Wednesday 26 October 2016

Woodstock, the music mogul, Dylan and Joplin

Music: Small Town Talk, Barney Hoskyns, Faber & Faber, hdbk, 440 pages, €26.50

Published 24/04/2016 | 02:30

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan
Small Town Talk Barney Hoskyns

Nicholas Blincoe on a book about folk and rock'n'roll's Citizen Kane and the ­musicians' ­paradise that destroyed him and many of his inner circle of stars

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The small town of Woodstock is a two-hour drive from New York, in the Catskill Mountains. It has been a retreat for artists since a Manchester mill-owner's son created a colony there in 1902, inspired by the Arts and Craft movement.

Woodstock's wooded hills might have remained a secret hideaway for creative New Yorkers if Bob Dylan had been better at handling a motorbike. His 1966 accident near his Woodstock holiday home led to his near complete disappearance: in the next eight years, he would make just four live appearances.

For much of that time, Dylan hunkered down in Woodstock, recording more than a hundred songs in demo form, including 'The Mighty Quinn', 'All Along the Watchtower' and 'This Wheel's on Fire'. As tranches of these songs began to appear, first in recordings by other artists, then as bootlegs, Dylan was transformed from a star into a legend.

His shadowy presence in turn made Woodstock into a centre for musicians. George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison and Eric Clapton made the pilgrimage there to find the source of this new music: an all-electric yet rootsy Americana that possessed a gravitas that Californian psychedelic rock lacked.

Then, in 1969, came the Woodstock Music Festival, bringing the small town worldwide fame (though actually, the festival took place 60 miles away, because the promoters failed to get permission to set up in Woodstock itself).

The music writer Barney Hoskyns lived in Woodstock in the Nineties and attended the 25th-anniversary festival in 1994, which not only took place in the actual Woodstock but also found room for Dylan, who had sat out the original festival in the Isle of Wight.

His book, Small Town Talk, is a biography of the town, which aims to make Woodstock the star of the show - but it's a difficult trick to pull off. Writers often speak of making a city into a character, but perhaps only Raymond Chandler with Los Angeles and James Joyce with Dublin have achieved it. Here, alas, Woodstock remains elusive in a book that too often resembles a more traditional kind of rock history.

Hoskyns comes closest to evoking a sense of place when he turns his focus to one of its most colourful inhabitants, Albert Grossman, Dylan's manager. Here one sees the outline of a great gothic tale: Grossman was folk and rock'n'roll's Citizen Kane and Woodstock his Xanadu. He created it, and it destroyed him and almost everyone else who was drawn into his circle.

Grossman was a 35-year-old Chicagoan club owner in 1961 when he turned up in New York to audition singers for the group that would become Peter, Paul and Mary. Mary Travers said: "He wasn't a very nice man but I loved him dearly."

In the Coen brothers' 2013 exploration of this era, Inside Llewyn Davis, F Murray Abraham plays a character based on Grossman, who curtly tells the struggling singer Davis: "I don't see a lot of money here."

Grossman was a brooding and uncommunicative man with a darkly romantic streak, ruthless in business but indulgent to his artists and drawn to fragile, wounded people. In the early Sixties, Dylan was often to be found staying with him at his Woodstock retreat. He'd swim in Grossman's pool with Joan Baez or chew the fat with Allen Ginsberg in Grossman's kitchen.

Dylan went on to buy his own house nearby but there was a snake in paradise: money. By the mid-Sixties, a battle over royalties had soured their relationship.

They split rancorously and Hoskyns draws fascinating links between this and the lyrics of one of Dylan's most enigmatic songs, 'All Along the Watchtower': "businessmen, they drink my wine..."

Grossman's personal life was equally messy. His first wife was a heroin addict. He adored his second wife but they became almost completely estranged. Rather than chase her, Grossman hibernated in Woodstock and ate too much. His last big act was Janis Joplin. He would accept her calls at any time, yet chillingly, on discovering she had failed to kick her drug habit, secretly took out an insurance policy on her life which would pay him $200,000 when she died.

Dylan, Joplin, his wife: each one seems to have broken Grossman's heart anew. In Hoskyns's account, Woodstock appears as a small town that revolved around this single hurt figure; a place where the many musicians who followed him could do pretty much what they wanted, except perhaps escape and recover.

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