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When the sounds were a-changin'

From a '60s star-maker, a resonant memoir

Producer Joe Boyd talks music with pianist Adonis Gonzalez in February. Producer Joe Boyd talks music with pianist Adonis Gonzalez in February. (NEW YORK TIMES/KEITH BEDFORD)

White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s
By Joe Boyd
Serpent's Tail, 282 pp., illustrated, paperback, $18

In his bittersweet and thoroughly entertaining memoir, music and film producer Joe Boyd defines himself by what he didn't do: "Let's see now," he writes, "that's Steve Winwood, Lovin' Spoonful, Cream, Pink Floyd, the Move, 'Fire' and 'Whiter Shade of Pale' that slipped through my fingers."

But, as "White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s" illustrates, Boyd had his victories, too, largely because he loved music and musicians and had the kind of drive that improves chance. There's a reassuring causality to his success: While still a Harvard undergraduate, he brought Delta bluesmen to Cambridge, which led to a post as a tour manager for music impresario George Wein. In turn, Wein installed him as production manager at the 1965 Newport jazz and folk festivals, where he witnessed legendary bands led by Muddy Waters, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane ; shortly thereafter, Boyd had an insider's view of Bob Dylan's controversial "electric" set. He moved to the United Kingdom to head Elektra's London operation, and soon began running an influential rock club, the UFO -- all before his 25th birthday. Later, he produced albums by British artists Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson , and Nick Drake.

Earning a meager living selling blues albums out of his Harvard dorm room in the early '60s, Boyd was a regular at Cambridge folk clubs, where he brushed up against talent that would shape his career. He recounts how he stumbled into Geoff Muldaur, an old friend from Princeton, performing at the Café Yana. Muldaur married singer Maria D'Amato, and a decade later Boyd produced her biggest hit, "Midnight at the Oasis." At Club 47, he cozied up to Paul Rothchild, who ran the folk label at Prestige Records. Later, Boyd helped deliver the Paul Butterfield Blues Band to Rothchild's new employer, Elektra.

The lives of most successful people can be portrayed as a stairway to ever-increasing successes, but what distinguishes Boyd's tale is his illuminating perspective on the creative process and the music business -- he excels at showing how seemingly minor functionaries are crucial to great recordings and concerts. He believes he witnessed the pinnacle of the '60s from his perch at the UFO Club, a one time Irish dance hall he and a partner reinvented as a nightspot for joyous fans who partied to psychedelic and pop music.

But another kind of causality corrupted his idea of the idyllic: The hallucinogens he learned about at Harvard that he thought added to the proceedings at the UFO were unacceptable to the mainstream, and the landlord closed the club. "We had started on a downhill slope," he writes. "The agape spirit of '67 evaporated in the heat of ugly drugs, violence, commercialism and police pressure."

Though Boyd's informed opinions give body to the text, "White Bicycle s " is most valuable for his insider's view of some of the most notable musicians of the 20th century. The book brims with breezy anecdotes conveyed vividly and with a gentle sentimentality: Coleman Hawkins slogging through airports; Wein introducing Boyd to Thelonious Monk ; Miles Davis stepping aside in admiration as a regal Duke Ellington took the stage; a group Boyd managed, the Incredible String Band, passing up a chance to shine in the rain at Woodstock; Stanley Kubrick expressing his displeasure over a simple decision Boyd made; Pablo Picasso sitting at a nearby table on a terrace on the French Riviera; and on and on. When he attended a house party in Harvard Square in 1963, Boyd overheard Dylan performing a new composition, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," in a bedroom for an audience of two. "For the length of the song I remained motionless, astonished, moved almost to tears," Boyd writes. "In the tiny room, Dylan's brittle strum and nasal voice enveloped you, you couldn't think of anything else."

That insider's view helps flesh out some of rock's watershed moments. For example, Boyd's perspective on the backstage bickering that preceded, and continued through, Dylan's Newport performance is priceless. But perhaps the most valuable insight of "White Bicycles" is Boyd's first hand knowledge of Nick Drake, the enigmatic British folk singer who died in 1974 and is more popular today than during his short lifetime. Boyd managed the troubled Drake and produced his first two albums.

Noting Drake's "apologetic stoop" and his "black wool overcoat stained with cigarette ash," Boyd writes of a stammering waif unconvinced of his own brilliance. "Influences were detectable here and there, but the heart of the music was mysteriously original," he writes, adding, "Perhaps the core of his musical nature was so strong because his greatest influence had nothing to do with the world outside his home."

There's a story behind those insights, and Boyd tells it with the kind of tender precision that raises "White Bicycle s " far above the ordinary rock bio and into the realm of valuable cultural commentary.

Jim Fusilli, a novelist and critic, covers rock and pop music for The Wall Street Journal.