Taking It On the Road
In the summer of 2006, Joe Boyd’s first book, White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s, was published in England. Boyd is a natural storyteller, and White Bicycles is a vivid, wryly funny look back at the many fantastically talented and influential musicians he helped launch, manage and support. They include Muddy Waters, Fairport Convention, Fleetwood Mac, the Incredible String Band, Pink Floyd and Nick Drake. Boyd has an acute memory for anecdotes: Coleman Hawkins slogging through airports; an introduction to Thelonious Monk from an impresario; Miles Davis stepping aside in admiration as a regal Duke Ellington took the stage; the Incredible String Band deciding not to play at Woodstock; supervising Bob Dylan’s electric-guitar debut at Newport in 1965—and much more.
Boyd has been many things—a production and tour manager; head of music at Warner Brothers Films; a businessman with his own record label; a film and movie-score producer—but whatever they are, they’ve never made him part of any mainstream. He’s managed a busy career on both sides of the Atlantic, and has never ceased to move around the world in a restless frenzy of curiosity, enthusiasm and hard work. Above all he has been a fan of authentic sound, whether it comes in the shape of yodeling nuns, a 90-year-old-blind Rajasthani flute player or the folk music of Bulgaria. At the bottom of his home page, there’s a brief paragraph, headed “Demos”: “I have always adhered to the notion that I will listen to anything once,” it says. “But I am no longer seeking producing gigs, I don’t have a label and I don’t go to gigs involving WPSEs (White People Singing in English).”
Making it happen
I was in my teens when I first met Boyd, 40 or more years ago. Much to the delight and amazement of the rest of the guests at a Notting Hill dinner party, Boyd, in brash American mode, was in an adjoining room, loudly negotiating some deal with people in L.A. on what must have been a three-hour phone call, an act of utter extravagance to Brits at the time. When, 30 years later, we encountered each other again (though he’s forgotten both occasions), Boyd was still on the phone; this time, though, I witnessed the patient, tireless diplomacy—and another three-hour call—needed to cajole a group of kora players from Mali into getting on a plane to start a tour.
Throughout his extraordinary career, Boyd has been smack in the middle of dealing with some of the most talented, infuriating, demanding, quixotic people on the planet. It has been his job to make things happen—to get on planes, trains and buses to seek out new sounds; to make deals between suits and musicians; to physically get the musicians on those same planes, trains and buses to venues and back; to create an environment that they can live and work in; to persuade them to fulfil their potential, both live and when recording; to make the money, get the money and more (though he hasn’t managed to keep much of it himself). So when it came to the latest twist—becoming a writer—it was no surprise that Boyd’s natural inclination, once he’d actually written his book, was to take it on the road.
Finding a publisher
White Bicycles was originally turned down by pretty much every major publisher in the U.K. What, they presumably thought, would interest the public about some memories of a bunch of bands that mostly don’t exist anymore? Never one to be daunted, Boyd persuaded his agent, Deborah Rogers, to sell it to a small independent press, Serpent’s Tail (now part of Profile Books, which bought it with some of the money it made from Eats, Shoots & Leaves, the 2003 bestseller about grammar).
The plan was to publish the book with a companion CD showcasing some of the music Boyd had produced. The big worry was getting the permissions: “I wouldn’t have done it if I couldn’t have got the best tracks,” he says. And as they feared, David Suff, the head (and sole employee) of Fledg’ling Records, the company producing the CD, ran into a wall: “Warner Music and EMI just ignored his requests.” In the end, Boyd, whose first record as a producer had been a 1966 compilation for Elektra featuring Eric Clapton, picked up the phone and called, first Clapton, then Pink Floyd, and Nick Drake’s estate. The permissions materialized. With those locked up, it was easier to get the other big names, like the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention, on board too.
So they were off. But it was going to be an uphill push. “I had the record and the book deal,” he says, “but I was faced with a impecunious label and I was nervous about the launch.” As it turned out, however, “the very things that made the project difficult to begin with—all those setbacks with publishers—turned out to be advantages”: they sent Boyd off looking for another route to marketing his book. Serpent’s Tail had a one-woman press department; she could get him the traditional bookstore events and signings, but not much beyond that. Boyd figured there had to be a market through his connections, so he asked Profile’s publisher for money for a music publicist and extracted the princely sum of £500. “It wasn’t much, but it was enough,” he says. “I was very aware that if I’d been asking HarperCollins they would have just laughed.”
Boyd tracked down Richard Wootton, a publicist (and former schoolteacher) whom the Independent once called “the king of country, blues and folk”; he knew the DJs and the music press. For two months Boyd promoted the book in the U.K., doing readings and some press and radio interviews. Wootton’s most important contribution was sending out the book to music writers at all the big newspapers, whose literary editors had mostly ignored it: “When Neil Spencer [the Observer‘s music reviewer) saw the book, he called up the literary editor and asked to review White Bicycles himself.” This scenario continued to play out at most of the other other papers, with the result that the book got fantastic notices. “We got the lead review at the Sunday Times, the Observer and the Saturday Guardian.”
Getting his act together
Meanwhile, six months in, Rogers was still struggling to get a U.S. publishing deal. “So we came up with a plan to mimic in the U.S. what we had done in the U.K., but on a bigger scale,” says Boyd. “I was confident we could handle the publicity and marketing ourselves, even without a publisher.” The fact that they would be selling the U.K. edition of the book, with British spelling, seemed insignificant. “We hired Shore Fire Media as our music publicist; they’d done pop music, but they also represented clients like the Smithsonian, Geoff Muldur and Bix Beiderbecke Tribute, so I knew them,” Boyd explains. “And Serpent’s Tail had a proper U.S. distributor, so we knew that at least we’d be able to ship the books.”
The next step was an American tour. One week in, says Boyd, “we had a feature in the New York Times—with a picture!—and a month later they reviewed the book, too. What was key was that I had 50 minutes with Terry Gross on the Philadelphia-based public radio show Fresh Air.” Why Terry Gross? “She’s a great interviewer—which brought out the best in me—and Fresh Air is one of the highest-rated shows on NPR. I had more people tell me they decided to buy the book because of that one interview than for any other reason.” Boyd also landed a spot on another public radio program, the music show World Café, and reviews and features in the San Francisco Chronicle and L.A. Times as well. There was a U.S. market for the book! A deal was cut to print copies in Tennessee on top of the original shipment of 2,500 from the U.K.
On the road again
It was Serpent’s Tail’s freelance publicist in the U.S., Meryl Zaggerek, who worked with Boyd to organize the American tour. Besides sending out books to literary editors and organizing in-store readings and signings, she and Boyd put together a music component. The tour kicked off at South by Southwest, the annual music, film, and interactive conference and festival held in Austin, Texas, where Boyd did a Q & A on stage. “That turned out to be the genesis of the gig I’m doing at the moment with my old friend Robyn Hitchcock,” says Boyd. Hitchcock showed up at Boyd’s talk; the following afternoon Boyd went to a live webcast concert to hear him perform and was asked up onstage to read the part in his book about “Arnold Layne,” Pink Floyd’s first single release, which Hitchcock then played. Joe read a bit about Bob Dylan; Hitchcock performed a Dylan song.
This routine became the template for a series of gigs that Hitchcock’s agent organized after the official book tour was finished. “To date, Robyn and I have done four gigs on the West Coast, last September, and six gigs on the East Coast in March this year,” says Boyd. “Robyn was anxious that we not do it the same way each time, so we’ve been good about mixing it up. Sometimes I talk extemporaneously, sometimes I read, sometimes I just wing it.”
They call these gigs Chinese White Bicycles—Live and Direct from 1967!, after a song that Hitchcock plays by the Incredible String Band, “Chinese White,” which seemed to neatly overlap the book’s title. “The difference between this new thing and the U.S. book tour,” Boyd continues, “is that the tour paid nothing, whereas here we’re getting fees in the high four figures. I always show up with a pile of books and we organize signings. I took 60 books to our Detroit gig and sold all of them, so I didn’t have any by the time I got to Chicago. Now I drop-ship them in advance.”
The U.S. book tour lasted three weeks and was a mixture of readings by Boyd interspersed with performances by various musician friends, like Geoff Muldaur, who’d come along and sing on stage. So far, White Bicycles has sold about 15,000 copies Stateside and 70,000 worldwide, including those in six translations. Five years after its first appearance, Boyd is still, in some ways, on the road. The next book, he says, will be about the phenomenon of the wealthy Northern hemisphere bourgeoisie’s infatuation with “authentic” and “roots” music from exotic places, and about how the “world music” boom that began in 1986 was not the first. It’s all connected, he says, to the “crisis of modernity,” but the book won’t be an academic one: “I can’t say when it’ll be finished—it gets more complicated as I write it.” He hopes, though, that this time around he’ll have a U.S. publisher.