The drift generation

Hanif Kureishi looks back on the wildly creative period that shaped our present world

White Bic

The kids who discovered black music and pleasure and dissent in the 1960s are the people running the west today. If anyone asks why we should continue to pay attention to what a bunch of (mostly privileged) hippies did during a period as idealised and mythologised as the 1960s, it's because the former heads have become the headmasters. Perhaps we will learn how the great corruption occurred. Next time you see Jack Straw, you can get him by the throat and ask: Do you even understand that it went wrong?

Joe Boyd's story is almost exemplary. Not that he's much interested in himself: he's genuinely fascinated by music and musicians. Early on in this terrific book, he tells us his ambition is not to be a star, nor even a singer, but a "record producer". He seems, from a young age, to have had a clear-eyed view of himself as a man who likes nothing better than discussing "budgets, tours, distribution and promotion". And despite what appears to be a sweet and intelligent nature, he isn't someone who can bear not to follow his passion.

From a prosperous Boston family, Boyd had some luck in avoiding the Vietnam draft. He faced no obstacles in fulfilling his ambition of travel-ling across America with forgotten, usually blind, black musicians around the dangerous time of desegregation. Bob Dylan fucked his girlfriend; then Boyd worked at the 1965 Newport jazz and folk festivals, where Dylan played "Like a Rolling Stone" accompanied by Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Alan Lomax ordered that the sound be turned down; Pete Seeger walked away, broken. After this brilliantly described, almost pastoral episode, everything changed in music: folk music and white pop, now mixed with the blues, gave way to the rawer and weirder sounds of the experimental 1960s.

Having moved to London, where he suspected the action might be, Boyd got involved with the UFO, one of the first "superclubs", based in a low-ceilinged former ballroom in Tottenham Court Road. The Pink Floyd were the house band. Boyd and his freaky friends put on Arthur Brown, The Move and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney and Christine Keeler all attended. When the club shifted to the Roundhouse, a bigger space, he was responsible for flying Arthur Brown, with his hair on fire, across the venue and over the amazed crowd.

Boyd produced the Pink Floyd's first single, "Arnold Layne", written by the soon-to-go-mad Syd Barrett, which got into the Top Twenty despite a BBC ban for "indecent lyrics". Yet Boyd's musical preferences were not really for psychedelia. "Why does England hate its own folk music?" he asks. "In England, the mere thought of a Morris dance team or an unaccompanied ballad singer sends most natives running for cover."

He went to some trouble to make the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention as significant to the public as they were to him. Later he produced Sandy Denny and Nick Drake. There's a lot of interesting material in here about how the nature of recording has altered, and how it has changed music. Not that it wasn't difficult then, before the underground became the mainstream. Boyd, along with other important innovators such as the white Jamaican Chris Blackwell at Island Records, struggled to square the circle of keeping afloat financially while doing good work. Boyd just about did both, for longer than most. (When is Blackwell, now a hotelier, going to write his own book?)

Unlike, say, Greil Marcus or Nik Cohn, Boyd isn't really so much an analyst of the period as a storyteller. And White Bicycles is an odd memoir, as he more or less leaves himself out of it. You wonder, as he spends more and more of his time dealing with difficult musicians - "I managed to get them on stage only a few minutes late" - what he feels about things in the midst of this creative maelstrom. Certainly, he appears to have a penchant for the crazy and suicidal. But the stories he tells are so enthralling, and his sense of the period and the characters is so vivid, that you don't realise until the end that something important is missing - the thing, later, that you really want to know about.

The compensation is that Boyd is as pleasantly gossipy as any memoirist of that time ought to be. He was there, after all; and although he liked acid and dope, he was only "a modest consumer" of drugs, and seems to have an excellent recall. There's enough close-up stuff about Muddy Waters, Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend and the familial intricacies of the 1960s folk-rock scene to keep any nerdy fan satisfied. Who wouldn't want to know that Hendrix's mother was a jitterbug champion in Seattle during the Second World War? Who wouldn't want to know more about the grimy-nailed, almost silent genius Nick Drake?

This engaging and readable book is an important addition to the history of its time, mostly because of Boyd's temperament. There's plenty of "who-was-fucking-who", but he is never cruel or even intrusive, and he is enough of a writer to do a difficult thing: to describe what it was like to be involved in a period which, more and more, seems to have shaped our present world. He describes an era when people were less frantic than they are now, were less driven to succeed and find a secure place. There was more drift and - it seems to follow - more creativity.

Hanif Kureishi's most recent book is The Word and the Bomb (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The real first casualty of war