Barney Hoskyns + Michael Azerrad At The Strand, Discussing “Small Town Talk”, Monday, April 4th, 2016, Reviewed
There are two type of people in the world, those who look at a mountain and are awed by its magnificence and majesty, and those who wouldn’t look at a mountain if it sat on his knee and gave him a lap dance. Whichever side of the equation you fit in, you will still be awed by Barney Hoskyn’s “Small Town Talk” –the story of Woodstock in the 60s, when musical entrepreneur Albert Grossman brought Bob Dylan to the rural cum artistic community, and made it the epicenter of the anti-Summer Of love.
At the Strand’s conversation between poet-laureate of grunge, rock writer Michael Azerrad, and Barney, they tried to consider another small rural community with the musical centricity of Woodstock, and mentioned Laurel Canyon (which Barney has previously written about) and Athens, Georgia. Michael had them considering Seattle, though it was obviously too big, and I interrupted the proceedings to cough up Bristol, England (actually, I coughed up Portsmouth and had to be corrected, but I have a cold), also not the rural area.
I haven’t finished “Small Town Talk”, but so far the writing about Bob Dylan is about as good as any I have ever read. Which doesn’t surprise me, I’ve read Barney since his start in the New Musical Express, where he was as good as anyone when anyone was Mick Farren, Ian Penman, Charles Shaar Murray and more.
I,like most of the known world, read “Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters & Cocaine Cowboys In The L.A. Canyons” with immense pleasure but then, except for his The Band book, fell out of touch. Two years ago social media found me friend requesting Barney on Facebook, and being invited to contribute some of my 80s writings to his rock critic archive “Rock’s Back Pages” , which he runs with the entirely estimable Mark Pringle. A real honor and I owe a debt of gratitude to the guys for discovering some of my writings I assumed were gone forever.
So, despite a brutal cold, I went to the Strand for the meet and greet, assuming what I’d see was a kinder gentler more Oxford-y John Cleese. But I wasn’t concentrating hard enough. In order to get the type of in depth information, forget about transcribing it into ideas, just getting the information, takes a great deal of charm, a great deal of coaxing, and a great deal of patience. Watching Hoskyns, whose standard reply to Azerrad was “Yes, that is what I thought”, exude attention to the conversation, attention to the details of the room, was to see how he has managed to write such informative books for people who really know this stuff as well as for the layman. In a world where the role of interview and interviewee is to wait their turn impatiently (we call it the Bill O’Reilly Factor), the civility and discourse was delightful and, well, a little boring before the end. Azerrad looks like a former member of Mother Love Bone, who has become a Professor at NYU. He is a smart man and his questions were illuminating and even when I thought I could second guess him, I couldn’t.
Mike got to kernels of truth I don’t think Barney included in the book. I am around a quarter of the way through, so I could be wrong, but if you can get past the awe in mountains, there was real fascination in the discussion as to how stricter DUI laws harmed Woodstock. I’ve written many times how the raising of the drinking age to 21 destroyed New York’s club life, it is sad to discover another rule destroyed another community. As fellow Brit John Oliver noted, there are over 400 new laws put into effect every year; if it continues like this much longer we will all be joining our black brothers in prison.
The other reveal, though it really shouldn’t be one at all, is that it ends bad. Greil Marcus recently called “Small Town Talk” the saddest book ever written about rock and roll. I would consider that high praise, though Barney feels the book has more shadings than the opinion allows for. Like the “characters” he is drawn to write about, nothing is seen in such stark emotions, Barney loves the contrasts, sad and happy, good and evil.
I get Barney’s point, though claiming some people, like Grossman, have two sides, isn’t quite accurate: Saddam Hussein adored and was worshipped by his daughters, even while he was putting their husbands to death for treason. Grossman was a dick, whatever his other side may have been. So, I am a little put off by Barney’s writing about Grossman, and not at all by his writing about Bob Dylan, which I consider almost consistently revealing and well written, and truly shaded. It makes me wish Barney would write a different companion to his “Across The Great Divide: The Band & America”. If I could have my way, I’d love to read him on Van Morrison in the 1990s and Dylan, any period except the 60s. Maybe Dylan in the 80s.
Until then, it is rare somebody lives up to your expectations. Barney is like the movies vision of an English Gentleman, I thought the death of Lady Diana ended that dream once and for all, but apparently it lives on in a music journalist.