It was Frank Zappa who, when asked to define rock journalism, replied that it was perpetrated by “people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t speak, for people who can’t read.” Happily, the first third of that definition does not apply to Barney Hoskyns, an Oxford grad who has been investigating rock, pop, folk, soul, and country music, along with their myriad subgenres, crossovers, and double-crossovers, since the 1980s, for such eminent publications as The Guardian, British Vogue, Rolling Stone,
Harper’s Bazaar, and The Times (of London, not Woodstock). He has also penned, if we are still permitted to use that verb in the digital age, well-received books about James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Tom Waits, Led Zep, and The Band, among many other cultural nonpareils. His latest book, about a Catskills hamlet affectionately known to many of us as “the graveyard of living legends,” is currently obtainable at The Golden Notebook, and will most likely be discussed by Hoskyns and his fellow music panelists at the Woodstock Writers Festival on Saturday, April 9 (see accompanying story).
Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock — the first three words (taken from the eponymous song by Bobby Charles) promise gossip, dish, dirty laundry, and shaggy drug stories. The book does not stint on that score, but even the most deliciously nasty anecdotes are related without a trace of malicious glee on the part of the author. On the contrary: Hoskyns has spoken to, or spoken to those who have spoken to, almost everyone who was a player, large or small, on the cosmic-bucolic stage of Woodstock, and his affection for them all is on a par with his scholarship and his love and respect for the music and art they created. Even though much of the material here is old headband, having been treated before by other writers (and by Hoskyns himself), what’s really valuable about Small Town Talk is the way the author has tied the disparate strands together and braided them into a single, intimate, extensively researched, and color-splattered narrative, one that manages to enflesh the legends by giving us the quotidian reality behind them.
For those of us who have been captured by what Elliott Landy calls the “Venus flytrap” that is Woodstock, and have subsequently spent a good chunk of our lives in its meshes, Hoskyns’ book reintroduces us to old friends, long gone or still surviving, on almost every page. Here we find the recently deceased Billy Faier, whose banjo playing once captivated Jack Kerouac, booking the first folk acts for the Cafe Espresso (or Expresso, if you prefer) in the early sixties. Here is Ellen McIlwaine, her mighty pipes bringing down the outdoor house at one of the Sound-Outs (page 108; omitted from the index). And here, in a rather sad cameo, is my old pal, the “scurrilous” Mason Hoffenberg, coauthor (sometimes credited, sometimes not) of the naughty novel Candy, living in alcoholic codependence with The Band’s Richard Manuel in “a house strewn with dog feces.” In fact, so many folks make at least a passing appearance that it comes as a surprise when someone isn’t mentioned — e.g., George Bellows and Philip Guston are noted, but not Milton Avery or Mary Frank; Henry Cowell gets a nod, but not Robert Starer or Peter Schickele.
The binary star around which all these eccentric geniuses, fabled bohemians, and “messed-up children with no direction home” revolve is Albert Grossman and Bob Dylan. If ever two spheres of influence were fated to collide, it was the mysterious young artist from Minnesota and his savvy, ruthless manager. Small Town Talk, the author states in the prologue, is essentially the story of what transpired after Albert and Sally Grossman came to town, and what further transpired after Dylan, Albert’s biggest meal-ticket, followed them up from the city and was ensconced in a cabin owned by the mother of Peter Yarrow (who, with his songmates Paul Stookey and Mary Travers, was also a client of Grossman). How the presence of Dylan and the ambitions of Grossman begat the international music scene that still flourishes in the shadow of Overlook Mountain forms the backbone of Hoskyns’ narrative; it is by far the most in-depth account of the subject that we have had to date.
Hoskyns offers testimony from multiple sources to paint a very nuanced portrait of the two titans and their fraught relationship. We get the good Albert, the one who shared a “warmth and a delight and a joy and a sense of humor” with his artists, according to Yarrow — and the one whose vision could discern the fully evolved Bob Dylan in the fledgling folk singer Bobby Zimmerman, and who had the wherewithal to hasten that evolution. “There are those who say Albert took advantage of people,” says Yarrow. “I see that as absolutely unfair and inappropriate…I also have very serious questions as to whether Bobby would have emerged as an artist without Albert.”
And then we get the bad Albert — a latter-day Mephistopheles, signing talent to “Faustian pacts,” or secluding them and fostering a near-total dependency on him. “I’m not that much a fan of Albert,” says Ed Sanders, founding Fug and Woodstock’s official poet laureate, “because too many of his artists were junkies, and I think it’s possible he used their addiction as a way of controlling them.” Odetta, in a quote taken from an obituary of her former manager, says that “at one point in my life I could not hear [Grossman’s] name without the hairs on my back standing up.” And a former business associate was so embittered about his years with Grossman as to actually piss on Albert’s grave.
The truth, as always, is never monochromatic. Albert Grossman was an extremely complex character, as is the Bob Dylan of umpteen personas. Regarding their knotty bond, perhaps the “outlaw journalist” Al Aronowitz put it best: “A lot of Albert did in fact turn up in Bob…If I never got a straight answer out of Bob, I never got one out of Albert either. [They] weren’t cut from the same cloth but from the same stone wall.” As Hoskyns demonstrates, and as posterity confirms, despite the bad blood that eventually infected them, each owed the other a great deal.
Although the heart of Hoskyns’ narrative is the love-hate relationship between Dylan and the Baron of Bearsville, Grossman’s other clients — The Band, Janis Joplin, and Paul Butterfield, among them — get ample space, as do the myriad artists drawn to town by Dylan’s nearness and the old art colony’s new mystique. There are minutely detailed accounts on the time spent in Woodstock by Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Tim Hardin, et al. There is a nuts-and-bolts history of the genesis of the Bearsville resaturant-and-recording studio complex, and an excellent chapter devoted to the uber-idiosyncratic Todd Rundgren, who once told Johanna Hall that the solution to the problem of nuclear waste is to “just shoot it into outer space!” The book concludes with the death of Levon Helm, in 2012, and the tribute paid to him by more than 2,000 attendees at his funeral and by the New York State Legislature renaming Route 375 the Levon Helm Memorial Boulevard — a sign that the spirit of Woodstock’s vibrant music scene, though greatly diminished over the years, still informs the town and its surrounding mountains in the third millennium.
If the book goes into a second printing, it would be nice to see the index, which is often unreliable, get a do-over. And as scrupulous as Hoskyns is, there are many nagging little factual errors to be corrected — e.g., Helm and Rick Danko are not buried in the Artists Cemetery, but in the hamlet’s main cemetery across the street; the “Getaway Lounge” was actually the Getaway Inn; and that prior to coming to town, Chris Zaloom, known locally as Woodstock’s “greatest unknown guitarist,” did not live in a “cold-water flat on the Bowery,” as Hoskyns’ source relates, but on Elizabeth Street, where he and Carol had a nice apartment with hot and cold running water, thank you.
But this is nit-pickery. Simply put, Barney Hoskyns has written the definitive history of Woodstock’s emergence as a world-renowned musical Mecca. Small Town Talk establishes him as the Alf Evers of the town’s pre- and post-festival music scene, and I can think of no higher compliment.