by Joe Boyd
Serpent's Tail Press 2006
While not technically a book for children I think there's probably a swath of young adult readers who would really enjoy this autobiographical examination of what the music scene was like during their parent's (or grandparent's) era. Some of you may be old enough to remember some of this or, like me, caught the tail of the comet as it rushed through our childhoods and never fully understood what was really going on. And as much as I'd like to believe biopics like Oliver Stone's The Doors or understand how a culture developed to create Woodstock the nitty-gritty is something else, something far less discussed.
Because of the general focus here on the blog I'm going to try and keep it relevant toward a younger audience but the music geek in me is fighting for air just below the surface.
Very early on Boyd admits to aspiring all along to becoming and eminence grise within the music scene. That he lacked the arrogance and shamelessness of other music promoters (like Bill Graham) to actually build a multimillion dollar empire from his efforts only suggests that he did it purely for the music. The list of bands that slipped through his fingers as a result speaks directly to this point: Steve Winwood, The Lovin' Spoonful, Cream, Pink Floyd a couple of hit songs by Arthur Brown and Procol Harum, and the English language rights to Abba. Boyd wasn't without his successes -- notably Nick Drake and Fairport Convention on his roster, as well as producing the soundtracks for Deliverance and A Clockwork Orange -- but his story is less about how he achieved these triumphs as it is a portrait of a time that allowed for them to happen in the first place.
It begins in his childhood home, the first family on his block in the 1950's to get a TV. He's watching a local program called Bob Horn's WFIL-TV Bandstand and in time (and the payola scandal of the day) that show morphed into American Bandstand with Dick Clark. Boyd and his brother sensed something wrong with Clark's version of the show -- a watering down of the music for syndication -- and they went in search of American roots music, especially forgotten blues and jazz masters.
Boyd picks up the thread in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where fellow college types are not only into blues but folk music. In time he is arranging for long-retired blues musicians to play dates in small clubs, making connections, learning both about music and the business of music. From here it's a hop-skip-jump into serving as a tour arranger for jazz musicians in Europe and helping coordinate acts at the Newport Folk Festival. As folk music is gaining in popularity so, too, is the influence of a certain Bob Dylan. With the subversive help of fellow producer-eminence Paul Rothchild (at Elektra records he landed The Doors) and Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary) he brought the electrified Dylan to the stage, to the ever-loving horror of Pete Seegar. By the mid-60's Boyd's sense was that Britain was the place to be; there was more of a scene developing, folk and rock cohabiting without the rancor that exists in America, and the offer to set up the European office of Elektra records could not be ignored.
From there it's one thing after another, setting up gigs and producing the occasional band. When things falter he and a friend set up an underground club in 1966, the fabled UFO, which opened with showings of Warhol movies and Pink Floyd as the house band. Mirroring Bill Graham's Fillmore's East and West they commissioned their own psychedelic posters and became the focal point for freaks (and I mean that in the best sense) of all stripes. The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper and suddenly the world of pop music flew in all directions. Joe retrenched his position and followed the folk-rock vein, recording Pink Floyd's first single before losing them to a better offer, working with The Incredible String Band (eventually destroyed by Scientology), Fairport Convention (and later Richard Thompson), introverted folkies Vashti Bunyan and Nick Drake, and, yes, he is responsible for producing his friend Maria Mudaur's (and his bestselling) hit "Midnight At the Oasis." That last bit is a dubious distinction, one that isn't lost on him, and he takes it in the same stride as all his other bits of fortune and misfortune. Like letting the rights to Abba's music in the English speaking world land in someone else's lap because he can't imagine the Swedish pop stars as the future international sensation they became.
Watching the toll taken on friends and acquaintances alike you would imagine that Joe Boyd would close out his 1960's reminiscence with a slow fade and fond wave. He prefers to look at the fingerprints he left behind with a wry smile and the confession:
...I cheated. I never got too stoned. I became the eminence grise I aspired to be, and disproved at least one sixties myth: I was there, and I do remember.Ah, but not so fast, Joe. You continued to stay involved in the music business long beyond the 1960's and early 1970's. You produced two great albums in 1986 alone -- R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction and 10,000 Maniacs The Wishing Chair. You founded Hannibal Records and your work with !Cubanismo! paved a path of inspiration for The Buena Vista Social Club. Your pace may have slowed, and the gaps between projects may have grown, but Joe, your story doesn't end as your book does in 1974. Perhaps that's material for another book, another slice of in the life of his eminenece?
It's a great read, just non-stop -- that's my pull-quote. Boyd tells great stories, and even if you don't know the players or their music you can still appreciate just how much people were looking to music for connection. There might even be a lesson in her about how the Internet has distanced us form this sort of interaction -- and Boyd does make a couple of pointed comments about how much fidelity and human warmth is lost in recording digitally -- but that might be going too far.
I think for many kids today the landscape that Boyd describes will look as alien as the moon. In the age of instant fame a la reality programming, American Idol and the entire manufactured pop industry all of these people, these connections, the absurdity of so much happening in such a short period of time might seem as unrealistic as any fiction one could read. There probably aren't a lot of kids out there with a hunger to understand the past this deep, but then we know there was a small underground of people like Joe Boyd during his time who went hunting for the roots, looking for the connections between the past and the present, looking to recapture what appeared to be lost.
Could a book like this be any more welcome in that respect?