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Woodstock Part 2: art colonies and recording studios

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By Nicole Skeltys

Back to the garden

“We are stardust, we are golden,
We are caught in the devils bargain,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden”.
“Woodstock”, Joni Mitchell, 1969.

Whitehead’s autocratic personality jarred with his espoused libertarian views and alienated many of the artists that initially gathered to live and work in Byrdcliffe’s 30 dark stained hemlock chalets. Several key figures left early on, including poet and author Hervey White who established his own Maverick artists’ colony off Maverick road in Woodstock in 1904. By the ’20s, wild Maverick balls were being held which attracted artists, outsiders and hedonists from the Hudson valley and New York. They featured long days and nights of masquerades, cross-dressing, nudity, illegal alcohol, illegal sex, and jazz. In the decades that followed, Woodstock continued to attract and provide a refuge to artists, activists, free spirits and the sexually adventurous. Outdoor musical celebrations continued to be held, and in this sense the iconic Woodstock festival of 1969 was more the culmination of a long bacchanalian tradition associated with the area, rather than the new explosion of hippy consciousness that the media has subsequently portrayed.

On our first day wandering around the village on a bright September morning, it was the legacy of the 1960s and early 70s counterculture, rather than the preceding decades, that was most evident. Shops left you in no doubt that ’69 was a momentous year for Woodstock, and the major source of all tourist commerce ever since. Tie-dyed T-shirts emblazoned with ‘3 Days of Peace and Music’ flapped in windows. Signs in cafes said “Hippies welcome!”. The rainbow colored peace sign served as Woodstock’s local flag, and was stuck, hammered, or hung on most doors and windows. One cramped, dusty boutique specialized in rock legend memorabilia and stocked an impressive array of psych-rock T-shirts (including many alluring Grateful Dead designs which I hovered over for some time), dozens of portraits of Bob Dylan, caches of records with faded covers showing a lot of young men with beards, country frock coats and hats posing in rustic settings. In the town square (more properly described as a small rectangle of grass which served as a local meeting point and hanging out space), a couple of men with long grey hair sat cross-legged on the grass and smoked a joint. The square was surrounded by spiritual shops: a Tibetan arts and crafts shop, a New Age shop offering ‘Spiritual gifts of Light and Love’, a Sufi mystics centre. Incense and wind chimes flowed out.

But there was nothing ‘fringe’ about this place anymore. All the whitewashed New England clapboard houses and shop fronts were immaculately maintained, numerous art galleries discretely offered glossy bland photographic ‘art’ for very high prices. All the comfortable parked cars and SUVs gleamed with newness. Despite the occasional obvious aged acid-casualty mumbling to themselves and shuffling down the street in badly soiled fisherman’s wraparound pants, Woodstock it seemed had, since 1969, been gradually handed over from those who had been expelled from the garden of Eden, but still searched for it, to those who had always lived in paradise, but were quite prepared to buy more of it. Woodstock was now the preferred location for the second or even third home of wealthy, arty New Yorkers who needed a place to unwind for weekends; it was, after all, less than 2 hours commute from the Big Apple, and it offered trees, cafes, watering holes and the still lingering aura of bohemian stylishness. Many celebrities and wealthy rock musicians owned homes in the area.

Still, there was definitely a magic and energy in the air that we had not felt in any of the towns or cities we had visited so far on our US trip. Everyone seemed to be smiling, like they all shared a very cool secret. It was the kind of place where you felt you could just walk up to a stranger’s house and expect to be let in and just given stuff.

Which is exactly what happened, several times.

The first time was when I spotted a sign which said “Jefferson Starship” hanging over the entrance to double story house with a glass frontage in a recess off Mill Hill Road. I wandered over, half-hoping that a member of one of my favorite ‘60s psychedelic bands was actually in there. Tanya joined me and we pressed our noses against the windows. An older, thin man with long bedraggled hair was leaning over a guitar. When he saw us, he jumped up and opened the door: “Come in, come in!” he said, with a giggle.

We entered a ‘70s pine wood studio, CDs piled up, old keyboards racked one top of the other, audio leads and recording gear scattered around. The walls were covered in faded old progressive rock and psychedelic album posters: Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and (very prominently) Jefferson Starship. Rick (our host’s) role on the Starship turned out to be the webmaster: he hosted and maintained the band’s website. In addition to that, he ran a small, low budget recording operation, laying down tracks mostly for visiting musicians – the town attracted quite a number of musical pilgrims every summer, some of whom walked into his studio on impulse, wanting to take a Woodstock recording session away with them as a souvenir. Within a few minutes, Rick was offering to lend me one of his old synthesizers to rehearse on and even to jam with us. By the time we left, he was even offering to record us for free.

A few days later, the temperature soared. Our little nunnery-like rooms in the creaking old Villetta Inn (the main structure in which all the artists in residence stayed at Byrdcliffe) were cooking us like hibachis. It was impossible to work. Tanya grabbed her swimsuit and towel and took off down Lower Byrdcliffe road, which was dotted with large, tasteful expensive houses in the woods, on landscaped acreage. Having selected one with an appropriately large swimming pool, she knocked on the door. When it was apparent no one was home, T changed and dived in the pool, did a few laps then sunbathed.

Ok. Maybe that counts more as hospitality seized rather than freely given. But when Tanya was sprung by the landscape gardener, all that ensued was a flirty conversation and exchange of numbers.

The most spectacular generosity, however, was extended to me by Levon Helm. Prior to Woodstock, I was traveling through Colorado and Texas, meeting other musicians, commune members, former Deadheads, vision questers. When people found out I was going to Woodstock, many urged me to check out the Midnight Rambles shows. The performances weren’t held in a venue, they were held in Levon’s house and studio, a converted old barn in the woods. Helm started the Rambles in a low key way in 2004; now people from all round the world were coming to be a part of these intimate shows, featuring the best roots musicians from around America.

But when I checked the website, I saw to my dismay that all the Rambles that were happening when I was at Byrdcliffe (and all those listed later in the year as well) had sold out. And the Ramble that was happening the next night, Saturday night, looked like it was going to be a corker. Levon’s guest band was Kinky Friedman and The Texan Jewboys. The country crooning showman, humorist and former gubernatorial candidate for Texas was famous for putting on a great show. I emailed Levon’s manager expressing my disappointment at missing out on the show, but asking if it was possible to visit the studio and perhaps meet Helm later in the week. To my astonishment and delight, I was offered a guest pass to the show.

The night far exceeded even my high expectations and proved to be one of the musical highlights of my life. Because the venue was not a venue but a large studio in a custom designed warm wooden room overlooked by an inner balcony, the live sound was flawless – like listening to your favorite record on a top end stereo. It was not crowded, there would only have been about 150 people there, it felt like being in Levon’s lounge – which it virtually was. Both bands played their hearts out and I swear everyone in the room was beaming from ear to ear.

Including me. Particularly when I found myself in Levon’s kitchen later which served as the location for the after party. A very happy accident, all thanks to my highly decorated Spanish leather cowgirl boots. One of the Texan Jewboys, Ratso, noticed me (or rather my boots) when I first arrived and walked into the merchandise room. We got talking, and later during interval, he kindly said I could hang out with him and the rest of the crew after the show. As the night pushed into the wee hours, and more Coors and spleefs were consumed, the conversation roller coasted around the forthcoming election as Kinky (perversely, or perhaps seriously) yelled out McCains virtues while Helm and just about everyone else in the room argued passionately, if fairly incoherently, for Obama. As the band members and hangers on eventually started to wander off into the night, I thanked Levon profusely for his hospitality and wonderful evening (“Youre welcome, honey!” he said, twinkling with gracious good humor, and giving me a hug) and I made my way back to Byrdcliffe on a high that lasted for days.

Helm’s opening up of his studio as an exclusive performance space has enabled him to remain in the Woodstock musical garden of Eden – ie keep his world class country studio and stay financially solvent. This has not been the fate of the other high end Woodstock studios, most of which have shut down over the last few years. The most famous of these was Bearsville, owned by Albert Grossman, a rock mogul who aggressively managed the careers of many of the greatest artists of the ‘60s: Dylan, Janis Joplin, John Lee Hooker, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez to name but a few. He established his studio in 1969, and throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, the studio attracted roots and rock superstars: The Rolling Stones, Jeff Buckley, Phish, Bonnie Rait, REM, Foreigner, to name but a few. Grossman died in 1986. His widow Sally kept the studio running throughout the ‘90s, promoting Bearsville as “one of the few purely analog recording studios left”.

Ask most musicians who are serious about the sound quality of their recorded music and they will tell you analog recording techniques (tape, valve mixing/compression’ effects, reproduction onto vinyl), in the hands of an expert producer, provide an infinitely better sound quality than digital processes and media. ‘Better’ meaning warmth, nuance, emotional resonance, ‘creaminess’. The ‘90s saw the final mass market triumph of the CD over the vinyl platter, and the increasing power, user friendliness and affordability of computer based digital recording equipment. What was gained in terms of the much-vaunted democratization of the means of album production was lost in the actual sonic beauty of the thing produced. Apparently not enough of today’s commercially successful recording artists or their record companies wanted to pay the premium to recapture that old fashioned loveliness, free of the harsh digital imprisonment of zeros and ones. Or to feel the history in the exposed wooden beams, and see the recording desk that still bore the peeling masking tape with Joplin’s sub-mixes marked out in fading felt pen. Bearsville Studios in its old configuration closed down in 2004.

Road movie endings

As we came to the end of our stay at Byrdsville, we finished off the promo for our documentary. When we were in Portland in July, I had purchased another $300 handycam, which meant we had no less than doubled our film crew. As we reviewed the footage we had taken thus far on our tour we were relieved (and a bit surprised) to see we had a great deal of useable material (interviews, concert footage, travel shots, ‘incidents’). We were hoping to use our promo/teaser to entice a producer on board, particularly as Tanya had completely run out of cash and we were going to have to stay in New York for a while and get some kind of menial work to stay afloat. A producer, we hoped (wildly) might be able to get us some money, help us keep going on our journey.

My final task, craning over my beloved MacBook late into the cicada chorused Catskill evenings, was to organize rehearsals leading up to our NYC gigs at the Lit Lounge and the Trash Bar in the last weekend of September. Thanks to the miracle that is Craigslist, we had found musicians who had agreed to play with us for no other reason that it sounded like fun. A drummer, bassist and guitarist who we had never met in person were even now sitting in their NY apartments listening to the MP3s of our songs and trying to memorize the chord charts I had sent them. What were the odds of a makeshift band who had only played together for a few hours, pulling off an impressive show in front of one of the most sophisticated music audiences in the world? Pretty remote, I thought.

But I also knew that there was a lot riding on our being able to ‘make it’ somehow in New York: impress people, get some kind of fan base. After all we had been through, I didn’t want to have to live through the compulsory tragic endings of American ‘free spirit’ road movies: I didn’t want to have to accelerate off a cliff holding Tanya’s hand; I didn’t want to have to stare grimly into the fire in my Captain America jacket and repeat “We blew it”. I wanted a happy ending.

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