Around here we have a rule: When doing an article about anyone, always try to find out where that person is from, what their parents did, and how they got to be where they are today. That’s our Rule No. 1.
I got a taste of how valuable that rule could be early in my career, as a freelance writer interviewing Fred Kassab, the stepfather of the murdered wife in the 1970 Green Beret murder case and the man responsible for putting Jeff MacDonald, the Princeton alumnus and Green Beret doctor, behind bars. In most news reports Kassab was described only as a salesman for Quality Egg Co. in Dayton, New Jersey.
When I asked him to trace his path from childhood to egg salesman, Kassab offered a brief and bland account. “Tell him the truth, Freddy,” his wife interjected. With some prying by me and his wife, Kassab related how he had served in the Canadian military during World War II and had parachuted behind German lines to gain intelligence. The mission was so deadly that if you came back alive, you were exempt from further missions. Kassab volunteered again and again and again — Jeff MacDonald had picked the wrong step-father-in-law.
Earlier this fall I attended the memorial service for Joe Boyd, the founder of Princeton’s Consumer Bureau and a longtime entrepreneur who at the time of his death at age 92 was working on a book about the underpinnings of our economic system. On several occasions Boyd had tried to explain the basis of his book, but I never got it. To this day I’m not sure this Harvard man — he left school in around 1934 to start a chain of free newspapers in the Boston area — thought that I, Princeton ‘69, had the intellectual capacity to understand the book’s thesis. But I did know that Boyd had a track record of innovations, an early attempt at a credit card system, and an alternative Princeton phone book that found a niche in the shadow of Ma Bell.
As I listened to the presentations at the memorial service I realized that Rule No. 1 above should be accompanied by a Rule No. 2: Always ask a parent, no matter how young or old, what his kids do.
In Joe Boyd’s case one of his two sons is now a civil rights and First Amendment lawyer in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and his other son, also Joe Boyd, a record producer. In all the years I knew the elder Joe Boyd I never asked him about his kids. I recall him mentioning that young Joe was involved with Hannibal Records, an independent label based for a time in Belle Mead.
By the time of the memorial service I realized that the music producer was a story of his own. In fact, he had already published a memoir, “White Bicycles,” a chronicle of his life as a music producer in the headwaters of the rock and roll revolution. Joe Boyd reminisces about setting up house concerts in Princeton as a teenager in the early 1960s, hosting Eric Von Schmidt, Tom Rush, and Geoff and Maria Muldauer at the Newport Folk Festival, and discovering Pink Floyd and Richard Thompson in London, just to drop a few of many names. (The book, with a cover photograph from Newport taken by my college classmate and Princeton resident Jim Floyd, has sold 50,000 copies.)
What holds all the stories together is the young Joe Boyd’s calm presence in these turbulent cultural seas. At one point Boyd meets up with a fetching young lady who invites him to spend the night at her place, while she heads off to a post concert party for Joan Baez. Boyd arrives to discover his bag next to the sofa and a note saying “change of plans.” When Boyd wakes up in the morning, he discovers the distraction: “Guess who’s in the shower! Dylan!” the young lady proclaims.
The elder Boyd probably knew Dylan Thomas better than Bob. Said the younger Boyd: “His musical taste began with Bach. For him Brahms was on the edge of avant garde and anything after Brahms a bit problematic.”
Young Joe was convinced his father appreciated what he did musically even without fully understanding it, but, he admitted at the memorial service, there was a bit of father-son rivalry that persisted until very recently. Young Joe called it “a little burr” and it had to do with “the book.”
He stopped by to visit his father at the assisted living facility to which he had moved in his final years. The son was on the book tour for “White Bicycles” and hoped that his father would attend the reading. But he didn’t — too busy, he announced, working on his own book.
Joe returned after his signing and fell into a deep conversation with his father. The book, which hopefully will be completed by a writer Boyd hired to assist him on the project, concerns how globalization and big capital threaten local economies. As Boyd paraphrased his father’s explanation, money has two functions, as the lubricant for commerce and also as an asset — something to be saved and passed onto children. And the problem is that the two functions are in conflict with each other — the money supply needs to be ample and fluid to serve as a lubricant, but to make the asset most valuable you want money to be as scarce as possible.
Boyd used his theory to explain the 1929 crash to his son. At that point the son realized that his father’s book was a serious piece of work and “not Dad’s last little eccentricity. Most important at the end he knew that I understood it,” said Joe.
I walked away from the memorial service ready to institute Rule No. 2, but then I remembered Rule No. 1. I knew that the late Joe Boyd’s mother was an accomplished pianist, but I never did know what his father did. He was a banker, someone at the memorial service told me. Ha ha, I thought, and I’ll bet there might have been “a little burr” between the two of them, as well. Next time I will make sure to ask.