Thursday, February 08, 2007

Through the darkness we still speed, my white bicycle & me

Title: “White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960’s”
Author: Joe Boyd
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail (4 May 2006) (UK only)
ISBN: 1852429100

Reviewed for Randomville

When I heard that Joe Boyd was writing a memoir I was immediately intrigued. The co-founder of London’s short-lived but heavily influential UFO Club, Boyd was right in the thick of the 60’s cultural revolution, giving UK underground bands like Tomorrow, Soft Machine, Procol Harem and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown their big break. The UFO Club is probably best known, however, for their revolutionary light shows and for booking Pink Floyd at all-night concerts called “Night Trippers,” and where Syd Barrett had his on-stage complete mental breakdown.

Boyd started off his career as a concert promoter while still a student at Harvard University, promoting blues artists. Eventually landing himself a position as road manager for a traveling blues show, he first visited England in 1964 and moved there full time the following year to establish an overseas office for Elektra Records. Although Boyd was in the midst of the psychedelic 60’s, his real passion was folk and blues, and he became one of the major movers ’n shakers of the British folk scene. He was there when Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival and was, in fact, one of the contributing factors in Dylan’s decision. He founded Witchseason Records and signed a multitude of talent, including Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band, John Martyn, Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny and Nick Drake. His deft production of Drake’s Five Leaves Left album is what originally drew me to seek out more of Boyd’s production work, which includes R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction and Billy Bragg’s Worker’s Playtime, and his mentor status with Drake (chronicled in the Nick Drake biography by Patrick Humphries) made wanting to read his own account very appealing to me.

He’s got all the makings for a fabulous story and the book “White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960’s” should be a real page-turner. But for all his production acumen and wildly interesting life, Joe Boyd is simply not a very good writer. There is no chronology to the book—he skips and jumps all over place and time, which tends to make for a dreadfully disjointed read. Nor are there any real revelations in the book. He leaves juicy vignettes dangling all over the place but rarely comes through with the full, meaty story. I understand that perhaps he is simply being discreet due to the nature of his allegiance to so many artists, but the reader is left with the feeling that there is a whole lot more Boyd could be telling us, in his own incoherent way.

The book’s title takes its name from a song by UFO Club mainstay Tomorrow, in which lead singer Keith West recounts the glories of the free transportation Amsterdam’s white bicycles afforded in the halcyon summer of 1964. Much like the White Bicycle Plan, which collapsed within months of its inception due to rampant theft, Boyd’s book is filled with lofty ideals and goals, but leaves the reader feeling robbed and sorely disappointed.

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