“I guess one of the reasons I ended up here talking to you is that 15 to 20 years ago, people started asking me about the ‘60s. It’s one of the things I still don’t tire of people asking me about because I like puncturing illusions,” said Joe Boyd at MASS MoCA during the “Robyn Hitchcock & Joe Boyd – Live & Direct From 1967” tour.
Boyd read passages from his 2006 memoir “White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s” and shared anecdotes from pivotal moments during his trans-Atlantic music career, when he started out working for the Newport Jazz and Folk festivals and ended up nurturing groundbreaking work by Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band and many others.
Songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, looking suitably psychedelic in purple pants and glasses, matched each Boyd vignette with a corresponding song, all covers. It wasn’t so much a recitation of Boyd’s greatest hits as a producer as it was a recreation of moments from 1965 to 1970 that had a profound influence on Boyd but also changed the trajectory of music.
As a teenager, Hitchcock was influenced by Boyd-recorded works, including early Pink Floyd single “Arnold Layne” and albums by the Incredible String Band. “Joe had a hand in creating a world that revolutionized mine. If he is Dr. Frankenstein, then I’m his monster. Or one of them…,” Hitchcock said in a press release prior to the MASS MoCA appearance.
Whether the stories punctured anyone’s illusions it’s hard to say, but they were always fascinating. The early portion of the performance centered on Boyd’s first encounters with Bob Dylan. A bit comically, he told of their first chance meeting, when Boyd expected to get lucky with an acquaintance but ended up sleeping on her couch after the woman brought Bob Dylan home instead.
Boyd then described how his early doubts about Dylan (no one thought his first record was very good) vanished as Boyd watched, stunned, while Dylan performed “Masters of War” at a party a few weeks after the Cuban Missile Crisis. “I didn’t hear it in a bedroom. I heard it on a record, and it happened there too,” Hitchcock said of the song’s power before performing a version of Dylan’s acerbic classic.
In subsequent vignettes, Boyd described the shock that ran through the crowd at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when Dylan plugged in and played loud; his chagrin at introducing the Incredible String Band to the man who signed them up to Scientology; and the tragedy that befell Fairport Convention as a car crash killed their drummer and Richard Thompson’s girlfriend.
Those hoping to hear Hitchcock songs didn’t get any, but the night was satisfying enough that no one seemed disappointed. It was worth it to hear Hitchcock perform Nick Drake’s “River Man” and apply his whimsical talents to the Syd Barrett-penned Pink Floyd oddity “Bike.”
Both songs were musical highlights of the night, and the troubled stories behind their creators had clearly affected Boyd. He read from a moving remembrance he gave at a Barrett tribute several years ago, and looked somber and lost in thought during Hitchcock’s foreboding version of Drake’s haunted “River Man.”
Boyd’s “White Bicycles” is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and so we can only hope he follows it up with a second installment – one covering later triumphs such as Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Shoot Out the Lights” and R.E.M.’s “Fables of the Reconstruction.”
Review by Kirsten Ferguson
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Seth Rogovoy’s review at Berkshire Living
ROBYN HITCHCOCK SET LIST
Way Back in the 1960s (Incredible String Band)
Masters of War (Bob Dylan)
Mr. Tambourine Man) Bob Dylan
I Can Hear the Grass Grow (the Move)
Chinese White (Incredible String Band)
Reynardine (traditional, recorded by Fairport Convention)
River Man (Nick Drake)
Bike (Pink Floyd)