To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s arrival in New York City, we’re rolling out a host of essays, videos, old Voice clips, and assorted fanfare. Here, professor, author, and critic David Yaffe explains why 1961 was the year Dylan could never forget, and never duplicate.
On January 24, 1961, Bob Dylan shook the Midwestern dust off his boots and arrived in New York town. If Woody Guthrie was bound for glory, Dylan was bound for something borrowed, something weird, something genius. When he dropped out of the University of Minnesota, he was just like any other kid with a guitar who ditched classes to try to sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell. He wanted to be Joan Baez’ singing partner. He wanted to have fun and get high and get laid, but also be taken seriously. When he had all that and more, he still wanted other things, and he got those, too. (He still wasn’t happy, but then Pete Seeger recalled him saying, “Happy? What’s that? Anyone can be happy.”)
By the end of his first year here, he would be discovered by John Hammond and Columbia Records, and record his first, self-titled album at the age of 20; a few months after that, he would write “Blowin’ in the Wind” and make a second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, with its cover image of Bobby and his girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, walking down Jones Street looking like boho icons living for the moment. Yet that record’s most powerful songs were, like the jumble of nerves that created them, like New York City itself, seductive and terrifying, making you feel like the world was about to end, but first you had to see this young scruff at the Gaslight. Apocalypse went down pretty sweet, and it wouldn’t be long until he was predicting hard rain all the way up to Carnegie Hall. “It’s hard times in the city/Livin’ down in New York town,” Dylan sang in a tongue-in-cheek talking blues, but he soaked up all those hard times, and turned them into beauty and truth, not to mention more cash and clout than any Bleecker Street busker could have possibly imagined.
Dylan was on his way to New York the same week that JFK gave his “Ask Not” speech, and whether he knew it or not, he was one of the young people the new president was directing to national service, of a kind. Dylan’s first year in New York would be the last time he would be working cheap and living from couch to couch. He encountered many weirdos and geniuses in 1961, from Tiny Tim to Richard Pryor to Gorgeous George, an NYC hazing recounted with eloquence and humor in the memoir Chronicles: Volume 1, where he even describes sitting in on a rehearsal with Cecil Taylor (they found mutual ground on a spiritual). After Dylan became Dylan, he could never stumble upon spontaneous music unnoticed again.
He still tried, though, and his annus mirabilus of 1961 would be a Proustian Madeleine he would conjure again and again. It didn’t work when he moved his young and vulnerable family to the Village in 1969, thinking it was safer from freaks digging through his trash than Woodstock. But at MacDougal Street, AJ Weberman led a pack of so-called Dylanologists who tormented our Bob and bullied him for leaving the New Left behind. Soon, he tried to relive his folkie past when he caught the second, non-idiotic wind of Blood on the Tracks, Desire, and the drugged-out carnival of the Rolling Thunder Revue, in which he populated his cast (overlapping with the bound-for-DVD Renaldo and Clara) with Ramblin Jack Eliot (who palled with Bob in the ’61 folk scene), Joni Mitchell (who sang but refused to be filmed), Joan Baez (who never met a camera she didn’t seem to love), and Sam Shepard, who co-wrote Renaldo and Clara, a film that caused a debate among critics in these very pages, all arguing whether it was incoherent, brilliant, or a little of both.
Later, a hipster Dylan made a 1975 Voice cover with another girl on his arm: Patti Smith, who refused to join the revue, a wise move at the time. He did manage to pick up a violinist named Scarlet Rivera, who he collected in the East Village when he saw a beguiling chick with a violin case and she suddenly had to practice. He took this group with him and played unannounced gigs in small clubs. He was trying to get 1961 back. What he got instead was more wheezy, more weary, deeper, but also desperate, great rock ‘n’ roll, but too drugged out to sustain. He couldn’t get Sara back, so he went to California and found Jesus instead.
The bible-thumping was only a phase, but Gotham kept pulling him back in. Over the past several decades, he has played thrilling gigs at the Beacon, Irving Plaza, the Supper Club, and more. Since the Neverending Tour began in 1988, he has spent around 100 days a year traipsing the globe; even in 2010, the 69-year-old played 102 gigs. The road is Dylan’s home now, but just as he will get a cheer when he refers to Texas medicine at a Dallas gig, fans in all boroughs get a certain comfort when he sings, from “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “I’m goin’ back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough.” In 1965, he sang it with a guttural vengeance. Now, even among the triumphant cheers, it sounds battered. He takes his nostalgia for Bleecker Street everywhere he goes. It’s a New York City of the mind he conjures when he’s had enough, even if the only true urban paradise he will know is the one he has lost. The big city broke his heart. It is the wound that never heals.
David Yaffe is a professor of English at Syracuse. His latest book, Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown, will be published by Yale University Press in May.