Sunday, 5 August 2018

White Bicycles by Joe Boyd

I'm currently busy writing my fourth Vinyl Detective novel. It's called Flip Back and the central mystery in the book is rooted in the British psychedelic folk scene of the 1960s and 70s. 

During my research for the story I consulted a friend, Gordon Larkin, who is something of a connoisseur of this period and musical genre. And he recommended that I read something called White Bicycles by someone called Joe Boyd. What the hell, I thought, I'll give it a go...

I'm so glad I did.

If you are interested in the popular music of the second half of the 20th century — virtually any form of popular music — then I can't recommend this book highly enough. It's beautifully written, gloriously informative, and very funny.

And I do mean virtually any form of popular music. Joe Boyd had a deep involvement, as manager, promoter, producer and avid fan in the fields of blues, folk, jazz and rock. He loves the music, and the people involved, and he writes about them beautifully. 

Here is his description of encountering Joan Baez in Harvard, "I saw her riding a Vespa with her boyfriend through the slush of the Cambridge winter, grinning wickedly with that beautiful dark mane trailing behind."
And her subsequent influence: "The scene that flourished in the ripples of her success was full of eccentrics, visionaries and travellers."

White Bicycles is told with a unique combination of wit and expert knowledge, as in this discussion of studio recording techniques: "You were, in a sense, creating the ideal physical location for each instrument or voice: the violin in the Sistine Chapel, the singer in your mum's shower stall and the bass drum in Alfred Jarry's cork-lined bedroom."

And Joe Boyd does indeed know about how to record music. He served an apprenticeship working at Lester Koenig's legendary jazz label, Contemporary Records in Los Angeles, and he fondly recalls "Our great engineers Howard Holzer and Roy DuNann." He is also properly sceptical of modern digital techniques.

Boyd is effortlessly witty... "The music business and the criminal fraternities — often quite different people."... and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. 

He recounts how the executives for the German record label Polydor "were not known for diplomacy: the man sent to open their American office startled the crowd at the New York press launch by telling them he had wanted to live in the city ever since he'd seen its skyline from Long Island Sound through the periscope of his U-boat in 1943."

This gift for humour and fascinating observation is constantly intertwined. Waking up to an earthquake in Los Angeles Joe thinks nuclear war has commenced: "I was dead, but at least I had plenty of company... In all my years in recording studios, I had never heard a sound so low. The vibrating object had to be unimaginably huge to make such a noise.”

As with Frederic Raphael's memoirs, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, it seems pretty certain that Joe Boyd kept some kind of diary. His book is full of telling details which brilliantly evoke the past and bring it to life.

And he is keenly aware of loss.

In 1964 he was the manager of a European tour for American blues and gospel giants such as Muddy Waters, Reverend Gary Davies and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. When it was over, "At Orly airport tears were shed, addresses and telephone numbers exchanged... An era in American culture was passing and I had only the barest idea how lucky I was to have witnessed the flash of the sunset."

He was at the pivotal Newport Folk Festival where Bob Dylan decisively went electric and the nature of popular music was changed forever. Like me, Joe Boyd vastly prefers Dylan's new sound to that of the acoustic folkie old guard...

But he has no illusions that this change was entirely benign: "Anyone wishing to portray the sixties as a journey from idealism to hedonism could place the hinge at around 9:30 on the night of 25 July 1965."

Indeed the title of the book reflects this duality. In just that spirit of sixties idealism, the City of Amsterdam provided white bicycles free, to be shared for the use of everyone. But all too soon they were being stolen, repainted and kept.

This is a great book. My only gripe is that half the time I went to type Joe's surname in this post I ended up typing "Body" instead. But that's hardly the author's fault. 

Buy his book and read it. I think you'll love it. I did.

(As a sweetener, I'm planning to run a competition when my new Vinyl Detective novel, Flip Back, is published. Three lucky readers who can spot where my book has been influenced by my research using Joe's will win a rather nice prize.)

(Image credits: The witty Spanish cover is from Good Reads. The strikingly designed graphic cover for the Dutch edition is from the publisher EPO. The French edition is from Fnac. The wacky Russian cover is from Joe's own excellent website. The German paperback is from ABE. The German hardcover is from German Amazon. The British second edition is from Near Street. The British first edition is from Amazon UK.)

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