White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s by Joe Boyd

Huge joints, few kitchen appliances
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Joe Boyd is not what you'd call a household name. But a list of the people whose careers have been shaped by this urbane transatlantic operator - among them Eric Clapton (in the 1960s, when being associated with Eric Clapton was a good thing), Pink Floyd (whose first single he produced), Bob Dylan (Boyd set the sound levels for Dylan's epoch-making performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival), and his most tragically reticent discovery Nick Drake - would fill a fair-sized pantheon.

Boyd is one of that select group of rock luminaries, like John Peel, or the American producer Rick Rubin, who didn't have to pick up a guitar to shape the evolution of entire genres of music. And this book is the perfect literary echo of a lifetime's subtle facilitation. At first, it's what White Bicycles lacks that seems most striking. Indeed, some readers may be disconcerted by its author's reluctance to trumpet his own Zelig-like propensity for cropping up at key junctures in rock and roll history. But, happily, in place of the egotism and emotional incontinence traditionally associated with the showbiz memoir, Boyd's pages abound with astute observations and fascinating personal detail.

His account of the much-mythologised occasion when Dylan "went electric" is a case in point. With sources ranging from Murray Lerner's contemporary film record Festival to Scorsese's recent Don't Look Back to draw upon, informed readers might wonder how much more they could possibly have to learn about the schismatic impact of Dylan's electrification on the US folk community. Yet Boyd's description of the strange mood of melancholy which descended upon the winners of this argument in the aftermath of their victory (he compares them to "children who had been looking for something to break and realised as they looked at the pieces what a beautiful thing had been lost") adds an extra edge of poignancy to this already dramatic tableau.

More a working life than a conventional autobiography, White Bicycles' real story begins in 1960, when a Harvard-bound Boyd discovers that veteran blues hero Lonnie Johnson is alive and well and working in a hotel near his affluent New Jersey home. He looks him up in the phone book and books him to perform in a friend's front room for $50. And that short drive from the fleshpots of Princeton to the meaner streets of North Philadelphia is the first stage of a much longer journey.

At his initial destination, Boyd finds "a neatly-dressed grey haired man standing by the kerb with a guitar case and a small amp". Like the shop-keeper in the children's tv show Mr Benn, Johnson's very self-containment is a portent of the infinite wonders to which he provides the gateway. The impact of this first meeting between two previously segregated worlds resonates throughout the younger man's subsequent professional life .

Boyd is especially astute about the socio-political limitations on music's rightly vaunted capacity for bringing people together, and himself identifies one of his book's main themes as "The tension when artists from a poverty-stricken community confront the spoiled offspring of the educated middle class, and the conflict between the latter's desire to hear the 'real thing' and the former's desire to be up to date". Whether deftly pinning down the elusive Delaware Valley accent ("The home city is Phiwy and you dance on the flaw"), commenting on the ease with which his privileged background enabled him to side-step the draft, or anatomising the tension between ultra-respectable gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharp and her more rough-and-ready counterpart Blind Gary Davis, Boyd's unfailingly musical ear is complemented by a clear eye for social distinction.

Once his career brings him to Britain, his observational instincts do not desert him. From the lack of kitchen appliances, to the generosity of its joints (at least, when compared to the relatively miserly portions of marijuana considered normal in American counter-cultural circles), Boyd's heightened US incomer's sensibilities enable him to paint as vivid and convincing a picture of "Swinging" London as exists anywhere in print.

The only unsatisfactory element of the book is its prologue. With its doomed attempt to establish a particular night at Boyd's UFO club (involving a band which featured - of all people - the future lead guitarist of Yes) as the "peak" of some generic Sixties experience, this feels like a grafted-on attempt to appeal to the reader's idea of what a book on this subject ought to be like, when every other chapter in this wildly informative volume tells a more inspiring, and above all, a more likely story. But this is a small cavil. For anyone with the faintest interest in how the music they love came to sound the way it does, White Bicycles will be a transport of delight.