Sunday, November 25, 2007

Joe Boyd's "White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s": Book Review

The title refers to the Amsterdam Provos who placed bikes all over the city for people, in that idealistic year of 1967, to use for free. By summer's end, they were being stolen and repainted. This metaphor sums up the decade Boyd describes, as a promoter, go-between, and then producer of some of its best, if not most famous, music. Raised in Princeton and fresh out of Harvard in 1962, he began working with jazz musicians touring Europe. He describes the hassles and pleasures of driving them about, interceding in disputes, and learning the business. He also, throughout this uneven yet engaging narrative, reflects upon the sociological significance of what he sells to the masses.

About presenting black music to white audiences, Boyd explains how novelty creates crowds eager for a fresh sensation. When the trend ends, "the intellectuals and the wallflowers who have admired the music's vitality and originality move in to preserve or resurrect the form." As the name of the "Preservation Hall" in New Orleans indicates, this may, as Boyd shows with Aretha Franklin later on, freeze both artist and fans into well-intended but grim nostalgia. Boyd insists upon openness to all influences. His Hannibal/ Carthage label, although its 80s-early 90s heyday is beyond the time of this book, distributed wonderful records which captured the "world music" label's potential yet steered clear of exploitation or trendiness. This label revived the early records (many of which he produced) of Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, and Fairport Convention, for example. Boyd wonders why the English hated their own folk music-- as opposed to the Americans-- and argues that this disdain stems from the Norman Conquest and subsequent derision of regional accents, styles, and traditions.

As for his fellow Yanks, Boyd managed the Newport Folk Festival stage during the "Dylan goes electric" 1965 show. Considering publicity for Seeger and Dylan sparked by Todd Haynes' new film revives the claim that Seeger vowed-- I paraphrase his purported wish--: "if Dylan plugs in, I'll ax the cable," Boyd's denial of this as urban legend merits attention. He had brought on the marvelously named Texas Prison Worksong Group (four real chain-gangers who in time cut wood as they did time) and had found a real stump for them to chop on stage. Boyd tells how a mic cable came loose and how Boyd saved it from the path of an ax while Seeger, who had introduced the band, "gave me an approving nod." (101) That's all, according to this eyewitness.

Contrast Ann Powers' November 11th notes in the L.A. Times on Haynes' film:
The mythology: "I'm Not There" makes hay of two disputed moments in Dylan's early career. In the first, a Pete Seeger doppelgänger wielding an ax threatens to cut the power feeding Quinn's amplifiers at a folk festival; the second involves a folkie yelling "Judas" at the singer as he performs in London, and the crowd nearly rioting. In truth, Seeger denies touching any weaponry when Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; "I said, 'If I had an ax, I'd cut the cable,' " he told Dylan biographer Howard Sounes three decades later.

Boyd muses how the pivotal moment of the decade, the cusp between the dreams and the reality, happened that night. "Anyone wishing to portray the history of the sixties as a journey from idealism to hedonism could place the hinge at around 9:30 on the night of 25 July, 1965." (107) Dylan turned his back on the folk tradition, political song, and didactic hectoring. Instead of "Blowin' in the Wind," answers lay, if at all, within "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Boyd describes backstage the defeat of the old guard, and the young, who, chastened, "realized that in their victory lay the death of something wonderful. The rebels were like children who had been looking for something to break and realized, as they looked at the pieces, what a beautiful thing it had been." (106) The writing's a bit slack here, but the lack of specificity, I suppose, allows each reader to better imagine what he or she would have reflected upon and lamented, if he or she had heard Dylan on this much-mythologized evening.

The remainder of the decade takes up three-fifths of the text. In it, Boyd runs the UFO club (but has little to say about Pink Floyd, the house band, as opposed to his later dealings with Denny and the Incredible String Band, for instance), discovers Nick Drake and the ISB, deals with the Jimi Hendrix documentary film rights, learns show biz as he swims with the sharks from Warners, Island, Apple, Polydor, and continues to feed his own smaller pond at Witchseason Productions. He even wades briefly--thanks to his earnings in Tinseltown-- alongside producer Don Simpson into a particularly pricy pool manned by a sailor-capped former sci-fi scribe.

He hits SF and LA, does the drugs and shares the gossip, but remains discreet. It's only as an aside that you learn his girlfriend during much of this time had been Linda Peters before she became Richard Thompson's partner! He notes how Richard's band turned "a rebuke into an inspiration" when the release of "Music from Big Pink" by The Band caused the Muswell Hill soft-rockers turned on by the West Coast SF sound to turn towards their own country's treasure-trove of ballads and reels in what became their their third Boyd-produced LP of 1968. My favorite photo of the band rehearsing for this LP, halos of light around their hair, heads bent over fretboards or gazing out pensively, graces the illustrations at the center of this volume. (A discography of Boyd's productions 1966-74 also appears.) Amazing to recall how "Liege & Lief" bettered even "Unhalfbricking" and (my favorite) "What We Did on Our Holidays," their first record to feature the formidable, and as told by Boyd, unforgettably determined, Sandy Denny.

One caveat: common to many books on music, and perhaps unavoidably, if you have not heard the music of many of the makers he introduces you to, you may not appreciate much of their impact. Drake, Fairport, Denny, and the ISB gain the most attention, but for a few efforts on which Boyd also manned the boards, say, Dr. Strangely Strange's pair of LPs, Nico's brilliantly grim "Desertshore," or two of John & Beverley Martyn's records in the early 70s, you gain only cursory mention. I don't know what the discography's LP by Muleskinner sounded like; Boyd barely mentions his later work with Maria Muldaur, although her 1973 hit that must have lined Boyd's pockets well, "Midnight at the Oasis"! An annoying song, but more popular than much of what he gives attention to here.

His Ivy League learning surfaces intermittently but to well-deployed effect. He compares the popularity of "The Beggar's Opera" from 1721-1790 in London with a cultural revolution's need to "feed the public's appetite for titillation," of hob-nobbing with the declassé and the rogues. (I think of "Rent," "Hair," or "Les Miserables" today.) He tells how the French in the nineteenth century "refined the process by which the newly enlarged bourgeoisie avoided boring itself to death." This could be Mick Jagger in the Bahamas, Joe Strummer in the Home Counties, or Johnny Rotten in Marina del Rey: "Adventurous sons left the safety of the middle-class hearth, lived in sin with seamstresses in garrets, took to drugs or drink and espoused radical philosophies. They would then create a daring novel/ play/ painting/ poem/ opera to provide vicarious thrills for those still working at their respectable jobs, earning enough as a result to reassume the trappings of bourgeois life in their old age." (157)

The last century's twist was to draw the audience deeper and closer into this demi-monde. Thanks to psychedelics, this experience of transcending one's origins could change you as a participant rather than as an spectator: "at UFO, the grinning crocodile of psychedelics wrapped its lips around your ankle, dragged you in and licked you all over." (158) But, the revolution turned out to be merely another trend. Police, money, and violence soon eroded any potential for dramatic change, and the bicycles in Amsterdam symbolized the failure of any "14 hour technicolor dream," as the reproduced UFO billing promised for 29/30 April 1967, to materialize beyond a will o'the wisp.

Yet, whether it was Los Lobos listening to Fairport's "A Sailor's Life" and realizing their own band could gain from a blend of traditional roots music with their own rock, or Boyd's own efforts to produce and distribute a folk-rock innovation that enlivened both adjectival genres, the promise of the 60s did, perhaps, survive the busts and the withdrawal symptoms and the long come-down. His last pages provide an eloquent eulogy for what the Sixties offered. He ponders how the leading guru, Dick Alpert- Baba Ram Dass, was able to leave drugs behind while his followers became submerged, and often dragged down, by the forces unleashed that pulled so many "towards chaos and mediocrity." As heroin and cocaine replaced mushrooms and marijuana, Boyd suggests that the music and the ethos suffered terminal declines. He doubts that the tunes of the Sixties will prove any more durable than those of later decades. Prosperity then favored dropouts who could live the bohemian lifestyle on very little cash; today, such time and money are both at a premium unaffordable for most of us, unless we're trust funded.

Boyd causes you to consider if the post-1973 decline from a period of "dangerous laxness" when debt-free students could threaten the Pentagon and the French government's stability was not a conspiracy. Even if coincidental, the collapse of an economy that enabled so many to think, play, and perform (however ineptly) proves a sobering coda for Boyd's reflections. As a producer, he laments the decline of studio sound that captured the buzz in the air of musicians laying down the backing tracks live, and the digitized isolation of today's sounds. So much music survives today, but atomized onto iPods and downloads rather than on radio and in concert, the community that fueled such creation and consumption of music also provided, thanks to technological advances in the studio, an overload that short circuits the old adrenalin of a concert or hearing an LP with friends in a crowded flat when so few could, in Britain, afford even a phonograph in the early years of the Sixties.

"Much of the Sixties is mirrored in that Sunday night at Newport, when Dylan sent Pete Seeger fleeing into the night with the jubilant aggression of his music-- music inspired by Seeger himself." (269) The explosion of the decade ignited audiences with electricity, but this also drowned out the sounds of Skip James or Thelonious Monk and "blew their minds with the simplistic sounds of the Grateful Dead. Few took time to mourn, as we did backstage at Newport, for what was so heedlessly tossed aside." Once, he recalls, "when the mode of music changes, the walls of the city shake." (268) {Plato said this of Pythagoras, I remember.} Now, "when the mode of music changes, the walls of the city are covered in corporate ads sponsoring superficially subversive artists." (271) Or, in other words, putting choice seats on AmEx for the Rolling Stones tour sponsored by Ameriquest?

Review posted to Amazon US today. Author's Website:

P.S. Although Serpent's Tail refused the request of Cliff Furnald, the editor of "the online magazine of the world's music," for this book or its companion CD for me to review there, I did enjoy the read. But I did not buy it; I waited until the library obtained it. Why? I do feel compelled to mention this churlish rejection as a my own protest against a kind of post-Sixties corporate stinginess that prevented Furnald and his ancillary store-- which sells much of Boyd-related music from Topic, Transatlantic, and other Fairport-affiliated bands and singers as well as great tunes worldwide-- from a deserved opportunity to share with the site's readers and listeners my review of this book/ CD set. Furnald, and Boyd, represent the ideals of the decade that created such music and persist, four decades after the Summer of Love, in sharing by the latest media the wonders of the world's songsmiths with us today.

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