

In The Wings: My life with Roger McGuinn and The Byrds by Ianthe McGuinn
In The Wings: My life with Roger McGuinn and The Byrds by Ianthe McGuinn

Someone once said that if you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t really there… Ianthe McGuinn has no doubt heard that phrase many times over the decade, and smiled to herself.

This Mexican American definitely was there and, thanks to her extensive diaries – or journal entries as she calls them – the mother of two boys, grandmother of two more, and deserted former wife of folk rockers The Byrds’ frontman Roger McGuinn is able to share as instantly as taking one of those old-fashioned 60s Polaroid photographs, her personal, sometimes painful, memories of people, places and events at the cutting edge of American pop culture.

Ianthe later enjoyed a successful nursing career and it is hard to know if she is sending herself up or simply stating a fact when she describes herself as once being a Rock’n’Roll Star Queen. After all, she was the person closest to McGuinn and was at his side from the earliest days, giving him encouragement and her hard-earned and much-needed cash, while she witnessed the band’s rise, glittering heyday and the tumultuous clash of wills within its ranks.

While hubby basked in TV and concert venue glory and adoring fans, Ianthe was waiting in the wings (to quote her book’s title), always ready to counter his growing feelings of self-doubt and to boost his self-confidence.

This plucky, determined woman certainly comes over as the guiding force and, for a few short years, the grounding influence behind the man who co-wrote and performed the tongue in cheek So You Want To Be A Rock’n’Roll Star?

The hit record was The Byrds’ response to the entertainment industry’s cynical creation of The Monkees. But Roger and Ianthe had a creation of their own in mind, one that is not revealed until half way through the book when they are referred to by these names for the first time. Before that she is known by her birth name Dolores, while Roger – first name James – is more than happy to be called Jim by family, friends and fans alike.

The change comes as the couple seek guidance from the international spiritual association Subud – whose classes they attended regularly – for the most appropriate name for their first born son. The instruction came in the form of a brief telegram from Subud’s Indonesian HQ which read: ‘Name baby son Patrick [stop].’

Dolores – as she still was – admits she was fascinated by the process, so much so that the proud parents also adopted a new moniker.

She reveals: ‘This is the well-known moment when Jim became Roger and I became Ianthe based on the letters that vibrated well in the universe for each of us. Roger and I received our new names confirmed on paper a few weeks later.’

Yet in later years, and much happier times, having married Emmylou Harris’ manager Eddie Tickner, she reverted to the security of being Dolores.

At times the level of detail in Ianthe’s day-to-day activities is in danger of becoming overwhelming although her memories offer a rare insight into celebrity domesticity – hardly bliss at times – and, despite a Porsche in the drive, the McGuinns never enjoyed the over-the-top mansion lifestyle of some, thanks to misplaced trust and naivety when it came to signing contracts.

Ultimately, Ianthe, who maintained a close and loving relationship with McGuinn’s parents Jim and Dorothy throughout their life, was left abandoned with two young sons, Patrick and Henry, as her erring husband adopted and easily adapted to an increasingly hedonistic lifestyle.

Fortunately Ianthe recognised that she was on her own path to self-destruction: ‘This wasn’t how I wanted to live. In my grief I was self-medicating with booze, pot and one night stands.’

These included a pre-Star Wars and Indiana Jones Harrison Ford, then an out-of-work Hollywood actor making ends meet by renovating properties, although at one party she did turn down the chance of a threesome being instigated by Hollywood hard man Marlon Brando!

Ianthe is proud to place on record that throughout their childhood she ‘never spoke an unkind word about Roger to the boys,’ recounting that his own mother acknowledged frequently that her son was ‘a taker, not a giver.’

It begs the question why, when having admitted she had forgiven Roger ‘for breaking my heart and destroying my family’ almost 10 years ago, she has now decided to open the Byrd-cage door on events that are half a century old.

Perhaps the clue comes in the last paragraph when Ianthe – or Dolores – dedicates her book to her grandsons Ciaron and James who once asked her to tell them ‘everything about The Byrds and the 60s Nana – and don’t leave anything out.’

With her fastidious and fascinating journal entries, there was never any chance of that happening.

(New Haven Publishing, paperback, £16.99)