Small Town Talk – Barney Hoskyns

This Christmas I’ve been reading Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock, the latest book by Barney Hoskyns.

Hoskyns wrote about The Band (and Dylan) at length in Across the Great Divide: The Band & America in 1993, so Small Town Talk does retread some familiar ground. But while Robertson, Helm, Manuel, Danko and Hudson are major figures in Small Town Talk (after all, they stayed in Woodstock long after Dylan headed back to New York, and all but Robertson found their way back later for a second stint in the town), the book is more than anything about Albert Grossman, who managed Dylan, The Band and Joplin (not to mention Todd Rundgren, Paul Butterfield and Peter, Paul and Mary). And Grossman is a fascinating, if frequently appalling, figure.

Swimming in money from his early successes, Grossman built himself an empire – an Albertopolis, if you will (though for more than one of Hoskyns’s interviewees it was more like Charle Foster Kane’s Xanadu) – in Bearsville, just to the west of Woodstock: a recording studio, a record label, a restaurant, a bar and eventually a theatre. It was through Grossman that Dylan ended up in Woodstock, and most of the artists Grossman managed followed him there. But even those who benefited directly from his patronage loved and hated Albert Grossman in just about equal measure.* He was a bully, he was ruthless, and frequently cold and distant. Even artists he seemed to on some level care about as people were in the end merely a means for Grossman to make money; knowing full well her addiction problems, Grossman took out a life-insurance policy on Janis Joplin. When she died, he received $200,000.

For Hoskyns, the rise and fall of Grossman’s empire mirrors the rise and fall of Woodstock as a major centre of popular music. To compare Woodstock with its West Coast equivalent, Laurel Canyon (which Hoskyns wrote about in Waiting for the Sun and Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the LA Canyons), encapsulates the problem. The roll call of major artists in Laurel Canyon took both megastars and lesser known but huge talents like Tim Buckley, Judee Sill and Linda Perhacs. It had a stronger bench than Woodstock. The names of Jimi Hendrix and Van Morrison are on the front cover of Small Town Talk, but they appear in it fairly briefly, and their stays in Woodstock were over quickly; to really enjoy the book , you need to be interested in learning more about people like Happy Traum, John Holbrook and Cyndi Cashdollar, as Hendrix and Morrison are out of the story by the time it’s halfway told.

Like most of the books Barney Hoskyns has written, Small Town Talk is full of tales of wasted potential and drug- and alcohol-fuelled self-destruction. But even compared to, say, Hotel California (which relates tales as tragic as Judee Sill’s and as hair-curling as David Crosby’s), Small Town Talk is a heavy read, as it paints a Woodstock as a cultural centre in terminal, irreversible decline. Woodstock, it seems, will never matter again in musical terms: its last truly great artist, Levon Helm, died of cancer in 2012 and there are no musicians left in town to compare at all with those on the front cover of the book (for all that Hoskyns looks favourably on Simone Felice and Jonathan Donahue, I’m sure he’d agree).

If Grossman had wanted to build something lasting and self-sustaining in Woodstock, he failed. But you have to wonder whether that was his intention at all.

Robbie Robertson, Albert Grossman, Bill Graham, and John Simon in an Elevator.
Albert Grossman

*Todd Rundgren, whose many uncommercial experiments were bankrolled by Grossman, said of him when he died: “He got what he deserved. Good riddance to bad rubbish.” About the warmest tribute Grossman received came from Mary Travers: “He wasn’t a very nice man, but I loved him dearly.”

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