Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock. By Barney Hoskins. Da Capo Press, 2016. 402 pages, hardcover.
Review by Francis DiMenno
If you read this book expecting to get some interesting and previously obscure gossip about the characters listed in the title, you certainly won’t be disappointed. But one of the key names listing from that impressive title roster (along with Paul Butterfield, Todd Rundgren, and Jules Shear) is that of a man named Albert Grossman. Although he is not quite the hero of the piece – his motives are too mixed; he is, after all, not a musician but a businessman – the enigmatic Grossman plays the role of the central protagonist (and sometimes antagonist) of the narrative. Maybe you’ve heard of Grossman. A big man in every sense of the word (he was indisputably quite the gourmand), he was famed for managing and promoting the careers of not only Bob Dylan, but also, at various times, steering (or failing to steer) the artistic development of other musician clients, notably The Band, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, and Jesse Winchester. (Allegedly Hendrix was too mobbed-up for even Grossman, widely known as a talented “fixer,” to extricate him from his difficulties, though this is only mentioned in passing). As Woodstock’s primary benefactor, Grossman also funded and oversaw the construction of various restaurants, a recording studio, and a record label, Bearsville, which prospered for a time, but folded in 1984. You might remember the label as the home, even as late as the early 1980s, of such luminaries as NRBQ, the DBs, and even Foghat (!) Even after he died, Grossman’s legend lived on; he posthumously bequeathed to the town a theater and concert venue which he directed his widow to manage.
Apparently, Grossman was on Dylan’s mind when he was holed up with members of The Band and recording the loose and in many cases wry and whimsical numbers (which were yoked to some Band numbers recorded off-site) and officially released in 1975 as “The Basement Tapes”–numbers such as “Nothing Was Delivered” and “Too Much of Nothing” are said to refer to Grossman.There is also speculation that Grossman was the “Dear Landlord” of Bob Dylan’s post-motorcycle-accident LP John Wesley Harding, and a few other Dylan songs from that LP have allegedly been written about him, including “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” and even “All Along the Watchtower” (“businessmen they drink my wine”).
It was perhaps inevitable that Dylan would become estranged from Grossman. The story of how this took place forms the core of the book. Levon Helm’s manager Barbara O’Brien explains that “Maybe Albert was a wise businessman, but I think he’s the model for what managersshouldn’t do. I was a pit bull for Levon, but there are ways to do it so you don’t piss everybody off. Albert wanted to be as big as Dylan and Janis were, and he took too much from them The guy was an empire, but his personality stopped you from wanting to embrace it.”
However, the book as a whole, though shot through with stories about Grossman, is only secondarily about him and the artists he managed and the dozens of acts he signed to Bearsville Records (some successful, but many not.) If Grossman is in the foreground, in the background is the milieu of Woodstock, New York, a town – you might almost call it a village – of some five to six thousand souls located 103 miles from Times Square in New York City. Sardonically referred to as “Peyton Place” (the name of a trashy tell-all gossipy novel of small town life which later became a phenomenally successful television series), Woodstock was also known as “The Laurel Canyon of the East Coast.” Similarly, its rustic environs nurtured – and sadly, in the late 1970’s, even eroded and destroyed – the careers and lives of many talented people. However, perhaps this was inevitable. According to Village Voice writer Perry Meisel, “Woodstock seems to have been woven out of so many contradictions that it couldn’t have held on for long in any case. The sweet country setting got canceled by big city tensions; the ambiance of a retreat by the prevailing deference and cool… even after the music and the people had both become absurd.”
Overall, this book is a fairly comprehensive account of all the goings-on in this somewhat isolated Catskills community; a more complete account would probably tend to verge on tedium. The book serves as an East Coast counterpart which complements Hoskyn’s earlier, equally all-inclusive book about the Los Angeles scene titled “Waiting For the Sun,” which similarly covered the respective careers of The Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, the Doors, Little Feat, the Eagles, Steely Dan, Linda Ronstadt, and Joni Mitchell, among others. In my opinion, the main shortcoming of the book has to do with Hoskyn’s disinclination to provide much of a biographical backstory regarding the principle players. For example, we are told that Janis Joplin comes from Port Arthur Texas, and that she was “pockmarked and bacchanalian” – and that is virtually all we are told about her early life. Much the same can be said regarding just about all of the principal characters in this story. This lack of backstory is particularly problematic in the case of Albert Grossman. Who was he, really? How did he get to where he ended up – as virtually the founding father of “hippie” Woodstock? I understand how an author might wish to limit the scope of his research to manageable proportions. (I certainly have no complaints regarding the amount of work which went into compiling this historical account.) However, a sentence or two of somewhat deeper biographical detail would not have unduly taxed the patience of the reader, and might have provided him or her with potentially valuable insights. Instead, we are left with a cluttered landscape of musical icons who do their thing on stage and off for a few or several years, and then pass from the scene. All the same, the chief pleasure of this book lies in the fact that, in its heyday, Woodstock was quite a scene indeed.