Vol. LXII, No. 45
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
When we finished recording, I had my first experience of a sensation I would come to relish in coming years. I couldn’t wait to get the musicians out of the way so that the engineer and I could start mixing the multi-track tapes into a stereo master …. You were, in a sense, creating the ideal physical location for each instrument or voice: the violin in the Sistine Chapel, the singer in your mum’s shower stall.
—Joe Boyd on producing the Incredible String Band
“The natural cards revolve ever changing” — so begins the Incredible String Band’s third album, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, which was recorded and released 40 years ago. The line has a certain ring in this election year, the morning after another spin of the presidential wheel of fortune. November 1968 began with the election of Nixon and ended, thankfully, with the release of The Beatles, otherwise known as the White Album. The Incredible String Band played to a full house at the Fillmore East that month, according to their producer, Joe Boyd, whose memoir White Bicycles (Serpent’s Tail $18.95) is subtitled “making music in the 1960s.” Recording was completed that same fall on another key album produced by Boyd, Fairport Convention’s What We Did On Our Holidays, which contains Richard Thompson’s “Meet On the Ledge.” The group’s signature song, it was also the one they ended their concerts with, its message at once celebratory and elegaic: “When my time is up I’m gonna see all my friends/We’re gonna meet on the ledge …. If you really mean it, it all comes round again.”
So it did, and does, revolving, rounding, ever changing, the interweaving of music with a time and a place — say a place called Princeton and a second-floor apartment on Patton Avenue with a garrett study and a KLH stereo and some records, and a nine-month-old infant back from the hospital in agony after a serious operation. He’s howling, absolutely inconsolable. The usual foolproof remedies, his mother’s breast, the Beatles, Bombay movie music — none of the proven natural, musical elixirs and pain-killers can stop the wailing. The last resort is “A Very Cellular Song,” the 13-minute centerpiece of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, an album hitherto considered a bit too bizarre for a baby’s bedtime. The cover suggests a counterculture recruiting poster, a group portrait of stoned Scottish hippiedom featuring band members Robin Williamson and Mike Heron, girl friends and friends, kids, and Robin’s dog, Leaf.
With my free hand, I take out the record, put it on the turntable, and set the needle down on the last track on Side One. “Cellular” isn’t a song so much as a journey led by a marching band of gypsies playing pennywhistles, kazoos, tabors, pan pipes, jew’s harps, water harps, hammer dulcimers, finger cymbals, flute organs, sitars, and aeolian harps. Yes, “song” is too small a word for a passage to India or Tir Na Nog or Avalon, or any region of consciousness alive to the spirit of the time. Early on, at the point when Mike Heron sings “And I bid you goodnight … goodnight … goodnight,” the baby in my arms starts calming down, and by the time Heron’s chanting, “Oh ah ee oo there’s absolutely no strife living the timeless life,” the baby’s asleep and we’ve gone, as Boyd puts it in his book, from the “Sistine Chapel” to the “shower stall,” from a spiritual to a lullaby to a natural hymn (“Seed and stamen and all unnamed lives”) to the closing mantra that leaves us in a swoon of blessed relief (“May the long time sun shine upon you/All love surround you/And the pure light within you/Guide you all the way on”).
We’d only been living in Princeton for a year when this music came “round again” up in the garrett on Patton Avenue. Since groups like the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention tend to encourage a notion of magical communality, perhaps we wouldn’t have been all that amazed if we’d known that the man behind this saving grace of music had grown up on the other side of town. In fact, I didn’t know until just the other day that Joe Boyd lived on Alexander Street, had gone to Miss Fine’s and the Valley Road School, and had once trick-or-treated a bunch of candy corn from Albert Einstein.
When the author of White Bicycles comes back to Princeton for a reading and discussion at the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts on November 21, it will be a little less than a month since McCarter favorite Richard Thompson performed here. This may not be all that stunning a coincidence, but 40 years ago in that same year of assassinations, election nightmares, and musical wonders, Boyd and Thompson teamed up with Sandy Denny, Ian Mathews, Simon Nicol, Martin Lamble, and Ashley Hutchings for What We Did On Our Holidays. Besides featuring “Meet On the Ledge” (apparently the meeting place referred to was a tree on Hampstead Heath), the album is haunted by one of those “live,” truly unplugged moments only an enlightened producer with an understanding of the mood and structure of a recording would have known to capture and preserve; this radiant, seemingly random detail is the album equivalent of the fall of a leaf in Keats’s Hyperion or the sound of a string breaking in The Cherry Orchard. In this case, it’s the sound of a coin falling (or maybe a key); when it hits the surface of the floor, echoing in a hushed space, you can hear the echo of footsteps as someone walks away (according to the liner notes in the Universal Music CD, it was drummer Martin Lamble, who died in a car accident later that year). The effect comes into play because the sequence is being recorded in St. Peter’s Church in London’s Westbourne Grove, where the fall of the coin follows two minutes of music, “The Lord Is in This Place … How Dreadful Is This Place.” Based on Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark the Night, Cold was the Ground,” the music simply happens, the controlling artifice of the recording studio dissolves and you’re sharing this hushed enclave of time and space with Sandy Denny’s soulful humming and the bottleneck spell being cast by Richard Thompson, who, as Boyd writes, can make his guitar evoke “the Scottish piper’s drone and the melody of the chanter.” It doesn’t hurt that this interlude comes between the plaintive “Book Song” and the explosion of accordion-driven joy that is “No Man’s Land.” The hush also sets you up for Alexandra Elene MacLean Denny’s peerless singing of Bob Dylan’s little-known song, “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” a performance that could send chills up the spine of a mannikin.
“It All Comes Round”
At so pivotal a moment in American history (this being written before Tuesday’s election results were released), it’s worth mentioning why Joe Boyd decided in 1964 to live in England and produce music for the British audience. Besides feeling that “America seemed a desert” by comparison, he was impressed by the spectacle of kids at an Animals concert cheering and calling for John Lee Hooker. “No white person in America in 1964,” he claims, excepting himself and his friends, “knew who John Lee Hooker was.” Earlier in the same chapter of his book, he refers to the “generation gap” in the States, where parents “often went into shock” when their kids returned from college “with long hair and a rebellious attitude.” In an overstatement with more than a grain of truth in it, he says, “Children were disowned, ‘grounded,’ locked up, beaten, shorn, lectured, or sent to psychiatrists, military schools, or mental institutions.” At the same time in Britain “earringed boys with long hair stood drinking a Sunday pint next to their dads” and “neither seemed the least bit concerned.” Americans, meanwhile, “were so unsure of their often newly won status that they could not comprehend the next generation rejecting what they had worked so hard to achieve.”
While the U.K. and the U.S.A. have come a long way since then, pundits right and left have been reminding everyone this election year that the negative dynamic of the sixties is still operative, notably in the way the Republicans have tried to exploit the darker associations of the time as a means of discrediting Barack Obama. Boyd provides another way of looking at the situation in describing his first-hand involvement in one of the era’s watershed moments, when Bob Dylan “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Not only was Boyd there; he actually commandeered the setting up, turning on, and plugging in of the amps that sent a shot across the bow of the Folk Music Old Guard, captivating (and, the purists thought, corrupting) many in the generation of listeners “they had worked so hard to achieve.” It’s a stretch, I’ll admit, but isn’t that event at least marginally comparable to what happened when Obama, glowing with the charisma of change and his own personal electricity, blew the Clintons off the stage at the great American Election Festival of 2008?
What it comes down to, finally, is music, and one of the special qualities in the records Joe Boyd produced is the way they evoke the England of the period he describes so sympathetically in White Bicycles, the England where no one seemed to “own anything,” where even record players were so scarce that “pilgrimages would be made with a newly purchased LP to the flat of someone with the means to play it” and where “milk bottles on the window ledge brought hurriedly inside on winter mornings were a reminder that kitchen appliances — and central heating — were rare luxuries.” You can see it in the photo on the back of Fairport Convention’s third album, Unhalfbricking (also produced by Joe Boyd), where the group members are seated around a big, dimly lit table sharing a humble repast, with the inevitable bottles of HP sauce clearly in evidence. You can almost feel the English damp, but the light is warm, and with music like this, who needs central heating?
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