As the psychedelic era reached its frenzied pitch in late 1967, as even the earthen-blues Stones were dressing up like wizards and peddling lysergic premonitions, Bob Dylan was looking back and bucking trends by issuing the stripped John Wesley Harding from his tree-lined retreat in Woodstock, New York. That record, as well as another by Dylan’s neighbors and collaborators The Band, completely shifted Rock & Roll from the cosmos to the farm in 1968, and pretty soon hippies across the nation were rambling about “getting it together in the country.”
It’s ironic that Dylan was such a leader in this movement since he both hated being thought of as a leader and he hated hippies. In fact, he’d essentially abandoned the leftist politics that won his original following to become pretty conservative— perhaps not incidentally, the prevailing political stance of pre-hippie-influx Woodstock—following the lead of manager Albert Grossman into an odd-bedfellow balance of rustic living and materialism, and even privately voicing support for segregationist George Wallace. Nevertheless, the hippies flooded Woodstock, tried their best to get to Dylan, and staged the most famous outdoor festival in rock history.
In his new book Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock, Barney Hoskyns fortunately devotes a mere chapter to those three days of peace, love, and music, because the Woodstock Festival has been examined and examined and examined in plenty of other places. Yet, it is also the climactic event in a story that begins with Grossman’s move to that New York community in 1963, builds through Dylan’s retreat and The Band’s emergence as artists in their own rights, and downslides with sad tales of over-commercialization and over-hype. We lose The Band’s Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm before the tale is over. Long before then, Helm and Robbie Robertson split bitterly. Ditto Dylan and Grossman. Doomed souls such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin end up in Woodstock on their way out of this mortal coil. For too many, “getting it together in the country” meant hard drugs and early death. Others, such as Dylan and Van Morrison, managed to extricate themselves from a place they initially deemed enchanting but ultimately regarded as a toxic zone.
Hoskyns keeps his authorial distance for the most part, though he cannot hide his own enchantment with the storied burg, rendering its striking sights, sounds, and smells in three vivid dimensions, and the way he occasionally jumps into the present to detail its thriving music and art scene rescues his story from the tragedy bin. There may have been some serious downsides to the old, old Woodstock scene, but this story is fleet-footed, full of creativity, and peopled with a dazzling array of artists, from those previously mentioned to George Harrison, Patti Smith, The Isley Brothers, and the Rolling Stones. And the focus on Todd Rundgren’s wacky glam/prog exploits throughout the seventies that ends the book rescues the story from being a prolonged hippie-fest. Plus, a story that results in the creation of The Basement Tapes, Music from Big Pink, Pearl, Moondance, Something/Anything? and possibly even All Things Must Pass can’t really be called an unhappy one.