Sunday, October 23, 2016
New York Times: Exploring Bob Dylan's New York
Mike Porco owned the restaurant-turned-music-venue Gerde’s Folk City in New York’s Greenwich Village, and one October night, a few friends showed up to celebrate Mr. Porco’s birthday.
Allen Ginsberg was there, as were the familiar folkies Phil Ochs and Bob Neuwirth. None were better known than Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, who first met at the original Gerde’s and performed that night as well.
But this wasn’t the early 1960s folk scene. The year was 1975, and Mr. Dylan, not yet a Nobel Prize winner but long since a songwriting legend, was in the middle of his third stint living in the Village.
That night, he and his artist friends weren’t just celebrating Mr. Porco’s birthday, a man who Mr. Dylan said “became like father to me.” They were also rehearsing for his coming Rolling Thunder Revue tour.
Mr. Dylan would soon move on from the Village scene for good, as the neighborhood was far from what it had been during those first years of artistic discovery.
“America was changing. I had a feeling of destiny and I was riding the changes,” he wrote of his early days in New York in his memoir “Chronicles.” “New York was as good a place to be as any.”
Greenwich Village is drastically different now from the place Mr. Dylan left behind, but there are still remnants from his days of leading a generation-defining music scene, and landmarks worth exploring for aspiring Dylanologists.
“I was there to find singers, the ones I’d heard on record,” Mr. Dylan wrote in “Chronicles,” but “mostly to find Woody Guthrie,” the folk hero he would model himself after in his early performing days.
Robert Zimmerman arrived in January 1961, and would soon find Mr. Guthrie at the Greystone Hospital near Morristown, N.J. (where he was being treated for Huntington’s disease), but not before persuading Fred Neil, who ran the daytime show at Manny Roth’s Cafe Wha?, to let him perform at the Village coffeehouse on his first day in the city.
He described the cafe as “a subterranean cavern, liquorless, ill lit, low ceiling, like a wide dining hall with chairs and tables,” but “that’s where I started playing regular in New York.”
Cafe Wha? is still a fixture of Macdougal Street, and one of the few Dylan haunts still operating under the same name in the same location. But not much else is like it was in the early 1960s.
The club closed in 1968, had a long run as a Middle Eastern restaurant, and opened again as Cafe Wha?, under new management, in 1987. Music is still the main draw, with the talented Cafe Wha? Band headlining most nights. They’ll play at your wedding, too.
Mr. Dylan was fired by Mr. Roth after being late for three gigs, and would soon make his way to the nearby Caffe Reggio, the Commons, Caffe Dante and several other coffeehouses in the Village.
“They were small and ranged in shape, loud and noisy and catered to the confection of tourists who swarmed through the streets at night,” he wrote in “Chronicles.”
Caffe Reggio, which claims to have served the first cappuccino in the United States, remains open and is much as it was, minus the music, on Macdougal Street, as is Caffe Dante (now Dante NYC), where small plates have replaced protest songs.
The Commons, also on Macdougal, near Minetta Lane, was where Mr. Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and was later renamed Fat Black Pussycat. It has since become Panchito’s Mexican Restaurant and Cantina, which in 2011 erased the last tie to its musical past when it painted over the faded lettering reading “Fat Black Pussycat Theatre” above its entrance.
In Mr. Dylan’s mind, none of these smaller coffeehouses compared with the Gaslight Cafe (116 Macdougal), a “cryptic club” that “an unknown couldn’t break into,” he wrote, though he managed to eventually.
The Gaslight “had a dominant presence on the street, more prestige than anyplace else,” he wrote.
While the Gaslight closed in 1971, the Kettle of Fish bar, which Mr. Dylan and his contemporaries would frequent next door, is still in business, though it is now at its third location, at 59 Christopher Street, and attracts far more Packers fans than folkies these days.
As for the Fat Black Pussycat, it’s now a night spot featuring a lounge, pub and downstairs dance club at 130 West Third Street. Its front room was once Kettle of Fish’s second home, and photographs and paintings still pay tribute to that bar’s history.
When Mr. Dylan found time to sleep, he crashed on a lot of couches before finding his first apartment at 161 West Fourth Street, which he and his girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, moved into in December 1961, nearly one year after his arrival. They paid $60 a month rent. The structure, built in 1910, sold for $6 million in 2015.
Next door at 169 West Fourth Street remains the Music Inn, where he would sometimes borrow instruments to play. Ms. Rotolo described it in her memoir as “an impossibly cluttered store that sold every kind of instrument ever made in the entire world.” It’s still cluttered, and still sells all kinds of instruments and has an open-mike night on Thursdays.
A short walk from the West Fourth Street apartment is the site of what Anthony DeCurtis in The Times called “one of the most evocative images of Greenwich Village in the 1960s.”
The cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” captures the couple strolling down a snow-covered Jones Street in February 1963.
“It was freezing out,” Ms. Rotolo told Mr. DeCurtis. “He wore a very thin jacket, because image was all.”
The album, which featured some of Mr. Dylan’s best-known songs, including “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and “Girl From the North Country,” propelled him to larger New York venues like Town Hall, Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall, now called David Geffen Hall.
But the immense fame that followed would chase Mr. Dylan and his eventual wife, Sara, from the Village to upstate New York.
The house they purchased in the Byrdcliffe artist colony, near Woodstock, N.Y., didn’t provide the kind of privacy Mr. Dylan craved for his family.
They returned to the Village in 1969. Despite Mr. Dylan’s notoriety, he remembered, he was relatively unbothered by those in the neighborhood, and purchased a 19th-century townhouse at 94 Macdougal Street.
But there was no respite from the obsessive fans who tracked him down and “paraded up and down in front of it chanting and shouting, demanding for me to come out and lead them somewhere,” he wrote in “Chronicles.” His family was forced to seek peace elsewhere when they could.
In addition, “the stimulation had vanished. Everybody was in a pretty down mood. It was over,” he told Playboy in 1978. He would later call his return to the Village “a stupid thing to do.”
Still, years later, after his first major tour since the mid-’60s and enduring a bitter divorce from Sara, he found himself back in the Village, this time living alone.
He started hanging out at some of his old favorite spots, like Gerde’s, which had moved from its original location at 11 West Fourth Street to 130 West Third Street, and the Kettle of Fish, and found some peace at the Bitter End (147 Bleecker Street), where he played pool, watched bands and sometimes went onstage to perform.
“I made sure no one bothered him,” the owner Paul Colby said in “The Greenwich Village Reader.”
Kris Kristofferson told The Times that the Bitter End was the place “people like me and Bob Dylan didn’t just perform, we came to hang out.”
The Bitter End, which opened in 1961, considers itself to be New York’s oldest rock club and built a legendary reputation after showcasing young performers like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor and comedians like Woody Allen and Billy Crystal.
While the original location of Gerde’s is now the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the Gaslight is now an apartment building, the Bitter End, of all the surviving Dylan hangouts, may retain the look and feel more than any other.
But while the distinctive brick walls and intimate setting are intact, bar bands now dominate the bill, and you’re no longer likely to find famed musicians hanging around (or at least they’re not famous yet).
Correction: October 20, 2016
An earlier version of this article misstated the building at the site of the original Gerde’s Folk City. It is now the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, not a New York University building.