Saturday, August 24, 2013

Looking Back Without Nostalgia: Joe Boyd's White Bicycles

Joe Boyd isn’t the most recognizable name in music to most people, yet he was responsible for some of the most important psychedelic folk music of the 1960s including Nick Drake, Shirley Collins, The Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention. In Boyd’s charming and entertaining memoir White Bicycles, first published in 2006, he recounts his years as a producer and tour manager to many of these musical acts. The book not only offers keen insights into some of those unusual pop artists, it's also rich in anecdotal stories that illuminate the period. Boyd was born in Princeton, New Jersey to a middle-class family. As he reports, “When I was a eleven, we became the last family on our street…to get a TV set…in the autumn of 1954 my brother Warwick and I discovered the real reason we needed it: Bob Horn’s WFIL-TV Bandstand [that] beamed out of Philadelphia every afternoon after school.” The charisma of Horn as host and the vintage r&b and early rock ‘n roll to which Boyd was exposed via the daily high school dance program, changed his life.

Besides being inspired by a TV show, later hosted by Dick Clark, there was also a familial connection. His grandmother, Mary Boxall Boyd, was a concert pianist who taught him piano as a child. But Boyd preferred to place himself under the instrument and listen to his grandmother play Mozart. “I would sit under her grand piano while she practiced. She viewed me as a soul mate…I took lessons from her until I was thirteen, but never thought of myself as a musician. Listening…became a part of my being.” In his final push to a becoming a “producer”, Boyd read the exploits of Ralph Peer, a field-recording producer who was the first person to document blues and country artists for OKeh Records in the 1920s. Boyd goes on to describe his times during his Harvard University days booking Lonnie Johnson for a rare campus gig that launched the bluesman’s career in 1962 to a new audience. It was his love of rural blues music that put Boyd in the forefront of bringing white audiences in touch with virtually forgotten musicians such as, Sleepy John Estes, the Rev. Gary Davis and Doc Watson. As a concert producer and promoter, Boyd’s assertive personality eventually put him into the recording studio. But he spent most of youth travelling the southern U.S. with a major stop in New Orleans. Boyd writes, “As jazz moved from swing towards bebop in the late ‘30s, a group of white fanatics set about rescuing traditional New Orleans jazz from obscurity, much as we were trying to do blues…as the fashion shifts and the beat changes, the intellectuals and wallflowers who have admired the music’s vitality and originality move in to preserve or resurrect the form.” Such was the case in New Orleans, demonstrated by Alan and Sandy Jaffe who established Preservation Hall, and its world famous Jazz Band.

But Boyd’s memoir really takes off when he talks about Nick Drake. Drake, the shy and introspective British folk singer, was signed to Boyd’s management company, Witchseason in 1968. Boyd was taken by Drake’s unique style of guitar playing combined with some choice songs whose cryptic lyrics caught the attention of Boyd and pretty much the entire British folk music community. Here's how Boyd writes of their first meeting. “I would get used to Nick Drake’s way of answering the telephone as if it had never rung before…he appeared at my office the next day…he handed me the [demo] tape and shuffled out the door.” Upon hearing Drake’s demo recording Boyd was instantly struck by his sound. “I played the tape again, and again. The clarity and strength of the talent were striking…there was something uniquely arresting in Nick’s composure. The music stayed within itself, not trying to attract the listener’s attention, just making itself available. His guitar technique was so clean it took a while to realize how complex it was…the heart of the music was mysteriously original.”

Nick Drake
But when Drake suddenly died in 1974, Boyd questions the official version as to how. “The coroner’s inquest returned a verdict of suicide, but I wasn’t convinced. The anti-depressants Nick had been taking were different from modern drugs; doses were far stronger and the side effects only beginning to be understood. Nick’s parents said he was very positive in the weeks before his death…but the drugs have been known to cause patients to roller coaster. I prefer to imagine Nick making a desperate lunge for life rather than a calculated surrender to death.” Most of Drake's fans, which later grew into something of a cult following, initially discovered his music (according to Boyd) through a Volkswagen commercial. Part of Drake's posthumous success, however, was due to Boyd’s astute move to ensure that his albums never went out of print. So when he sold his company Witchseason to Island Records, owner Chris Blackwell kept Drake from falling into obscurity. This past spring, Boyd produced a beautiful tribute concert and recording called Way to Blue: the songs of Nick Drake.

White Bicycles is essential reading for anyone interested in a personal account of Sixties music history because it's told without the usual nostalgia and name-dropping that recent music autobiographies have indulged in. Boyd’s memories reflect on a decade that had “an atmosphere in which music flourished [that] had a lot to do with economics. It was a time of unprecedented prosperity…in the Sixties we had surpluses of both money and time.” To Boyd those two important ingredients are lacking today, “People are supposedly wealthier now, yet most feel they haven’t enough money and time is at an even greater premium. The prediction that our biggest dilemma in the new millennium would be how to use the endless hours of leisure time freed up by computers has proven to be futurology’s least amusing joke.”

Joe Boyd

White Bicycles is quite an enjoyable read because Boyd tells his side of the story with the sentimentality undercut by his sardonic humour. As he rightfully boasts at the end “I cheated, I never got too stoned. I became the eminence grise I aspired to be, and disproved at least one Sixties myth: I was there, and I do remember.” [Author’s emphasis] After reading Boyd’s highly enlightening memoir, I don’t for a second doubt him.

For a complete list of music references, visit Joe Boyd’s youtube channel to hear the “soundtrack” to the book.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra.

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