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What I thought of White Bicycles

February 24, 2021

If ever a book was written to appeal to me, it’s this nicely-told tale of sixties pop culture, written by a man who was right at the heart of things. I’ve read White Bicycles about five times so far, and I’m sure I’ll read it again pretty soon. I love everything about it.

Joe Boyd discovered, produced, signed, managed or egged on Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Vashti Bunyan, The Incredible String Band. He was an organiser at Newport Folk Festival when Dylan went electric. He founded the UFO club with John Hopkins. He funded Pink Floyd’s first single. He was the road manager for tours involving Muddy Waters, Rosetta Tharpe, Brownie McGee. He worked with Jay Holzman at Elektra and Chris Blackwell at Island. He was the great facilitator, or eminence grise, as he preferred to describe his role.

When I wrote Love and Death in Three Minutes, Joe Boyd was one of the impresarios whose life I used as a template for the lead character, Vansen Jonsen. Just like Boyd, Jonsen is an American from the Eastern Seaboard who found a home in the UK in the mid-late sixties. Both are full of charisma and brilliant ideas, and are spotters of talent that others have missed.

White Bicycles is full of lovely anecdotes, such as the one about how John Cale came to play on Nick Drake’s Northern Sky:

After a session one day, he (John Cale) put his feet up on the mixing desk, waved his arm imperially at John Wood, (Sound Techniques in-house engineer) and said, ‘Let’s hear what else you guys are working on.’ We played him a few things, and eventually got to Nick (Drake). Cale was amazed. ‘Who the fuck is this guy? I have to meet him, where is he? I mean, where is he right now?’ I rang Nick and told him that John Cale would be over in half an hour. Nick said, ‘Oh, uh, OK.’ I wrote down Nick’s address, John grabbed it and ran down the stairs.

I don’t know if Nick Drake knew who John Cale was before he showed up. This would have been 1970; Velvet Underground weren’t the massive influence at that time that they later became. The story goes on:

The next morning, I had a call from Cale. ‘We’re going to need a pick-up for the viola, an amp, a Fender bass and bass amp, a celeste and a Hammond B-3 organ. This afternoon.’ I had scheduled a mix on another project that day but Cale had decided it was time to record ‘Northern Sky’ and ‘Fly’. They arrived together, John with a wild look in his eyes and Nick trailing behind. Despite his domineering manner, Cale was very solicitous towards Nick, who seemed to be guardedly enjoying himself: his only choice was to relax and be carried along.

Whenever I read about Nick Drake, I get very protective of him, as clearly does Boyd. So I love the fact that, for a while, Cale became Drake’s champion. Cale did that a lot. Beside his ridiculously influential work with the Velvet Underground, he also worked on the Modern Lovers demos, (which eventually formed half of their only LP), and he produced the first Stooges album. (I’d even argue that I prefer Cale in combination with other people than Cale on his own, though I’ve got plenty of friends who would fight me to the death about that).

I love this insight into Chris Blackwell’s character:

We loved haggling, either with each other or teaming up against a third party. Whenever our deal was renegotiated, we came up with more and more complicated financial structures. At the end of one particularly arduous session, having got his way, Chris turned to me and said: ‘Now how much do you really need?’ and wrote me out a cheque for far more than called for in the contract.

There are plenty of magnificent, entertaining biographies about rock stars out there, but biographies about pop entrepreneurs are often more entertaining. An entrepreneur’s career is frequently longer than the interesting bit of a average pop star’s, so there’s more to get your teeth into. They come into contact with a wider circle of people than most pop stars. And their tales of creativity are often just as compelling, having been there as an observer on many of the big occasions, with a clearer head. Pop stars are often self-absorbed, whereas entrepreneurs might be egotistical, but they can’t afford to be insular.

When I was writing Love and Death, the fact that Jonsen was an entrepreneur, rather than a musician, meant there were so many ways I could take the narrative. It wasn’t all early years, studio, tour, studio, tour, divorce, studio, tour, rehab, studio, tour, and then two hundred pages about the aftermath of their golden years.

I don’t know if there’s a Chris Blackwell autobiography/biography out there, but I’d love to read it if there is. The same with Bernie Rhodes, Chas Chandler, Dave Robinson. And I need to re-read Follow the Music, Jak Holzman’s autobiography. Somewhere in the past, I managed to lose Jerry Wexler’s autobiography, which annoys me, but Berry Gordy’s is a beauty, and the two or three about Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records. Seymour Stein’s autobiography is excellent, as are Simon Napier Bell’s books. Mickie Most’s is a good read.

At the moment, I’m reading Nick Drake’s biography, which is nice but not very revealing. I’ve just reached the bit where Drake is about to meet Boyd, introduced by Ashley Hutchings. Even in a book about pop music, it feels like I’m about to meet a famous person. I can’t wait!

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