By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
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 r√©sum√© 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.
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.” InWhite 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 theSonghaialbums. 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 Songhaiis 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.”