Bob Dylan, 80 Years (Forever) Young – and Still Mr. New York

| 07 May 2021 | 01:53

The Village Voice was pondering what, back in September of 2017, was feared to be its final edition. The quintessential New York City journal had the challenge of determining which quintessential New Yorker would grace the cover.

Fuhgeddaboutit! There was really only one logical and fitting choice – and The Voice rose to the occasion.

Of course, Bob Dylan got that honor, to go with his Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom, among other distinctions. Dylan, who turns 80 years (forever) young on May 24, stands as the ultimate New Yorker, in popular culture, over the last sixty years.

Dylan’s myth began in New York after he dropped out of the University of Minnesota midway through his sophomore year in 1960 and then moved to Greenwich Village. He wanted to pursue a career in folk music (and be in close enough to visit the ailing Woody Guthrie in his New Jersey hospital).

Think about it. For six decades, Dylan has played a major part in the fabric of New York’s cultural scene – even after he suffered a serious lapse of good judgment when he pulled up his stake at 94 MacDougal St. and eventually settled down in 1973 in Los Angeles with his first wife and their five children.

Why New York?

Still, a question persists: Why New York? Yes, this was the epicenter of the folk scene. But Nashville, Chicago and Hollywood also offered havens for burgeoning musicians.

Ultimately, I suspect that the factor which contributed the most can be traced to a quote attributed to Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner, to the effect that New York is the city where people with ambition live. (By contrast, John Lennon, himself no slouch in representing New York’s cultural milestones after moving here in 1971, once sneered that LA is where you go to get a hamburger. I rather endorse both points of view.)

As someone who teaches a college course about Dylan’s artistry, music and legacy, I admit that I have spent WAY too much time thinking about this man over the years for my own good. By now, what most intrigues me about the Dylan legend is to ponder the factors that drew him to New York City in the first place, back in January 1961 – and crucially contributed to his decision to stay.

Were those factors that originally wooed Dylan to Greenwich Village pretty much the same ones that also attracted so many other musicians, writers, journalists, filmmakers, poets, artists, painters, actors, actresses, models, and graffiti mavens to our town?

I’d like to think so. Downtown, where Dylan lived and flourished, there were open spaces. In the liner notes to his 1985 Biograph collection, he mused that in his early days, he could sit for hours in luncheonettes and find inspiration from the cops and other locals who frequented those establishments. Now, he lamented in 1985, they don’t seem so homey.

Chances are that Dylan would have made his mark on any music mecca. He had the raw talent, exuberance and unbounded ambition to be a star (as did Lennon). In a 2001 interview in Rome with European music journalists, Dylan was asked if he thought he could make it big in the 21st century arts scene. He said yes, noting in so many words that he could figure out how to apply his intellect to the challenge.

I agree with Dylan’s speculation. As a matter of fact, it might have been tougher for an aspiring musician to break through in New York in 1961 than it is today. Back then, the music labels and club owners did not immediately embrace Dylan’s stylings.

“You sound like a hillbilly – we want folk singers here,” he sang on one of his first recordings, summarizing the flak that short-sighted music labels and club owners threw his way in the beginning.

Forever Changes

Sure, the city has changed a lot – even before COVID-19 ravaged the old town. Sadly, the likes of Starbucks and the Gap seemingly on every corner, have overtaken our borders. Big Business has all but pushed out so many of the charming family-owned coffee houses that Dylan flocked to, to write his momentous finger-pointing songs of the early 1960s.

The action of New York surely served as an inspiration for the young Dylan.

There may be fewer open spaces for creative people than there were in 1961-3, when Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” “The Times They Are A-Changin” and other gems.

It’s hard to imagine that Dylan could have drawn the inspiration to write “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” on the Sunset Strip.

New York and Dylan have had a wonderful symbiotic relationship. The city was his muse, whether he was crashing on friend’s couches or living in the Chelsea Hotel or putting down roots after he moved back to the city in 1969 (when the hubbub from the Woodstock festival destroyed the quaintness of his bucolic life in the woods).

He has gone through so much, right in front of our eyes, and in turn given us so much to cherish. Happy Birthday, Bob, at 80. Truly, you were so much older then. You’re younger than that now.

Jon Friedman teaches Bob Dylan: Artist, Activist, American at Stony Brook University and is the author of “Forget About Today: Bob Dylan’s Genius for Reinvention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution.”