Joe Boyd's "White Bicycles" is an easy-to-read and fun memoir. It likely will appeal exclusively to fans of British folk and psychedelic music, but it's really about Joe Boyd more than anything else. And Joe Boyd is a man with a fascinating life and great skills as a writer. He also happened to have experienced some key moments in the '60s, and, if he doesn't quite make us feel like we were there (which is really impossible) he certainly makes us feel like we remember it along with him.
Since several reviewers have commented on the book's lack of scenes in the recording studio, I feel that I must address that point. First, I think he did an excellent job of describing what it was like to be in the studio with Nick Drake, and the sections of the book concerning Nick Drake are generally quite strong. But he devotes considerably less time to Fairport Convention, the ISB, and others, and readers expecting a book of tales in the recording studio will be disappointed.
But the book is about more than just music: it's about the '60s, and its about the cast of characters who came into Joe Boyd's life. It is rife with observations about the society of the time and how it has changed. It's nostalgic and really does give you the impression that Boyd's life has probably never been quite as fun as it was then, but it is all tempered by an acceptance that the '60s are over and a knowledge that the decade really wasn't so perfect. In fact, the title "white bicycles" alludes to just that: white bicycles were communal bicycles that the city of Amsterdam produced for its citizens to share, but people ended up stealing them and painting them different colors. The white bicycle was a "failed experiment," a description that many use to describe the decade itself.
But Boyd himself doesn't even go as far as to call the '60s a failure, or anything so dramatic. He paints the '60s not as a mythical era, but as a group of years that were just like any other years, except that a whole lot of cool things happened.
And included in the cool things that happened for Joe Boyd in the '60s are hanging out at Harvard Square with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, driving American blues musicians across France, stage managing the Newport Folk Festival when Bob Dylan and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band took the "folk" out of the festival, unleashing Pink Floyd on London, playing dice with Nick Drake, producing soundtracks amidst the chaos of the early '70s film industry, briefly joining the Church of Scientology and then escaping from it, and more. Boyd was there for all of it, but he writes about it in a reflective, clear manner that may have something to do with the fact that, in his words, he "never got too stoned."
Many people claim that life and music were better in the '60s, but Joe Boyd gives insight into some of the very logical reasons that '60s life and music were loved by so many. According to Boyd, the economy in the '60s allowed for people to live cheaply much more easily, and music sounded better because of the recording methods more than the quality of the music. Observations such as this are casually integrated into the narrative and sound neither preachy nor pretentious.
Although I know many readers will disagree, I really believe that "White Bicycles" is one of the best books ever written about both the music and the decade of the '60s.
If you enjoy well-crafted, laid-back memoirs, and if it intrigues you to wonder how it would feel to sit in the baffling presence of Nick Drake, or to like a girl but then discover Bob Dylan in her shower, this is definitely the book for you, and I couldn't recommend it more highly.