Drugs Made and Nearly Ended Ex-Byrd Roger Mcguinn; Then He Turned, Turned, Turned to God

updated 04/23/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/23/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

One day, he was joined in Bible reading by Tambourine Man Bob Dylan

As a co-founder, guitarist and lead singer for the folk-rock pioneers the Byrds, Roger McGuinn left behind two '60s classics, Turn! Turn! Turn! ("To everything there is a season") and Eight Miles High. The inspiration for one was Biblical (Ecclesiastes), for the other, chemical. High became a drug-culture anthem and made McGuinn a folk hero in the psychedelic vanguard.

As the decade ended and the remaining Byrds flew the coop, most were doomed to obscure solo flights. McGuinn cut flat, aimless LPs, and, despite a stint with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, was going nowhere. Two years ago, burned out, reeling from a third failed marriage, he was veering closer to Chapter 11 than Top Ten. Ironically, as he crashed from eight miles up, the one-time youth-culture guru turned not to dope, acid or "blow" to save his soul, but to the Bible.

The season to be reborn began some 18 months ago when, after a long talk with singer friend Jennifer Warnes, Roger decided that "Jesus is the only way. I felt peace. My fear evaporated. Right there it was, like, whoosh, the Holy Spirit overtook me." His career has been soaring again too, this time with ex-Byrds Gene Clark (guitar) and Chris Hillman (bass). Their LP McGuinn, Clark & Hillman, boosted by a hit single, Don't You Write Her Off, and a national tour of small clubs, is gold.

The cosmic punchline to McGuinn's dramatic comeback is that, at 36, the temptations of the rock-star trip are repugnant to him this time around. That scene, he says, is "decadent, superficial. You imagine yourself as part of some elite cult." In the bad old days those rituals for McGuinn led him into 20 acid trips, daily pints of booze, breakfasts of potent grass and, eventually, a frightening reliance on cocaine. "It seemed all my energies were devoted to my next score. I got real paranoid, looking over my shoulder all the time. I thought people were bugging my phone, trying to shoot me."

The new McGuinn has thrown away those crutches, is 35 pounds lighter, and, says Hillman "is a 100 percent better person. He used to do horrible, jerky things." McGuinn admits he's encountered doubters, and partner Clark is one of them: "I've known Roger to advocate LSD, then Eastern religion, so it seems natural that when that wore out, he'd advocate something else." But Bob Dylan has been an ally. "We sat down two months ago and studied the Bible together," says Roger, hinting that Dylan might now be considering Christianity after his publicized return to Judaism. Another believer is McGuinn's fourth wife, Camilla, 27, an aspiring actress who also overcame drug use through Jesus. The couple jog every day and set aside time to pray in their one-bedroom Century City apartment. Says Roger: "I have never felt such warmth in a relationship."

McGuinn's parents, both Chicago journalists, must have sensed their son would one day fill the generation gap with hippie hymns. They authored a book when he was only 5 titled Parents Can't Win. After graduating from high school, Roger, a gifted folk interpreter on guitar, became an accompanist for the Limeliters, Judy Collins and Bobby Darin, among others. Returning from a trip to London in the early '60s, he met Clark and David Crosby at L.A.'s Troubadour, where he was performing acoustic Beatle tunes. They decided to form the original Byrds and soon hit No. 1 with a rocked-up cover version of Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man.

Religion dominates every aspect of Roger's new life. He says he prays for parking spaces and to relieve minor pains, and he claims "the Lord put McGuinn, Clark & Hillman together. My ministry is rock'n'roll," he exults. "I'm shining the light in a dark area."

Sometimes it shines back. "Last year my pastor advised me," smiles McGuinn, "to pray for a miracle instead of declaring bankruptcy. I did, and within several days, I received unexpected royalty checks amounting to $30,000."

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