Think “Woodstock” and the mind turns to the seminal 1969 festival that crowned a seismic decade of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. But the town of Woodstock, New York, the original planned venue of the concert, is located over 60 miles from the site to which the fabled half a million flocked. Long before the landmark music festival usurped the name, Woodstock—the tiny Catskills town where Bob Dylan holed up after his infamous 1966 motorcycle accident—was already a key location in the ’60s rock landscape.
In Small Town Talk, Barney Hoskyns re-creates Woodstock’s community of brilliant dysfunctional musicians, scheming dealers, and opportunistic hippie capitalists drawn to the area by Dylan and his sidekicks from the Band. Central to the book’s narrative is the broodingly powerful presence of Albert Grossman, manager of Dylan, the Band, Janis Joplin, Paul Butterfield, and Todd Rundgren—and the Big Daddy of a personal fiefdom in Bearsville that encompassed studios, restaurants, and his own record label. Intertwined in the story are the Woodstock experiences and associations of artists as diverse as Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Tim Hardin, Karen Dalton, and Bobby Charles (whose immortal song-portrait of Woodstock gives the book its title).
Drawing on numerous first-hand interviews with the remaining key players in the scene—and on the period when he lived there himself in the 1990s—Hoskyns has produced an Eats Coast companion to his bestselling L.A. canyon classic Hotel California. This is a richly absorbing study of a vital music scene in a revolutionary time and place.
The social atmosphere of Woodstock, New York in the sixties was the antithesis of San Francisco, California. Where San Francisco had Haight-Ashbury, with its influx of hippies, acid trips, and psychedelic rock, Woodstock had folk musicians with acoustic guitars, searching for solitude and solace. Woodstock also holds the mystique of its association with the Woodstock musical festival, even though the actual connection between the place and the event is tenuous at best. I’ve long been fascinated by the sixties movement, both culturally and musically, and so this book appealed to me on many levels.
Over the many years since 1969, Woodstock has become a kind of themed village of sixties hippie life, the culmination of the pop-cultural nightmare that Bob Dylan dreaded it would be.
The material is meticulously researched, and its clear that the author has a special affinity for this town. For me, though, the reading experience is too weighed down in details. I simply didn’t find every aspect of the town’s history as captivating as the author clearly does. The first third of the book drags. I found myself continually putting the book down, eventually forcing myself to get back to it. We learn things like the exact addresses of many of the people living there early on, which is meaningless information to those of us unfamiliar with those homes and streets.
It’s as if a bunch of midnight cowboys – or “citybillies,” as they once were called – has just stumbled into New York’s Town Hall from nearby Times Square.
The middle of the book is more interesting, as we get into the heart of the cultural and musical icons, their lives in Woodstock, and their connections to one another. We spend a lot of time on Dylan, of course, since he and Woodstock are forever interwoven. We also spend a lot of time learning about Albert Grossman, the manager of many big name musicians back then, who more or less ruled over Woodstock.
One wonders what Albert Grossman made of the recordings from Big Pink: he must have thought his cash cow had deserted him, which was very possibly what Dylan intended.
For me, the book is bogged down with a lot of detail that simply didn’t hold my interest. That being said, it is well written and offers some great insight into life in this idyllic town for a handful of cultural icons.
Thanks for reading. 🙂