Sunday, April 19, 2009

White Bicycles by Joe Boyd

White Bicycles, Joe Boyd's memoir, has been on my reading list since it was published in 2006. Finally, several coincidences motivated me to check the book out from the library a week ago. I just finished it. It was an entertaining and enjoyable read, although not "the best book about music I've read in years" as the Eno cover quote states.

If you aren't familiar with Joe Boyd, he was a music producer, manager, promoter and all-around mover and shaker in the sixties. He got his start as a Harvard-educated New England folkie and blues/jazz buff, booking tours and serving as production manager for the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals, then ran the UFO Club and Witchseason Productions in London. Some of the musicians and bands, among the many, with whom he's been involved in some capacity include: Geoff & Maria Muldaur, Lonnie Johnson, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Coleman Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Paul Butterfield & Mike Bloomfield, Tomorrow, Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Move, Nico & John Cale, Shirley Collins, Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention and Nick Drake.

The title of the book is a reference both to Tomorrow's single "My White Bicycle" and to the white bicycles used by the Dutch Provo group (Tomorrow's song is itself a reference to the Dutch Provos). Tomorrow were a great '60s psychedelic rock band who had a 1967 hit with a song titled "Revolution" - the band included Steve Howe who went on to Yes and Twink who went on to the Pretty Things & Pink Fairies. The Provos, a radical collective who gained seats on the Amsterdam city council in the mid-'60s, initiated a free transportation service using bicycles. The bicycles were painted white so users would know which ones were free to use.

Boyd's self-stated ambition was to be an "éminence grise", a powerful decision-maker who operates under the radar or as a middle-man. The book documents his role in bringing people together, setting up deals for tours and records, making music and even producing the documentary film Jimi Hendrix. He was a shrewd businessman in addition to being a pivotal force in radical, underground '60s music culture. More than anything, he wanted his musician friends to have Top 40 hits and they often got them. I was more interested in the music than the business side of his life, but I learned a lot about the music business I never really understood before. He worked at a time when major labels were smaller and both labels and musicians were interested in taking risks on how music was made, produced and distributed. According to Boyd, "In our glorious optimism, we believed that 'when the mode of music changes, the walls of the city shake.'... Today, when the mode of music changes, the walls of the city are covered in corporate ads sponsoring superficially subversive artists." Boyd goes into great detail so that his life story stands out dynamically.

The book's chapters are fragments of memory told through long and colorful anecdotes. Boyd takes us on a journey through pivotal moments in music history while recounting his experiences. There is a somewhat chronological flow as Boyd moves through his years in New England and on to his time in '60s Swinging London and early '70s Los Angeles. His years booking bands with John Hopkins (Hoppy) at the UFO Club come across as exciting, just as one would guess. Hoppy, a Cambridge Univ. graduate, started the London Free School in 1965 with Barry Miles, who owned the Indica Gallery and Bookshop, and the next year they co-founded the underground UK paper International Times. Hoppy and Miles helped organize The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream, a 1967 happening/benefit for IT that was documented in Peter Whitehead's film Tonite Let's All Make Love in London. I watched clips from the movie for the first time on YouTube recently and was astounded. Afterwards I did some research and realized Hoppy and Boyd had co-founded the UFO Club. The UFO Club, which opened in Dec. 1966 with Pink Floyd (back when Syd Barett was in the band) and films by Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger, became the center of underground music and culture in London until its close in Oct. 1967. There were often light shows, similar to the Fillmore. Even AMM played at the UFO Club. According to Boyd, "Yoko Ono [who had previously exhibited at the Indica Gallery in 1966] cast her Bottoms movie mostly from UFO audiences, who signed up for it in a book by the door."

While living in England, Boyd often flew back to the U.S. for music business. One of these trips was to attend Woodstock with the Incredible String Band, whom he produced and managed. After a string of disappointments, he moved to L.A. in 1971 after he was hired by Warner Bros. to produce music for film. While there he had his first and only #1 hit, as the producer for "Dueling Banjos" from Deliverance. He makes light of his successes, taking an honest stock of his legacy, by describing the many mistakes he's made along the way. He seems to have a clear and pragmatic perspective, which I found inspiring. Boyd doesn't succumb to sentimental nostalgia.

Intertwined in the flow are mentions of his connections with notable sixties figures, such as Richard Alpert (Alpert, later Ram Dass, was a psychologist at Harvard when Boyd met him). Altering his consciousness played an important part of Boyd's life, it seems, because he mentions getting stoned in almost every chapter. It got to the point where I had to laugh, because I realized this was a reflection not so much of Boyd but of the sixties. Towards the end of the book, Boyd takes a serious turn in discussing how drugs and alcohol were abused. I could feel his sorrow over the deaths of Hendrix, Sandy Denny and Nick Drake (who Boyd surmises died from an accidental overdose of anti-depressants). Boyd recognizes he's lucky when he writes that he "disproved at least one sixties myth: I was there, and I do remember."

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