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."

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Hopes Dies Last

I've heard several interviews with the late radio host, commentator and oral historian Studs Terkel. I've also read several articles about him. So I knew he was a good egg. (Admitedly, I would think that from the name alone- which sounds like a character from the Preston Sturges film- and from his friendly mug)

But, despite having his autobiography in storage, I had never read anything by him until last week when I read Hope Dies Last.

Hope Dies Last is an oral history of the idea of hope. It was published during some of the darkest days of the Bush administration. When Bush was at the height of his popularity. The USA was just about to invade Iraq, the Senate was rubber stamping Bush's legistlation etc. It was a time of little hope for anyone on the Left. Studs book was an attempt at intervened to dispell this hopelessness. This is why its subtitled Making a Difference in an Indifferent World.

It would be impossible to summarize Studs oral history. Impossible to summarize how all the remarkable people he interviews perserve to make a difference in an indifferent world. He interviews so many remarakble people who have done remarkable things in an indifferent world from many organizer's, to Pete Seeger, to teachers to citizens of Japanese origin internee in US concentration camps during world war II etc. etc. He also interviews a truly repellant human being-- the man who dropped the atomic bombs on Japan and shows a twisted sort of pride at the murder of tens of thousands.

Now there is a different president in Washington. One that is better then the Bush administration in many important ways. But his administration is still fucking up the world with its horrendous economic policy. An economic policy that as David Harvey points out is strengthening the capitalist class instead of bailing out the people who are loosing their homes. This president speaks of the audacity of hope. And I can't help but think that when Obama was an organizer in Chicago he was influenced by the discourse of hope of Studs and his interviewees. But the big difference is that Obama speaks hope as audacious in-itself. Studs and the remarkable people he interviews, see it as a necessary means, a source of inspiration for making the world a better place.

Read this book. Don't just take it from me. Take it from Studs.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Let Me Stand Alone, The Journals of Rachel Corrie

Let Me stand Alone

In my mind you are still 23.
Trapped in your youth by death.

Today you would have turned
30 had you not stood

with hope

in the way
of a CAT bulldozer
using your thin
blonde frame
to stop
the demolition
of the Nasrallah family's home.

You wedged yourself
between destruction
and life.
that makes sense
to me
but not to the driver
who drove over your body
cracked your spine
and murdered you.

Your diary was given to me
by your family. They wanted
to share
who you are.


I read your words and watched you grow.

this poem you wrote when you were 11
hung me out to dry:

There are few things which have
the pride and the shyness of a soft, wet trillium

I know you would be different now.
An even greater, more brilliant writer

I string together this shitty poem
for you. In honor of your big 30.

you love
i mean
loved poetry

we miss you

Thursday, April 2, 2009

"Letter To My Daughter" by Maya Angelou

Maya's life is mostly behind her now. Having lived a uniquely amazing life thus far as an brilliant storyteller, writer, feminist, activist, and pillar in the civil rights movement, she felt it important to share her knowledge with her daughters, "...I have thousands of daughters. You are Black and White, Jewish and Muslim, Asian, Spanish-speaking, Native American and Aleut. You are fat and thin and pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered, and I am speaking to you all. Here is my offering to you." Considering all her life experience she patches together a crazy quilt of "flash non fiction" memories and learned lessons. I read this book in one sitting. I found it uplifting and full of love. I've never had a mom that has written to me more then two simple sentences, until now. I appreciate how Maya evolves mothering and family to include me and you. She shares her innermost lessons, sets her side of the story straight, tells of intimate details of her past, and does it all while holding you warmly with her words. Thanks MOM! And HAPPY BIRTHDAY! (April 4, also MLK's assassination)