Barney Hoskyns: Small Town Talk

Barney Hoskyns: Small Town Talk

I have always been a bit Bob Dylan averse and I knew he would feature prominently in this book about the Woodstock township music community in upstate New York. This was a way into reading around and into what has always been a blind spot in my musical appreciation.

Barney Hoskyns is one of my favorite music writers and this is sort of an east coast companion piece to his last effort, the excellent Hotel California: Singer Songwriters & Cocaine Cowboys in the L.A. Canyons (4th Estate, 2006) about the music community in Los Angeles in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Woodstock was a sleepy village with a history as an artists’ colony up against the Catskill Mountains, just west of the Hudson River valley and a couple of hours north out of New York when Bob Dylan’s manager, the notorious Albert Grossman bought property there in the mid 1960s.

This book essentially revolves around the much loved and hated and supremely powerful music business personality of the man who made Dylan a very successful and wealthy star as well as guiding (or is it misguiding) the careers of The Band, Janis Joplin and Todd Rundgren, along with an army of others for 20 odd years from the mid 1960s.

Grossman was the prototype music business manager and his settlement in Woodstock drew Dylan, The Band and numerous others to Woodstock to closely orbit him and the business opportunities he was capable of generating.

Like the Beatles, Dylan was shooting through the new uncharted territory of rock and roll superstardom and fame. With the aid and calculation of Grossman, he soon leaves his folk launch pad charred and burnt and blasts into the rock stratosphere with his new hillbilly mates The Band.

The music is clearly revolutionary and wonderful but the man himself clearly isn’t. I’ll concede that perhaps Dylan isn’t the complete fraud and fake I have always considered him to be but he’s certainly painted here as a prick and an arsehole on a grand scale and rather addled as well.

Thankfully, a speeding Dylan falls off his motorbike in Woodstock and uses it as an excuse for a bit of hibernation in the woods so our story can focus on some other developments.

I’ve always liked The Band especially their first two DIY efforts. Music From the Big Pink and the self-titled The Band are packed with quirky timeless songs, fantastic ensemble playing and three great singers. In hindsight they created Americana, that vague genre that encapsulates the updated as well as the retrofitted American folk music that isn’t hopelessly lost in the stupefying morass that is country music. To me, The Band established the high water mark.

The Band made great music but were hopelessly deranged individuals susceptible to drink and all of the available drugs. Excepting of course the rather remote, steady and other-wordly Garth Hudson and the only remotely ambitious member, Robbie Robertson.

Robbie had Grossmans backing and was blessed with a rare and total inability to sing at all. His solo career found him out. Clearly it was not only the demented that were deluded.

Hoskyns writes very well about The Band in his earlier book Across the Great Divide: The Band and America (Viking, 1993), but it’s great to see these crazy guys making their best music and see their slow demise as a band and as compromised individuals in the context of what was obviously a musical hot house environment in Woodstock at the time.

Woodstock was perceived to be such a hot and happening place that it inspired and lent its name to the giant festival that attracted 400 000 people to Max Yasgur’s farm 70 kilometers away in 1969. Dylan declined to play and missed the boat but The Band made it and were a shambles freaked by the sheer non-bar room size of the crowd.

Grossman would not allow any of his artists (The Band, Janis Joplin etc) to be included in the movie. The moviemakers must have refused to meet whatever over-the-top money that was being demanded.

The real Woodstock continued to be a magnet for serious musicians wanting to escape New Yorks summer heat, hang out with the like minded, and look for crumbs from Grossman’s table if a seat was not available at it.

Long time inhabitants like Tim Hardin, Karen Dalton, Paul Butterfield, Maria and Geoff Muldaur were joined briefly by other talents including the incredibly grouchy Van Morrison, Bobby Charles, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.The hordes of hippie kids, wannabes and drug dealers that followed them finally drove Dylan away and complicated the lives of the many who remained. The experience soured, but Grossman stayed and based his many business activities there. He built houses for his artists to live in as well as restaurants and a recording studio.

Bearsville was the name of the village right next door to Woodstock where Grossman lived and also became the name of his record label. He had some interesting artists like Jesse Winchester, Bobby Charles, the early Sparks and there was some success with the likes off Todd Rundgren. The moral here is that successful artist managers are rarely any good at running their own record companies. The skill sets and sensibilities are very different.

Of course, Grossman builds a Bearsville studio complex and manages wonder kid producer Rundgren who has moved to the area. Rundgren, who as well as working on his own ridiculous projects like Utopia, produces The Band, The New York Dolls, Meatloaf and XTC among others. Rundgren is clever, talented and so egomaniacally full of himself that he naturally falls out with the manager who created the idea of the highly paid superstar producer that he became.

Grossman died on a transatlantic Concorde flight early in 1986 and his body was returned to be buried in his beloved Woodstock. Lots of old time musicians still live there, but there isn’t much of a live music scene there anymore apart from a few remnants of a distant bluegrass and old folk past.

It’s obviously a special place that just happened to be a hub of the hip music scene for a decade or so because one very powerful player chose to base himself and his business there.

Hoskyns has written a brilliant book that effectively conjures up a sense of the place and the scene that developed among the trees under the mountains at Woodstock. He is strong on the characters and the bands that built that scene, but is alert to the nature of the key personalities and their traits and often-fatal flaws.

I highly recommend this as an essential read to anyone interested in the history of music with the added bonus that Hoskyns has a talent for pointing the reader towards artists and recordings worth checking out. Small Town Talk (Faber and Faber). Not just a book, a portal.