Book Review: Small Town Talk
Barney Hoskyns is the leading chronicler of the Woodstock generation and he explores the lasting legacy of a mindset birthed in mud-covered love in his new book, Small Town Talk
Small Town Talk
by Barney Hoskyns
Da Capo Press
402 pp., $34.99
By Bruce Ward
Every summer thousands of tourists visit Woodstock, seeking the vibe that brought The Band, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and other self-destructive talents to live in the area nearly 50 years ago. The tourists buy tie-dyed T-shirts and crystals from the town’s New Age shops but few look for Albert Grossman’s mansion, where his widow still lives.
Yet when The Band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hame of Fame, Robbie Robertson thanked Grossman for “actually starting the whole Woodstock thing.” If it wasn’t for their manager, he said, “the festival might have been called Poughkeepsie; The ‘Poughkeepsie Generation,’ it just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.”
Robertson was half kidding but he was also right. Grossman, who worked with Dylan and other rock stars as both manager and nanny, emerges as the unlikely founder of the Woodstock scene in Small Town Talk, by rock historian Barney Hoskyns.
Thanks to Grossman and Dylan, Woodstock had been rock’s hippest community for years when the seismic 1969 festival took place. But “Woodstock” didn’t happen in the Catskills town. The site was more than 60 miles down the road at Yasgur’s Farm.
The book is a fascinating account of Woodstock’s legacy, told through interviews with musicians, hangers-on and industry insiders. Hoskyns blows up Woodstock’s myths, and shows how the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll lifestyle destroyed some musicians who holed up there.
Hoskyns, a skilful storyteller whose books include a biography of Tom Waits, conducted dozens of interviews for Small Town Talk — so many that the names of minor characters and events tend to blur at times. The book would have been more focussed had Hoskyns omitted several obscure folkies and their connections to the town.
Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary had spent his boyhood summers at his parents’ cabin in Woodstock, about 100 miles from New York City. He told Grossman about the town — the perfect getaway from the city’s business pressures. Grossman visited Woodstock in 1963, and found a stone house set on nearly 60 acres of land in nearby Bearsville. The asking price was $50,000. Grossman, already rich from the folk acts he managed, including Canadians Ian & Sylvia and Gordon Lightfoot, had that kind of cash.
Dylan, who would write Like A Rolling Stone at Grossman’s house, bought his own place in Woodstock in 1965. Dylan’s place was called Hi Lo Ha, and it was there he transformed himself from icy hipster into a loving husband and father.
With Grossman and Dylan setting down roots, rock musicians flocked to the town, living in cabins and hanging out at the local cafes and bars. The Band were among the first arrivals, setting up a makeshift studio in the rented house pictured on their first album, Music From Big Pink. Dylan came by the house most days to work on the songs that later became The Basement Tapes.
While living in Woodstock, Van Morrison rehearsed the songs that filled out his Moondance album. Bobby Charles, Karen Dalton and other lesser-known artists also came up with some of their best work there.
Drugs followed the musicians from New York City up Highway 28 to Woodstock. The rockers used cocaine in snow-shovel quantities, and it cut a swath of destruction through their lives. There was plenty of booze and sex, too. Not one rock-star marriage or relationship survived the bacchanalia, Hoskyns notes.
In Hoskyns’ telling, Grossman is a sketchy but fascinating figure. Without reading it closely, Dylan signed a contract with Grossman in 1962 that gave his manager half the rights to Dylan’s publishing royalties. (Years later, Dylan sued but had to pay Grossman $2 million as a settlement.) Grossman also took out a $200,000 life insurance policy on Janis Joplin, who saw him more as a father figure than a manager. “Daddy Albert,” as she called him, knew Joplin had a heroin habit. When she died of an overdose at 27, he cashed in on the policy’s “accidental death” provisions.
Grossman may have taken more than his fair share from clients, but he also made them rich. He negotiated royalty rates of 20 per cent for his acts at a time when most recording artists were getting three per cent.
The most egregious Grossman-Dylan deal happened after the singer went to a New Year’s Eve party at Andy Warhol’s Factory studio in 1970. A sullen Dylan agreed to sit for one of Warhol’s “screen tests” in exchange for Double Elvis, a diptych of a gun-toting Elvis Presley in the 1960 western Flaming Star. Dylan brought the painting to Woodstock but decided he loathed it. He traded the Warhol to Grossman for a leather couch his manager had bought on sale. When Grossman died, his widow sold the painting for $750,000. Today its value would be close to $40 million. Dylan later said it was the dumbest thing he ever did.
For artists and musicians, “Woodstock” ruined Woodstock, Hoskyns writes. After the 1969 festival, droves of hippies showed up in town and the dream of Woodstock as an artistic oasis died. “In retrospect the simple goodness of Woodstock at that point was gone,” said Peter Yarrow. “It became about celebrity more than art.”
When Grossman died at 59 in 1986, he owned about half the buildings in town. Dylan didn’t go to the funeral. Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary took a more charitable view of Grossman. “He wasn’t a very nice man,” she said. “But I loved him dearly.”
Bruce Ward is a former arts writer and columnist with The Ottawa Citizen
Photo above: Bob Dylan and Albert Grossman share a ride
THE EX-PRESS, May 16, 2016