Books

'Small Town Talk' Both Celebrates and Interrogates Woodstock's Past

If you're looking for a true-to-life portrait of the way cultural memory evolves and is shaped within the context of a small town, this is a profound case study.


Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock

Publisher: Da Capo
Length: 424 pages
Author: Barney Hoskyns
Price: $26.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-03
Amazon

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.

6

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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