Éminence grise

By DANA KLETTER  |  March 27, 2007

Joe’s first job in the music business was squiring tours of blues and jazz greats around Europe: Muddy Waters, Brownie McGhee, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Coleman Hawkins, Roland Kirk. In between jaunts he stayed in London soaking up the diverse and open-minded atmosphere of the pop scene and the psychedelic underground. He fell in love with the great singers of British folk: the Watersons, Martin Carthy, Maddy Prior. The time was coming when there would be a convergence of all the music he loved — blues, rock, and folk from every imaginable province. Out of this union would emerge his two most famous (and tragic) discoveries, Nick Drake and Sandy Denny, whose recordings would establish him as the record producer he aspired to be.

In London, where the Boston-born Boyd settled, his partner for many recordings was the brilliant, curmudgeonly engineer John Wood, who Joe says could produce “aural Technicolor.” They favored live resonant rooms with players performing together, as opposed to the dead spaces where people construct recordings these days, relying on digital boxes to supply a synthesized version of organic richness. “When John heard a sound he didn’t like, he would lift his bulky frame off the chair and lumber down the stairs, muttering all the way. I began to be able to predict whether he was going to try a different microphone, reposition the existing one or shift the offending musician to another part of the studio.”

Joe’s ambition was to become an éminence grise. Rather than the Zelig figure reviewers compare him to, I think he recalls another middle-class American white man of an earlier generation, Carl Van Vechten, who immersed himself in a different counterculture, the Harlem Renaissance. Joe became the same kind of catalyst. Things happened when he was around. Van Vechten opted for the hedonism of cabaret life over more conformist expectations. Joe seemed to walk the same fine line, teetering between cool-headed anthropological observation and going completely native.

Joe describes the ’60s as a moment when the “tide of history was with us and music was the key.” He identifies the moment when the tide turned again. The “glorious optimism” of what he and his friends made was destroyed by “ugly drugs, violence, commercialism.” In White Bicycles, which is named for the communally shared mode of conveyance used by Dutch anarchists in the ’60s, he ties together his story and the story of his generation in a tight narrative that propels him from the Cambridge folk scene to Swinging London to Woodstock to Hollywood and back. He confines his chronicle so closely that people unfamiliar with his legacy might not know that, in fact, it continued on.

It was 1987, the era of Reagan and Thatcher, yuppies and smart bombs, when I met Joe. Far from the idealism and optimism he describes as the “agape spirit of 1967,” punk rock was our anti-authoritarian alternative to mainstream crap. It varied from abstemious DC hardcore to LA heroin-fueled decadence and bled into the proto-indie jangle emerging from the South. This was our milieu. And soon enough, like Joe’s revolutionary rock of the ’60s, it would be co-opted.

Our recording sessions with Joe were conducted old-school style, microphones and musicians strategically placed around the room and then the tape would roll and you’d have three takes to bare your soul and get it right. I learned to hear and produce the warm true sound Joe strove for, to listen for a track that was deep and alive.

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