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Small Town Talk:
Bob Dylan, the Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in Woodstock
by Barney Hoskyns
In 1963, frightened by his fast-growing fame, Bob Dylan discovered a tiny town that would change his own life and the future of folk. Woodstock, an arty community high in the mountains of upstate New York, had the 22-year-old hooked from his first visit. For the remainder of the decade, it would be his sanctuary from the scene that had spawned him and a world obsessively awaiting his next move.
Initially, few in Woodstock knew Dylan as more than a freaky beatnik who took his guitar to bars and rode his Triumph motorbike badly on treacherous tracks, often with Joan Baez on the back. Those who had heard more didn't care. 'It was a place where you could kind of go and get your thoughts together,' he recalled, years later. In fact, it was much more than that.
In this engaging book, the veteran rock writer Barney Hoskyns delves deep below the surface of the town he calls 'a staging post between Greenwich Village and the Great American Wilderness' to unveil a place that could be paradise or prison, depending on your state of mind. He spent four years living in Woodstock in the 1990s, and his love for the Catskills outpost, in which you can't order a cup of coffee or hit a hairpin bend without encountering an entertaining anecdote, shines through from the start. The dark side of Woodstock has long been part of its legacy, but Hoskyns isn't in search of murky secrets. Rather, he sets out to explain its influence via the remarkable music made there.
Because of Dylan, Woodstock and its neighbouring towns became a refuge for countless musicians fleeing the craziness of fame and/or their demons - Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Band and Van Morrison among them. But it is Albert Grossman, Dylan's greedy, gregarious manager, who is the book's main player. A confidence-boosting confidante as much as an adviser, Grossman installed Dylan at his holiday home in Bearsville in the summer of 1963. The singer became a regular at Woodstock's Cafe Espresso, even before the owners lent him a boxroom in which to write songs. In 1964, he was introduced to LSD and given a guest cottage on Grossman's estate, by which time he had fallen in love with his soon-to-be wife Sara Lownds and was plotting his move into electric music.
The following year, exhausted by the fallout from his infamous electric set at 1965's Newport Folk festival and subsequent months of touring, Dylan returned to Woodstock to work on a film and moderate his intake of drugs. In late July, having allegedly been up three days straight on speed, he crashed his Triumph, putting his career on hold.
During his convalescence, he invited his backing band, the Hawks (later the Band, also managed by Grossman), to Woodstock. The result was the sessions that became The Basement Tapes, recorded at Big Pink, the house rented by the Hawks.
As every musician who followed Dylan to Woodstock found, however, demons are easier to displace than dispense with. The Band, in particular, fell foul of Woodstock's dark side: the drugs that inevitably flooded a town that was just two hours from Manhattan; the jealousy that festered between musicians; the resentment from locals at their conservative community being overrun by hippies; the sheer boredom of living up a mountain in midwinter.
Partner-swapping was rife (you could tell who was doing whom by whose car was in whose drive). Property prices began to rise - not least because of Grossman, now nicknamed The Baron of Bearsville, who was buying up buildings with gusto. Fans arrived in droves in search of Dylan and slept rough, sometimes even ending up in their idol's swimming pool.
Morrison found Woodstock a closed world that revolved around Grossman. Still, he stayed for 18 months, let the scenery soak into his lyrics and became big drinking buddies with the Band's Richard Manuel. During one heavy session, the pair recorded a song about the alcohol content in different whiskies. Afterwards, Manuel drove Morrison home, dropped him on a driveway he forgot was circular, and drove round again, almost mowing Morrison down.
Hendrix was already known to locals for speeding along Tinker Street in a Corvette when he moved to a manor house outside Woodstock that inspired him to write songs 'about tranquillity, about beautiful things' with a band he called Gypsy Sun and Rainbows. He had more success, however, scoring drugs and bedding groupies.
Most agree that it was the Woodstock Music & Art Fair in 1969 that marked the end of the ideal. Organised by Michael Lang, a Brooklyn-born promoter, and held on a site more than 60 miles away, the festival was a messy affair headlined by Hendrix (who arrived in a stolen pick-up truck and played so late the following morning that most of the crowd had left) and featuring performances by the Band, Baez, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. Woodstock soon became a tourist town, and remains so today.
Dylan chose not to play the festival. By then he was bored of domestic life and was cheating on his wife. He had discovered that Grossman was ripping him off and had begun to dissolve their relationship. He hated that Woodstock, once his escape from the scene, had become the scene itself.
Grossman, meanwhile, was busy with the Band, as well as the owner of a record label and a sprawling recording studio in Bearsville. He wasn't a fan of most of the acts he signed, preferring to indulge his passions for drugs, free love and fine dining. He did, however, bond with Joplin, whom he briefly weaned off heroin. He also had success with Todd Rundgren, who became his label's biggest star and biggest spender, haemorrhaging money on vanity video projects.
Grossman died in 1986, aged 59, fittingly on a Concorde flight. Artists continued to visit Woodstock (the Rolling Stones to rehearse, R.E.M. and Talking Heads to record), but the action had long moved on. Grossman's grave is now a stop on Woodstock's tourist trail.
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