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The Rhythm Method 

Producer Joe Boyd learned it in the folkie ’60s, but it’s still the key to making global music in the new millennium

Wednesday, May 2 2007
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For a guy who’s been AARP-eligible for well over a decade, Joe Boyd has pretty amazing recall of numerous serendipitous experiences from 40 years ago. But, he says, “There are certainly lots of things in between what I write about that I don’t remember.” Like the woman who came up to him during his recent book-signing appearance at the Skirball Center. She told him they went out a few times in L.A. in 1972. “I asked her, ‘Did we, uh, you know... did anything happen?’ I have no memory of her at all.”

What Boyd does remember in his entertaining memoir, White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s (Serpent’s Tail/Consortium), brings musical and cultural insurgencies of that iconic epoch to life with a raconteur’s flair and a cultural pundit’s eye.

The Boston-born, Princeton-bred impresario’s career spans the realms of blues, jazz, folk and rock & roll, but even an abridged résumé of Boyd’s ’60s/early ’70s gigs strains credulity: Right out of Harvard, he road-managed European tours featuring the likes? of Muddy Waters and Coleman Hawkins. He worked for promoter George Wein on the Newport festivals, including the legendary 1965 fest when Dylan plugged in and changed the world. The management company he founded, Witchseason, handled the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny and Nick Drake, a who’s who of British folk rock. And he spent a wild nine months helping to run UFO, the notorious London club that spawned Pink Floyd — whose first single, “Arnold Layne,” Boyd produced.

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In the ’80s and ’90s, Boyd ran Hannibal Records, where he nurtured the development of yet another major genre: world music, which is to be the focus of his next book (working subtitle: “When Western Consumers Meet the Developing World’s Virtuosi”). Across all the years and all the music he’s touched, what’s the common thread? It’s all about the rhythm, of course.

L.A. WEEKLY: You write: “Hearing traditional musicians when they first emerge from their own communities is a wonderful experience but impossible to repeat: Music is inevitably altered by the process of discovery.” In White Bicycles, you talk more about jazz, blues and folk, but how do you see this in relation to global musics?

JOE BOYD: That’s kind of what the new book’s about! There’s a process I noticed in New Orleans over the years. You went there in the ’50s, the ’60s, you’d see music that local people would be dancing to and loving. I’m not talking about Preservation Hall, I’m talking about R&B. As years went by, it became more Vegas-like — it became a little more slick but was keeping up with what was perceived as the trends. Then you got a kind of middle-class postmodern audience coming in, [who said] “That’s too tacky, that’s not the way we want it, we want it the way it was back in the ’50s.”

So the musicians are faced with a choice. Do they stick with one audience or go with the other audience? From a musical point of view, we appreciate the more authentic, the rootsier approach, but this does divorce it from its real audience. This happens with world music too. There was an image in the early days of world music that producers from London, Paris and New York were coming to these Third World countries and making people use drum machines and ruining their traditions. It was actually the other way around: The musicians were the ones who wanted the drum machines.

Even in the ’60s, you were doing a kind of world fusion, with bands like the Incredible String Band bringing different musical elements to play. Then you did it more overtly with the Hannibal projects, especially the Songhai albums. But making a good world fusion album can be a dicey proposition. What do you see as the key ingredients in a successful global fusion?

It has all to do with rhythm. Most fusion albums are fatally wounded by a kind of mid-Atlantic neutral rhythm as a base. There’s a lot of Peter Gabriel projects and that horrible thing, One Giant Leap, which has a pulse, a vaguely danceable rhythm, where they put the exoticism — melodic, linguistic, instrumental — on as decoration. The reason that I enjoy listening to Songhai is because we started with either the rhythm of one culture or the other, so that all the rhythms are either rumba-flamenco or Malian. You have to start with an authentic rhythmic base.

You seem to have great recall, even of times when you were under the influence or under a lot of stress. Did you keep a journal, or are you relying on your noggin?

Pretty much relying on my noggin. If somebody wanted me to write a history of the ’70s, I couldn’t do it, because most of what I tried to do in the ’70s failed. You don’t remember those things as well as you do things that worked. But when you’re 21, and you’re doing things for the first time, you’re going out from your cocoon into the wide world, how could you not remember trying to get Coleman Hawkins onto a train? A lot of those things were happening to me for the first time, so they were vividly imprinted on my memory. Then I started telling people over dinner in 1965 about touring with Muddy Waters, telling people in 1967 about Newport. I’ve been telling these stories for a long time. A good friend of mine rang me up and said: “I was quite surprised — the book was very good. There were even a few stories in it that I’ve never heard before.”

Have you had people question your recollections?

I haven’t had too many complaints. [Singer-songwriter] Geoff Muldaur insists that the sound at Newport when Dylan went electric was absolutely crap. I remember it as being great.

Sometime in the late ’80s or so, there was an interview with Pete Seeger in Folk Roots. He kind of glossed over the whole dispute about Dylan and said, “People exaggerated my objections. I just felt you ought to be able to hear the lyrics. The sound was so loud you couldn’t really hear the lyrics, so that wasn’t my idea of what a folk festival was all about, but my objections to it have always been exaggerated.”

So I wrote a letter in which I mentioned his storming off into the parking lot and [his wife] Toshi bursting into tears. He then wrote a letter back, saying Toshi says she never burst into tears. But I have the clearest possible memory of coming back from the sound board, and as I approached [Theodore] Bikel and [Alan] Lomax standing at the foot of the stairs going up to the stage, seeing George Wein with his arms around a weeping Toshi, and Seeger’s back as he strode off into the parking lot.

You make the comment “No matter how pure and impassioned the intention, the inevitable effect of most artistic or cultural revolutions is to feed the public’s appetite for titillation.” What have been some unintended consequences of the things you’ve been involved with?

The list is endless.... I’ve been to folk festivals where groups from the Canadian maritime provinces are playing jigs and reels as fast as they can, with a very deft fiddler, electric guitar, electric bass and a drummer. I’m watching the drummer and thinking, oh my god, what did [Fairport Convention’s] Dave Mattacks unleash! When he did it on Liege & Lief, it was great.... Hearing some of this other stuff, maybe it wasn’t such a great thing after all!

Joe Boyd at Soho McNally Robinson in NYC on Mar 28, 2007

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