“It's only small town talk
Don't pay it no mind
Don't believe a word they say
They do it to you every time…”
If there was ever an American rock’n’ roll town that echoed 1960s soap operas like Peyton Place, then surely it was Woodstock, New York. The small town that would decline to host, and then distance itself from the music festival that would bear its name and define a generation, is nothing if not the quintessentially eccentric small American town. And, as in most soap operas, Barney Hoskyns Small Town Talk includes loads of memorable characters, plenty of cheating and sexual liasons, too much drinking and drugging, and most manners of other questionable behavior. Spoiler alert: some of the cast do not make it out alive.
Post his breakout 1965 tour with The Hawks, Dylan would try and leave that amphetamine-fueled craziness behind, following manager Albert Grossman to Woodstock. The Hawks, soon to be known as The Band, would soon join him. The quiet, upstate New York enclave was always artist-friendly, particularly to early folkies such as Artie and Happy Traum, as well as Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary. The simple, seemingly idyllic small town would soon become home to Paul Butterfield, Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. And, of course, fans of the musicians would also wander into town, often penniless and homeless.
Writer John Niven recalled “it seems to me it went from being the hippest place you could go to almost Touristville. It was already becoming a caricature of what it had been.” Peter Yarrow, who had been in Woodstock long before Dylan, said simply “The town I knew, and that I’d grown up in, ceased to be. It became about the celebrity as well as the art. And unfortunately there were elements of this celebrity that created a very unsavory hierarchy. In retrospect, the simple goodness of Woodstock at that point was gone.”
Hoskyns paints a fascinating picture of the artistic town, from its earliest days, to the “Dylan” days — it’s the area of his famous career-changing motorcycle crash — to the restaurant/recording complex destination days, which Grossman would build, and install Todd Rundgren as resident engineer/producer, and then on into the 90s. I found the “classic rock” era the most interesting of the book, but that’s likely a function of age and taste. However, it’s also true the town has struggled in the post-classic rock era to find a balanced personality. Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev, who would enlist both Levon Helm and Garth Hudson to record an album “steeped in the magic of the Catskills” settled in nearby Kingston, calling Woodstock “self-cherishing.” His bandmate Grasshopper would go further: “Woodstock is too tie-dyed and hippie-touristy.” Kingston is described by Hoskyns as “semi-hip in a way that Woodstock may never be again,” and now attracts “twenty-somethings the now can’t afford to live in New York City." Sound familiar?
British writer Tony Fletcher also ponders what Woodstock is today, “because the town is so famous for what it was and what it’s traded off, it becomes hard for the younger generation to turn it into something else. The venues aren’t there, and the ones that survive are those dominated by open mic nights with older guys doing bluegrass.”
Or, more succinctly, “This ain’t Seattle,” says resident musician and producer Simone Felice.
Fletcher than asks the central question, one that is still to be answered, for all of the little towns like Woodstock:
“The bigger question is: Does music still play the same role for the younger generation?”
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