Joe Boyd: Music in a Time of Social Change


Rob Johnson talks to music producer Joe Boyd about the musical inflection point of the 1960’s, and how social change affects art and artists.

Transcript

Rob Johnson:

I’m here today with Joe Boyd, music producer, author of particularly an esteemed book called White Bicycles, and a man who’s worked with artists such as R.E.M, Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, and many others.

Joe was also a co-producer along with myself in the Aretha Franklin documentary of 2018, which is called Amazing Grace. But the difference between Joe and my participation, is Joe was there managing things in the church at the time it was being made, working with the people at Warner. And so, Joe welcome.

Joe Boyd:

Thank you very much, glad to be here.

Rob Johnson:

I’m very keen to get your observations on a wild world. I don’t want to use Cat Stevens too much, but it’s a wild world.

Joe Boyd:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

We’ve got a pandemic. We’ve got all kinds of rigid or authoritarian-style orthodoxies that are in tatters, the picture’s wide open, characteristically at times like this, artists perhaps are the vanguard of what you call, rising to the challenge. And so, I think, I guess what I’d like to do is start with, what are your impressions of what’s happening in this world? What do you see that concerns you? And, who do you see in the artistic world that’s shedding light on the pathway that we need to carve?

Joe Boyd:

Well, I can’t really present myself as any kind of visionary or pundit, because I’m as bemused as everyone as to what shape things are going to take in the future. I mean, the fact that you have concerts with nobody in the audience, you have football games with nobody in the stands, you have Zoom harmonies with people taking different vocal parts. You have musicians giving home concerts on YouTube and other social media. I mean, all of this is so alien to the kind of music making that has been the focus of my life, that I’m kind of like a deer in the headlights.

I mean, to me, I’ve found myself a bit out of step with the modern way of making music, because to me, music is about a bunch of musicians in the same room, in the same space, looking each other in the eye, increasing or decreasing the intensity of the rhythm in the moment. Not, over the internet, not as an overdub. And so, where music goes from here, boy, your guess is as good as mine.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I mean, we did experience over the course of your and my musical lifetime, the introduction of computerized drum machines, which created a certain mathematical precision. But, it felt to me like it lost some of that interactive heartfulness. But, this is taking it to another level, for sure.

Joe Boyd:

I mean, the only encouraging thing is, if you look back in history and in a way, I’m a backward looking guy. Ever since I grew up, when I was a teenager, I spent as much time listening to old Louis Armstrong, and Johnny Dodds, and Robert Johnson records as I did listening to rock and roll. But, so I’ve always been hyper-conscious of the past. And I think in a way, if you look into the past, you can at least take some solace from the fact that there had been moments in the past, many moments, musical moments where the view was, “The world that we know has ended. Nothing is ever going to be the same. The music we know is being destroyed,” et cetera. And it’s turned out differently. It’s turned out some of these changes have been very positive.

I mean, one of the most kind of cartoonish is 1834 or thereabouts, the invention of the accordion. And this instrument came into Europe and around the rest of the world like an atomic bomb. Because, it replaced piano players, violin players, clarinet players, bagpipers. All these instruments that had been key to every kind of music making were suddenly replaced by one instrument. It was like the arrival of the synthesizer. And somehow, music survived. And great music, even the accordion survived.

And the other great moment that I like to think about for consolation at a moment like this, is 1925 when network radio started in America. And all of a sudden, people could turn on the dial in California and hear a live broadcast of a big band from a ballroom or a soundstage in New York. And the record companies were all going to jump … The guys were going to jump out of the 10th floor window. It was over. Why would anybody ever buy a record again when they could just turn on the radio and for nothing, listen to their favorite song?

And so, I mean, people were really suicidal. And it took a guy like Ralph Peer, who was a pioneer record producer, who said to his people at Victor Records, or OKeh Records actually, he was with Okeh at the time. “Well, the only thing we can salvage from this disastrous situation is, let’s think of people who don’t have electricity. Let’s think of the rural poor, and let’s make some records for them, because they can still play their wind-up gramophones.” And so, he went out into the hills of the south of America, and he discovered Jimmie Rodgers, and the Carter Family, and the Memphis Jug Band, and Charley Patton, and Son House, and eventually people like Robert Johnson. And much to his astonishment, those records sold to everybody. They sold to the urban people, they sold to the rural poor, they sold to white people.

And so, I can just say that we can only hope here that disruption is creative, and it opens up new possibilities. And I think we can look to history for encouragement.

Rob Johnson:

I guess the other dimension that I was kind of thinking about, online streaming. In recent years, at least when I worked with Peter Himberger and Ed Gerhard, there was a lot of discussion about how the record used to carry the financial weight and subsidize tours, and marketing, and what have you. But with streaming, at some level the loss leader became the record, and the live show and merchandise became the source of revenue or strategy about becoming prosperous.

Joe Boyd:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

And so, I think, how we say, the channels are constantly in flux. The structure of audiences changes. I mean, looking at some of these 265 million spins on Spotify, all over the world is a very different market. I’ve always recalled John St. Clair, who was kind of a mentor to my life, co-wrote a book with a man named Robert Levin. And it was called, Music and Politics. And there were chapters in there about how if you were in Detroit and you want to smoke a joint, you could get your head cracked open. If you were in San Francisco and you wanted to smoke a joint, the law officer would ask if he could have a took along with you.

Joe Boyd:

Yep.

Rob Johnson:

And what John was saying was, in those days, he was illustrating it. The tenor of the music, that kind of hard garage rock, edgy Detroit sound, and that smooth, warm romantic sound that came from San Francisco were a reflection of the environment. But John went on to project that the knowing, that the national, and then eventually global market would be integrated. Artists would start to game what sold, not what you might call emit reflections upon their local environment, or about their local environment to the … How do I say it? To the betterment of all. So, he was concerned that music was going to become somewhat shallower, and driven by the equivalent of sound bites and hooks. And I don’t quite know where we are, because I see artists of both types now.

Joe Boyd:

Well, I think he certainly had a vision, and he wasn’t wrong. I think music that comes out of a certain culture, a certain local culture. I mean it’s, music is, I don’t know, like everything in life. It’s very complex. I mean, I think if you study the music of any particular style, any particular culture, you see a huge element of it grows from the soil. It grows from the traditions that are part of that geographical area, part of that cultural history. But, it’s also hugely influenced by what they hear over the radio, and what comes in what records they play, and what strikes people from outside. It’s always been, music has never been pure.

And I think the thing that is slightly worrying, I think if you look back in culture, in history, there are certain great periods of art, for example. I mean, Italy and a certain 50-year period. There’s such incredible number of great masterpieces that came out in a certain period in the early 16th century, or around that time. And the 19th century novel, something about what was in the water at that time in Russia, and France, and England. And America produced some of the great works of the world’s literature.

And I think if you look at music, there was this moment, starting around 1925 with electrical recording, when people from traditional cultures were moving from rural homelands into the city, encountering PA systems and electrical recording, and different urban circumstances, that changed and mutated the rural music that they brought with them. And that metamorphosis was very exciting, and created some of the greatest works of art that have been recorded. From Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five to Carlos Gardel’s tango records, to Senor Rodriguez’s Afro-Cuban music, that was the basis of salsa.

All these things happened in that sort of 15 years following the beginning of electrical recording. And you could call it a golden age, that maybe we’re going to look back on in 200 years and say, “Well, it took a hundred years after 1975,” or whatever, “For music to recover and to get back to something interesting again,” if looking at from a long point of view. I think, we’re not necessarily, we don’t have a right to great music in every decade and every era, and I think we may have seen the passing of a golden age. Which, where technology, demographics, culture, financial ebbs and flows all came together to create a fantastic body of work.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, most reminded, it was a wonderful jazz pianist who died a couple of years ago in his 90s, Randy Weston.

Joe Boyd:

Oh, yeah.

Rob Johnson:

He was from, I believe he was from the Bronx or Brooklyn. Lived a lot in western Massachusetts and then went to Africa and France in the-

Joe Boyd:

Morocco. Yeah, he loved Morocco.

Rob Johnson:

Yes. And Randy, what was the name of his first record that he did? Langston Hughes wrote the lyrics. I think it was called Uhuru Afrika.

Joe Boyd:

Right.

Rob Johnson:

But, Randy, who I got to know his last few years, through his friend and wonderful saxophonist, Billy Harper. And I talked to Randy on a number of occasions. And one time, he went onto Amy Goodman’s show, Democracy Now.

Joe Boyd:

Right.

Rob Johnson:

They made about a 20 minute segment, which I’ll put on the website as associated with this particular podcast. And he was talking about a Sufi poet, or a mystic. I think his name was Musaf. And, Randy Weston quoted him as saying, “The music is like a thermometer. A barometer of the culture. And when you have really creative music, you have a really creative society. When you have very stale music, it is a symptom of something gone awry in society.”

Joe Boyd:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

And I think that there’s, how would I say, there’s an element of that. But, I’m reminded in a conversation that I had earlier today when someone said to me, “Well, in the ’60s, anti-war movement, anti,” oh excuse me. “Civil rights movement. And there was a lot of energy.” Your and my friend, Danny Goldberg, wrote an interesting book about the late ’60s, called In Search of the Lost Chord, using a Moody Blues song or album as its metaphor, title.

But, the idea was that the ’60s was supposed to be this consciousness-raising. It was pretty hard to tell my son stories now, given where we are, that somehow that music delivered us to a place. It’s almost as if it was thwarted by a counter-initiative that has created a much more grim and potentially authoritarian society before us now.

Now, you grew up as I recall, near Princeton, New Jersey and you worked, you’ve told me stories about working with people and finding people who were superb traditional blues and roots artists, that, how do I say? You brought them to Princeton, you brought them to a culture. You saw a culture blossom, and we’ll get to your book, White Bicycles, which I must add, Elton John often espouses as one of the greatest music books he’s ever read. But, take me through your life trajectory, and how you saw music from a childhood in New Jersey, through that blossoming of the ’60s and then the withering. And, how does this all stack up in your mind?

Joe Boyd:

Well, I mean, I grew up as you say, in Princeton, New Jersey. I had a grandmother who had studied in Vienna with Leschetizky, and worked with Artur Schnabel in Berlin. And I used to, as a kid, three, four, or five years old, I used to sit under the piano and listen to her play Chopin, and Mozart, and Beethoven, and stuff. So, I kind of had a little bit of a head start in terms of honing my ear, and my ability to listen. And my mother had some Edith Piaf records, Marlene Dietrich, Carmen Miranda. So, I got some other stuff that I was exposed to. Harry Belafonte. And, listening was just something that I did, all the time. And I think by the time I started actually producing records, I had logged so many hours of listening to the past.

I was pretty obsessed with old blues, and jazz. My brother and a friend of ours called Geoff Muldaur, who became the lead singer with the Butterfield Blues Band and the Kweskin Jug Band, and a great soul artist in his own right. The three of us used to sit around on the weekends and just listen to Johnny Dodds. Every Johnny Dodds clarinet solo we had on record. And then every Robert Johnson record, every Son House record, et cetera, et cetera. And we’d go through that different one every weekend. And at the same time, we were listening to rock and roll. We were listening to Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino, and Little Richard. And we saw the two things as quite separate, and we were a bit secretive about the blues, because the kids, the 13, 14, 15, 16-year old kids would think it was a bit nerdy.

And then I realized, I came to this realization that one was a continuity of the other. Because in those days in the late ’50s, there was no books that explained all of this. How one, old blues let in Big Bill Broonzy, recorded with an electric guitar and made hit records in Chicago in 1949, 1950. We didn’t know this. We didn’t realize that this was all connected. This was just a few years before in the same Chess Records studio that Chuck Berry recorded in. We didn’t realize this. But, finally, the connection was made for me and I realized that, that’s what I wanted to do, was be a record producer.

And, all the cliches applied to my life, in terms of the idealism of the ’60s, the feeling that music was going to change the world. The feeling that this sort of optimism grew out of this love of music. And I think if you start back in the late ’50s, you’ll see that this idealism suffered a series of blows. The first one was in the late ‘50, when the major labels realized that the indies were making so much money with all this doo-wop and rock and roll, that they better squash this and get back in control. And so the prosecution for payola, which he was probably guilty of, but it was part of a whole maneuver by big corporate interest to take control back of the music industry.

And, Bob Dylan writes about it very, very eloquently in his book, Chronicles, about the way he was disillusioned with rock and roll in the late ’50s. And that’s when he went out and started listening to the Harry Smith collection of early American folk music, and started dancing to a different drummer, and listening to Dock Boggs, and Tampa Red, and Georgia Tom, and all this kind of stuff.

Rob Johnson:

And the Stanley Brothers.

Joe Boyd:

Yeah, the Stanley Brothers, and that’s where Dylan came back into the spotlight with this authenticity. This sort of authenticity that he borrowed from these old recordings. And suddenly, that had a power that no one was ready for, that no one was prepared for. And at the same time, the other blow that hit us of course, was the Kennedy assassination. And that really, I think knocked a lot of the stuffing out of the optimism and the idealism of that time. And then, not just, we might have survived the one, but the second one, the Bobby Kennedy, and the Martin Luther King, and the Malcolm X all of a sudden, right in a row. Right? So fast, one after another. I think people never really recovered from that. I think the spirit of that time was given, delivered such a blow by those deaths.

And then, I don’t know whether you can call this cause or effect, but I think a lot of the explorations that people were doing with their consciousness, smoking dope, taking acid, this all was creating some pretty interesting stuff musically. But then, around the end of the ’60s, along came cocaine. And, I think cocaine did unbelievable damage to all the things we’re talking about, because I don’t think you’re going to be very idealistic, or very optimistic, or very visionary on cocaine. You become harder edged. You become shorter of attention span. You become-

Rob Johnson:

Irritable.

Joe Boyd:

Yeah, you become irritable. And you become shallower, and sitting in the control room with musicians in the studio, I’ve heard sessions that have improved when somebody passes a bottle of scotch around. I’ve heard sessions that improve when somebody passes a joint around, but I have never heard a session improve when they get out the white lines. It always gos downhill. And, so I think if you look at the legacy of that extraordinary energy and idealism which blossomed in the ’60s, you can look at violence, you can look at the Vietnam War. I mean, talk about assassinations. Those are people at the top of the society, but people all the way through society were being killed in Southeast Asia. And I think it’s corrosive.

And then you throw in commercialism, you throw in the fact that idealism … American capitalism is fantastic at its ability to co-opt anything. Anything, no matter how anti-capitalist it may sound on the surface can be turned into an advertising jingle.

Rob Johnson:

Thomas Frank wrote a wonderful book. It was called The Conquest of Cool.

Joe Boyd:

Yeah, yeah.

Rob Johnson:

And how the ’60s got turned into marketing for Volkswagen and others.

Joe Boyd:

Exactly, exactly.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, I remember that.

Joe Boyd:

But I just would want to footnote this by saying that, we look back on the ’60s as you say, as you said in your question. Where did it all go wrong? What happened with all this wonderful energy and idealism? How do we end up where we are now? But, I think that so many things we take for granted now. Women’s rights, consciousness of the environment, human rights. These things were blossomed in the ’60s. I mean, people look at the ’60s from a woman’s point of view quite rightly, and say the hippie ethos was nowhere near as liberating for women as advertised, and they’re right. But nonetheless, so many things that sort of taking the lid off and allowing people to, whether it was the Whole Earth catalog that made people much more conscious of the environment. Whether it was Germaine Greer’s books that opened up to the dialog on women’s rights and women’s situation in society. So many of the great things about what we hang onto as positive today originated in the ’60s.

And I would say, it’s a bit simplistic. But, I would say whenever you mention the ’60s, right wing politicians start to get red, and splutter, and bluster, and complain, and curse. And so you know we must have done something right.

Rob Johnson:

That’s right. I would say, criticism is the most sincere form of flattery, right?

Joe Boyd:

Exactly.

Rob Johnson:

Thinking about various songs, if we were going to create a playlist, and I think J. J. Cale’s Cocaine has to be added. American Pie by Don McLean, Murder Most Fowl, recently by Bob Dylan, takes you on tour through a lot of these ups and downs of emotion and what I call the cultural force fields that influence music. It’s very-

Joe Boyd:

And, For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield. I mean, which is a good example of the complexity of the question, because it’s a fantastic song. And people used it. It was covered in Jamaica during the gun court time in Jamaica and paranoia there. And it speaks to so many people, that song, and yet it was inspired, not by some big idealistic principle, but by a police action to clear the sidewalks in front of the Whiskey A Go-Go on Sunset Boulevard on Friday nights. It wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of idealism, but it’s a fantastic song that speaks to repressive regimes all over the world, at any time.

Rob Johnson:

And in the, what you might call context of profound social upheaval and change, I’d also put Ballad of a Thin Man in that mixture.

Joe Boyd:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

Where, there’s something happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones? I think there was a kind of consciousness of transformation.

Joe Boyd:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

But, it created both a kind of daunting and fearful thread within society, some of the reaction on the right. The nostalgia that Ronald Reagan espoused reflects that. But, it also created a hopefulness that we could move to a higher level of consciousness. And I want to bring up, one of my favorite philosophical writers is the late Stephen Toulmin, who wrote a book called Cosmopolis about the Cartesian enlightenment and how society organized itself from the Thirty Years War to the present.

Joe Boyd:

Oh, yeah.

Rob Johnson:

But, one of his punchlines was this. “Whenever you’re on the cusp of profound change, it’s scary. And people are at the equivalent of a fork in the road between lurching back to the familiar and clinging, or stepping forward in light of the fault lines that have been revealed.” And I guess I think that one of the rules of the arts at these frightening, but what I’ll call unsustainable times, is how they can contribute to the forward nudge, rather than the backward, what may I call it? Retrenchment.

Joe Boyd:

But, I have to say I’m not hearing a lot. Maybe I’m just not listening in the right places.

Rob Johnson:

Well, you worked with R.E.M. Their song, The End of The World As We Know It might be a good anthem. And I feel fine.

Joe Boyd:

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I mean, irony and deconstruction, witty cynicism were some of the things that really beautifully emerged from the ’60s and have endured. And one of the problems maybe is that the committed idealism of those early songs of Dylan, Blowing In The Wind, and The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, and all that. Masters of War. He says in his book that it was kind of an act, that he sized up the situation, and decided it was a good career move for him to be Woody Guthrie, Jr., and he just put on that costume. And, the minute he’d gotten high enough up so he could move wherever he wanted, he left that. I mean, there’s a fantastic … I don’t know if you’ve seen that film called, The Other Side of the Mirror. It’s all of Dylan’s footage from the 1963, ‘64, and ‘65 Newport Folk Festivals.

Rob Johnson:

Wow.

Joe Boyd:

And it’s a fantastic, fascinating portrait. You see the young kid in ‘63, singing a ballad about the coal miners in Minnesota, and all the old guard in the folk scene just looking at him like, “My God, this is the second coming of Woody.” And then in ‘64, you have Pete Seeger introducing him at a workshop in the afternoon. And he introduces him as the voice of a generation. And you can see how proud, like a dad he is to introduce Dylan, who appears in denim shirt, jeans, with the harmonica rack around his neck, and then he goes straight into singing Mr. Tambourine Man. And, the camera is close on Dylan through the whole first verse. And then as he gets to the chorus, he pulls focus, so you go backwards and you start to see the whole stage. It’s a very small, flimsy stage in one of the fields in Newport in just a workshop.

And, you see Pete Seeger sitting on the stage, at the back of the stage behind Dylan, with his head in his hands. Like, “What the hell is this? Mr. Tambourine Man, what does that mean? Who’s going to sing that at the barricades?” It was a moment where you saw that Dylan was parting company with all these supporters who had pushed him, and followed him, and supported him to that point. And then of course, a year later when I was there, you had that moment where Dylan just comes out with an electric guitar, and an electric base and a drum kit, and blasts Maggie’s Farm out into the air. And the old guard, Pete Seeger and those guys just were apoplectic. I mean, they could not stand it.

And, I mean, he was always, he had his eye on that, always. Which is not to say, no way to diminish his artistry, I mean, and the greatness of those early songs. But, they weren’t coming from a guy like … I mean, Phil Ochs got left behind. Phil Ochs passionately believed all that stuff. And he wrote song, after song, after song that was so committed to political change and political awareness. And he was stunned, he was completely blindsided by Like a Rolling Stone. He didn’t know what to do, and he flailed around and failed, and tried to make singer-songwriter records, and eventually died, killed himself. But, he was the real idealist, but he was never as great as Dylan.

Rob Johnson:

Well, there was another band at the time of Dylan’s rise called the Beatles.

Joe Boyd:

Hell yeah.

Rob Johnson:

And they had a certain influence, and they evolved quite powerfully, and they also interacted with Dylan. There’s stories that, around the time of Rubber Soul, he was quite an inspiration to their digging deeper and going further.

Joe Boyd:

Oh, absolutely. I mean, when you think, if you try and put yourself back to that night, July of ‘65 when Dylan so-called went electric, the work rock was never used in 1965. It was rock and roll, and the Beatles were pop music. And the Beatles in 1965 still wore suits on stage. And so, for Dylan to walk out on stage dressed in jeans and whatever he happened to put on that morning when he fell out of bed, and sing songs that had nothing to do with boy/girl, moon, June, romance, and the Beatles in 1965 were still writing love songs. They were writing very wonderful, sophisticated pop songs about love. And what Dylan did absolutely blew them out of the water. I mean, they were so stunned by it. And, you can only explain what happened to them subsequently with Rubber Soul, with Revolver, with Sgt. Pepper as being their response to Dylan.

Rob Johnson:

And also Dylan, as you mentioned early on, wrote what he …

Joe Boyd:

Yeah, he responded to them. He responded to them, meaning it was the greatness of the Beatles records that led him to recruit Robbie Robertson and those guys and those guys in The Band to be his backing band.

Rob Johnson:

To make something like Blonde On Blonde, which was much more ethereal. And, I see, said he’s got tired of doing those finger pointing songs. Meaning, portraits of injustice, and he went to what you might call, a more aspirational portrait to be painted, to guide people to a positive place, rather than drive them out of a negative place.

Joe Boyd:

I mean, it’s like you look at sort of the Mozart to Beethoven, to Schubert. I mean, it’s not unlike that. Each one showing the other one something, and elevating the art to another level.

Rob Johnson:

Let’s go fishing a little bit here together. I mean, the other guy that I think reigns supreme, no joke intended here is John Coltrane, who just walked in, climbed up through the jazz scene and then went to a place of spirit and creativity that was just unyielding. And I see him in that ‘63-‘66 window as another pun, you might call evolving very rapidly.

Joe Boyd:

Absolutely, but it’s a tragedy because what he was, the direction that he was going when he died. They kind of stopped. I mean, Miles did something completely different. You can’t look at Bitches Brew and what followed for Miles, or what followed from a lot of the other greats in the same, as following on from what Coltrane, where he was going. I mean, obviously McCoy Tyner had a fantastic career after that, but quietly. And it’s, I mean, I listened. One of the ironies is in summer of ‘65 when Dylan went electric, the Newport Folk Festival took place three weeks after the Newport Jazz Festival. And, I was, I mean, unbelievably lucky to have been hired to be the production manager for both of those festivals. And, Friday night of the jazz festival started with Art Blakey. And, then it went to Coltrane, Monk, and Miles.

And you could have sat there on the Friday night, and then Saturday night, you had Frank Sinatra coming in by helicopter to play with the Count Basie band under the baton of Quincy Jones. And you could have sat there on the Friday and Saturday night and thought to yourself, “My God, jazz has never been more powerful, healthier, more adventurous. More sure of itself.” It was overwhelmingly powerful as a festival. And three weeks later, it was over. Because, once Dylan had done what he did, I mean within a year, jazz clubs around the country were converted to rock clubs. And the kind of people that in ‘61, ‘62, the kind of young guys who bought a turtleneck sweater, and a beret, and a carton of Gauloises, and sat around listening to Monk, and Miles, and Coltrane, they were all wearing tie dye and dropping acid, and listening to Grateful Dead.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, the beat generation in San Francisco changed into something else. It became, as you said, psychedelic, Whole Earth catalog, and …

Joe Boyd:

Yeah. And what Coltrane was doing, as magnificent as it was, didn’t change jazz’s direction. It became, jazz split into splinters. There was jazz rock fusion, there was free jazz, the Ayler Brothers, and Archie Shepp and all that.

Rob Johnson:

Ornette Coleman. Yeah, Ornette was big.

Joe Boyd:

The Angry Abstractions. Yeah, and then there was CTI. Creed Taylor and smooth jazz, the elevator jazz, which paid some sort of lip service to the spirituality of Coltrane, but not really. It was much more like a kind of bossa nova lite.

Rob Johnson:

So, let’s talk now about, you see all those changes. You see the ways in which people inspire. Inspire through saying, “This is wrong.” Inspire through creating an idyllic vision. And you and I, you are originally from the United States, living in London now. But, we often have discussed American politics and world politics, but America sits at the fulcrum of the world system. It’s in quite a bit of jeopardy right now. If you were running for president, what kind of music would be informing your speeches, your way of convincing this world that there’s a better way, and to change course. In the context of all the cynicism and corruption, and everything, and what I’ll call despondency, and despair that’s been evident in these political systems for the last few years.

Joe Boyd:

Well, I’m afraid I would be a disaster as a manager of a campaign, because I just, I listen a lot to new releases, modern music and stuff. But, I have the problem that when I hear a drum machine or a click track, it enters my head from a different door. The music does. It can be interesting, it can sound clever, and I can enjoy hearing it once, but doesn’t really make me want to hear it again. And I think that a new generation of music listeners, and of course voters, have been brought up differently. They’re used to a certain kind of clean, correct rhythmically, mechanical music that they love and they relate to. And I would be the worst possible choice for putting together a playlist for a candidate, or even my own candidacy. Because, I think I would be out of touch, and I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it.

Rob Johnson:

Well, perhaps we could start with Eric Burdon and The Animals, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, if it’s the last thing we ever do.

Joe Boyd:

Yeah. Exactly, exactly.

Rob Johnson:

And what was the name of that song, You’re Out Of Touch, I’m Out Of Time?

Joe Boyd:

But I think … You’re out of time, my baby. You’re my sweet old fashioned baby. Yeah. That’s the Stones. That’s a Rolling Stones song. Baby, baby, you’re out of time. I mean, some of those early Rolling Stones records are great. The songwriting at that time, with Jagger and Richard was really sensational. And that’s a pretty good example of it. But, I mean it’s, you still walk into, I mean the few record stores that are left. You walk in and what are the box sets piled by the cash register? They’re mostly from the ’60s. Or, the early ’70s. The Bowies, The Who, the Dylan. I mean, I do think we were fortunate to live in a golden age of the kind.

Joe Boyd:

And I think, that film that you and I connected on, how we met, is a perfect example. Because, there you go, 1972, February. Aretha at the height of her power with this rhythm section. This unbelievable rhythm section. Cornell Dupree, and Bernard Purdie, and this choir. This unbelievable choir and at the time, we thought, I was disappointed that the sound hadn’t worked.

Rob Johnson:

On the film.

Joe Boyd:

That the guys had screwed it up.

Rob Johnson:

You’re talking about the sound on the film?

Joe Boyd:

And the technical problems.

Rob Johnson:

Right, right. Talking about the sound on the film.

Joe Boyd:

Yeah, I’m talking about Amazing Grace.

Rob Johnson:

Right, right.

Joe Boyd:

And because we thought, with the arrogance of youth, we thought, “Oh, this is great. And tomorrow, there’ll be something else really great that we can see.” That we could film, that we could record, that we could just experience. And we didn’t realize that, this was it. This was the end. This was over. That within a year and a half from now, Aretha was going to be making disco records. And, that pop gospel was coming in, and all these people there that are mentioned during that concert. The Staple Singers, the Clara Ward, Mahalia Jackson. These people were dead or retired. And, we were experiencing the flash of sunset, rather than the beginning of something.

And I don’t know, it’s too big of a question to say whether what I perceive as a decline in the music is a reflection of, or parallel, or locked in somehow to the decline in our political culture and the strength of our society. But, it’s tempting to say that the fact that we don’t. I mean, who can we remember exactly from the ’80s and the ’90s that has the same … That we know a hundred years from now, people are going to listen to and go, “Wow,” like they will to Amazing Grace? Or, like they will to Blonde On Blonde? Or, like they will to Rubber Soul? I don’t know. It’s a big leap, but it’s tempting to think of it as a correlated.

Rob Johnson:

I guess the current, which you might call state of government structure, I find quite haunting, because the faith in democracy. Democracy could be what you might call on a pendulum, a romantic ideal on one side. But, the despondency about democracy and about the principles that are in the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, Constitution, almost feel like a romantic dream. And what concerns me now is that in the despair as the fear accelerates, the temptation towards authoritarian rule becomes what you might call more viable. And, I don’t know, how do you arrest that? How do you turn that super tanker around?

Joe Boyd:

Well, I don’t know, I guess try to be concise, but I guess my view of the situation now is, on the one hand there was a very interesting column in The Guardian the other day. I can’t remember the name of the author, but basically he was saying that the Anglophone model has failed in this coronavirus situation. If you look at England and America, there’s something rotten about the state of the politics that has led both of them to basically privatize their medical system or try to rely on hype, and PR campaigns, and facile slogans instead of addressing issues in a deep way politically. And it’s no coincidence, according to this column, that Britain and America are having some of the worst results in dealing with the coronavirus of any country.

And, it’s very easy to get very pessimistic about the state of our democracy, even though we have two very different systems, Britain and America. The parliamentary system versus the presidential system. But, and I think it’s a big but, I look at prime minister’s question time in the British Parliament and I see Keir Starmer taking Boris Johnson apart and being seen to take him apart. And, you look at the elections, bi-elections, or the last mid-term elections in America, which delivered a majority for the Democrats in the House, and you look at the fact that from now, it looks like, as chaotic as the Democrats are, it’s going to be pretty hard for them to lose the next election.

And so you feel like, you compare this to Poland and Hungary, and Italy, and you think, well, actually, our system isn’t too … Democracy in the Anglophone countries is wobbling. It’s gone on some terrible side journeys and down some blind alleys, but the structure is much more robust than it is in a lot of places. And, I think the examples that you see in flourishing democracies. You can look around the world. You can look at South Korea. You can look at Taiwan. You can look at New Zealand and see real hopeful signs of the power of democracy. Of an inspired electorate, actually doing something right. And call me naïve, but I still believe that’s possible in the two countries that I live in.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I think the … How would I say? The hope and the prayer, and the sensibility are all there. But, I do think these are, how’d I say? These are treacherous times. And, the softening and the inspiration comes from film, comes from music, comes from poetry. At very least, it can’t hurt. I think they take the heart to a deeper place. I’ve cited on several of the podcasts, one of my favorite books. It’s called The Life of Poetry, by Muriel Rukeyser. And, the first part of the book is called The Resistances, and the first chapter is called, The Fear of Poetry. And, in the introduction to the first edition, she talks very, very what you might call lucidly, and very tenderly about what poetry can do. And, it’s really kind of an American example.

But, she says, “I tried to get behind the resistance, which is often a fear of poetry, and to show what might be ahead of this culture that’s in conflict with its background of strength and antagonism. If we are free, we’re free to choose a tradition, and we find in the past as well the present, our poets of outrage like Melville, and our poets of possibility like Whitman.”

Joe, I think you’ve worked with people, you’ve observed people, you’ve written about people, and you’ve created things that are both Melville and Whitman. And it’s been very, very … How would I say? Nourishing to talk with you today, and to work with you over these last few years we got to know one another. But, I hope I can enlist you to come back in a couple months, and take another, how do I say? Take another snapshot of where we are and what we’re thinking. And I want everybody to read White Bicycles, and you have a new book, which you’ve shared little bits and pieces of with me, which looks at world music. South Africa, and as you know, I used to work a bit with Hugh Masekela. And then, Jamaica, and Cuba, Brazil.

And there’s so many musics in this globalized world, where the nation state is almost … What I’ll call the Treaty of Westphalia is almost an anachronism. The idea that’s contained in your view of the, what I’ll call British and American system of the ’60s, you’re going to now shed light on very important musics for many places in the world. So, we definitely want to, as that book is approaching release, we want to get together again. But, once again, I want to thank you for today, and for setting the table and inspiring curiosity at a time when, how I say it? We need your light.

Joe Boyd:

Well, Rob, thank you so much and I tell you, you’ve been a great inspiration and a great support. And it’s not often you find somebody who is so fluent in the good side of economics with such an ear. Such a feel for music, and such a love of music, and it’s great. So, it’s a pleasure, anytime.

Rob Johnson:

Great. Thanks for your kind words, and we’ll see you again soon. Bye, bye.

Joe Boyd:

Okay, bye, bye.

About the Host

ROB JOHNSON serves as President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Johnson is an international investor and consultant to investment funds on issues of portfolio strategy. He recently served on the United Nations Commission of Experts on International Monetary Reform under the Chairmanship of Joseph Stiglitz.

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About the Guest

JOE BOYD is an American record producer and writer. He formerly owned the production company Witchseason Productions and Hannibal Records.