hate again

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Ahead of the POTUS’ UK visit next week, a limey snowflake writes…

 

The massed white faces in the blood-red caps

are what the monster sees and what he needs to feed,

but still I ask myself if they believe or merely

blind themselves to creeping evil and to cruelty

they never would have countenanced before.

Are these God-fearin’ folks the enemy

and must I hate them as they hate the likes of me?

 

For in the end I’m unconvinced they want

the opposite of what I want.

Without the monster stoking fear

they would not sneer

at children torn from Mama’s arms

and would not harden like Good Germans

laughing at old pelted Jews.

 

If we could talk, not be transfixed

by terror of the Other,

we might see instead we are

a single species in the stars.

 

I fear it is too late, for they are drunk on hate,

with little left to lose and limitless supplies

of folks who aren’t like them to vilify.

John Niven’s Band classic: A foreword

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Bloomsbury are publishing a new edition of John Niven’s brilliant 33 1/3 novella about The Band’s debut album Music from Big Pink. I was very honoured by John’s asking me to write a foreword for it. Here it is…

THE FACT THAT John Niven was just two years old in 1968 – the year in which The Band’s Music from Big Pink was released – only makes his 2005 novella about the album’s inception and germination the more remarkable.

As someone who’d not only been obsessed by The Band since 1973 but had moved a young family to Woodstock largely on the strength of that obsession, I read Niven’s boldly unorthodox contribution to the excellent 33 1/3 series in a state of mesmerized disbelief that a thirtysomething Scotsman could, with such uncanny accuracy, catch the heady geist of that late ’60s zeit.

It was as if the former Wishing Stone – and future author of the caustic Kill Your Friends, the bestselling novel about his coke-crazed days as a London A&R man – had time-travelled back to Woodstock’s Tinker Street and infiltrated the “scene” that coalesced around the demurring Bob Dylan and his musical henchmen the Hawks. What supernatural deal had he struck to pull this off, and which literary devil had he struck it with?

A prosaic answer would point to the telling of The Band’s near-tragic story through the eyes and ears of drug dealer Greg Keltner. This device instantly demystified the curated sainthood of the Hawks/Band as forefathers of back-to-the-land Americana – mystic bumpkins with Homburgs and mandolins. From the moment we first meet Rick (Danko) and Richard (Manuel) in Niven’s story, there’s no mistaking their priorities: drugs, girls, and music, in that order. Which takes nothing whatever away from the magical music they made.

Keltner, who hails from Ontario like four-fifths of the Hawks/Band, is a somewhat feckless but endearingly poetic soul. True, he scores his dope from “Fifth Floor Dave” in the scuzzy East Village, but he quickly gets the point of Woodstock, the tiny Catskills town to which so many dropout boys and girls are beating a path in the summer of 1967. He also gets the point of the Hawks/Band, responding sensitively and meaningfully to the lovely songs he hears in the squat West Saugerties box known as Big Pink – as he does, still more incredulously, to the soulful woe and funky exhilaration of Music from Big Pink itself.

Keltner may be a rock’n’roll parasite but he is not a heinous dude. Plus we know he’s going to wind up broken and desolate in 1986, the year of Richard Manuel’s wretched death. The loose stoner flow of his narrating voice is the perfect medium for depicting the unsteadiness of Woodstock’s bucolic dysfunction in that 1967-69 period, hinting strongly as it does at Niven’s saturation in the more gonzoid strains of 20th Century American prose from the Beats to Pynchon to the so-called “Noise Boys” (Bangs, Tosches, Meltzer) of ’70s rock journalism – and snaring the disorienting vibe of a time and place in which everyday hedonism is evolving a little too rapidly.

I have no idea whether Rick or Richard would have recognized their lives in these pages, but then nor do I have any idea whether Robbie or Levon or Garth even read Niven’s novella. I do know that Greil Marcus, whose chapter about them in his sacred Mystery Train (1975) framed and explained most of what I felt about The Band, was as astonished by the book as I was, rightly acclaiming it as “an amazing piece of work”.

Keltner, in a sense, speaks for every besotted Band fan as he seeks to understand how these five men – these musical brothers – transcended their rather quotidian apprenticeship with Ronnie Hawkins to craft two of the most special records made in the name of “rock”. Espousing half-hearted songwriting aspirations of his own, Greg swiftly abandons them on hearing an acetate of Music from Big Pink. Like Al Kooper and Al Aronowitz in their early Rolling Stone pieces about them – and like the group’s entranced British disciples Eric Clapton and George Harrison – he understands instinctively that The Band has tapped into something altogether deeper than rock bombast or singer-songwriter over-sensitivity. “Now I knew, I really knew,” he confesses, “that Richard – and Rick, Levon, Robbie, Garth – they were a different order of human being from me.”

If there’s something Zelig-like about the novella’s serendipities – the chance encounters with Dylan, his crony Bob Neuwirth and his manager Albert Grossman, even with Lou Reed – they permit perfect cameos from these enigmatic characters. The drawling Arkansas poetry of Levon Helm’s speaking voice is expertly replicated; so is the aloof coolness of guitarist and principal songwriter Robbie Robertson. There’s also the gauzy presence of love interest Skye, a bewitching sprite who distils the appeal of so many liberated late ’60s girls – and who is bedded by the insatiable Rick before Greg can even get near her.

It should be no great surprise that Niven’s next work of “fiction” was the lacerating black comedy of Kill Your Friends. Certainly he was under no illusion that late ’60s Woodstock represented any kind of valid countercultural utopia.

“It seems to me it went fairly quickly from being the hippest place you could go to being almost Touristville,” he said when I talked to him for my Woodstock/Bearsville history Small Town Talk (2016). “It was already becoming a caricature of what it had been. A lot of the people were quite troubled, so there was this notion that ‘If I put myself in some kind of bucolic surrounding, things will get better’. But changing your locale doesn’t change what’s going on inside you.”

Yet Niven’s remarkable book is a testament to the fact that Woodstock’s “locale” did change the Hawks/Band – just as it profoundly altered the course of North American music.

Small Town Talking in the Black Country

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“Popular rock author set for talk at Bewdley Book Week” (Weds. 6th Sept)

Yes, I’ve finally made it into the pages of the Redditch Advertiser! So it’s been worth all the aggravation… especially if you’re in the area and want to toddle along to the RIVERSIDE CHURCH HALL in Bewdley (England) next Weds 6th Sept at 7.30 pm and hear me small-town-talking about Woodstock/Bearsville/Dylan/Bobby Charles (and, yes, local heroes Led Zeppelin too).

May Days: Small town talking

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I’m doing the following UK events this month to discuss Never Enough, Small Town Talk (shortly out in paperback), and anything else anyone might want to ask me about…

Mon 15 May 19:30 (MEMBERS ONLY)

Shoreditch House, 1 Ebor Street, London E1 6AW

Weds 17 May 19:30

The Woolpack Inn, 6 Fawcett Street, York YO10 4AH

Thurs 18 May 19:30

Wakefield Beer Exchange, 14 Bull Ring, Wakefield WF1 1HA

Tues 30 May 19:30

Studio 2 Parr Street, 33-45 Parr Street, Liverpool L1 4JN

Small Town paperback, out today

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The U.S. paperback of my Small Town Talk is published today by Da Capo. Read more about it here and/or buy it on Amazon here.

“A portrait of the musical life of Woodstock, an idyllic artists’ community that turned into a rock ‘n’ roll soap opera.”
The Guardian, “The Best Music Books of 2016”

A San Francisco Chronicle “Top 5 Rock Biography of 2016”

“A breezy, gossipy read that takes you inside Woodstock, N.Y., during its glory days…The always-erudite rock critic vet Hoskyns effortlessly connects the dots in the notorious town’s history.”—Addicted to Noise, “Best of 2016: Top 5 Books”

•••

Publishers Weekly, 2/15/16
An absorbing glimpse into events that shaped Woodstock, N.Y., into a haven for musicians. Hoskyns’s stunning book highlights some of the most memorable music in American history.

Record Collector, Issue 451
[A] supremely evocative book. Hoskyns has painted his masterpiece.

Rolling Stone, 3/24/16
Goes inside the myth, debauchery and creative fire of one of rock’s legendary towns. Hoskyns’ fascinating new history of Woodstock, Small Town Talk, explores one of rock’s most mythic settings [Hoskyns] pin[s] down the knotty reality behind the tie-dyed myth.

The Guardian (UK), 3/2/16
[An] enjoyable study of the New York upstate village. [A] fascinating account of the epic influence and mysterious magnetism of this Dibley-sized corner of the Catskill mountains. Hoskyns, who appears to have talked to everyone who ever lived here, and amasses their testimony with admirable grace and ease, chronicles the excesses that set in during the ’70s in unsparing detail.

No Depression, 1/28/16
Absorbing and in-depth. Hoskyns so powerfully evokes the feelings and vibes both good and bad of living in and through those halcyon and fraught days. In his pages[he] brings new life to old tales[A] captivating look at this sometimes sad and always fascinating scene that gave birth to Americana music.

Mojo, March 2016
Barney Hoskyns has come up with something novel in Small Town Talk. Instead of focusing on the concert which actually took place 60 miles from Woodstock he nails the magic, and mayhem, of the town which inspired the festival’s organisers to co-opt its name. Hoskyns offers a pitch perfect East Coast corollary to his classic tome on the Laurel Canyon scene, Hotel California. Better, he chronicles the seeds of the Americana movement, whose fetish for rural music resonates louder today than ever.

Financial Times, 7/1/16
Woodstock, the Catskills town where Bob Dylan recuperated after his motorbike crash in 1966, [is] a hippy oasis with a storied place in music history, well related in Small Town Talk.

Austin Chronicle, 6/17/16
Hoskyns examines the small upstate New York town that lent the festival its name and uncovers details long forgotten, and in some cases, previously unknown. There’s sex, plentiful drugs, and all sorts of rock & roll.

Best Classic Bands, 7/29/16
In a word: Illuminating. Small Town Talk is the story of refugees fleeing the chaos and paranoia of the rat race, embracing the peace and nature of this welcoming oasis, making some of the best (and sometimes worst) music of their lives, but ultimately discovering that leaving their demons behind was just another pipe dream.

Spectrum Culture, 8/4/16
Some scribes get it right. Barney Hoskyns is one. The reader is moved at a deep level by the drama that unfolds, as the town’s glory fades or, rather, evolves into something that trades on its past rather than creating an ever-brighter future. A book that will hold you in its grip from cover to cover and encourage you to think more deeply about a town that has seen its time come and go.

Montreal Gazette, 4/11/16
A book that eloquently serves as both tribute and eulogy to what people used to call the counterculture. It’s a clear-eyed look at the bohemia-friendly town where many of rock’s major figures found themselves living, working and playing in many cases, playing very hard indeed.”

Woodstock Times, 4/8/16
Hoskyns has spoken to, or spoken to those who have spoken to, almost everyone who was a player, large or small, on the cosmic-bucolic stage of Woodstock, and his affection for them all is on a par with his scholarship and his love and respect for the music and art they created. What’s really valuable about Small Town Talk is the way the author has tied the disparate strands together and braided them into a single, intimate, extensively researched, and color-splattered narrative. The definitive history of Woodstock’s emergence as a world-renowned musical Mecca.

New York Post, 3/13/16
[Hoskyns] tells the colorful history of this town that began its life as an artists colony in the early 20th century.

Counterpunch, 3/11/15
An in-depth look at the Woodstock music scene, that also provides a history of the artistic inclinations of the town itself Small Town Talk is loaded with legendary stories of rock and roll, some funny, some crazy.

Catholic Herald, 3/11/16
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. Hoskyns has written a fascinating, poignant and elegiac book that is about much more than music, success and the gentrification of rural AmericaIn 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.