15. Woodstock

Bearsville Sound Studios 1971


In 1969, Dylan wrote in Chronicles: Volume One, ‘Woodstock had turned into a nightmare, a place of chaos.’


“Are you any good?” That was Jim Rooney, the manager of Albert Grossman’s Bearsville Sound Studios on the phone, scrupulously screening me when I cold-called, asking for a job. “Oh yeah!” my confident reply. I think it was that assertiveness that convinced him, and possibly desperation. The new studio was super busy. (With a stable that included Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and The Band, Albert was the first superstar music manager.) In his autobiography, In It For The Long Run: A Musical Odyssey, Jim Rooney wrote:















Rock and roll had opened up the idea of residential studios where a band could come and stay for the duration of the recording, so there was a two-bedroom apartment at one end of the studio. The restaurant was going to have a French chef. Albert had a Japanese gardener who grew organic vegetables. All of this was supposed to be tied together as a feature of the studio. As time passed it became clear to me that this was totally Albert’s operation. The Band had nothing to do with it, except that Robbie Robertson would occasionally be asked his opinion about things. But the studio was Albert’s all the way. He owned it. He paid for it. 


I zoomed up to Woodstock to look for housing  and quickly got installed in a rented house a few blocks from downtown. Jim Rooney is a super amiable guy who really tried to integrate me into the local gang of musicians. He got me invited to parties and I even went bowling with John Simon (The Band’s producer), Geoff and Maria Muldaur, and Todd Rundgren. Despite Jim’s efforts, I never got comfortable with this crowd; I was just a backup engineer and didn’t blend in well, and didn’t get a whole lot of projects to work on. 


I was able to do some work on the legendary folksinger Karen Dalton’s second (and final) album, “In My Own Time”. I didn't know she was legendary. The boss was Harvey Brooks, a legendary bass player (Electric Flag, Miles Davis), who was getting started as a producer. I had heard of Harvey. I don’t remember much about the process, except for fumbling around trying to roll a joint at Harvey’s house during a get-acquainted meeting, and the striking, almost overwhelming melancholy of Karen Dalton. Still, I felt more comfortable around her than I did with Harvey. She was only 35, but seemed older. She told me her banjo was carved out of a hall tree by her grandfather.


A few scattered memories: the time an orchestra session was booked, even though the studio had only a half dozen music stands. Everybody scrambling around, frantically searching for things to perch the players’ music scores on. Cinder blocks! There were lots of cinder blocks left over from construction,  so we mostly used those.


If you looked up "saturnine" in the dictionary, Albert Grossman's picture would be next to it. He was really kind of a human planet. A conversation with Albert was not exactly one-sided, but you always felt like you were saying about 10 times more than he did.  Maybe that's how he had succeeded so brilliantly as a talent manager.


After a couple weeks at Bearsville, Albert invited me to have lunch with him at his new restaurant, “The Bear” on a Monday, having forgotten that it was closed on Mondays. We entered grandly by the big double doors, and Albert intoned "Let the feasting begin,"  to the extremely embarrassed manager, who struggled to choke out the unfortunate news——  "Albert, we're closed!" One of the few times I ever saw him nonplussed. 


And although he had well-deserved notoriety for toughness and frugality, sometimes, when I was super broke, a mysterious deposit of $100 would magically appear in my bank account.


The house in Woodstock had an old-fashioned front porch with an old-fashioned trellis supporting a grape vine running overhead and down the sides. A few of the Bearsville Sound staff people had dropped by. I made a Warren-style joke about standing on the porch and being able to hear all the local gossip, holding a bit of trailing grapevine to my ear by way of illustration. A quip that would have sent my New York colleagues into hysterics. Here I just got a few polite coughs.


As a side hustle, my girlfriend Sue started cleaning houses. Her clients included John Simon and a reclusive scientist named Edgar Villchur. I would pick Sue up at the Villchur's big house and eventually got to know Eddie, who had a little sound studio set up at one end of the house. The studio wasn't for music, however; it was really for acoustical experiments. Turned out Eddie was the inventor of the acoustic suspension principle, a design for speaker cabinets that spawned the Acoustic Research Company. AR made a series of speakers and turntables that revolutionized home audio.  These items are still highly prized and we sell examples of them, mostly from the 60s and 70s, at Berkeley Stereo.


And … finding Todd Rundgren (who'd had a giant hit single, “Hello It’s Me”, and produced The Band’s third Album, Stage Fright) sprawled over the Bearsville Sound mixing console, asleep, when I arrived to start the morning’s work. More than once!


notes #16