Book: Bob Dylan in The Big Apple
Author: KG Miles, with contributions from those who were there
Publisher: McNidder & Grace
Price: Please buy from an independent bookshop (YMMV)
Author: Mark Wheeler - TNT UK
Reviewed: February, 2022
This time the author is following Bob Dylan's footsteps through the streets of New York City, with a brief diversion upstate.
Is this just another book about Dylan by a dedicated fan?
Or is this a biography of New York City through a particularly Dylanesque lens?
Troubador Tales, KG MIles' previous Dylan Pilgrimage through London reminded your Old Scribe of Peter Ackroyd's biography of London combined with Ackroyd's biography of William Blake.
This is a personal journey, a pilgrimage which the reader may follow on the page or the pavement.
This book is more than another book about his Bobness, KG Miles again engages the reader in a journey, the author invites readers to follow in the author's, and hence the subject's, footsteps. The thorough narrative interweaves Dylan's progress through his city of choice, with his progress through writing and performing.
In his previous book it felt less like KG Miles was author of his own destiny but that Bob Dylan had taken the Londoner KG Miles on an emotional musical journey, not just through his own city, but a journey which lasted over 50 years. KG Miles was an awestruck child at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1969, one small child with a wayward auntie where he might have seen Bob Dylan but is too young to remember. His journey from there peaked with the honour of addressing the inaugural conference at the Tulsa Dylan Archive in 2019. Now, as co-curator of the Dylan Room at London's Troubadour Club, through writing, podcasts and Dylan tours, KG Miles is able to share his knowledge, enthusiasm & experience with music lovers across the globe.
Your Old Scribe loves the concept of a pilgrimage inspired by music and art, having also made similar journeys around streets & locations in NY mentioned in songs or appearing in iconic photos, much to the chagrin of employers who were wondering why tasks took so long.
The Queen of England has 2 birthdays, the one when she emerged from the Queen Mother's womb and the other, her Official Birthday to celebrate the date when she ascended to the throne. His Bobness, like so many musicians before & afterwards, had a rebirth on arrival in NYC, a second birthday. Advised by Suze Rotolo & Dave van Ronk in his early days, Dylan has offered various origin stories involving numerous variations on the journey from Dulloth to NYC.
It was Warhol who pointed out that the great thing about a small town is that it gives us the incentive to get out. Many have followed Warhol's mantra including Lou Reed, Ronk & Rotolo and his Bobness. KG Miles credits the numerous academic authors who have more reliably described Zimmerman's conventional upbringing. Dylan himself has written about this part of his life in his first (and so far only) volume of autobiography: Chronicles.
Autobiography, like autoeroticism, only truly satisfies the auteur and may even leave some unpleasant stains on those nearby. KG Miles politely describes Dylan's autobiography as “fanciful” and sticks to data confidently referenced in this NYC pilgrimage.
Dylan's New York journey begins at the Cafe Wha?
This book's journey starts for KG Miles also at the Cafe Wha? as it has for so many music fans visiting the city.
It is said, notes Miles, that the 20-year-old Dylan approached Hugh Romney (known later and known more widely as Wavy Gravy) who hosted the hootenanny nights to ask whether he could perform. Romney wasted no time, going to the mic and saying, “there he is, a legend in his own lifetime ... uh ... what's your name, kid?” Dylan made $75/week. The Gaslight has apartments above with air shafts down to the club below and at some point the police stopped the nuisance of the sound of applause filtering up. From then on, those performers who did well were greeted with approving clicks of the fingers, a habit to pass into hipster legend. The artistes would play poker upstairs. KG Miles paints colourful mental pictures of the venues and the occassions.
Tom Paxton recalled in 2000:
“There was a hideout room above the Gaslight where we could hang out.
Once, Dylan was out banging this poem on Wavy Gravy's typewriter.
He showed me the poem and I asked, “Is this a song?”
He said, “No, it's a poem.”
I said, “All this work and you're not going to add a melody?”
He did. It was A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall”
The Gaslight would not only be an important venue for Dylan to hone his stage craft; in 1963 it was where he met Johnny Cash.
As Barbara said in 1961,“In came this funny looking kid one night,
dressed as if he had just spent a year riding freight trains and playing songs in a style that you could tap your feet to”
Logan English was impressed by the scruffy youngster providing Sunday entertainment to Woody Guthrie.
“I'm working at Gerde's. I'm the MC. We'll get you to play there”
“Dylan knew Gerde's was the place he needed to play, and it was to become a venue that accelerated his career. Logan put in a good word for Dylan but it was the perseverance of Terri Thal that secured the historic booking”
Dylan played his first major gig there, opening for John Lee Hooker on 13 February 1961, according to New York magazine, whose review that really launched Dylan's career. That alone would be enough for Gerde's Folk City to hold a special place in Dylan history. However, it is another moment, on 29 September 1961 when Dylan was reviewed by Robert Shelton for the New York Times, that gets Gerde's a place in musical folklore. Shelton said very little about the main act, the Greenbriar Boys, instead focusing on a “bright new face in folk music who was appearing at Gerde's Folk City”. Shelton said that Dylan resembled a “Cross between a choirboy and a beatnik” and had a “Searing intensity pervades his songs”. Shelton concludes that “His music making has the mark of originality and inspiration, all the more noteworthy for his youth.”
Miles succeeds in adding social & historical context the story of the early Dylan years. Readers might imagine that we are familiar with the early Bob Dylan story, from numerous bankable books & films, but KG Miles introduces us to the cauldron of activity from which Dylan emerged, partially formed. Dylan was busy creating his own mythology, with contradictory or enigmatic answers to questions about himself, but it was all in context. The contexts may have been documented elsewhere, indeed in other contexts, which JG Miles' thorough research encounters & presents to us.
Dylan wrote a song about the Beatnik Riot of 1961 and in 1963, as the battle continued, he was said to have written a song for the Joint Committee to Stop Lower Manhattan Expressway. For those who've seen the documentaries and read the biographies of early 60s Greenwich Village life, and Bob Dylan in particular, the cast of characters will seem eerily familiar. It's almost as if we know Dave van Ronk, Terri Thal and Suze Rotolo, as if we'd read their biographies, rather than familiarity through their relationships with Village landmarks and his Bobness himself. JG Miles' book succeeds in revealing more as it meanders through the streets of Lower Manhattan.
The narrative briefly wanders further upstate to the Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs (more famous for a battle & a racecourse namechecked in Carly Simon's You're So Vain) which is still going as the “oldest continuously running folk coffee house in the country”.
Dylan played there in July 1961. As Terri Thal recalls, “Lena Spencer was always asking for acts to book. When I asked her to book Bob, she objected because he was too new and unknown. [I told her] Every time you need a new act at the last minute, I find one for you, now I want a favor. Bob played there and bombed; the audience talked throughout his performance. At the end of the weekend, Lena called and told me never again to ask her to book Bob Dylan in the club”.
It is this level of detailed research thick with quotations that characterises KG MIles' book.
As the story unfolds back in NYC the catalysts to key shifts in Dylan's outlook (chapters 9 & 10 for example) are neatly unfolded by Miles in his retracing journey through times and spaces, but you'll have to read the book as this paragraph is a spoiler avoider.
JG Miles' book is essentially another pilgrimage, like his Troubador Tales Dylan in London book. This is another pilgrimage whose steps retrace those of its subject and whose steps you too, dear reader can retrace too complete with map references.
“The Hotel Earle situated at 103 Waverly Place alongside Washington Square Park, was built in 1908 as a small eight-storey residential hotel. It became popular and kept growing, nine storeys by 1910 and a further three added in 1917. In April 1918, Ernest Hemingway arrived in Greenwich Village and stayed there for three weeks prior to serving in the First World War as an ambulance driver.
As was often the case, by staying at the Hotel Earle, Bob was following in the footsteps of the other Dylan, Dylan Thomas. I n the 1950s, Dylan Thomas and wife Caitlin were evicted from the Beekman Hotel.
Dylan stayed in Room 305, and it was here that pretty much all of his relationship with Joan Baez took place. Joan gives a good reason for largely staying at the Hotel Earle with him - “yeah, he was a 20-year-old guy and you didn't go to a 20-year-old guy's apartment 'cause they were nasty”.
Miles at times turns travelogue and then reviewer “It is hard to overstate our enthusiasm for the Washington Square Hotel. So many New York hotels tend toward Williams Sonoma opulence and corporate sterility - '80s business grays and someone else's creepy idea of luxury. This is a family hotel and it shows. The Washington Square can feel like a patchwork of compromises that don't quite satisfy or unify. But that's its charm, the sort of messy compacts that only make sense in a family. Here the joy is in the quirk: the déco'rs quirky, eclectic, sometimes kitschy, but offset by the unexpected. The common areas are festooned with a warmth of baubles and hidden ceramic mosaics, peculiar decorative flourishes and sometimes gauche afterthoughts - I love it”.
“To stay in these rooms is at the very least to inhabit the precise square footage, bounded by the same walls, the same windows, as their previous occupants. Open the curtains and turn off all the lights. Now stand and breathe deep, in and out, full deep breaths. Wait for your eyes to adjust, stare out your window at the brick wall across the shaft. You may no longer find the Village peopled by a fury of young artists creating themselves before your eyes in bursts of wonder, but if you listen closely you can just make out the echo of chatter, a thrumming guitar and a song in the distance... As a guest you are not confined to a bubble of tourists. You are enmeshed in the life blood of the Village. The water pressure, I'm told, is excellent”.
The centre of the book containes a series of worthwhile colour plates. After the colour plates section, from chapter 11 Dylan in the Big Apple becomes part gazetteer, part pilgrimage, part travelogue and a series of hooks from which to hang anecdotes and analysis. This begins with a chapter by Bret Johnson, who has no rose tinted spectacles though, and who chronicles the decline of a venue's authenticity as much as celebrating the preservation of another's atmosphere.
Later NYC meetings are chronicled, among legendary performances and pivotal plans attaching Dylan to NY premises as Dylan returns from his later home in Malibu to the stimulating hubbub of NYC
Chapter 12 is ghosted with the aforementioned Terri Thal and 16 is ghosted with Scarlet Rivera “I was on a mission to break the violin into popular music. I used the phrase, 'Black Panthers of string players'” Scarlet Rivera Went on to play & sing with Bob after their fateful meeting on 30 June 1975: “Manhattan is full of determined-looking, skinny limbed young women striding along carrying violins or saxophones, but they don't usually have hair three foot long swinging down behind them”
A car stopped by this determined young woman. The woman was Scarlet Rivera. In the car was Bob Dylan. Chapter 16 is her New York account told to KG and subsequent recording of Desire and the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. It is such a perfect encapsulation of the co-creative process that the book is worth it for this insight alone.
Chapters 13 & 14 covers the curious case of A J Weberman, an obsessive fan; Chapter 15 the making of Desire; Chapter 17 is the first coherent hypothesis your Old Scribe has read of Dylan's recovery from his creative hiatus, some might say creative nadir, of the early 80s. Chapter 17 contains some 24ct Dylan anecdotes, mostly previously unfamiliar.
Chapter 18 rounds out with a visit to the Beacon Theatre where Dylan has often rounded out his tours; a neat structural conceit. Minor celebrity contributions might seem a bit 21st century, but are inevitable in this story. It includes the planning for episodes from The Rolling Thunder Review, as documented on film by Martin Scorsese.
The whole book is shot through with humour rare among the more typically earnest Dylan devotees. KG Miles has an accessible writing style that leaves this reader wanting to carry this tome around the streets of Lower Manhattan, checking in to bars, standing on corners and soaking up the atmosphere.
|How thorough is this book? Here's the list of NY sites covered:|
Copyright © 2022 Mark Wheeler - email@example.com - www.tnt-audio.com