Until two years ago the August Bank Holiday in my village of Gomshall was celebrated with a day-long rock festival that took place on the Sunday in the beer garden alongside the Compasses Inn. Featuring local musicians, it was christened Gomstock, a legacy of the great 1969 festival in upstate New York transplanted across the Atlantic more than four decades later to this remote outpost in the Surrey Hills. It is also the name of a small town in NY state whose fate is to be forever associated with the festival even though it actually took place elsewhere, 43 miles to the southwest to be precise.
This strange anomaly needs to be swiftly addressed and then discarded as far as Small Town Talk, Barney Hoskyns new book about Woodstock, is concerned. “Woodstock ruined Woodstock,” he writes at the beginning of chapter 10, at pains to explain how the town’s association with the festival was no good thing. Hordes of tourists would thereafter arrive, turning a rural idyll into a hippie landmark that continues to draw the curious who to this day still inquire, ‘Where was it held?’
Of far greater significance is that earlier in the sixties the town of Woodstock became a refuge for a number of important musicians, among them Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, and it is their relationship with the town that interests Hoskyns, not the festival. Equally importantly, it became the home of Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman whose presence looms over Small Town Talk like a ‘rustic potentate’, as Hoskyns describes him. Grossman bought up many properties in the town, opened restaurants and established the Bearsville recording studio and label there, but he was feared and respected in equal measure, a curious mixture of avarice, carelessness and compassion. It’s no wonder that in his chatty introduction Hoskyns, who lived in Woodstock himself for four years in the late nineties, alludes to the threat of a lawsuit from Grossman’s widow Sally.
All of which adds plenty of spice to what is clearly a labour of love for this seasoned writer. He seems to know a vast number of musicians, famous and otherwise, who’ve made Woodstock their base over the years and their testimony informs his entertaining and enlightening account of a town that Morrison might have had in mind when he wrote ‘Into The Mystic’. There’s certainly something mystical about the place, located as it is between the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains, its population hovering around the 6,000 mark. In the days before the rock stars descended, Woodstock had a reputation as an artists’ colony though the relationship between the locals, that is those who’d lived there for generations and had ‘normal’ jobs, and the artists was always frayed at the edges. This wasn’t improved by the arrival of the musicians, Dylan leading the way in 1965 with the stated intention of becoming a family man, there to raise his growing family with Sara Lownds, the mother of his brood. Naturally he comes under siege from fans and when later in the decade he falls out with Grossman over fiscal issues related to song publishing – the manager made as much money from covers like Peter, Paul & Mary’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and The Byrds’ ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ as the writer – it starts to become unpleasant. It was here too, in 1966, that Dylan had his motor cycle accident – he really ought to have worn a crash helmet – and Hoskyns’ treatment of this still mysterious episode and its aftermath is as thorough as I’ve read anywhere.
Next The Band arrive, there to write the songs that would appear on Music From Big Pink and, most famously, to contribute to Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Not surprisingly in view of Hoskyns’ first-rate 1993 Band biography Across The Great Divide, this is the book’s strongest and most endearing section; how the rustic allure of Woodstock shaped a style of music that is part folk, part gospel, part soul, part rock’n’roll and, above all, fundamentally rural, in direct contrast to the harsher, flashier, less rootsy sounds of the city. That The Band’s most loved songs sound like they could have been written at any time in the last 100 years owes a lot to the view from their pink house, the landscape, the sky and the mountains, the lakes and the forests. That sound and feel went on to seduce Eric Clapton, George Harrison – a frequent visitor – and bands like Traffic who famously adopted the same course of action in the UK, ‘getting it together in the country’.
Meanwhile, the influx of rock stars attracts large numbers of beautiful women to Woodstock and they are generous with their favours, especially towards musicians, and drugs become an issue. Drink, too, is a problem, not least because everyone seems to get behind the wheel when they’ve had a skinful. All this promiscuity, adultery, drunkenness, drugging and no-holds-barred hedonism certainly makes for an entertaining read but there’s a slightly sinister undercurrent to Hoskyns’ tale that isn’t helped by the arrival in town of shady characters like Mike Jeffery, whose management of Hendrix is far from benevolent, and the doomed Paul Butterfield who charges around like the proverbial bull in a china shop.
Hoskyns seems to be one of the few journalists to have had a close encounter with Van Morrison and come away unscathed. The Belfast Cowboy is desperate to engage with Dylan yet at the same time chronically withdrawn, so that when the two do eventually meet Morrison, hilariously, doesn’t recognise the man with whom he’s just exchanged a few casual words. In a subsequent phone call between the two men Dylan talks of plans for touring the US by train with a big troupe of musicians – shades of Rolling Thunder – but nothing comes of it, of course. This shyness goes some way to explaining Morrison’s notorious tetchiness, and it seems only natural that the musician with whom he would bond most closely is Richard Manuel, the most soulful member of The Band, who is similarly reserved and fatally disposed towards the bottle.
All of these encounters are reported fly-on-the-wall style, taking us into inner sanctums where legendary music was made. Eye-opening stories abound and in this respect the book is a delight. That said, when the big guns move out of town the story flags a bit, with Hoskyns worthily obliged to continue until the present day, even as it peters out, though his closing chapter, aptly named ‘Broken Heart’, drips with fond nostalgia for times past. Before then, however, we get a lot of information about lesser known musos who’ve settled in the town and also the entire history of Bearsville Records, enlivened only by Todd Rungren’s role in the enterprise, which big chief Grossman neglects in favour of his culinary interests. Rundgren, of course, was the antithesis of the Woodstock ambience, not only in his music and presentation but in his strong work ethic and unpubbable nature, all of which adds a bit of frisson to these later chapters, as does the testimony of his main squeeze, the fragrant Bebe Buell. While the Bearsville story drags on a bit, it is to Hoskyns credit that his enthusiasm for the music keeps the tale alive, as do stories like that of Bobby Charles, the songwriter who penned ‘See You Later Alligator’ and washed up in Woodstock on the lam with drugs charges hanging over his head. Grossman gets him off as part of a record deal and though the relationship ends in tears – as do almost all of Grossman’s business relationships – it does produce the lovely ‘Small Town Talk’, the song about Woodstock gossip that Charles wrote with Rick Danko and which Hoskyns judiciously selects as the title for his book.
Places, too, are as crucial to the Woodstock ambience as the musicians who populate them. Most, like the Joyous Lake, erupt like firework displays, brilliant but short lived, of their time like so many other rock’n’roll clubs elsewhere. Many, of course, only come alive after the regular punters are tucked up in bed. At various times the Joyous Lake presented local residents Charles Mingus, Tim Hardin, stray members of The Band and Richie Havens, while the waitresses wore “tiny little short-shorts and bandanas tied around their breasts”, according to local writer Martha Frankel. “When you went through the door [of the Green Room],” observed another local, “you never knew what you were going to see. Nine times of out ten it was somebody getting a blowjob.” Such behaviour might raise an eyebrow nowadays but this was the seventies when, as Frankel points out: “Nobody cared.” I know what she means.
It is inevitable that a book like this would end on a sad note, not just how the demise of the town’s musical customs seems to reflect the same thing that’s happening in places everywhere when cash trumps culture, but with the deaths of so many central characters. Grossman aside, top of the list of those who died too young are The Band’s three great rebel-rousers Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm, the latter deserving special mention for doggedly continuing Woodstock’s tradition for rustic music long after the ship had sailed. Arkansas-born farm boy Helm, as Hoskyns makes clear, was the bridge between the locals and the musicians, whose parties were attended by as many plumbers and carpenters as singers and guitar pickers. In the last decade of a life brought to a close by cancer in 2012 Helm became the magnet for a host of top musicians who performed, often alongside him, at shows in his barn studio that he called Midnight Rambles. This was about as far removed from big rock, from Live Nation and the like, as our annual Gomstock was from the Woodstock Festival: music for pleasure not for profit. In a moving coda devoted to the last few years of Levon Helm’s life, Hoskyns writes: “If there was something a mite contrived about the way he had been positioned as a patron saint of Americana – O Levon Where Art Though, anyone? – Helm himself was as genuine an article as American music could boast.” Based on this testimony I couldn’t agree more.