It was the Laurel Canyon of the Catskills. In 1969, the forested artist community of Woodstock, in upstate New York, contributed its name to a nearby music festival that many regard as the apex of the 1960s counterculture. Even the movement itself would come to be known as the Woodstock Nation. Bob Dylan, perhaps the hamlet’s best-known resident, recuperated in that small town at manager Albert Grossman’s home following the singer-songwriter’s life-changing 1966 motorcycle accident outside of Woodstock. The town would play a key role in the making of Dylan. With the Band, a group of mostly Canadian musicians who also had settled in Woodstock, Dylan wrote and recorded the monumental sessions that became known as The Basement Tapes—the Band’s seminal 1969 Americana album Music from Big Pink paid homage to the Woodstock split-level where those songs had taken form two years earlier.
But Woodstock has a long and fascinating history that pre-dates Dylan and extends to the mid-’90s when festival promoter Michael Lang staged Woodstock II, attracting Dylan (who did not play at the first fest) and such pop, rap, and metal acts as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Cypress Hill, and Metallica.
In Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, the Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock (Da Capo Press), author Barney Hoskyns casts the tyrannical manager Grossman as the nemesis in this chronicle of artists who flocked to Woodstock. It’s an intricate tale of inspiring creativity and personal tragedy. Along the way, Hoskyns illuminates little-known chapters in the lives of such Woodstock inhabitants as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Van Morrison, Paul Butterfield, and Todd Rundgren, to name a few.
The stories are enlightening when focused on the stars, but Hoskyns also draws on such gifted local acoustic guitarists as Happy Traum, Geoff Muldaur, and John Sebastian.
The fast-paced, 400-page book, which derives its title from the name of one of local soul singer Bobby Charles’ songs, is a quintessentially American story of abusive music-industry power and bohemian decadence set amidst small-town life.
Here is a short excerpt:
In the late summer of 1963, before they sang together at the March on Washington on August 28, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez spent time together in Bearsville. They swam in Grossman’s pool, watched movies, and rode Dylan’s new Triumph motorcycle through the surrounding hills. Though he was a terrible motorcyclist—and an even worse driver of automobiles—he loved to bomb around Woodstock’s back roads. “I have rode alone tho thru the hills on backroads,” he wrote to [longtime girlfriend Suze] Rotolo [who had been depicted arm-in-arm with the folk singer on the cover of his Freewheelin’ album], “an have discovered all kinds of magic places an great sweepin views.”
Dylan took to riding the Triumph east along Tinker Street to the Café Espresso—“the Depresso,” as local wits referred to it.
“He was so relaxed then,” remembered Mary Lou Paturel, who was introduced to Dylan in the café by Tom Paxton. “[He was] smiling, very shy, witty, Chaplinesque. He wasn’t Bob Dylan, he was Bobby Zimmerman.”
Fern Malkine, daughter of singer Sonia, remembers Dylan hanging out at the café after his Carnegie Hall concert on October 26, 1963. “He was just a little scruffy guy sitting at a table,” she says. “He was always very nice to me. He’d come in with his dark sunglasses, smoking a lot, and say, ‘Hey girl, heeey,’ And my mother would say, ‘Bob, she’s only 15!’”
When he came in with Baez, says Malkine, “she seemed very nervous about the relationship, but I didn’t know what was going on or care a lot.”
A decade later, Baez’s sweetly pained “Diamonds and Rust” included a lyrical snapshot of Dylan in Woodstock, “standing with brown leaves falling all around and the snow in your hair.”
According to producer Paul Rothchild, it was in Woodstock in April 1964 that Dylan—in the company of his bodyguard Victor Maymudes and of Rothchild himself—first took LSD. “We drove straight back [from New England] to Albert Grossman’s new house . . . where Dylan had a room at the end of the hall,” Rothchild told Bob Spitz. “When we got there, we discovered that Albert was out of town. Bob started smoking grass, everyone else was higher than a kite and hungry. We all had a serious case of the munchies. Sometime after midnight, Victor was dispatched to the refrigerator, where he found a couple of tabs of acid wrapped in aluminum foil. . . . So we dropped acid on Bob.”
For Rothchild, “that was the beginning of the mystical ’60s right there.”
Bernard and Mary Lou Paturel’s bistro slowly became Dylan’s home away from home—especially after a stinging Newsweek profile in November 1963 that exposed many of his autobiographical claims as fabrications. “As soon as he began to get famous in late ’63, there were a lot of obsessive fans who would come up to him on the street in an almost aggressive way,” says Jonathan Taplin.
“Whereas he could hang out at the Espresso and not be bothered. And then, of course, in Albert’s house he could be incredibly private. Albert had a long driveway and a bunch of ‘No Trespassing’ signs.”
Soon Dylan was spending so much time at the Espresso—drinking coffee, playing chess, reading the New York Times—that the Paturels asked if he wanted to work in the room above it. Painted white with a beamed ceiling, the room measured 30 feet by 20 and had windows that overlooked Tinker Street. It also had a couch and a small desk at which Dylan could write.
He gratefully accepted the Paturels’ offer and moved a guitar and a typewriter into the room.
“It was supposed to be a secret,” says Billy Faier. “But, of course, everyone knew it.”
Sometimes Dylan even stayed there overnight—Mary Lou Paturel would hear him tapping at the typewriter at three in the morning. “He kind of moved in with us and held a symbolic key to the room,” Bernard told Robert Shelton. “No rent involved, just a mutual understanding that he could stay there whenever he wanted.”
Dylan had found another set of surrogate parents.
It was in the White Room that Dylan began to veer away from the topical songs inspired by Rotolo. After The Times They Are A-Changin’, with its anthemic hymn of a title track, he wearied of the role he’d been given by folk’s old guard. New songs like “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and “My Back Pages” rejected those who’d loved and supported but also, he felt, restricted him. When these and other inward-looking songs saw the light of day in August 1964, it was on a long-player entitled Another Side of Bob Dylan, recorded in a single Beaujolais-fueled night in June.
For Suze Rotolo, the album made for tough listening.
“Bob sure knew how to maul me,” she wrote. “I felt laid bare and sorry for it.”
Excerpted from Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock by Barney Hoskyns. Copyright © 2016. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.