There are the people who make the music and there are the people who make the music happen. And once upon a time, the latter were not faceless, joyless, pompous corporate executives, but mercurial, eccentric, odd ducks who stumbled into and through the music business because they loved it or because they loved creativity, or maybe just because they were mad. Some were charlatans and thugs and hustlers and incompetents, and some were junkies or at least speedfreaks, and some were probably clinically insane but one of the best and most insightful of the lot was Joe Boyd, whose memoir White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s chronicles all of them and himself across two continents.
Boyd remembers a young man who seems to float effortlessly and guilelessly from one record, person, city, genre to the next, blown by the winds of change and chance that appear to be the standard weather of the 1960s. Here he is stumbling across Bob Dylan at his girlfriend’s breakfast table. Here he is discovering Pink Floyd. Here he is getting his ass chewed out by Coleman Hawkins.
But do not be deceived. These kinds of things do not happen unless you are of a certain cast of mind, one that leaves you open to their very possibility. That predisposes you not to take the most efficient path with the highest predicted outcome as determined by rigorous spreadsheet analysis. No. These things happen because you – or rather Boyd – had the courage, the intelligence, the balls, to follow what was intriguing and interesting even if it led to a dead end, even if the money didn’t come, even if everyone else thought it was madness.
The fact that it so often didn’t lead to a dead end, that more times than not, the money did come, that again and again he was not insane, merely insightful, is one of Boyd’s most valuable lessons. “White Bicycles” is filled with stories of people he encountered in one circumstance who ended up having a profound impact later. A violinist he meets at a college music festival in 1962 records a top ten hit with him in the 70s. His passion for the Ian Campbell Folk Group results in quality time with the founder’s kids, who decades later form UB40. Connect. With everyone. All the time. Because you never know where it will lead you.
Where it led Boyd was from a childhood in Princeton, where he brought forgotten bluesmen out of Philadelphia kitchens and into white living rooms for their first concerts in decades; to Harvard, where he became a fixture on the Cambridge folk scene; to England where he managed Muddy Water and Sister Rosetta Tharpe; to the capitals of Europe where he ran multiple tours of jazz legends – all by the age of 24.
And then things really got interesting.
Because that’s when Boyd settled in London and landed a gig as A&R man for Elektra records. And began signing bands like Fairport Convention. And opened the club UFO which became the home base for the London psychedelic scene. And where he began producing records for the acts he discovered – like the legendary Nick Drake.
And that’s Boyd’s second lesson – keep your ears open. Just as you don’t know where connections will you lead, you don’t know where you will hear the next thing that will change the way you look at everything. That will suddenly reframe the world and reveal untold truths and perils and opportunities.
White Bicycles,,, ends with a sobering lesson, with a chapter that begins with the death of Nick Drake, wanders through the decay and demise of Sandy Denny, and eventually settles into a clear-eyed and somewhat bitter précis of why so much went so wrong. “Anyone wishing to portray the history of the sixties as a journey from idealism to hedonism” Boyd writes, “could place the hinge at around 9:30 on the night of 25 July 1965”.
That was when Dylan went electric at Newport. But why Boyd found it so important wasn’t because of the music. It was because he suddenly realized that the community, the connection between people that the music had been a vital part of, was gone. And because he knew he would spend the rest of the decade trying to get it back.
That it can disappear that quickly and that completely and with such powerful consequences is a lesson that all of us – no matter how many apps and social media platforms we fool ourselves with – that we would do well to keep our ears open for.
White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s by Joe Boyd was published by Serpent’s Tail on 12/21/10 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).