Veteran music writer Hoskyns (Led Zeppelin: The Oral History of the World's Greatest Rock Band, 2012, etc.) peels back the layers of a musical Shangri-La that has plenty of dark corners.
Woodstock, New York, has always seemed more a state of mind than an actual place, though an actual place it is—and, as the author writes early on, one well surrounded by a sense of reclusiveness and mystery, as if everyone there followed the Dylan-esque rule, “Don’t talk to anybody.” Much of Woodstock’s rise can be attributed to Dylan and his backup musicians, the ones who would become The Band and record some zeitgeist-shaping tunes at Big Pink. But more can be attributed to the much-despised music manager Albert Grossman (who “wasn’t a very nice man,” Mary Travers recalls, “but I loved him dearly”), who bought up a considerable chunk of the town with the proceeds of Dylan et al.’s artistry. In any event, as Hoskyns helpfully traces, Woodstock had been an art and music colony for generations. The best parts of this fluent narrative come when the author finds unusual intersections: a very young Patti Smith, for instance, hanging out with Todd Rundgren, himself engineering The Band’s most polished studio album, “Stage Fright.” The cast of characters is stellar, from Van Morrison, even more hermetic than Dylan, to the poet Ed Sanders, doomed blues rocker Janis Joplin, and hippie entrepreneur Michael Lang, and a 100 names between. There are a few clues (including chronological mismatches: Music from Big Pink is much closer to 50 than 30 years old now) to suggest that Hoskyns has bundled up old pieces and notes, but one can charitably surmise that this just means he’s been on the case for a long time.
Much of this ground has otherwise been covered, and better, in Greil Marcus’ Invisible Republic (1997). Still, fans of 1960s and ’70s rock and music history buffs will find this a pleasure.