April 13, 2017

(+++) ROCK ON

Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock. By Barney Hoskyns. Da Capo. $15.99.

     Those who think rock ’n’ roll is capital-I Important and capital-M Meaningful will also think that the venues where rock musicians spent their time are capital-S Significant. And those capital-F Fans are the target audience for Barney Hoskyns’ in-depth look at the town of Woodstock, New York, which famously gave its name to the 1969 Woodstock Festival that actually happened 60 miles away because the town refused to give it a permit. The book, originally published last year and now available in paperback, is a 400-page paean to a capital-T Time and capital-P Place that are dear to the capital-H Hearts of true believers in the people and groups of the subtitle and a variety of producers, rock wannabes, hangers-on and others associated with the capital-S Scene.

     This is a book for rock-music-celebrity worshipers. Here are Hendrix, Morrison, Todd Rundgren, Paul Butterfield, English jazz bassist Dave Holland, Graham Parker (another Brit), and many more. Comments from a few of the people here have the ring of truth: singer Maria Muldaur and the poet and onetime Fug, Ed Sanders, are particularly good. And of course the inevitable drug binges pervade the book, and there is plenty of sex-with-the-stars stuff as well. But the center of Small Town Talk is someone who is notorious in the rock-history scene and unknown outside of it: Albert Grossman, who managed Dylan, The Band, Janis Joplin, and many others. Hoskyns seems to believe that Grossman was like a force of nature in the town of Woodstock, buying up property and opening restaurants and building the Bearsville Studio. But really, Grossman simply comes across as an opportunistic businessman, perhaps not very admirable but certainly not devilish in his doings. Yet Hoskyns clearly dislikes him with nearly visceral hatred, picking up approvingly on a comment from Dylan (who eventually got out from under Grossman’s thumb), “You could smell him coming.”

     Well, books need heroes (all the wonderful rock musicians of old) and villains; Grossman largely fills the latter role. But try as he may – and he does try – Hoskyns, a longtime writer about popular music who is based in London, cannot quite make Grossman loom large enough to shoulder responsibility for the deterioration of the capital-G Greatness of the capital-M Music associated with the people who, for a time, congregated in and around Woodstock. Hoskyns is at his best when encapsulating the capital-S Songs he admires (although he is, somewhat surprisingly, rather harsh on Dylan and his work). But writing about the music is not what he does in most of the book. Instead, he offers a chronological story about the coming of the capital-R Rock capital-M Music capital-S Scene to Woodstock – the capital-G Glory capital-D Days of that scene and the people in it – and he then follows matters through a whole series of disappointing, sometimes disastrous, sometimes merely dull endings that collectively show the studied impermanence of this music and the people who made it. The divisiveness and outright hatred spawned by participants in the so-called capital-S Summer of capital-L Love had already started to become clear with the Rolling Stones’ Altamont disaster in December 1969. What Hoskyns sticks around to chronicle is the slower but no less thorough dissolution of whatever spirit the not-held-in-Woodstock Woodstock Festival latched onto and tried to promote and propagate.

     Small Town Talk outstays its welcome by about 100 pages. Muldaur’s comments are useful in looking back at what once was (and what some people want to believe once was) a capital-I Important capital-P Place and capital-T Time, but there are rather too many of them. And after a while, it gets tiresome to read name-dropping, detail-drenched writing such as, “Having made three undistinguished albums of his own – and after surviving a bitter custody battle with Libby Titus over their daughter – Levon Holm began talking about a Band reunion in early 1983. The very notion appalled Robbie Robertson, who felt it made a mockery of the Last Waltz, but he opted not to block the Band Is Back tour that kicked off at the Joyous Lake on June 25, 1983. ‘Instead of coming up with new material they just repeated all their old material,’ John Simon said. …‘It had gotten to be what I call the vomit-and-sawdust crowd.’”

     In the long run – and we are already in the long run, nearly 50 years after the Woodstock Festival (which gets only minimal coverage), and more than 30 after the death of Grossman (1926-1986) – Woodstock-the-town just doesn’t matter very much as a capital-M Mecca for any but the most misguided aficionados of a long-gone Age of Aquarius era that long since turned out to be less significant than its more-vocal advocates proclaimed it to be. However hard he tries, Hoskyns cannot give this time, this town and these events any greater capital-S Significance than they actually had – which has turned out, except for a hardcore group that continues to pretend otherwise, to be Not Very Much.

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