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.