The 5000 spirits or the layers of the onion
Joe Boyd’s ‘White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s’
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A friend of mine, younger than I, who works for a hip reissue label out of San Francisco, told me of an encounter with a member of a prominent San Franciscan band of the '60s. My friend, aided perhaps by the fact that he is not a native of the city, enjoys good relations with and access to most of the band members and scenesters of this time. He's done many formal interviews, and has strong connections with them through his work and his passion as a fan. The interview with this particular band member was frosty and stiff from the start, my friend's enthusiasm brought to a swift close (after one too many questions about life in Haight-Ashbury, perhaps). He was dismissed with a sneering "Man, you're just one of those people who just weren't there."
Memoirs of the '60s can be a bit like that, and to be fair it must be hard to keep that tone out of any recollection of a decade so tumultuous, blasted and candy-coloured. But it does creep in, and for those of us enthralled by the era and especially its music, it can be a little bit galling to hear, yet again, that true understanding comes only to those with Woodstock tickets still in their back pockets. No such problem with Joe Boyd, though, who was at Woodstock and yet has written a lucid, clear-eyed account of his life during the '60s, light on the Man-you-should-have-been-theres and full of good, elegant prose.
So who's Joe Boyd? If you have an early Fairport Convention album, or either of the first two Nick Drake albums, or know the first Pink Floyd single, ‘Arnold Layne', or have boogied to Maria Muldaur's AM hit ‘Midnight at the Oasis', then you know Joe Boyd. He produced them. But there's more to his story than late-night studio tales, and that's what makes White Bicycles (Serpent's Tail, 224 pp; $32.95) such a breathtaking read. We've come to see and know a lot of the '60s through rock-star and rock-mogul and rock-groupie biographies, and many of them have the protagonist famous and well kitted-out by '66. That's when Boyd gets his first record-producer jobs, but before that there's a story that has your head shaking, as the Zelig-like Boyd bounces from the US to England to Europe, seemingly fitted with some radar device that's going to drop him into the hottest music scene going.
Boyd's book is subtitled ‘Making Music in the 1960s', and from its enigmatic opening line - "The sixties began in the summer of 1956, ended in October of 1973 and peaked just before dawn on 1 July, 1967 during a set by Tomorrow at the UFO Club in London" - that's what you get. No childhood moments. No leafy Boston reminiscences. Not even his parents' first names. The book leaps straight into the music, with the author at age 12 hooked on doo-wop and early R&B on American Bandstand. The next jump is to Harvard in 1960, where Boyd is listening to the blues. How he got into this university and what he studied there is never revealed. He graduated in early '64 and in any other decade would have gone into a cosy professional niche for life, but this is the '60s, so his first job is tour-managing Muddy Waters.
This is where the fun begins. Boyd lives a charmed life, a music aficionado's dream. Being from Boston means instant immersion in that city's incredible folk scene; it also puts him in a proto-'60s environment of bells, Zen texts, marijuana, visits to Mexico, and strummin' guitars that are going to ride out the decade. The local music is Joan Baez, Eric Von Schmidt, Jim Kweskin & The Jug Band (Maria Muldaur on lead vocals) and informal visits from Bob Dylan, up from New York. It's a swirling world, with Boyd - at this point barely more than 20 - hustling as concert promoter for old blues legends Lonnie Johnson and Sleepy John Estes, while simultaneously trying to manoeuvre himself onto the budding Elektra recording label as an A&R man and working as both booking agent and dogsbody for the Newport Jazz and Folk festivals. Talk about being at the centre of things.
Over the next two years, with these jobs in place, Boyd meets a fantastic array of eccentrics and the soon-to-be-famous. Here, the radar comes out: he helps put together the Lovin' Spoonful in New York, then goes to Chicago and discovers the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, then travels through northern England and Scotland seeing the English folk revival whose flowering he'll record in a few years, then heads into London to record a pre-Cream Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce on ‘Crossroads'. And this is just a snippet.
Meanwhile, he's tour-managing jazz giants Coleman Hawkins, Roland Kirk, Stan Getz and the divine Astrid Gilberto through Europe. But there's no money, and the big names and breaks are tempered by Boyd's frustration at not being able to capitalise on his discoveries. Between '64 and '66 everyone is positioning, no one more so than Dylan and his manager, Albert Grossman, who decide to play out one the great dramas of the decade at the '65 Newport Folk Festival. And this is where the tempo of the book slows and settles, as Boyd lays out beautifully the events of that epic weekend with the ultimate insider's view.
The '65 Newport Folk Festival is a tragi-comedy of such a size, populated with characters of so sharp a definition, that it is amazing no one has put it up for a film. In short, Dylan goes electric: backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, a screaming Mike Bloomfield on lead guitar, he leads the charge with three electric numbers that splinter the cosy mid-'60s folk community. Around this performance spin all the factions, some wishing to cut the electric cables and kill the sound, others dancing, others claiming Dylan is crying on stage. And who is at the mixing desk, who set up the amplifiers, who runs back to the desk with orders from folk veteran Pete Seeger to turn it down? Joe Boyd. It's a great chapter.
Boyd's legacy as a producer is a brace of albums that he made in London between '66 and '70. The groups and singers bear exotic names: Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band, Fotheringay, Nick Drake. Their music is the exhaustion that was inevitable at the end of a gruelling decade of trends and movements. It's hippie folk, but it's the very best of it and it has aged well. Boyd found his home here, the American with the exquisite folk-rock credentials meeting a group of talented English and Scottish songwriters and musicians schooled on the same roots. But they bring a twist, a particular Britishness to it all: with Fairport it was the first great electrification of English folk music, for Nick Drake it was Keats and Coleridge, and for The Incredible String Band it was the whole '60s caravan.
The ten best albums from this period live on. And it's to Boyd's credit that he fostered these talents and recorded them so well. He has remained a custodian to them, and seen their currency in the rock world rise. Nick Drake, especially, has come in for a major re-evaluation; revered in his day by insiders, his hushed dark-wood folk sounds spectacular now. Homage has also come from the Freak Folk scene, a new wave of bands and singers who take inspiration from these records, and who all look suspiciously like The Incredible String Band circa '68.
But the dream had to die. This was not an age of brand-naming the band and building the franchise; more a situation in flux, with talented people exploding around drugs, relationships and the ideals that they packed into their music. Boyd is overworked and, struggling with budgets and record-company problems, watches his world fall apart and begins to contemplate his future. Sandy Denny leaves Fairport, Nick Drake slips further into the depression that will lead to his death in '74, The Incredible String Band finds Scientology. Boyd takes a chance in LA.
A little heat goes out of the book here. It's as if, after the glories of Boston and London, LA is a step too far. As the new head of the music department for Warner Brothers Film, Boyd arrives expecting to install mavericks such as John Cale in the system. He soon learns the lessons of dollars and sense. His first jobs, working on the soundtracks of A Clockwork Orange and Deliverance, proved disappointments: creative input was denied. Both films are dealt with in a page of White Bicycles. Boyd had left his fiefdom in London and walked straight into American corporate culture, carrying a naivety and a bag of ideas that had got him through the '60s - but the '60s were no more.
The overwhelming virtue of this book is the level of its gaze. It's a magic carpet ride of the highs and lows, and not one locked into one career on one trip. Boyd fulfils his dream of becoming a record producer, but even at the moment of realisation he's putting on the first London gigs for Pink Floyd. And it's that scope of experience, the interconnections and the skill with which they are woven into the narrative, that make this book a cut above so many others about the era.
The story also benefits from Boyd himself, a most unlikely '60s figure in a way; more the white-suited explorer of old, who finds himself not in Africa but wandering in the jungles of that mad decade. Somebody had to make sense of it then; somebody has to make sense of it now. Who better than Joe Boyd?
Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.