Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Friends in the Wild Years of WoodstockPublisher: Da Capo
Length: 424 pages
Author: Barney Hoskyns
Publication date: 2016-03
Life in any number of small towns across the country tends to be lived in the open. While secrets do often exist, they have a way of making themselves known on a broader scale, one that encourages the spread of gossip and the sharing of opinions, regardless of how well informed they may or may not be. This basic idea is at the heart of Small Town Talk as it examines the artistic rise and fall of Woodstock, New York at the hands of outsiders seeking solace from life in the city.
Positioned as a sort of bucolic utopia for artists and musicians, Woodstock’s appeal in the mid-‘60s saw it become, by decade’s end, one of the most vibrant and creative music scenes in the country. With permanent residents the Band and part-time hermit Bob Dylan looming large in both the town and its collective imagination, it would go on to become a magnet of sorts for those looking to embrace a simpler existence, one that appeared to foster unparalleled creativity and offered a world away from the urban jungle.
While much of Small Town Talk centers on the comings and goings of a who’s-who of ‘60s and ‘70s pop music luminaries, the nexus of the entire scene, and eventually the town itself, revolves around the larger than life presence of Albert Grossman. Arguably, were it not for Grossman and his involvement in the nascent East Village folk scene, Woodstock would have remained little more than an upstate artists enclave, not the defining cultural touchstone in both name and idealization it went on to become.
Spiraling outward from his initial work as manager of Peter, Paul and Mary, the first of whom spent his younger years in the upstate New York town, the cast of characters grows to encompass the majority of the major players in 20th century pop music. Yet, as the connections grow and change over the years, Grossman remains the central figure in the town’s musical narrative. From convincing Dylan, whom he contentiously managed to stardom, to make the town his home, to his taking on of the Band and Janis Joplin as clients, Grossman, along with Woodstock itself, played a pivotal role in both the establishment of the town as a musical hub and as purveyor of the so-called “Woodstock sound”.
Barney Hoskyns’ exploration of the town’s rich musical history and the lives of its famous residents often reads like a hippie-fied Peyton Place, replete with scores of rumors, interpersonal drama, name-calling and other less than rose-colored reminiscences. Indeed, as with any small town, people tend to talk, and in this, the story of Grossman tends to dominate the whole of the narrative. From his management of some of the biggest names in the industry through to his real estate ventures which, for a time, saw him owning what seemed to be nearly half the town, to the establishment of the legendary Bearsville studio and its label offshoot, Grossman here is rightly recognized for putting the town on the map.
From Grossman and his gregarious, often off-putting persona, Hoskyns spins a rich tapestry of stories from local residents and musicians, some well-known and others virtually unknown, that help to provide an in-depth look at how the town came to be seen as a hippie ideal and, on the flip side, how that became its undoing. The list of who was screwing who and snorting, shooting or smoking what reads long, and it's inherently complex and interwoven within the town’s history. But from that, Hoskyns shows the richly vibrant music scene that, for a brief time, flourished and helped shape contemporary popular music.
Taking its title from a Bobby Charles song, one of the town’s famous temporary residents and well-respected songwriter, Small Town Talk tries its best to be several things concurrently. The trouble with this is that there are eventually so many interwoven narrative threads that names and events begin blurring together with only the recognizable standing out. Tonally, Hoskyns seems conflicted as to how to present the story. His occasional insertions of himself into the narrative help show the town as it exists today, but ultimately proves somewhat distracting. Adding in the dozens of musicians who were either directly or tangentially related to the scene further muddies the water, and the reader is soon drifting across the country and across the decades as he follows the trajectory of a handful of performers post-Woodstock.
It’s an informative and entertaining approach that makes Small Town Talk an often surprisingly compelling read, yes, but due to the sheer number of stories and personalities present throughout, it could’ve been more structurally sound had the narrative been more focused and less all-inclusive. At times, the book feels like the dueling biography of the town, Grossman, the artists he managed, and the scores of tertiary characters who come and go with little more than a localized connection to the overarching narrative. Hoskyns makes it clear early on that this is a subject about which is enormously passionate, but this fascination with minutiae -- not to mention the dozens of non-sequitor footnotes littering the text -- tends to bog down the whole of the story itself.
That said, the sheer number of interconnections and interactions that occurred in and around Woodstock during the ‘60s and ‘70s can be somewhat mind-blowing. Not only were prominent artists like those listed in the book’s subtitle constantly coming and going, but there was also a comingling of scenes producing tantalizing glimpses of what could’ve been. Hoskyns’ describes an epic jam session between New York’s jazz loft scene mainstay Juma Sultan and Jimi Hendrix that, had Hendrix not died shortly thereafter, could’ve seen the virtuoso guitarist moving in even more different and exciting directions.
But like any narrative surrounding the music scene of the '60s, the drug-related deaths of many treasured musicians looms large. While Woodstock itself was viewed as a somewhat carefree area in which famous residents could crash their vehicles while intoxicated and be let off with little more than a warning, this laissez-faire attitude towards the presence of drugs and rampant alcohol abuse ultimately proved to be the town's undoing. As the town gradually succumbs to its demons and overinflated sense of self, so too does Grossman. By the time he dies of a heart attack aboard a Concord flight, both the town and the man have waned in relevance. That the only remaining musician of note is Todd Rundgren, himself the antithesis of the hippie ideal, speaks volumes for the change that took place during the Woodstock's rise and fall.
Reading like a Greek tragedy, Small Town Talk serves as a cautionary tale for those who embrace wanton idealism along with a hedonistic lifestyle. Left unchecked, it spirals out of control and, like anything else, eventually flames out. That Woodstock today is little more than a tourist trap speaks volumes to the lasting legacy, both positive and negative, the once vibrant scene had on the small town in upstate New York that went on to become the namesake of not only the defining cultural moment of the era, but also the generation itself. That there were so many casualties along the way, both literal and emotional, makes the fall after such a precipitous rise all the more disconcerting.
Ultimately, through all the gossip and titillating hearsay, Small Town Talk offers a fascinating glimpse into a bygone era, one shot through with a wide-eyed idealism that, in the face of its now smoldering wreckage, can never again be. That it still holds a certain allure is not only the town’s greatest asset, but also its defining characteristic. Still, it's not the place itself, so much as the state of mind that Woodstock represents in the collective psyche, that we will always remember.