By Bill Kohlhaase
Of all the things believed to be capable of changing the world back in the 1960s—love, drugs, rock & roll—only rock delivered. Love, a delusional concept for centuries, didn’t really change anything—people just went right on cheating and killing each other. Drugs weren’t really new—history students know how fond our forefathers were of opiates, cocaine-spiked soft drinks and various other snake oils. But music—loud, electric, tribal music—made an impact. It liberated art and cultural politics in ways that changed the universe.
Joe Boyd believes in the power of music. That’s the apparent fact in White Bicycles, his memoir on a life spent as a record promoter, producer and impresario. Boyd isn’t naïve about this power, either. Music made him a living, no matter how skimpy it was at times, and gave him a career that most would envy. If you think all those longhair musicians of the era were just in it for the art and the chicks, Boyd will set you straight. Certain rockers here—we won’t mention Bob Dylan’s name—were driven by egos as big as that of any actor, politician or corporate shill. Many built bank accounts even as they tore down the walls.
Boyd’s title refers to the communal bicycles that were posted around Amsterdam in the ‘60s for people to use at their pleasure. More than an image, the shared bicycles relate directly to Boyd’s narrative through a song about them, performed by the now-obscure English band Tomorrow. Boyd frames his tale, “The sixties began in the summer of 1956, ended in October of 1973 and peaked just before dawn on 1 July, 1967 during a set by Tomorrow at the UFO Club in London.” After that point, he says, the social and cultural forces that had come together before the fateful July night began to evaporate, “in the heat of ugly drugs, violence, commercialism and police pressure.” In Amsterdam, people began stealing the white bicycles and keeping them as their own. But before things turned, Boyd had quite a ride.
Between that rise and fall, Boyd tells us what it means to love music, how one’s horizons expand as realizations and history take hold. He began like many of us: sitting around with friends listening to each other’s recordings. An obsession with blues great Lonnie Johnson sent him in search of the man to pull him out of obscurity for a concert at Princeton. Soon he becomes road manager for a tour that includes Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry and others—not the only time in the book where music trumps bad feelings and suspicions. From there, he’s on to jazz tours for promoter George Wein, and a turn as stage manager of the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when Dylan plugged in and many fans tuned out. Then, on to London and club management, where he promoted fledgling performances of Pink Floyd, the Soft Machine and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
Throughout the book, Boyd can’t hide his enthusiasm. He looked for music that would shake the world and found it. Even as he goes on to produce the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention, Boyd feels the power and wants others to feel it as well. He learns the lineage so obvious today; that rock was spawned from blues and jazz, and that folk music, be it Irish, African or American carries common threads, one of them being passion.
There are some great stories here, not all of them about the famous. We learn how Dick Clark was installed on Bandstand over a less attractive but otherwise popular host. Boyd comes home ready to make love and finds Bob Dylan has moved in on his girl. He dishes more about the competition to sign Pink Floyd than he does about bad-boy Syd Barrett, leader of the band’s psychedelic period. Boyd knows the sometimes arbitrary power that A&R persons have, signing bands that suit their tastes, but possibly no one else’s. It’s no surprise that business, especially the record business, can influence art. And Boyd makes no bones about wanting his artists and himself to succeed. Still, it’s a shock to hear that tragic troubadour Nick Drake complained about not being rich and famous.
In the end, we admire Boyd for his broad taste and devotion to his artists. He thinks that the availability of music today takes away some of its mystery by making the act of discovery so commonplace. White Bicycles is a sober look at a great period in music and what went wrong. It’s the dark side of the moon come to light.
Whire Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s by Joe Boyd. Serpent’s Tail, paperback, 282 pages, $18.