Sunday, April 6, 2008

White Bicycles

I recently finished reading Joe Boyd's memoirs of 'making music in the 1960s', White Bicycles. Boyd is famous in an underground sort of way for producing a large number of British and American folk, rock, pop and jazz acts in the 60s and 70s, and for occasionally taking on more contemporary projects during the folky/jangly guitar revival years of the early and mid-80s (he did the 3rd R.E.M. album Fables of the Reconstruction / Reconstruction of the Fables in 1985, as well as a 10.000 Maniacs album). Later years have seen him focus almost entirely on world music projects. My main interest in Boyd comes from my enjoyment of the music of Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, Richard and Linda Thompson, and more than anything, Nick Drake. Boyd produced many of these artists' seminal records, and this must remain his main legacy in the music world.

Boyd's book is from 2006, and has in fact been complemented by a
CD of the same title featuring some (mostly rather obscure) titles by a bunch of Boyd's discoveries and inventions, including early Pink Floyd material, as well as rather dated 60s stuff such as The Incredible String Band and Vashti Bunyan. Purer folk material such as Shirley Collins, bluesy Eric Clapton material and psychedelia from Soft Machine is also available on the disc.

The book is pretty captivating, as one follows the roll call of artists Boyd intersected with at various stages in his burgeoning music business career. It begins with his interest in the blues, and his earliest attempts at promoting events with obscure and almost forgotten black, original practitioners of the form. The book then moves on to his involvement with the Boston folk scene where Boyd was friends with many of the best singer/songwriters of the pre-65 folk wave which featured a major rivalry between the Boston and Greenwich Village scenes. Boyd was at the Newport Folk Festival in 65 when Dylan single-handedly ended that stage of the folk revival by 'crossing over' to the electric, rock side of music. While Boyd was never close to Dylan, he recognised early on that Dylan was the Caravaggio (Poussin famously said of fellow artist Caravaggio that he 'had come to destroy painting') of the sixties folk scene: the figure who would transcend the narrow confines of any one scene or musical ghetto and in the process destroy many of the older, pure forms while creating a newness no one could have anticipated the violence and beauty of.

Boyd's most productive years were spent in London, during the so-called 'Swinging London' era, where he ran The UFO Club, a psychedelic dance club with live acts; recorded and produced a number of new artists crossing over from the English folk mould to a more Americanized singer/songwriter practice; and, interestingly enough, also worked as a road manager for a number of jazz r&b and blues acts criss-crossing Europe, where the audience for these older types of (primarily black) music was much larger than in America. Boyd also took under his wings a number of African musicians who had come to London as exiles from political troubles or apartheid, hoping to make a better living and a career in Britain and Europe.

Boyd describes in some detail his work with studio technician and producer/engineer
John Wood who worked with Nick Drake on all his recordings. We also get more biographical glimpses of what made great musicians and artists such as Sandy Denny and Drake tick, but overall there is little attempt to psychologize or sensationalize the lives and deaths of these people. Some reviewers have criticized Boyd for not revealing more about these controversial characters and their sad ends, but I appreciate his reticence and decorum in letting them rest as peacefully as possible. It does, however, leave one a little disappointed and wondering if there might not have been more Boyd could share with us without violating his friends' privacy, especially when other far less interesting indiscretions actually are revealed (usually involving affairs of the heart and flesh)...

I am a particular fan of Nick Drake, as discussed
in a previous post, so the rather superficial description of Drake Boyd leaves us with is quite irritating. Boyd seems to have been a person who sometimes absented himself at the exact point in time where musicians and friends needed him the most, and this may have been particularly true in the case of Nick Drake, causing Drake's anger and often recounted outburst against Boyd, and a never quite resolved remorse on Boyd's part. Boyd has been working on keeping Drake's legacy alive, though, and perhaps that is ultimately a way for him to atone for his relative neglect of Nick while he was still alive. Here is a snippet from one of Boyd's recent newsletters:

I flew to California for two evenings built around the release of new Nick Drake material and screenings of the film “A Skin Too Few”. Sometime in the late ‘90s, the BBC approached Gabrielle Drake and me about making a documentary on Nick. I was impressed with their young director and the production unit was one of the best in the BBC, so the project went ahead. While that was being shot (working around the fact that there is no footage of Nick performing), some Dutch guys started pestering me about a film they were making on the same subject for Dutch tv. In the cause of spreading the word about Nick’s music to the Continent, I took part in their film as well, despite the fact that I found their methods a bit off-putting. The BBC film was eventually aired and was very disappointing. A few months later, I attended a screening of the Dutch film with very low expectations. Naturally, it was brilliant. This is the film that was shown in San Francisco and Los Angeles at the beginning of October. In Los Angeles, Gabrielle Drake and I were upstaged by Robin Frederick, who did her brilliant de-construction of a couple of Nick’s songs. She plays and sings, not attempting to put across a performance, but in order to demonstrate what Nick is up to with his complex harmonies, melodies, rhythms and lyrics. After listening to Robin, you gain a new understanding of why Nick’s music has endured.

Other, more fun parts of Boyd's book include the account of his brush with Scientology which claimed a good deal of the original anarchistic creativity of the main members of The Incredible String Band, and almost got Boyd sucked in too. Also the anecdotes from the first Blues and Gospel Caravan tour of Britain are hilarious, including a description of how Rev. Gary Davis would eat his morning eggs... I am also happy now to have understood why South African sax player Dudu Pukwana appears on one track on Mike Heron's 1971 solo album Smiling Men with Bad Reputations. While wasting away my youth in the 70s pondering such things (ah, the days before the Internet!), I could never work out the connection between such disparate musical traditions as Heron's and Pukwana's... Now I realize that one of Boyd's supreme contributions to the music scene is his ability to bring talented musicians together across such boundaries.

Minor beefs of mine with Boyd's otherwise spot-on assessments of musical quality and the lack thereof include the, to me inexplicable, off-hand dismissal of Eric Andersen's song "Thirsty Boots" as "hack-work" - and it also gets a little tiresome to keep reading the ever-growing list of artists which Boyd either didn't sign or was robbed of by more powerful players, esp. the part that involves missing out on the distribution rights for ABBA-songs...

Boyd is obviously interesting from a historical point of view, and also continues to be a force in the music business, supporting 'real', live musicianship in an age of sampling and depleted talent. His work in world music is on-going and important, with especial excellence in his
Cubanismo! recordings and in recording the music of Mali's kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate. Perhaps he will at some point let himself become a freer and more interesting writer as well, rather than just the inhibited eminence grise he self-labels himself as - now that would be in the true sixties spirit!

Some resources:

NPR has a good feature on Boyd here.

Boyd's own home page is here.

Here and here are congenial reviews of the book.

Serpent's Tail Books promote White Bicycles here.

Richie Unterberger has a superb interview w. Boyd here.

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