Small Town Talk by Barney Hoskyns, Da Capo Press 2016
Woodstock didn’t happen in Woodstock. It happened somewhere else but it is true to say that Woodstock did happen to Woodstock. The small town in upstate New York remains one of those curious tourist stops that is more about a time than a place. Contemporary Haight Ashbury is another that comes to mind. There are places in the world where we visit other decades and many of them are good examples of hyper reality, as defined by Umberto Eco and others. They are idealized simulacrums of the past, not unlike Disneyland’s Main Street USA.
Which doesn’t make them bad places to visit at all, just odd if you start thinking too much. Best to enjoy them as the portals to better days, better music, and the simple pleasures of a well rolled joint on a summer evening.
Enter Barney Hoskyns. If you have read any or all of his books, you know that disappointment is unlikely. His study of Tom Waits is probably only matched by Jimmy McDonagh’s Shakey in the music biography stakes. The powdery pleasure of his Hotel California, the sandy sweep of Waiting For the Sun, and the masterful Across The Divide, the best book ever on The Band, all put him in the running for greatest living something. He says interesting things about bands you love and makes you consider again the ones you don’t. He tells a good story, knows his stuff, and, book by book, changes the way you think about rock and roll.
Small Town Talk, like Hotel California, is about a place where music happened. The place is Woodstock, New York, and some of the little nearby hamlets. Naturally, Dylan is front and center here. It was here that he cut his hair, fell off his motorcycle, played with the kids, recorded the Basement Tapes, and hung around looking extraordinarily cool in the late 60s. There is a cartoon reproduced in the book that sadly I can’t find online. It depicts Dylan coming off his bike and thinking, ‘country rock!’ Yes, I know he probably didn’t invent the genre but he invented something in Woodstock and a lot of bands used it. From The Beatles to Fairport Convention to every other band that got it together in the country, Dylan and The Band created an atmosphere that remains one of the more influential and desirable in rock and roll.
The stories have been told so many times that I did wonder what Hoskyns could possibly say about Woodstock in this period that would surprise me. Sid Griffin covered the recording of the Basement Tapes in detail in Million Dollar Bash and Greil Marcus gave us the metaphysical implications of those recordings in The Old Weird America. Hoskyns himself bested both of these accounts in Across The Great Divide.
His angle is a clever one. It’s the story of Woodstock based around the life of a major figure of the time who happens not to be a musician but Dylan’s dear old landlord, Albert Grossman. I know what you’re thinking. That bastard! The cranky American from Don’t Look Back with the hot wife who appears on the cover of Bringing it all Back Home? Yes, that guy, and there is a lot more to him than you might expect. He’s not Allan Klein or the Colonel. There was a genuine love of music and a real connection with his various clients. His relationship with Janis is examined in some detail here. Hoskyns doesn’t say it but it seems clear that Grossman never fully recovered from her death.
He thought that she was something truly special. And he was right! Anyone else noticed that Janis seems to be out of fashion at the moment? What’s that about?
Jimi turns up in Woodstock too, on the run from his own thuggish manager and the experience of fame, literally and figuratively. Van Morrison shows up, records two or three classic albums, decides he hates the place and moves to San Francisco. Dylan gets tired of finding hippies in his bed and moves back to NYC. The various members of The Band take self destruction up to unheard of levels and Paul Butterfield pops in for drink. John Martyn finds Beverly talking to Dylan and behaves very badly.
The challenge for Hoskyns is an obvious one. How to maintain the story after everyone of any interest has left. A book about Woodstock from say, 1960 – 1975, would have been okay but would have consigned the whole thing to the ‘sixties’, which we already know is just a simulacrum. So he brings it up to the present in the guise of Simone Felice who carries the flame around there these days. But he still has to keep things going in the mid to late 70s and the 80s. So we get a sad coda for Richard Manuel and a lot of Todd Rundgren. Todd is not my cup of tea but there is much of interest here about his connection with Grossman and his time in the town.
Which brings us to Bobby Charles whose song provides the title and whose eponymous 1972 album is the greatest thing you may not have heard, although a lot more folks know it these days. It is an album that features members of The Band and in a funny way feels like the delivery of the promise of the Basement Tapes and the whole damn period in Woodstock. Hoskyns recognizes its significance and pays proper respect to this chaotic man and his brilliant record.
I’m not a reviewer and this isn’t a book review. If you feel like revisiting all of this and are prepared to dig out Stage Fright, His Band and the Street Choir, and possibly a few Mercury Rev records, you know what you have to do.
The Record Store of the Mind by Josh Rosenthal, Tompkins Square Books 2015
Ray Robertson, a fine Canadian novelist, told me about Willis Alan Ramsay on New Year’s Eve 2010. He said that I needed to hear the self titled album that this man recorded in the early 70s. I like that sort of advice so I tracked it down. The album exceeded even Ray’s glowing description. It is a serious classic and something of a lost one, despite containing the original versions of Muskrat Love (Yep, that one) and Satin Sheets.
Years ago my old friend Mike told me that I should hear Ronnie Lane’s One for the Road album. Need I say more?
I’m not sure what constitutes good taste in music but whatever it is, these two have it in spades. Mike has been pointing me towards great albums for 30 years and Ray hasn’t missed yet with his picks.
Josh Rosenthal, the author of The Record Store of the Mind, is a guy that can recommend a few good albums. His book reminds of me of an extended version of an email that might come from Ray or Mike. The first chapter is about a singer called Ron Davies. Ever heard of him? You know one of his songs. Bowie covered It Aint Easy on Ziggy. Yes, I always just assumed it was a Bowie original too. Ron Davies is someone worth hearing. His album Silent Song Through The Mind is astoundingly sharp.
What about Tia Blake, a teenager who recorded exactly one haunting folk album in 1966? Or Bill Wilson, who turned up at Bob Johnston’s place in 1973 demanding to record an album? Bob called up his usual session guys – McCoy, Buttrey, Charlie Daniels, etc – and recorded Bill who then disappeared. Great album – Ever Changing Minstrel – and incredibly rare. Josh Rosenthal picked it up for a quarter in a record store in Berkeley and released it on his own label, the Grammy decorated Tompkins Square Records.
Josh has had the career we all dream about on our way to work on Monday morning. He worked for a bunch of record companies in his 20s and 30s, met everyone, saw tons of shows, acquired crates of great albums, before starting his own niche label in his early 40s. I know. Makes me sick too.
But there is nothing smug about Josh or his book. He loves a lot of stuff that wouldn’t endear him to the guy with the beard going through the crate beside you at the record store. Eric Clapton’s Just One Night, an album that sounds like the bath running to me, is a big one for Josh. I listened to it again. Still doesn’t grab me. But Harvey Mandel does, and Josh has some good advice if you are ready to dive into that pool.
This book is an autobiography of sorts told in a series of artist profiles and record reviews. It ends with a list of albums he believes to be notable. Some are very obscure, some just a little obscure. You will have some of them and you will be curious about the ones you don’t. Thank God for YouTube and streaming services.
I think a lot of us have a lost album or two that we like to offer up when we meet a fellow music obsessive. Josh has plenty. Read it, keep a pen handy, and let me know what you think of Robert Lester Folsom.