Picture any key scene in the history of '60s music and you'll find Joe Boyd lurking somewhere in the frame. He'd rarely be at the center of the image. More likely you'll find him making trouble in the corner. But that's what gives Boyd's new memoir of the tie-dyed era, "White Bicycles," such charm, resonance and flair.
Serious music fans know Boyd as a key figure in '60s British folk-rock, having helped shape and produce Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band and Nick Drake, along with running Hannibal Records, which brought their music into a new era. He was behind the mixing board when Bob Dylan went electric. He started the nightclub that made Pink Floyd the toast of London's psychedelic scene. He enticed Eric Clapton to start his first supergroup. And for years, he was just about the world's only champion of Nick Drake, the singer-songwriter who has been elevated to a cult icon decades after his death. Fewer know that Boyd actually hails from New Jersey or that his history traces back through associations with the jazz greats of the '50s, as well as the early American folk revival that followed.
But the most surprising thing about this legendary producer is that he can write. "White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s" is technically a memoir, but one in which the narrator practically disappears. Instead, he lets the events and the artists speak for themselves. Even though he's often the catalyst for wonderful things, he's also content to step aside and let the story of the music spill out.
"The book reads the way the records sound, which is that I'm not really visible," says Boyd, who'll be reading from the book - and presenting performances from longtime friend Geoff Muldauer - on Tuesday at Joe's Pub. "The music I produced is not very much to the forefront. And I tried to execute my skills to be invisible."
"White Bicycles" chronicles more misses than hits. In one hysterical paragraph, Boyd sums up having lost the chance to sign Cream, the Lovin' Spoonful, the Move, and Procol Harum, not to mention narrowly missing out on nabbing the British publishing rights to a then-unknown ABBA.
At Harvard, Boyd claims to have had a "brief, mad two-week period" where he imagined himself a novelist. But soon after that, he began booking shows for bluesmen such as Lonnie Johnson and Sleepy John Estes. Then he started selling their records and later wound up managing tours for the likes of Muddy Waters and the Rev. Gary Davis. A few years later, he opened the club UFO, which became a showcase for some of London's hottest bands in 1967.
One of the groups was Pink Floyd, and Boyd wound up producing the band's first single, "Arnold Layne," which relates the story of a man arrested for stealing laundry in the middle of the night.
It took Boyd 40 years to discover the song's origins - too late to include them in his book.
"After the book came out [in England], I was on the phone with Nick Mason from Floyd," Boyd says. "He told me that Syd Barrett's and Roger Waters' mothers used a room in each of their houses as a boardinghouse for students.
"And girl students in the house means underwear in the washing machine or on the line. So they grew up with this image, and then there was a case in Cambridge of some guy caught stealing lingerie. "All of this was going on while Syd and Roger were 13, 14, 15. And they get to be 19, 20, and it turns into a song - "Arnold Layne."
Boyd continued producing pop records into the late '80s, but now his Web site notifies musicians that he doesn't listen to demos and "I don't go to gigs involving WPSEs [White People Singing in English]."
Instead, he pursues unfamiliar sounds in world music, believing that it's become increasingly difficult to do anything novel in traditional pop forms.
"A lot of what I hear today is kind of old news," he says. "Musicians in the '60s were fortunate because they were walking into a huge empty room. You could wander into a far wall and do something wacky, and nobody had ever done that before. "Today you walk into that room, and it's like a New York cocktail party," he adds. "Every bit of floor space is taken."
Labels: joe boyd, pink floyd, white bicycles