The narrative trope of the bright, optimistic early ’60s versus the dark, decadent late ’60s is, at this point, a cliché. In some parts of the world, however, like Woodstock, New York, it was an unavoidable narrative arc. In the name-checking subtitle of his book chronicling the history of Woodstock, Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix in The Wild Years of Woodstock, author Barney Hoskyns opts for euphemism, hinting at those years’ intense highs and lows, both of which were felt most acutely in that small town.
What is contained within the book is a grim and balanced account of the yin and yang of the ’60s cultural legacy in Woodstock. Told through an impressive series of interviews with those inside and just outside of this unlikely pastoral culture machine over the past five decades, it continuously grapples with its instinct to celebrate the stories of the past with a need to interrogate the darkness.
The book starts out like any good chronological ’60s book would: with great Dylan stories. They shed new light on a scene of innocence and optimism of the early ’60s. The first few chapters reveal a hardworking Dylan throughout his pre-John Wesley Harding years, dependent upon the isolation he found in Woodstock. While not necessarily untrodden historical ground, Hoskyns’ means of storytelling — interviewing locals who were around in the days when Dylan was a visible figure in town, audibly pounding away at his typewriter in the upstairs room at the local cafe — helps ground the stories with a clear eyed, fly-on-the-wall feel.
Dylan’s need for isolation is revealed as a natural preference. It makes sense that the snide figure we see writing in a London hotel in Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back in reality relied upon peace, quiet, and a nice cup of coffee to do his work.
The rest of the stories, which fill the first half of the book, bear along a similar premise: Woodstock’s bucolic environment drew many creatives in, including Van Morrison as well as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, both in their final years. However, the seeds of the deeper narrative — an interrogation of the legacy of famous music manager and longtime Woodstock resident, Albert Grossman (who managed all of the above) — are sown early and thoroughly explored.
In the beginning, this takes the form of valuable insight into Grossman and his groundbreaking, if questionable, business practices. Hoskyns conducted extensive interviews with many close confidants and business partners who provide unique perspective on the man who would represent an unprecedented gravitational center of commerce and taste-making in the ’60s and whose brand of industry avarice and opportunism contributed directly to the both of the seismic deaths of Hendrix and Joplin.
In dealing with this enigmatic and controversial figure, the book cannot avoid getting dragged into the ennui of gossip; in short, the small town talk. At times, the portraiture that is achieved is vividly human. Grossman is depicted as a common bully with elaborate, idiosyncratic behaviors aimed at controlling the destinies of creative people. Similarly, Hoskyns tells the story of The Band with elaborate detail, treating them as they were: a talented group who became a pack of squabbling drunks. However, Hoskyns’ recounting of Grossman’s — as well as The Band’s — ultimate downfall into irrelevance, occurring well into the ’90s, is a slow tale, full of mundane details that serve the scope of the book, but not the arc of the story. Hoskyns’ commitment to telling the whole story is, however, an admirable quality of a town historian.
The book does, after all, attempt to be not just about Grossman, but about the town in general. In that spirit, measures are taken to elevate lesser-told stories. The standouts include the legend of Todd Rundgren and his relationship with Grossman’s Bearsville Records and Studio, a fascinating tale of modernity clashing with the declining, folk status-quo. There’s a short burst of stories about jazz legends like Miles Davis collaborators, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, who found similar refuge in the area at the “Creative Music Studio”. The stories shed new light on the town’s other music history, outside of the magnetic reach of Grossman.
For the most part, however, when the book attempts to tell these lesser stories — as of the careers of Happy Traum or Maria Muldaur — they fall flat. The book’s best interviews, like with former tour manager and Last Waltz producer, Jonathan Taplin, are vibrant mouthpieces for the inner workings of the Grossman machine. Their stories bear the intrigue and romanticism of their access to those “wild years”. The research and interviews with those outside that machine — indeed affirming Hoskyns’ central thesis of Grossman’s outsize importance — are often wounded by their bitterness at not being embraced by Grossman. The divide between the have and the have nots is felt, and the emotions are palpable.
For anyone looking to collect easily retold stories about their favorite ’60s celebrities, this may not the best place to start. For anyone looking for a true-to-life portrait of the way cultural memory evolves and is shaped within the context of a small town, however, Small Town Talk is a profound case study, in the hands of a capable historian with a strong personal connection to the area. Fresh on the wake of two critical deaths in the past few years — Pete Seeger in 2014, and Levon Helm in 2012 — this is also a timely visit to an important cultural bastion on the verge of reinvention.