Review: Bob Dylan in the Big Apple by K.G. Miles

Disclosure: I got a press copy of this book from the publisher, McNidder & Grace. Thank you so much!

Ahh New York, that was my last holiday before the pandemic. What an amazing city and one that I’ve come to appreciate so much more with every visit. And this being a classic rock blog, you know I love all things classic rock. I’ve reviewed Bob Dylan in London by Jackie Lees and K.G. Miles, which was also an excellent read so I have high expectations for Bob Dylan in the Big Apple.

Even though Bob Dylan was born and raised in Minnesota (no one from the state really thinks of him as being from there though), the city he’s most associated with is New York City, particularly Greenwich Village, the famous bohemian, creative neighbourhood and a must visit for every classic rock fan (or any arty type for that matter) who wants to visit New York. Is it really a trip to New York if you didn’t go to Greenwich Village? No question about it the city has shaped him and this book explores his journey through the city, talking about his career milestones, evolution, and all the influential people in his life there. As with my other reviews, we’re going to review the book, then do a list of 10 takeaways and things I learnt. Anne Margaret Daniel, who wrote the foreword said it well, “Even when Dylan isn’t in the city, the city is in him.” The two are linked. Bob Dylan’s sound in the 60s is New York. His story of how he rose to stardom is New York, and he’s one of many who had hopes and dreams before arriving in the city and lucky for him, with his talent and hard work, to say that he achieved them is an understatement. We’ll be talking about Bob Dylan for centuries. His poetic lyrics in every English class.

Book Review

Bob Dylan being Bob Dylan, there’s a lot to him and that’s what makes him intimidating to those who haven’t gotten into his music yet. His discography is long, his lyrics so thought-provoking, his mysterious and reserved persona, the music not being party music or poppy, and a lot of academic work about his work, makes him hard to get into. It takes a lifetime to really know Bob Dylan, maybe even more than that, and you can always learn something new about him. So obviously this book won’t cover every little detail, but it will cover the highlights, so great for longtime aficionados and people in a hurry who want to learn more about Bob Dylan.

The book starts off with Bob Dylan’s move to New York and his ‘rebirth’ or rather ‘birth’ there, so to speak. That’s when he found himself and became the Bob Dylan we all know and love. The journey takes us to famous venues like Café Wha? (once considered the hottest venue), The Gaslight, Gerde’s Folk City, The Fifth Peg. Besides learning about the history of Bob Dylan, you get some context, learning the history of the various places in New York that he frequented and about folk music in general, especially his influences like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger.

It always blows my mind how young he was starting out (and so many other rock stars) and how different things were then, like the age of majority being 21 and not 18, to the point where he had to get club owner Mike Porco to sign his musician’s union card for him when he was 19. We also get an overview of what he did instead of playing Woodstock and find out the significance of places like Washington Square Park, the Folklore Center, The Music Inn, the Riverside Church, the Washington Square Hotel, the White Horse Tavern, and more places significant in Bob Dylan history. The author shares his honest opinions on what those places are like now, if they’re still around and he’s not afraid to give criticism, like if food is overpriced or the ambiance isn’t the same.

The book’s last few chapters talk about Bob Dylan’s later years in New York, so this book doesn’t just talk about the 60s, you’ll see stories of The Bitter End, Rolling Thunder Revue (with contributions from violinist Scarlet Rivera, who only bumped into Bob Dylan by chance when he passed by in his car and spotted the long-haired violinist walking around with her violin case. Talk about being at the right place at the right time!), and The Beacon Theatre.

Unfortunately, most of the cool places from the 60s and 70s that New York was known for are no longer around, but this book helps keep the memories of these places alive and basically takes you there. That’s the magic of books. There are some cool pictures in the middle of the book that show some of the landmarks talked about in the book and there’s a little map in there in case you want to take yourself on a walking tour, handy!

Top 10 Takeaways/Things I Learnt

1. Bob Dylan made up backstories, and this was normal in Greenwich Village.

Music is all about marketing. It’s not enough to make good music, you need an image and something that stands out. Lots of talented people out there, but it’s even harder to find someone who is both talented and interesting. Bob Dylan’s beginnings were quite ordinary, growing up in Minnesota and even though distance-wise it’s as big of a move as moving from one region of Europe to another, that isn’t an exotic or interesting enough. And I think that’s one thing that makes him intimidating to new listeners.

The best musicians reinvent themselves throughout their careers and that sometimes means creating lore: The Beatles, David Bowie, and Madonna are some other great examples of this. Suze Rotolo, an ex-girlfriend and mentor of Bob Dylan’s in his early years in New York said that everyone who comes to Greenwich Village does one of two things: finds themselves or loses themselves and friend and fellow folk singer Dave Van Ronk said that fabricated backstories were completely normal in those days in Greenwich Village and didn’t make Bob Dylan a phoney. These backstories are all part of a performance. Life is all a performance.

2. Bob Dylan may not be a showoff and may be shy, but he quickly established himself as a performer.

Often, we think of the best performers in rock and roll as those with a distinct, loud stage presence, like a Freddie Mercury, Robert Plant, or Roger Daltrey. That’s not the only good type of performance. And the type of music needs to be considered. Wouldn’t make sense for a folk singer to be bouncing and jumping around and dancing, it would look jarring.

Bob Dylan’s style is far from that, but he’s no lightweight when it comes to performance. He has plenty of charm and in his early years in New York, his sense of humour, creativity, and ability to spin a tale quickly won him a following in the Greenwich Village folk circuit, where he would premiere some of his most famous songs at venues like Gerde’s and The Gaslight, the latter of which is where he met Johnny Cash in 1963. Bob Dylan is unapologetically himself and that’s something to look up to. Never try to be something you think others want you to be.

3. The early 60s had its precursors to hippies – Beatniks, even though the aesthetic was different. Bob Dylan was influenced by the Beatniks too.

Hippies are easily the subculture that most people think of first when they think of the 60s, but they were a late 60s thing, but they weren’t the first real youth counterculture activist movement. In a way, the poetry, jazz, and folk loving Beatniks of the late 50s and early 60s were their fathers and they also protested. You definitely know Bob Dylan for his 60s protest songs and those would have been inspired by the Beatnik and folk scene around him in Greenwich Village.

A specific story told in the book was about a protest at Washington Square Park, a famous park in Greenwich Village, right next to NYU. You can’t miss it! In the 60s, the park was a popular place for street musicians to perform. The city decided to take away the performing licence because they believed parks should be tranquil and music free (and I’d imagine rich NIMBYs didn’t want to hear music in the street) and the Beatniks were not happy and so they rioted, resulting in the 9 April 1961 Beatnik Riots. Hundreds of angry young people gathered saying that not allowing musicians to perform in the park will negatively change the character of the neighbourhood, essentially killing the Village. Even worse, property developer Robert Moses wanted to demolish the park so he could have a roadway that connected Fifth Avenue to Manhattan. He also refused to book The Beatles for the 1964 World’s Fair. Bob Dylan wrote “Listen Robert Moses” about the Beatnik Riots, it was never recorded so it essentially remains a poem. As always, well written and worth the read! The poem starts…

“Listen Robert Moses, listen if you can, It’s all about our neighbourhood that you’re trying to condemn. We aren’t going to sit back and see our homes torn down. So take your superhighway and keep it out of town. We won’t be moved. Buddy we won’t be moved. We’re fighting for our rights and we won’t be moved. We’re fighting for our rights from our heads to our shoes. We’re fighting for our homes and we aren’t going to lose.”

– “Listen Robert Moses” by Bob Dylan

4. Bob Dylan is the life of the party.

Bob Dylan’s persona is a very introverted one and people usually think introverts don’t like parties or interacting with others. Really it’s more that introverts like spending time with others, but in small doses. Bob Dylan quickly became the life of the party when he arrived in Greenwich Village. At Noel Paul Stookey’s (of Peter, Paul, and Mary) bachelor party, Bob Dylan played piano loudly, stomped his feet, and imitated Little Richard. Let’s just say the neighbours were not amused. Peter Yarrow (also of Peter, Paul, and Mary) tried to shove a doormat under Bob’s feet to muffle the noise.

Side note, also in chapter six, it is mentioned that Bob Dylan’s jacket from the cover of his breakthrough album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was allegedly given to a Dutch sailor named Rob Mori after Bob Dylan lost a game of chess to him. Wonder what happened to all the other iconic rock star clothes? Who has them? That’s something I always wonder. Is it in the hands of a super fan? In the Hard Rock Cafe? In the musician’s gigantic closet in their mansion? In a landfill? Who knows? An interesting topic for a blog post, but a lot of research required.

5. Despite being Jewish, a church was important in Bob Dylan’s early years in New York.

Yeah, I know Bob Dylan had a born-again Christian phase. But over a decade before that, he met his ex-girlfriend and mentor, Suze Rotolo, who was walking with him on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, at the Riverside Church, near Columbia University. It wasn’t the first time they met (that was actually at Gerde’s), but that’s where they fell in love. At Riverside Church, there was an afternoon folk music concert and Bob Dylan played some traditional songs and performed with his idol, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The audiences got a kick out of him fumbling with his harmonica holder in a funny way. Suze Rotolo said his performance was like a mix of Woody Guthrie’s music and Harpo Marx’s humour, but done in his own unique Bob Dylan way. Suze and Dylan flirted at a party at Suze’s mother’s apartment after the show.

6. Pre-fame Bob Dylan couch-surfed in Greenwich Village and even when famous, lived in hotels.

Bob Dylan had a reputation for being a bit of a mooch when he was younger. When you travel somewhere with very little money, you have to be resourceful and lucky too, relying on the generosity of strangers. It worked out for him in the end. Bob Dylan is a mysterious person and there are a lot of questions about him that we don’t have the answers to. One of them is, ‘Where was the first place that he slept when he arrived in New York on 24 January 1961?’ We’ll probably never know the answer to that, but one thing’s for sure, he slept on a lot of couches, beds, and floors and in these places, he’d be hard at work writing songs.

Living in a hotel sounds pretty bizarre to us now and something you’d only see on TV like Disney Channel’s The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, but the truth is that was pretty common practice in New York, especially for creatives coming to the city. It wasn’t expensive and it was temporary, while they were looking for somewhere more permanent in the city or until they left the city for somewhere else. Bob Dylan famously lived at the Chelsea Hotel on 222 West 23rd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues. Many other writers and musicians stayed there and when the historic hotel was being renovated, the doors to the rooms were auctioned off and the door to Bob Dylan’s room sold for $100,000, beating celebrities like Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, and Andy Warhol! Pretty tough competition and impressive considering he wasn’t living like Keith Moon, he lived quietly there just writing songs on his piano.

7. The White Horse Tavern influenced Bob Dylan’s famous, but controversial, electric debut at the Newport Folk Festival.

Bob Dylan followed the footsteps of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in New York City, even though he died nearly a decade before his arrival. While he’s said that he didn’t call himself Bob Dylan in honour of Dylan Thomas (and even said he did more for Dylan Thomas than Dylan Thomas did for him), he wrote in Chronicles that it was more of a subconscious influence that came from him immersing himself in a lot of his work. Dylan Thomas went to a lot of pubs in London and New York, and naturally, Bob Dylan went to these places too. One of the pubs that Thomas frequented was The White Horse Tavern, rumoured to have been the last place he visited before he died. According to legend, a doctor told Thomas he’d die if he drank a shot of whisky, so he drank 18 shots and so he died.

While at the White Horse Tavern, Bob Dylan hung out with Irish folk musicians The Clancy Brothers, and they were a big influence on him, well a lot of things were because Bob Dylan is very much like a sponge, absorbing everything. The Clancy Brothers inspired him to go to the library and read about American history, particularly the Civil War. When Liam Clancy saw Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, he could see the impact the White Horse Tavern had on him, and he was proud and impressed, like seeing a butterfly emerge from a cocoon.

8. Bob Dylan met Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, and Edie Sedgwick at the Kettle of Fish, also known as The Office.

One of my favourite things about reading about classic rock is finding all the connections between musicians and classic rock is much more tight-knit than you think when you first look at it. It really is a small world! He met Leonard Cohen twice there, once in the late 60s and again in 1970. When he met Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan saw him perform at The Gaslight and then the two went to the Kettle of Fish, where they spoke like normal friends over drinks and really respected one another. The blonde muse Edie Sedgwick quickly grabbed Bob Dylan’s attention in the 60s when a friend said he had to meet her and so they met at the Kettle of Fish. She inspired some Bob Dylan songs like “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” and “Stuck inside Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” and she was the blonde behind Blonde on Blonde. Bob Dylan didn’t get along well with Andy Warhol though.

The Kettle of Fish is still around if you want to visit, but it’s moved a few times since the 60s. Still in Greenwich Village though, on Christopher Street, near the famous Stonewall Inn.

9. Bob Dylan was surrounded by socialists, but didn’t become one

There’s a chapter in the book with an interesting story by Dylan’s first manager, Terri Thal. She said that her first impression of Bob Dylan is that he’s a genius, but was a bit inept, but charming as a performer, with an almost Chaplin-esque stage presence. She, Dave Van Ronk, and Suze Rotolo were all socialists, with Van Ronk and Thal being very outspoken Marxists and Rotolo coming from a family of communists, but not being so outspoken about it herself. In fact, Dave Van Ronk was one of those arrested during the Stonewall Riot in 1969. The police severely beat him, almost to the point of unconsciousness. Bob Dylan’s interest in writing social justice themed songs was short lived because his next move was to go commercial, hence his turn to electric rock and the changing of the topics of his songs. Doesn’t mean that Thal and Van Ronk didn’t try to get him to be more political, they did! Albert Grossman later became Bob Dylan’s manager and he had more connections to get him bigger gigs and while Terri Thal was sad to no longer be Bob Dylan’s manager, there were no hard feelings and they remained friends.

10. Badass Bob Dylan walked off The Ed Sullivan Show, which could have killed his career. But it didn’t!

The Ed Sullivan Show famously had a couple of badass moments. The most famous one being The Doors’ appearance on the show where they played “Light My Fire”. The producers of the show asked Jim Morrison to sing it as “girl we couldn’t get much better” instead of “girl we couldn’t get much higher”, because the original lyrics could be interpreted as a drug reference. Jim Morrison wasn’t going to let some TV show host tell him how to sing his own song and he sang the original lyric anyway, in true rock and roll fashion. As you can imagine, Ed Sullivan was pissed and told The Doors they’ll never perform on The Ed Sullivan Show again. Jim Morrison’s witty response was “We just did The Ed Sullivan Show“.

Before that though was Bob Dylan. To promote his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, he was booked to do The Ed Sullivan Show, which would have been a big opportunity and platform for him, as it was America’s most popular variety show on TV – pretty big deal! At that time, May 1963, he wasn’t a household name yet. Bob Dylan’s music was more political in this time and he wasn’t conventional and that’s where he ran into problems on The Ed Sullivan Show. He went to rehearsals and everything seemed to go alright, but he wanted to perform “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoia Blues”. It was originally approved, but during dress rehearsals some executives at CBS reneged their approval because they feared getting sued. Funny enough, they preferred him to sing a Clancy Brothers song (even though they sang Irish rebel songs), but Bob Dylan being unconventional and principled, he walked off and refused to do the show. Badass! Not long after, he became a superstar.

There are many more things to learn from this book, but these are just 10 takeaways!

Check out my other Bob Dylan book reviews: Decoding Dylan, Outlaw Blues, and Bob Dylan in London.

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