"The past is never dead. It's not even past."
—William Faulkner, from Requiem for a Nun
Last month, I touched a bit upon Barney Hoskyns's recent book Small Town Talk, about the musical heyday of Woodstock in the Sixties and Seventies when the likes of Bob Dylan, The Band, and all of the rest of the characters in uber-manager Albert Grossman's orbit were gallivanting around the town. When I finished the book, I marveled at how far removed we are from those crazy days of folk turning into rock and then pot turning into coke. It had an air of ancient history about it. I placed Small Town Talk on the shelf next to I, Claudius and Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar.
No sooner had I put the book down than I got an e-mail from Peter Aaron, our music editor, reminding me that he was going to profile John Simon for the May issue ("We Can Talk About It Now," page 67). This is the same John Simon who pops up all over Small Town Talk, mostly in connection with The Band, whose first two albums he produced. Simon has enviable list of productions credits. The first hit he produced was The Cyrkle's "Red Rubber Ball" in 1965. Leonard Cohen's debut, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, was produced by Simon. So was Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends (1) and Big Brother and Holding Company's breakthrough Cheap Thrills—and the list goes on. Simon, now 75, is preparing a new show, "Truth, Lies, and Hearsay"—part monologue, part musical revue—set to premiere in Woodstock this month.
Now, I thought I was done with this Woodstock business, but the past has a way of creeping up and biting you on the ass, doesn't it? I bring this up because I'm focused mainly on looking forward: staying abreast of evolving stories and prognosticating about where we're headed. And there is no doubt that we are in the midst of a cultural shift here in the Hudson Valley that has been over 20 years in the making. The sense of newness, freshness, and revitalization can be seen in every city and town across the region (even Newburgh and Poughkeepsie!), and we're bursting at the seams trying to tell that story in Chronogram, as well as in our other publications: Upstater, Upstate House, and Explore the Hudson Valley.(2)
And so a simple thing like a record producer (whom I'd only been marginally aware of until I read a book on the musical history of Woodstock) performing new music makes me see all sorts of connections with the past—in a Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (3) kind of way.
For instance, I was recently walking Shazam the Wonder Dog down at Kingston Point near my house. Across from the beach is the rundown industrial site that was once home to the long-derelict Hutton Brickyard. The site is the future home of Smorgasburg, the Upstate outpost of the eating extravaganza that draws upwards of 10,000 visitors a day to its home site in Williamsburg. Think of it like a food truck festival on steroids; The New Yorks Times has dubbed Smorgasburg "The Woodstock of Eating." (4) (Smorgasburg is not only expanding into the Hudson Valley this year, but also into another rural backwater you may have heard of: Los Angeles.)
As Shazam terrorized the gulls along the waterfront, I pondered the potential transformative impact Smorgasburg could have on the region as a whole (planting another Hudson Valley flag on the foodie map) and on the Kingston waterfront in particular, which has needed economic development for some time. Walking out to Kingston Point from the beach, I spied the trolley tracks along the water that were first laid in 1896 by minions of Samuel Decker Coykendall, and it hit me—here comes the past to bite me in the ass again.
Coykendall was president of both the Cornell Steamboat Company and the Ulster & Delaware Railroad. The Hudson River Day Line had been bringing passengers to Albany from New York City since 1863 but it didn't stop at Kingston. Seizing an opportunity to put travelers to the Catskills on his railroad, Coykendall constructed a passenger boat wharf at Kingston Point with a rail connection. Simultaneously, the robber baron developed Kingston Point Park, turning what had been a swamp into a leisure oasis kitted out with a dance hall, amusement park, nightly fireworks, and a big hotel (quaintly named The Oriental). Everything went swimmingly, more or less, until the hotel burned down in 1922 and the site fell into greater and greater neglect. It wasn't until the early `90s that the site was reclaimed from its disordered state by the Rotary Club of Kingston.
The past is never dead, as Faulkner wrote. Most of those who will travel to Kingston Point to sample the stalls of Smorgasburg won't know that a century ago revelers flocked to the same site seeking similar diversion. Perhaps that's as it should be. A hundred years hence, who will remember Smorgasburg? We are haunted by ghosts that we don't even know exist.
1 Bookends is worth another listen if only for track #5, "Voices of Old People," the sound collage that Art Garfunkel recorded at a couple of senior citizens' homes. A man declaring "I have little in this world" with the flat affect of a sandwich order will always haunt me.
2 A shameless plug.
3 You know when you hear a word for the first time and then it seems to crop up everywhere? That's called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. It's caused by two psychological processes. The first, selective attention, kicks in when you become aware of a new word, thing, or idea; after that, you unconsciously keep an eye out for it, and as a result find it surprisingly often. The second, confirmation bias, reaffirms that each sighting is further proof that the thing has gained overnight omnipresence. The name Baader-Meinhof phenomenon was coined by a commenter on the St. Paul Pioneer Press' online discussion board in the early `90s, who came up with it after hearing the name of the ultra-left-wing German terrorist group twice in 24 hours.
4 How fitting. Smorgasburg's Kingston site is almost as far from the village of Woodstock as the original festival on Yasgur's farm.