Sunday, December 18, 2016

272. Bob Dylan's Village

         First, a bit of shameless self-promotion.  My short poem “I Crackle” has been published in the fall/winter 2016 issue of the online mag South 85 Journal.  It’s a nice little poem, but the real treat is the photo of me – the best I’ve seen in years.  For this marvelous experience, go here.

         Also, for last-minute holiday shoppers, consider my two books mentioned at the end of this post.  The novel is for readers who like historical fiction with an LGBTQ twist, and the selection of posts from this blog is for people who love (or hate) New York.

         And now, to business.  (As if the above wasn't just that.)

         The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), an often embattled preservationist society of which I am a member, recently sent me a map entitled “Bob Dylan’s Village.”  This was prompted by Dylan’s receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he graciously declined to accept in person.  Early in his career Dylan was indeed a resident of the Village, especially my turf, the West Village, performing here and making various locations his crash pad.  This was during the 1960s, but I was here too, first as a visitor from uptown in the 1950s and then, from 1961 on, as a resident, so many of the names on the map spark reminiscences.  Here are some of them.

         The White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street and West 11th, but a block from where I live today, was frequented by writers, intellectuals, and wannabes.  It was also a haunt of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), a lyrical genius and accomplished alcoholic who, like so many talented but impecunious Europeans, came to this country several times to rake in the bucks from appreciative Americans.  I had heard him read and spout scandalous remarks my senior year in college, and had learned to love his richly imaged but needlessly obscure poetry, but in 1953, when time and alcohol caught up with him, I was too immersed in graduate studies in French uptown at Columbia University to be aware of his bibulous presence in the city.  Above all, I regret not having heard him and others read his radio drama Under Milk Wood, which was completed here and performed in the months prior to his death. 

         It was at the White Horse that Thomas imbibed a disastrous amount of liquor one evening and staggered back to the legendary Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street in a state of near-collapse.  Rushed by ambulance to St. Vincent’s Hospital, he arrived there in a coma.  Summoned from Wales, his loving spouse Caitlin, who matched him in outrageousness and alcoholism, arrived and asked, “Is the bloody man dead yet?”  He soon was, dying on November 9, 1953.   She then became so unruly that she had to be strait-jacketed and shipped off to a psychiatric detox clinic on Long Island, following which she was sent back to Wales and long outlived him.  But Thomas had left his mark, for a young musician named Robert Zimmerman, newly arrived in the city, was so inspired by him that he changed his last name to Dylan.

         The Gaslight Café on MacDougal Street near Bleecker was a rather shabby basement joint where the lesser Beatniks of the day performed.  To be closer to their antics I migrated from the Columbia campus down to the West Village, holing up in a drab little apartment on West 14th Street.  From there I commuted to a job at the French Cultural Services on the Upper East Side, and in my apartment on weekends gobbled bitter peyote buttons sweetened with raisins that transformed the world outside my head, and in it, into Technicolor visions of entrancing beauty.  When not so transported, I went often to the Gaslight and heard the Beatniks – not Ginsberg, Corso, & Co., who had by now departed – but the lesser lights of the day, a grubby but amusing bunch who read their less-than-brilliant poetry with great zest to indulgent audiences.  Sometime after this, in the latter days of Beatdom, my partner Bob, coming from Jersey City, heard Diane di Prima read her poetry there, probably far surpassing the stuff I was treated to.  Did Dylan perform there to?  Not when I was around, but probably.  (For a fuller account of my peyote adventures, see chapter 14, “Babylon,” in No Place for Normal: New York, cited at the end of this post.)

         The Theatre de Lys on Christopher Street near Hudson, not far from my 11th Street abode, was where Dylan was profoundly influenced by a performance of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, which opened there in 1954 with a memorable cast that included Lotte Lenya, Weill’s wife, as the prostitute Jenny.  Forced to close because of prebooking by another show, it reopened at the de Lys on September 20, 1955, with largely the same cast.  Just a day or two before that, returning from my first and only vacation at gay-ridden Provincetown with a tall, urbane Canadian from Toronto, I went to the theater with him and his knowledgeable artist brother, a New York resident who suggested that we go get tickets.  We arrived there to find it was the night of the dress rehearsal, and the doors swung wide open to admit some invited guests.  Seeing our opportunity, we followed them in and saw the entire rehearsal, which was almost a finished performance.  Worn out by the long trip back from P town, I was drooping and nodding off, telling myself, “This is wonderful; for God’s sake don’t fall asleep.”  I didn’t quite, but being groggy throughout, I vowed to get tickets and come back wide awake.  I did, and experienced one of the most amazing performances I have ever seen.  Was Dylan in the audience?  Who knows?

         My memories of the Theatre de Lys, alas, provoke a wee gripe.  In 1955 the financier Louis Schweitzer bought the theater as an anniversary present for his wife, actress and producer Lucile Lortel, who from then on was in charge of it and sometimes staged showcase productions of new plays for an invited audience.  One of her readers urged her to do a one-act play of mine, but she chose not to.  Later another reader urged to do the same play, but she still refused.  The play was never staged professionally in the city, and this and similar frustrations finally led me to give up playwriting, a decision I have never regretted, even though by then I had had a staged reading and a full production of full-length plays elsewhere in the country.  My revenge came when I was invited to a staging of an avant-garde play by a new writer at the de Lys.  Though I like to encourage fellow writers, this play was so lamentably over the top -- I remember the protagonist’s father dying, then getting up and dying again, and then again -- that I and several others had to fight hard to choke back our laughter, containing it until we were out of the theater and could guffaw immeasurably.  To my knowledge, the play was not done elsewhere, certainly not in New York.  In 1981, the year of Lucie Lortel’s 81st birthday, the theater was renamed in her honor, thus reminding me, every time I pass it, of my play’s double rejection.  To be fair, the theater has also presented any number of deserving productions, and my memory of Threepenny, seen a second time, is overwhelming.

         Washington Square Park, with its magnificent arch at the foot of Fifth Avenue, was a mecca for students and performers in Dylan’s early days in the city and still is today.  In 1961 the Washington Square Association, made up of home owners around the park, appealed to the Department of Parks and Recreation to curb the hundreds of “roving troubadours and their followers” playing music around the park’s fountain on Sunday afternoons.  The Department then began issuing permits to limit the number of musicians and banning the use of drums.  When complaints continued, the Parks Commissioner stopped issuing permits altogether.  The musicians and their fans then protested in turn, provoking an assault by the police, who shoved and mauled the peaceful protesters and hauled a few of them off in paddy wagons.  The public then protested the police’s quelling of the protest, and the city resumed issuing permits, a practice that continues to this day.

         Bob Dylan, who had arrived in the city the previous January, was apparently not at these protests, nor was I.  But at various times back in those days I saw the heavy hand of the minions of order in the park.  An Italian-American man with a mandolin often turned up in the park on mild Saturday nights and played and sang for passersby, who gathered quietly around him – the most orderly and innocent gathering in the Village.  But  sometimes the cops turned up, stopped his playing, and dispersed the crowd, which they evidently deemed dangerous.  On another occasion I saw a squad car drive through the park on a pedestrian path, forcing people onto the lawn.  Then New York’s Finest stopped the car, got out, and yelled at the people to get off the lawn.  Not the finest moments of the Finest, those Saturday nights in the park.

         Such are my memories of Bob Dylan’s Village, as prompted by GVSHP’s suggestive map.  In 1961 Dylan was a 19-year-old Jewish kid from Minnesota whose Midwestern chutzpah prompted him to tell a tale of running away from home to join a traveling band – a story that of course turned out to be false.  But that same chutzpah got him his first gig at the Café Wha on MacDougal Street the very day of his arrival, and he was soon deeply involved in the flourishing Village folk music scene of the time.  All of which goes to show that New York doesn’t have a corner on chutzpah.

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 My poems:  For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down.  To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here.  For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.

          My books:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

     Coming soon:  Maybe a post on the changing New York skyline, or the saga of the captive deer of Harlem, or both.

     ©   2016   Clifford Browder