Sometimes it feels as if every word that could possibly be written on the subject of Bob Dylan has already been written. Ikea, for instance, does not make a bookcase large enough to hold every Dylan dissertation. There are guitar books, harmonica books, lyrics books. Books on Dylan and art, Dylan and film, Dylan and philosophy, Dylan and scripture. Books about single albums (Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited, Blood on the Tracks) or even single songs (Greil Marcus on “Like a Rolling Stone”). Then come the biographies, companions, discographies, encyclopedias, and, yes, memoirs—he’s written one (a very good one), and has at least one more planned as part of a six-book deal announced just last week. Dylan vs. Springsteen, Dylan vs. Cohen. The Rough Guide to Bob Dylan took two volumes. And last fall, Marcus struck again with a book compiling 42 years of his Dylan writing, and he’s still not finished. In fact, brace for a new flood of Dylanology when the man himself turns 70 in May.
So why are we here now, both dismayingly late and seemingly four months early for the party? Because 50 years ago this month—January 24, 1961, to be exact—Bob Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village. It was, as he sings in “Talkin’ New York,” one of just two originals on his eponymous 1962 debut, “the coldest winter in 17 years.”
Which is just one reason the underdressed 19-year-old moved quickly. Within nine months, he’d signed his first recording contract. Within 14, he’d released that first album. And within five years of his now-legendary first step into the Café Wha?, the occasion that officially starts the Dylan-in-New-York clock, the young man from Minnesota had not only recorded and released Bob Dylan, but The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, and Highway 61 Revisited as well.
Unfortunately, precious few of the dozen and a half or so local landmarks integral to the Dylan legend remain. Gerde’s Folk City, the venue that hosted an early Dylan gig so well-reviewed by the Times‘ Robert Shelton that it served as a career springboard, is gone, another building transformed for the greater good of New York University. Likewise, south of Washington Square, Izzy Young’s Folklore Center is long gone. The Kettle of Fish is now a Vietnamese restaurant. The Gaslight Café, a basement bar made posthumously famous by a bootleg recording recently co-opted by Columbia Records and sold at Starbucks, is now called the Alibi Room. The Commons begat the Fat Black Pussycat, which begat Panchito’s, currently home to one of the city’s top six margaritas (according to a very large and prominent banner).
Only at the aforementioned Wha?, still operating at the corner of MacDougal and Minetta, does the name, if not the sound, remain more or less the same.
And yet despite that club’s uncontested claim to Dylan’s first city appearance, west of Washington Square sits a four-story building—20 feet wide by 114 feet deep and now 100 years old—that serves as the true hub of the Dylan-in-New-York spoke.
Just down the street, the Music Inn endures, though now more focused on percussion than strings. Next door is a yogurt joint that formerly housed Allan Block’s sandal shop, the site of many a sidewalk jam session, often with instruments borrowed from the Music Inn. And the proverbial stone’s throw away is Jones Street, where, on a slushy afternoon in February 1963, Dylan and girlfriend Suze Rotolo were photographed by Columbia Records staff photographer Don Huntstein for the iconic cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. But unlike Izzy’s or the Commons (where Dylan flipped through vinyl and scribbled on napkins), and unlike the Kettle of Fish or the Gaslight (where Dylan drank and performed), that four-story building at 161 West 4th Street, though still without benefit of historical plaque or marker, is where the young Bob Dylan actually lived.
Beginning in the fall of 1961, just after he signed that first Columbia contract, Dylan rented the top-floor apartment in the back for $60 a month (the place was offered two years ago at a little under $2,500 per). Rotolo moved in with him as soon as she turned 18. “There was a tiny bedroom behind the main room,” she writes in her memoir, A Freewheelin’ Time. “The place was cozy and full of daylight, hot in summer and cold in winter.”
Dylan lived at 161 for the better part of two, three, maybe even four years (residency depends on the start and end dates of more than one relationship), and it was in that apartment, overlooking not 4th Street but the alleyway behind, where Rotolo, despite having dated the already enigmatic singer-songwriter for some six months, first learned his real last name. And only then because after coming home quite late and quite drunk one night, Dylan spilled the contents of his wallet, and a draft card for Robert Allen Zimmerman dropped to the floor.
So this place is history. And today, singles, couples, and groups of 10 or more armed with travel guides and maps and Internet cheat sheets circle the block, walk in front of the building to take pictures, pose at the foot of those steps in iconic Dylan-and-Rotolo style, then head back across the street in order to bring the entire building, including that top floor, into focus.
“It’s like, ‘Oh, my God, he lived over a sex shop,’ you know?” says Carla Dos Santos, the manager of Tic Tac Toe, an “exotic novelties” establishment now operating on the building’s ground floor. (You can buy a book there, too—just not one about Bob Dylan.) “They’ll do a little shopping, and, like, ‘Oh, we bought something in the building that Bob Dylan lived in,’ you know? You definitely do get the residual benefits of it. Definitely.”
Bob Dylan did not, of course, live above a sex shop. Fifty years ago, even in the bohemian Village, there was no such thing as an exotic novelties store with West 4th Street frontage, but little else about the building has changed. In the fall of 1961, the basement was taken up by Bruno’s Spaghetti, with an unfinished furniture store just above. Since then, the Pink Pussycat (another store for adults now relocated just a few feet further west) and a secondhand store took over the space, but Tic Tac Toe has held court for the past decade, welcoming, along with their regular clientele, the stray Dylan fan and/or tourist.
“On a regular basis,” says Dos Santos. “You have a lot of tours that come through the city. They do van tours. You get independent tourists walking around. Literally, they have it mapped out. It’s all about Dylan, Dylan, Dylan.”
Though raised on classic rock, the shopkeeper has a limit to her empathy. “We’re not part of the tour, you know. I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan. I love Bob Dylan. But, you know, people cry. It’s like, seriously, he’s a human being. He’s an extremely gifted human, but he’s a human being, you know? But you get people that just really connect to him in a different way.”
If you drop by Tic Tac Toe, you can even ask Dos Santos about it, about a young Bob Dylan living in a building numbered 161. “It’s really people just confirming that he used to live here,” she says. “Do we have any contact with him? Does he come back to visit? You know, like, no, he doesn’t. We wish he did. But no.” There might even be a book in it for you.