The media focused on Woodstock the concert, almost completely neglecting the equally fascinating and musically important scene that had developed in the town. Partially because of a code of silence imposed by its most famous resident, Bob Dylan, that neglect has continued. Even as the '60s became one of the most scrutinized decades in history, the story of Woodstock the town was left in the shadows, while the similar scenes of Los Angeles' Laurel Canyon and San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury enjoyed so much nostalgia-ridden attention that they achieved full-blown mythological status.
Barney Hoskyns' Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock steps in to bring the area to its rightfully historic stature. While its central story revolves around Bob Dylan and Albert Grossman in the '60s, the book details everything from the town's settlement to the modern status of its nightclub scene. It's really rather unique in that way. Woodstock itself is a character in the story, not just the setting.
A wide array or characters float through the story, ranging from Dylan to Borderline, Van Morrison to The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Jimi Hendrix to Ed Sanders. It was a place where the stars went to relocate their own souls and to rejuvenate their minds. It's where Bob Dylan took a break from a bicycle ride to chat with Jimi Hendrix on the lawn. The artists went there for simplicity, and that quest bled into their music. The influence ended up urging popular music as a whole back to its roots.
In many ways, what happened in Woodstock during that Dylan and Grossman epoch was a microcosm of the '60s as a whole: What started out pure and simple devolved into something manic and destructive, driven into the ground by drink, drugs, and toxic hangers-on. So, in detailing that little sliver of time and place, Hoskyns also reveals quite a lot about the character of the era in general. But, even if it weren't for that broader view, the book's anecdotes alone are worth the price of admission. It has Paul Rothschild discussing the first time Dylan dropped acid, which he also reckons is the precise moment that gave birth to the "mystical '60s." It has Van Morrison acting like a nervous teenage boy with a crush as he prowls by Dylan's house, trying to get up the nerve to approach him. It has legends of rock and roll desperately seeking Woodstock as a salve for their battered souls and then promptly blowing their cover when they drunkenly bring groupie girls back to their super-secret crash pads.
Barney Hoskyns took the time to answer some of our questions about Small Town Talk.
Barney Hoskyns: Hard to break that down precisely, but I did well over 80 interviews for the book. Have a look at the Acknowledgements.
Songfacts: Your book delves into the town of Woodstock and its place in music and counterculture history. Particularly in regards to the '60s and '70s, the space it occupies is rather significant. Despite that, it's largely flown under the radar until now and hasn't gotten nearly as much exposure or mythologizing as the very similar scenes of Laurel Canyon and Haight-Ashbury. Why do you think that is?
Barney: I honestly think it's because the town's musical history has been so overshadowed by "the festival that never actually happened there." People know Dylan and The Band lived in Woodstock but don't know much beyond that.
Songfacts: It's evident from reading the book that you have deep feelings for the town of Woodstock. You've stated that you found "magic" there, but you certainly don't shy from shedding light on all aspects of the place, including the less-than-endearing. Was it difficult to remain objective while you wrote about the town that you have such personal affection for?
Barney: One always searches for the truth, however unpalatable it might be. And I'm always interested in the relationship between the light and the dark, as well as basic human foibles – searching for something good and not quite finding it, or getting snared by your demons.
Barney: Albert was the Big Daddy of the town, the guy who wanted to create his own personal fiefdom there, to be the biggest fish in a small pond. I think he too was looking for something good there, but he was a fundamentally unhappy and lonely soul.Songfacts: In your book, Peter Yarrow states that he has doubts that Bob Dylan ever would have achieved such fame without Grossman's management. Would you agree with that statement?
Barney: I think Yarrow overstates it, because it's hard to believe Dylan wouldn't have broken through. But I'm sure the trajectory of his ascent would have been very different – maybe in good ways as well as less good ways. Albert did much to fashion Dylan's cult and mystique, and he protected him from doing dumb things where another manager might not have.
Songfacts: There's a terrific line in the book that describes Todd Rundgren as "the cult hero's cult hero; Albert Grossman's last prodigal son and Woodstock's last true star." Patti Smith expresses a similar appraisal. Others, however, view Rundgren as a great talent whose headstrong nature and compulsive individualism prevented him from achieving his full potential. Do you have a sense of how Rundgren himself feels about it, now that he's arriving at the tail end of his career?
Barney: I think Todd has always been at peace with himself because he long ago transcended his own ego. He's always been interested in the world beyond Todd, unlike so many "entertainers," and that's kept him sane. I doubt he spends much time regretting not having become the American David Bowie – which he probably could have been. Posterity will judge whether his music stands up as well as, say, Bowie's. Personally I believe it does.
Songfacts: Multiple characters in your book observe that Woodstock the festival ruined Woodstock the town. How do you think the scene in the town would have evolved if the festival had never happened?
Barney: I think it would have continued to evolve, but without the influx of seekers, damaged kids and musical mediocrities. But then it might have simply petered out and we wouldn't be talking so much about it now.
Songfacts: You wrote that Janis Joplin's song "Mercedes Benz" "perfectly articulated the escalating expectations of rocks' new elite." It's an intriguing statement. Could you expand on what you mean by that?
Barney: I simply mean that rock was now big business, and a lot of money was flooding into the pockets of people who never expected to make it. This set up a mixture of expectation and guilt – they were acquiring a taste for the finer things (of the sort that Albert prized) but knew that a good hippie shouldn't be materialistic. By the early '70s it had all changed, and rock stars were the new Yuppies.
Van Morrison didn't recognize Dylan, even after talking with him for several minutes. Up to that point, they'd never met, and Morrison only knew what he looked like from pictures. After Dylan walked away, and someone told Morrison who he'd been talking to, the Irishman was shocked. "He just looked like a normal Jewish guy."
Barney: I think Woodstock was the crucible of what we now call Americana, specifically in terms of what Dylan and The Band did at Big Pink and how that manifested in The Band's first album. Everything from Uncle Tupelo to Mumford & Sons is anchored in that fantasy of hiding out in the backwoods and making emotive, organic, country-soulful roots music.
Songfacts: You discuss how hippies moved to Woodstock in droves, even setting up communes, in the quest to be close to Bob Dylan. Their fervor was driven by much more than simple celebrity worship, and approached something that could legitimately be called a spiritual quest, ridiculous as that might sound to us in hindsight. Young people today would probably have a difficult time understanding the position that Dylan represented in that era. How would you describe the way that '60s fans, particularly members of the counterculture, related to Bob Dylan?
Barney: They thought he was the prophet, the seer, the magus, even though he didn't want or embrace that role for more than a split second. Essentially people projected their fantasies of spiritual greatness on to him: it's like they were looking for a guru, a leader.
Songfacts: After all the research you've done for the book, do you think it's fair to say that The Band's inability to cope with the pressures of stardom prevented them from reaching their fullest potential as artists? Do you have any ideas as to why they were, as a unit, so incapable of dealing with the stresses?
Barney: Three of them were addicts and somewhat unworldly, to boot. Garth was just unworldly, though a musical genius. Robbie was the only one with his eye on the prize: he wanted what Albert had, and he acquired his values from Albert. But in my view he sold his musical soul in the process.
Had the others had better management through the lean years, they might have pulled it together and survived better. Only when Barbara O'Brien came into Levon's life did things change for the better for him.
Songfacts: Van Morrison has given unfavorable appraisals not only of Woodstock but of the whole "hippie" scene of the '60s. He is a fairly enigmatic fellow, and I was left wondering what, exactly, so perturbed him about the whole thing. Do you have any ideas about why he felt such rancor towards it all?
Barney: Van was born obstreperous, but he also never set out to be a rock star. He was a folk-blues romantic, a mystic poet, an Irish troubadour with minimal social skills and a profound suspicion of trends and crowds. It was only his sheer monumental talent that carried him through. He was also, I think, influenced by Dylan's distaste for hippies.
Songfacts: In your book, you suggest that the "water flowing way beneath the bridge" in Van Morrison's "Old, Old Woodstock" was referring to a very specific place in town. I suspect that in trying to pin down details like that, you must spend a lot of time retracing the steps of the people you're writing about. If that's true, can you describe the experience of digging so deeply into someone else's life?
Barney: Well, one has to admit it's a slightly suspect practice. Does one even have the right to do it? I'm not sure. You dig deeply because you want to go back there, that's the nostalgic impulse. And why do you want to go back there? Because the music is still so potent, so moving, so mysterious.
Songfacts: Your book was the first I'd ever read of Karen Dalton. Her story is really rather sad and tragic. How far do you think her talent could have taken her if she hadn't had so many personal demons? Could she have been among those music legends of her era that are still widely recognizable today?
Barney: She's somewhat of an acquired taste, but Dylan worshipped her. She'd never have become a legend like, say, Joplin, because she never embraced rock 'n' roll and didn't have a rock 'n' roll voice. I suspect she'll only ever be a cult figure, but for me her "Katie Cruel" is one of the 20 greatest pieces of music ever recorded.
Songfacts: Ed Sanders shows up in your book. He mentions his book The Family, which happens to be one of my favorite journalistic works (Sanders' style is a continuous pleasure, no matter how many re-readings). Sanders made a good chunk of change through that book, but he also suffered a good deal of flak for his claim that the Manson Family murders were part of a much, much larger underground conspiracy. Did he talk much about how he views that whole Manson Family scene today, after living a few more decades in its aftermath?
Barney: We didn't talk much about Manson this time, but I did discuss it with him when I first interviewed him in Woodstock back in the '90s. This is what he said then:
The killings were an interesting story that didn't quite compute. I thought maybe they were being framed, although I quickly found out they were quite guilty when they tried to bring me in on their escape attempts. I guess they'd been to Fugs shows, some of them, and they tried to get me to sing Manson songs around the campfire. I wanted to show the people in the underground what the Family had done, and that we too had standards. We may have wanted a revolution and a new America, but these killings represented things we didn't want.
Sanders claims he was still receiving hate mail from Manson as little as four years ago. He said he was gonna stop writing me now because he knew I was a CIA agent.
Songfacts: In your book, Perry Meisel talks about how the whole '60s and '70s counterculture scene descended into absurdity rather quickly. It's become a fairly common assessment, as the era seems to be met increasingly with ridicule by those who weren't there and chagrin by those that were. Is that fair? Was it all a big joke? Was anything of it substantive?
Barney: No of course it wasn't a joke, but by 1975 it had become almost empty and meaningless because the original charge wasn't there anymore – it was just a bunch of self-satisfied dope fiends who'd forgotten why they'd made music in the first place. Then along came the forest fire that was punk rock... only for the dinosaurs to return later.
March 4, 2016
Small Town Talk is available at Amazon and most other book sellers.
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