Review: Small Town Talk by Barney Hoskyns, Faber and Faber, £20

How did a Republican-voting rural town in the Catskills become a magnet for disaffected hippies and its very name a metonym for the entire 1960s counter-culture? This is the question Barney Hoskyns, one of rock ’n roll’s most engaging chroniclers, sets out to answer in this compelling new book.

Woodstock is located in New York State amid the pastoral idyll of the Catskill mountains. Its setting means it’s only a few hours’ drive from New York City yet remote enough to provide a retreat from the traffic-splashed streets of the metropolis.

Hoskyns begins his survey of the town’s creative renaissance with the irony that Woodstock, made famous by Bob Dylan and his manager Albert Grossman – both Jews – was originally established as an art colony half a decade earlier by a rabid anti-Semite. Painters and sculptors flocked to the region in the late 1920s and 1930s, yet it remained a small, sleepy town with conservative values.

It was pop impresario Grossman’s move to Woodstock that changed everything. Dylan was at the time burnt out from intrusive journalists and screaming fans, and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Grossman invited him to Woodstock and, by 1966, Dylan settled in the small town with his new wife, Sara.

For Dylan, Woodstock was an antidote to the dark, negative energy of New York where fans relentlessly hounded him at diners and bus stops. In Woodstock he could escape all that, sit in the local cafe, write and be left alone. Dylan was starting a family and for that, too, Woodstock was the perfect environment – until it wasn’t.

Inevitably, following Dylan’s move, other artists, burnt out and embracing the back-to-nature ethos of the late 1960s, relocated to Woodstock. But it was the eponymous festival in 1969 that put the town on the map (despite being held some 60 miles away). Ever since, “Woodstock” has served as a metonym for everything right and everything wrong about the counter-culture.

Following the festival, fans streamed into town hunting Dylan, Hendrix, Van Morrison and Janis Joplin. Dylan eventually had to retreat to a house further away, but even that wasn’t enough. In his autobiography, Chronicles, he complains of “people living in trees outside my house, trying to batter down my door”. Drug dealers inevitably followed the unwashed hordes and heroin became a serious problem as the town turned into a capitalist-kitsch emporium of hippie souvenir shops. The Manson Family’s baroquely depraved murder spree in Los Angeles spooked Dylan badly and he moved back to New York. As he recalls in Chronicles: “Woodstock had turned into a nightmare, a place of chaos.”

Jimi Hendrix, trying to get away from his own crazed fans, also went to Woodstock in search of peace and spiritual rekindling. But after being kidnapped by mobsters working for his manager, he fled to London, where he died not long afterwards.

Hoskyns has written a fascinating, poignant and elegiac book that is about much more than music, success and the gentrification of rural America. Time and again, we read sad, awful stories of musicians, barely out of their teens, overwhelmed by fame and seduced by drugs, but finding only death. The dream of returning to Eden is always going to be an unrealised one and yet human beings have never stopped searching for this idyllic (but imagined) past, and the story of Woodstock is no different.

In Small Town Talk, Hoskyns has taken this tale of smashed hopes and turned it into an allegory of the American dream and of all Edenic aspirations. As one local trenchantly notes halfway through the book: “People are really looking for some kind of answer when there isn’t one.”

This article first appeared in the March 11 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here