Woodstock: The Town Without Pity?

Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock
By Barney Hoskyns
424 pp.
Da Capo Press

Woodstock. The mere name conjures up the mystical apex of the Age of Aquarius. Hundreds of thousands of hippies spin dancing in the mud. “Don’t eat the brown acid!” Jimi Hendrix riffing on the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Except for one pesky fact: Woodstock the huge concert did not actually take place in its namesake of Woodstock, New York. Max Yasgur’s famous farm was in Bethel, about 60 miles to the southwest. And immediately – and up to today – “Woodstock” became cultural shorthand for a defining feeling of an entire decade. Even if the truth is far less stardust and golden.

But the bucolic, woodsy, artistic community that was home to an increasing number of musicians – not to mention one of the festival’s organizers – made it a name that stuck.

Hoskyns (Hotel California, Waiting for the Sun) is a skilled music journo. And Small Town Talk – its title taken from the Bobby Charles song about the town as a sort of rock and roll version of Peyton Place — makes the city just as much a character as the musical artists who floated in and out of town.

In particular Dylan and the Band, who basically invented a whole subgenre of roots rock in their home studios, including the famous “Big Pink” house of the Basement Tapes.

But as the reader sees, Hoskyns busts many myths about the town and its fantasy image. Though it was an artistic community, many locals (who actually skewed politically conservative) were fairly resentful of the deluge of hippie musicians looking for a bit of Nirvana under the trees.
And though a spiritual place of incredible beauty, it also had the seamy underbelly of any “small town” across the map.

More than any of the musicians in the book’s title, though (or Todd Rundgren, the erratic, brilliant and out-of-place musician who also lived and worked there), it was Albert Grossman who shaped the vibe of the city from a musical standpoint.

The Dylan/Band/Joplin manager (who left on less than great terms with Dylan) was as much of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as there was in the biz. He began buying up property and building a studio (Bearsville), a restaurant, cabins, offices and eventually a theater, becoming a sort of overlord in the music community, which became something of a personal fiefdom.

Record nerds will also salivate at Hoskyns’s mention of far lesser-known acts that lived in or recorded at Woodstock like Bobby Charles, Jesse Winchester, Geoff and Maria Muldaur (long before the latter sang her camel to bed…), Wholly Moses and Hungry Chuck.

Hoskyns conducted scores of original, new interviews for this book – as well as archival research. And he was also an actual Woodstock resident for many years, so his insight and interpretation here are even more in the know. In Small Town Talk, he has created as much a journey into geography and sociology as into music. Hey, sounds like the idea for an acoustic song…

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