Two anecdotes from ace producer and music historian Joe Boyd’s book, “White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s” illuminate the conflicts among people with different ideas of folk, rock, and pop music in the 1960s.
The first anecdote: In a conversation with the venerable but controversial musical ethnographer and folklore record producer Alan Lomax, Boyd stated that Lomax was no different than pop record producers like himself. “Lomax threatened to punch me in the face,” write Boyd in an E-mail interview from London, where the Princeton native now lives.
The second anecdote: Boyd, who served as production manager at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, debunks an apocryphal story from that event, which claims that when Bob Dylan “plugged in” for the first time, the folk purists — Pete Seeger, Lomax, and Theodore Bikel — went apoplectic. Seeger, however, did not cut Dylan’s electrical cords with a hatchet, as had been reported just about everywhere. But Lomax “ordered me to turn down the sound” when Dylan came onstage, says Boyd.
On Friday, November 21, at the Arts Council of Princeton, Boyd will read from his book, “White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s,” which is filled with anecdotes about that fertile period in music. Admission is free. Jim Floyd, son of Princeton’s former mayor, will introduce the show. Floyd, Princeton Class of 1969, took the photo of Boyd at the Newport Festival that was used on the front cover of “White Bicycles.”
Boyd discovered and/or produced artists ranging from Pink Floyd and Nick Drake to Eric Clapton, the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Richard and Linda Thompson, R.E.M., Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and 10,000 Maniacs.
Where does the book title come from? “‘My White Bicycle’ was the signature song by the group Tomorrow, who performed at UFO (Boyd’s club in London) the night I identify as the ‘peak’ of the ‘60s,” Boyd says via E-mail. “Plus, the Amsterdam provo idea [a mid-’60s Dutch counterculture movement that focused on provoking violent responses from authorities using non-violent bait] of giving free white bikes to everyone was the epitome of ’60s idealism. Plus it rolls nicely off the tongue.”
Boyd, 66, was born in Boston. His family moved to Princeton in 1947, where he attended Miss Fine’s School for three years, then Valley Road School through eighth grade. Around this time his father, Joe Boyd Sr., started the Princeton Community Directory, and his mother, Elizabeth Walker, was the head of the camera department at the Princeton University Store.
The elder Joe Boyd died last year at 92. He is credited with, among other innovations, laying the groundwork for the first credit card system; his Boyd System eventually contributed to the genesis of MasterCard. Joe Boyd Sr.’s mother, Mary Boxall Boyd, was a prominent teacher and pianist in Princeton. On Saturday, November 22, Boyd says he will be at Princeton Cemetery to see his father’s headstone placed on his grave there.
Boyd has fond memories of growing up at 152 Alexander Street in Princeton. He distinctly remembers going to Albert Einstein’s Mercer Street home to trick-or-treat on Halloween, 1951, and having Einstein pour candy into his bag. Since his father had gone to Harvard, Boyd rooted against Princeton at football games, and even more so when the Tigers played against Harvard.
His first foray into concert promotion came in the early 1960s when Boyd himself was at Harvard. He, his brother, Warwick, and fellow Princeton preppy Geoff Muldaur looked up bluesman Lonnie Johnson in the Philadelphia phone book and persuaded him to come out of obscurity to perform a house show in New Jersey.
At the same time, via Harvard connections, Boyd was introduced to George Wein, impresario of the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals. “I was hired by George on the recommendation of Manny Greenhill, a Boston manager/promoter I knew from the Boston folk scene. I worked for George on and off for a year and a half in Europe and at Newport.”
At this time, in 1965, Boyd moved to London full-time, where he remains to this day. “It was a pretty good time to be here,” he says. “Ever since then it has felt like home. I like living a short trip away from Paris, Amsterdam, Milan, and Dublin, etc., rather than Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Albany.”
In 1966 Boyd produced his first record, “Eric Clapton and the Powerhouse.” Boyd opened the UFO club on Tottenham Court Road in London on December 23 of that year. Soon he began producing groups such as the Incredible String Band, who performed at UFO. Also during his time as a producer, Boyd became head of film music for Warner Brothers Films. While there, he organized the scoring of “Deliverance,” “A Clockwork Orange,” and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” and made “Jimi Hendrix,” a feature-length documentary.
His 1973 production of “Midnight at the Oasis,” the seductive pseudo-Middle Eastern pop ditty from Maria Muldaur, Geoff Muldaur’s then-wife, was Boyd’s biggest hit as a producer. “Songwriter David Nichtern has pretty much lived on the royalties from this song ever since,” he says. “He never really wrote anything else as good. Maria knew him and heard him sing it. I heard her sing it one night at a Pacifica radio station broadcast and suggested we record it. It was my first session after three years away from the recording studio.”
Boyd was also instrumental in the introduction of world music to the pop-listening public. He had for a long time had an affinity for Indian, African, Asian, and Latin pop forms. His brother, Warwick, now a lawyer, had encouraged him to begin signing world music acts in 1982. “I was one of the ‘early adapters’ but not early enough,” he says. “My brother advised me to license Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Mystere des Voix Bulgares in 1982, and I told him he was being too un-commercial.” One of his few bad moves. Boyd had a simple philosophy for finding talent. “I have no philosophy except to follow my taste, my ears, and my instincts,” he says.
He never saw a need to be a musician — a producer has to be a music fan, but little else. Boyd told Newsweek magazine last year: “A lot of younger people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you produced Nick Drake, what were you before you were a producer — a sound engineer, a musician?’ I say, ‘Neither.’ And they ask, ‘What did you do?’ The idea that you might just be someone who listens strikes them as very curious. Producers now, they don’t have to listen. You’re just building things up, layer by layer. The producer’s there to program the synthesizer or the drum machine, engineer things.” Technology, says Boyd, has “democratized things immensely,” but that “cuts two ways.”
He doesn’t think popular music is as important, or as musical, as it was during his ’60s heyday. “It is nowhere near as important as it was in the ’60s,” Boyd says. “Every art form has its golden age, and I fear pop’s has passed. But pop is supposed to be for young people — old guys like myself are not qualified to make pronouncements on it.”
Author Event, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Friday, November 21, 7 p.m. Reading by Joe Boyd, author of “White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s.” Introduction by Princeton resident Jim Floyd, who took the photo used for the book’s cover. Boyd was a production and tour manager for George Wein, Muddy Waters, Coleman Hawkins, and Stan Getz. He also supervised Bob Dylan’s debut at the Newport Jazz Festival. Free. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.