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Dave Van Ronk's Ex-Wife Takes Us Inside Inside Llewyn Davis

Dave Van Ronk's Ex-Wife Takes Us Inside <I>Inside Llewyn Davis</I>
Photo by Ann Charters, courtesy of Terri Thal
Terri Thal and Dave Van Ronk, 190 Waverly Place, Manhattan. August, 1963.

I was married to and managed Dave Van Ronk, the folksinger whose memoir spurred the Coen brothers' new movie, Inside Llewyn Davis. David and I were together from fall 1957 to fall 1968 and had been married for seven of those years when we separated amicably and regretfully. We remained good friends until he died. No one ever contacted me about the movie; Oscar Isaacs tried to, but I didn't get his message. We met once while it was being filmed. So I don't know much more about its creation than anyone else.

The owner of the Gaslight tells Davis he has "fucked" Jean. That's crap.

I knew the movie portrayed someone who eluded success -- or whom success eluded. I knew it wasn't supposed to be about David but used some of his memoir as background and his music as a theme. But I didn't expect it to be almost unrecognizable as the folk-music world of the early 1960s.

The mockup of MacDougal Street isn't exactly what it was in 1961, but it's more or less correct. The flights of stairs to top-floor apartments remind me of our first place, a fifth-floor walkup, and of those of friends, although the apartments are remarkably clean: No one I knew could keep soot out of apartments with roaches, pipes, and ceilings decorated by patterns created by fallen plaster. The Gaslight looks wider than it was, but the movie shows a shiny bar, which wasn't in the club -- there was no bar and nothing in the coffeehouse was shiny -- and the wonderful Tiffany (or Tiffany-style) lamps have been replaced with clear glass light fixtures. The back alley didn't exist, but the Coens need it for their story.

Dave Van Ronk
Courtesy Smithsonian Folkways Recordings/Diana Davies
Dave Van Ronk
Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis.
Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis.

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None of that bothers me. What bothers me is that the movie doesn't show those days, those people, that world.

In the movie, Llewyn Davis is a not-very smart, somewhat selfish, confused young man for whom music is a way to make a living. It's not a calling, as it was for David and for some others. No one in the film seems to love music. The character who represents Tom Paxton has a pasted-on smile and is a smug person who doesn't at all resemble the smart, funny, witty Tom Paxton who was our best man when we married.

In the film, the Jim and Jean characters, Llewyn Davis's close friends, are at least as well-known as Davis. Davis sometimes sleeps on their couch and has impregnated Jean, who is a bitchy woman. In real life, David and I considered Jim and Jean's music "white bread," one of the terms we used about folk singers who bounced up and down and smiled and sang "sweet" songs. We didn't socialize. However, Jean certainly was not a bitchy person.

The owner of the Gaslight tells Davis he has "fucked" Jean. He says that's a standard part of how a woman gets hired. That's crap. No matter how much of a creep a club owner might have been, that was not part of the process anywhere.

The sequence that bothers me the most is when Llewyn Davis arranges an abortion for the Jean character. He goes to the office of a doctor he'd paid $200 two years before for an abortion for another woman. He learns she never had the abortion and that apparently he has a two-year-old kid. OK, the Coens can create all the babies they want. But Davis and this respectable doctor sit and talk pleasantly about two women's abortions. In 1961 abortion still was illegal. It was difficult to find a doctor to do one. No one walked into a doctor's office and said, "Abortion, please." Mostly, abortions were arranged by telephone with practitioners whose names were hard to get. One good friend of ours had to go way uptown late at night for a procedure done in a place that barely resembled a medical office, and she paid $400 in 1960. This was the era of using coat hangers to try to abort. In fact, a few years before David and I met, the only woman he ever knew that he impregnated (she was about 16 at the time and David was 19) rode a bike down several flights of stairs to get rid of his fetus. Nor did men arrange abortions for women. The treatment of abortion in the movie as a casual, easily accessible procedure is cavalier, and I think it's insulting to all the women who had one before Roe v. Wade.

In the movie, no one is nice. There are hints of friendliness in the Tom Paxton character and in Jim, who gets Davis some studio backup work (which didn't exist for folk musicians at that time). Everyone is somewhat dumb and somewhat mean. There's no suggestion that these people love the music they play, none that they play music for fun or have jam sessions, not a smidgen of the collegiality that marked that period.

Musicians supported each other. David and I had hordes of people in our apartment several times a week, many of them folksingers, many of them uninvited drop-ins who always were welcomed. I cooked; we talked politics; the musicians played. They introduced new songs and arrangements and often jammed. We had fun. If a new club opened, folksingers told each other about it and recommended one another to the club owner. When a new coffeehouse in Pennsylvania stiffed David, Tom Paxton refused to play there until David was paid. (He wasn't and Tom didn't.) When I received a series of obscene phone calls and the police said they couldn't do anything, Gaslight performers "babysat" while I stayed home to study for graduate exams. Noel Stookey, Tom Paxton, Hugh Romney (later known as Wavy Gravy), Len Chandler, and others came over between their sets and hung out while I worked.

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29 comments
rob.gtrplayer
rob.gtrplayer

While I loved the movie I have been confused as to why the Coens even let Dave Van Ronk's name slip out.  Disclaimer: I learned to sing by listening to Van Ronk records in the late 60s.  I was lucky to have heard him perform 5 different times in 4 different decades, the last time my friend was his opening act and I got to meet and share a bottle of brandy with him.  He was a god.


My wife, though, came up with a possible explanation.  Van Ronk was a consummate story teller.  His stories were as good as his music.  Now imagine that you are sitting at a bar and he tells you a story and it is so good that you must tell it to someone else.  And that person tells it to another and that person to yet another.  The movie was based on the fourth guy's retelling, which we all know would be very unlike the original.


The movie also would have been more plausible to those who knew the era if the time frame was 1957 before Dave had achieved some recognition and before the album.   Because the character Lywnn Davis wasn't nearly as ground breaking a folk/blues singer as the real thing.


Read the book, it's really funny.



fancylouie
fancylouie

i was in a record shop in gloucester, mass over xmas and they hd a lot of stuff, but no DVR.  so i asked about that and the owner sid that joel coen and frances mcdormand had just been in and bought all the DVR records and this was after the movie was released..i feel they should have left a few...


anyway, thanks  lot for your insights.... 


have a good one

redsavina
redsavina

Also? Her claim that Oscar Isaac "tried to contact her" but she "didn't get the message" makes me think she also doesn't know how to check her email and/or voice mail, or that she's making shit up.

redsavina
redsavina

This article is poorly written and utterly ignorant. Ms. Thal was allegedly immersed in an artistic scene, yet she shows a disturbing lack of understanding about art. This film is not a documentary (or even a biopic); it is a work of FICTION. An artist's job is to present truth, not facts.


Yes, there are characters in the movie who are "not nice." There are people who are not "having fun." Imagine that! Ms. Thal apparently doesn't understand the difference between fictional characters and real people. She confuses Oscar Isaac (or as she calls him, Oscar Isaacs) with Llewyn Davis (did we learn nothing from the Dan Quayle "Murphy Brown" snafu?) If a character sings a Tom Paxton song, that doesn't make him "represent" Tom Paxton. Pappi's assertion that he "fucked Jean" doesn't necessarily mean that he did, nor does that mean the Coens were stating that this was a regular practice. Apparently Ms. Thal has signed affadavits from all club owners in the Village stating that none of them ever, ever used a "casting couch." Because everyone was so freakin' nice and having fun, always. 


This statement makes my head explode: "I don't know why he gets an arranger's credit for "Dink's Song"; Andrea should collect royalties for David's arrangement of that." Um ... Oscar Isaac gets an arranger's credit because he arranged the song FOR THE FILM. David van Ronk did not work on the film. For Ms. Thal to not understand basic stuff like this makes me question her authority to opine about anything, let alone art.

dbri732722
dbri732722

I just saw ILD, and loved the movie. No I wasn't in NYC in the '60's but I have more than a cursory interest and a sketchy knowledge of that era, and this genre of music. many more of us....multitudes more than the talented musicians, feel the music deeply for our own personal reasons. 


The movies appeal to me wasn't that it was a biopic, and I don't believe that it was ever portrayed as such. For all of the reasons mentioned in these comments, all very valid from biographical perspective, no one mentioned a significant underlying theme in this movie, was the profound effect the loss of the fictional character's partner had on his not only his musical career, but his life. 


I took from the movie that many more opportunities would have been available to Llewyn had he compromised his perceived responsibility to his obviously close friend and partner....I took from the movie that there was most certainly an inner conflict.....struggle....conscious or subconscious, that he refused, or at least resisted success.


Beyond this significant loss, you who were expecting a biography of Dave's life, very much deserved by the way, were all the other turbulence with which he was struggling......the fact he was in love with Jean, the character, and the inevitable loss of his father. 


To ignore all of these threads running throughout the story is far more shallow than the expectation of all of the "reality" that was missing. The fact that there were no Tiffany Chandeliers or shiny bar  at the Gaslight, or that Jack Kerouac, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Jack Elliott, or on and on, were not made the focus of a fictional story of a fictional character. I had no expectations that this was a "Chronicles" type of movie, and because of that, I was able to absorb, enjoy the movie for what it was, and that is it was a brilliant work of art. 

ntbooks
ntbooks

I could not agree more with Terri Thal.  I was on the editorial board, then co-editor of the NYU newspaper, Square Journal,  from 1961-63.  We covered the cultural scene in The Village.  It was so rich, I didn't want to graduate: the folk scene, progressive jazz, the beat poets, Woody Allen ex of NYU doing stand up, the nascent folk- and country-influenced rock 'n roll groups, the political activism, the Freedom Rides heading south.  OK, for every Bob Dylan there were dozens of Llewyn Davises, although not that many that embodied his whole loser persona, but all those flying just below the radar are what made the scene so rich.  You went to the coffee houses not knowing what to expect, but knowing the odds were great it would be a trip.  So, I went to the movie expecting to recapture some of that cultural richness and was sorely disappointed.  No, the Coens had no obligation to create a docu-pic, but to market this movie as some sort of fictionalization of how it really was?  Nonsense. They blew a great opportunity to do justice to one of most culturally rich, geographically concentrated arenas in American history and chose to show us the life of a loser instead.  I hated it.  Thank you Ms. Thai for reminded us of what it was really like.  A period I will never forget.  

signsong1
signsong1

I just saw this in my old hometown of Minneapolis, which is coincidentally the Coen's home as well. I've always admired their work, but I'm afraid this one didn't set well with me. I think it has to many messy issues. First of all, it has been portrayed , sold, and served up in two conflicting ways, in that it is "inspired by" DVR's life, but you are not supposed to think about that, and above all, you should not take it as a  biopic. Okay, at what level should we "get" that? That so much has been lifted from the Greenwich Village scene and then tossed into a blender is annoying, especially to any of us who know something about that time, that music, or its players. Some of the characters are so clearly representative of real people, i.e. Tom Paxton, Moe Asch, Mike Porco, The Clancy Brothers, that if you know anything at all about them, it's a disadvantage to enjoying the movie. John Goodman's performance outshines all the others, and the obvious appropriation of Doc Pomus was initially tantalizing, then disturbing. And, what of the Al Cody character? Is he a composite of Ian Tyson, Jack Elliot and Patrick Sky, or are we not supposed to think about that? Isaac's singing is okay,  but just okay, and is delivered in the demeanor of today's tepid, singer-songwriter types , rather than in the manner anyone from 50 years ago would have inhabited. But, 90% of the people who see this movie likely don't have a clue as to who any of these artists were, or are, and it won't bother them a bit . Most 33 year olds into "Americana" today have a pretty sure attitude that The Avett Brothers  or Mumford and Sons invented fire itself. This movie is vastly different from "O Brother". In that film, no one person's life was used as a template for the  main character. Not Jimmie Rodgers, not Bill Monroe, etc. The character named W. Lee O' Daniel shows up in that film, but unless you're a historian of Western Swing, you won't know that the use of that name for that character is a muddle. I appreciate all of Teri's comments regarding Dave's legacy being used as an "inspiration' for this film. Her points about the Seaman's Union ( of which DVR was a member), abortion in 1961, and all the insights about the neighborhood and the musicians are all razor sharp and illustrative. Dave Van Ronk's musical legacy only grows with the passing of the years, and he will continue to inspire a lot of us, despite this film, not because of it. If this film leads some people to be inquisitive and seek out his music, good, and I hope his widow Andrea receives some royalties out of the deal. That happened with Ralph Stanley, who made more money from "O Brother" than he did in the previous 30 years, so I guess it could happen. The difference , of course, is that Ralph Stanley was actually IN that movie. All in all, I think this is a tepid film with only enough highlights to keep an informed viewer in the theater just long enough to see it through to its conclusion. The Coens have made some masterpieces. This is not one of them.

thegardenrow
thegardenrow

@raywylie Just saw ILD. I think you would like it. Good essay about the music industry. Justin Timberlake and John Goodman are superb.

gradydon
gradydon

@raywylie I saw the movie and I read the book. You stay home and learn to pick like Dave. Everybody wins.

jcrowley999
jcrowley999

Great article -- very true (I lived on the Lower East Side and Soho in those years.)  One ahistorical thing I only realized after the film was that the scene with the union rep was all wrong -- the union had a huge modern headquarters on 14th St. -- shaped sort of like a ship's prow, with round "porthole" windows.  Llewellyn would have gone to a modern fluorescent-lit office to pay his dues, not some Dickensian wharf.

msmifflin
msmifflin

I found this to be smart and illuminating, even given that this film was not conceived as a biopic, and the point about abortion in this era is especially important.

sumaqueen
sumaqueen

"That schmuck couldn't make that music."

I'm thinking that there are some very talented people who were also awful people. I'm thinking, for one, Miles Davis.

Loved what was said about abortion in the 60s.

nemo6
nemo6

This was never intended as a docu bio film like Johnny Cash or Ray Charles films. It's another Coen Brothers Fantasy.  Its about one character who is in virtually every scene. Someone made up and a composite of others. Someone who is somewhat who love the music but is always bottle and doesn't want to compromise.


If you've seen most of the Coen Brothers' films, they hardly make realistic movies. Their main characters are always troubled in a world that they rarely fit into. 


They played with the folk cliches like the Clancy Brothers, singing trios and the clean cut  American folkster. 


Any yes very cynical. Did you see A Serious Man? I was Bar Mitzvahed at the end of the summer of love in 1967 but wasn't tripping during my HavTorah like the boy in the film, but I loved how everyone character was pushed  They do this is most of their films. 


I think port of what people may dislike here is that most of the other players are good people and LD craps on most of them. In many of their other films, everyone deserves what they get.    

bearcat1953
bearcat1953

You Would Think That They Would Try Their Best To GET The STORY RIGHT !! 

JoeS
JoeS

I saw the movie a couple of weeks ago. I found it dull, drab, unrealistic and, worst of all, uninteresting.


Glad to hear from Terry Thal that my opinion had a true basis.

jwjbwhelan
jwjbwhelan

@rob.gtrplayer  I imagine there are probably 2 reasons the Coens don't feel too guilty about letting Van Ronk's name 'slip out' in connection with Llewyn Davis:  1.  Their opinion of Van Ronk is fairly low, at least in some respects, such that they don't feel too guilty about tarring him with associations which are so distant and vague as these are; and 2. no publicity is bad publicity - the Van Ronk estate is benefiting from this.


Llewyn Davis is not the only character in the film based on Van Ronk.  Jim Berkey and Roland Turner are also based in part on Van Ronk.  Mike Timlin and the Cat may also represent aspects of the main character.  The Coens portrayal of Roland Turner may give us some idea what the Coens think of Van Ronk's status as a 'consummate storyteller'. 

joannemcateer
joannemcateer

@ntbooks  i am a much younger cousin of DVR and agree with you & Terri Thal. The 

era produced vibrant individuals and to portray it from the Coens view was depressing.  My Mother would call it low brow, my friend called it mean.  I know that DVR was an artist and marched to a different drum, but he was a decent guy and however they choose to depict the times, DVR name has been linked to this movie.  I did read a blog wherein someone felt that Llewyn Davis was dreaming.  With that in mind I can take a fresh approach to the movie and see metaphors and meaning to a movie that really made no sense.

nemo6
nemo6

@bearcat1953 If they were making a docu drama or bio then yes. This is not one of those films. Ive been reading comments around and so many think thats what this film is supposed to be But in fact it is not. 

keeponpushingds
keeponpushingds

What would be great is a movie based on the @therealjanisian story, Society's Child. NYC, politics, folk music and beyond...a tour de force!

 

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