On the afternoon of May 24, in Washington Square Park in New York City, a crowd of reverent revellers gathered to wish a happy 82nd birthday to one Bob Dylan. That the guest of honour himself was not in attendance was understandable; never mind a crotchety pensioner, Dylan has been grouchy since his 21st birthday. Back then, as uncommon acclaim rained down on his young shoulders, at once he regarded his growing constituency of acolytes and devotees with raw contempt. He still does. “Genius is a terrible word,” he once said. “A word they think will make me like them.”
Fat chance. But as a recent, if temporary, immigrant to Manhattan, this past week or so I have fancied his unknowable presence is somehow about the place. I do of course realise that it’s been decades since Dylan was last in a New York State of Mind, but these streets once belonged to him.
Sixty years ago, only three days after his 22nd birthday, Columbia Records released his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The successor to a debut LP that had sold fewer than 5,000-copies, it gave us the songs A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall and Blowin’ In the Wind and attained the kind of acclaim that in the fullness of time would change pretty much everything about popular music.
Certainly, it changed Dylan’s life, quickly and forever. “The press never let up,” he later reflected. “Once in a while I would have to rise up and offer myself for an interview so they wouldn’t beat the door down. Later an article would hit the streets with the headline, ‘Spokesman Denies That He’s A Spokesman’. I felt like a piece of meat that someone had thrown to the dogs.” Certainly, the critics were not slow in noting his significance. “His poetry… will probably outlive much of the writing by the ‘professionals’,” noted Robert Shelton in a New York Times review marbled with suspicion of anything new. “He is assuming the role of radical spokesman, with music as his vehicle.”
Arriving from the boondocks of Minnesota, Dylan found on the streets of Greenwich Village that there was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air. The parents of Suze Rotolo, the New York girlfriend with whom he is pictured on The Freewheelin’ album cover, were card-carrying communists of long standing. He kept company with the similarly leftist folk singer Pete Seeger. Even John Hammond, the well-heeled music producer and talent scout who brought the young Bob Dylan to Columbia, was investigated by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI for links to the Communist Party of which he was never a member.
Not that there was a shortage of things to be radical about. America’s overseas adventures saw teenagers from Battery Park to Berkeley pulled from the streets to fight in Vietnam, the country’s original unwinnable war. (In fact, Rotolo only learned that her boyfriend’s real last name was Zimmerman after seeing his draft card.) In the struggle for civil rights, there was even a war at home. In the song Oxford Town, Dylan sang of a student in Mississippi who “couldn’t get in” to class “all because of the colour of his skin”. Like a beatnik poet shooting the breeze at the Figaro Café, he finished the verse by asking, “What do you think about that, my friend?”
Likely, not much. But the trouble was that as the 1960s struggled to get out of bed, the times they weren’t yet a-changing. In July 1962, when Dylan began the first of eight short sessions on Columbia’s recording studio on 7th Avenue and 51st Street in Midtown Manhattan from which his second LP was harvested, even he didn’t realise that his songs were the starting pistol that would at last rouse the decade into life.
Certainly, it’s worth considering their influence on The Beatles, who happened to be in France when they first encountered The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. “I think it was the first time I ever heard Dylan at all,” John Lennon remarked. “And for the rest of the three weeks in Paris, we didn’t stop playing it.”
His creativity was explosive. “I wrote a lot of songs in a quick amount of time,” was how Dylan himself described his remarkable growth-spurt. “I could do that back then, because the process was new to me. I felt like I’d discovered something no one else had ever discovered, and I was sort of in an arena artistically that no one else had ever been in before, ever.” Peter Yarrow, of folk-scene regulars Peter, Paul and Mary, noted that Dylan “was writing all the time, at night sitting in clubs. You’d see him reading a newspaper, and then the next day he wrote a song about what he’d read.”
Certainly, there can be no doubt that at times it was difficult to credit that some of the songs on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan were written by a man in his very early 20s. For all its imperious anger, the narrator of Masters Of War, for example, well understands that ideating the demise of a broker of death – “I will follow your casket in the pale afternoon” is just one of the song’s many memorable promises – is a complicated victory indeed. Elsewhere, a line such as “I heard one-hundred drummers whose hands were a’ blazing,” from the peerlessly apocalyptic A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, is the kind of image that lasts a lifetime.
But if Dylan at his best owed more to Byron than the tunesmiths of Tin Pan Alley, his sheer industriousness imperiled even his finest work. When Blowin’ In The Wind, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’s opening cut, emerged in the spring of 1963, few were in doubt that it was the kind of song that stopped strangers in their tracks. Apart from its author, perhaps, who appeared curiously disengaged from the magnitude of it all.
“Some songs I would remember, some I wouldn’t,” he remarked in his best no-big-deal voice. “Blowin’ In The Wind just happened to be the lucky one, the one that stuck. But I probably wrote a song the night before that, and I probably wrote one or two the next day, which were in the same vein…”
This vein set the tempo for a protest movement to which Bob Dylan was better suited as poet-in-residence than soldier-at-arms. When, in the summer of 1963, the activist actor Theodore Bikel issued the injunction that ‘Bobby’ “shouldn’t just sing songs about [injustice]” but “should experience it first hand” by performing at a voter-registration rally for African-Americans in Greenwood, Mississippi, the singer is said to have pleaded poverty. Unperturbed, Bikel backed his friend into a corner by buying a plane ticket to the Magnolia State in his name.
But as recounted by Pete Seeger, a man more familiar with sketchy encounters than most, his friend’s short performance on the back of a flatbed truck belonging to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP] was not exactly dangerous. Writing in the publication Broadside, he noted that “because reporters were present from Life magazine and the NY Times as well as press and television cameramen, the police were on their guard against any rough stuff taking place. They [even] dispersed a crowd of vengeful Dixiecrats [segregationist Democrats] who tried to assemble across the highway from the field.”
But because it’s simply not plausible to picture Bob Dylan enduring a whuppin’ from good ol’ boys below the Mason-Dixon line, instead it is to New York I turn when I think of his breakout year. I’m not getting misty-eyed about it either; I know that his allegiance was fleeting. By the time The Beatles were wowing the crowds in Queens with a 30-minute set at Shea Stadium, in 1966, Dylan had moved upstate to Woodstock where he would remain in splendid isolation until well into the 1970s.
Even his claim on being the city’s poet laureate is contested. Three blocks west from where I type these words lies Central Park, where in 1981 Simon & Garfunkel entertained half a million people free of charge. Two miles north stands Yankee Stadium at which Paul Simon played Mrs Robinson following the death of centre fielder Joe DiMaggio in 1999. Five miles south is the television studio at Rockefeller Plaza at which he performed The Boxer with a choir of first-responders at the start of the first episode of Saturday Night Live aired after the catastrophe of 9/11.
But unlike Paul Simon, Dylan was only passing through these parts; and not only is he long gone, but so too is the city about which he sometimes sang. All that remains are words and melodies, and pictures such as the image on the front cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan of him and Suze Rotolo strolling along Jones Street on a frigid February day. Back then the West Greenwich Village was the enclave of artists and irregulars who believed they could change the world. One of them even did. Today, the average yearly rent on a one-bedroom apartment in that neighbourhood is $62,856.
The times they are a… oh, you’ve heard it.