Mike Gerrard explores some of Bob Dylan's haunts in New York, 50 years on.
It's 50 years this year since Bob Dylan first arrived in New York City, and on the day he got there (January 24, 1961) he played a gig at Café Wha?. And 50 years later, Café Wha? Is still there, as are many of the places Dylan played and stayed, where he bought newspapers to read his reviews, where he had his dustbins ransacked, and posed for the Freewheelin' Bob Dylan album cover. You can even still book the hotel room where he and Joan Baez once stayed.
That's where my New York Dylan odyssey began, at what Joan Baez described in her song about Dylan, Diamonds and Rust, as 'that crummy hotel on Washington Square'. It's far from a crummy hotel these days, as what was once the Hotel Earle is now the chic boutique Washington Square Hotel, the only hotel right in Greenwich Village. It's second only to the infamous Chelsea Hotel as a New York rock music landmark.
Dylan and Baez stayed in room 305 in 1964, and other music legends who have stayed at the hotel include Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, The Mamas and The Papas, John B. Sebastian of The Lovin' Spoonful, Barbra Streisand, The Ramones, and Bo Diddley. Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones visited Bo Diddley in his room and they did a little jamming together. Norah Jones used to work at the Washington Square Hotel as a breakfast waitress, and played at one of their Sunday brunches after giving the owners a demo CD she'd recorded.
Fifty years after Dylan, on my first day in New York, I walked across Washington Square and down MacDougal to number 115 where the Café Wha? still exists. Jimi Hendrix also played here, though these days they have three different house bands rather than rock and folkie hopefuls. Dylan did enough on that first gig to impress the owners, and he was booked to appear regularly on the stage which also hosted comedy acts, including Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers, and Lenny Bruce
A block beyond Café Wha? is Bleeker Street, and at number 147 perhaps the most famous club in Greenwich Village: The Bitter End. Everyone has played the Bitter End, from Woody Allen to Neil Young by way of Tori Amos, Joan Armatrading, John Denver, Kris Kristofferson, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and, yes, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. In Dylan's day there was no live streaming though, which is a great shame.
A 3-minute walk from the Bitter End and back on MacDougal Street, number 94 is the lovely 19th-century townhouse that Dylan bought in 1969 without even seeing it, once he heard it was on the market. It's across the street from the Caffe Dante, an Italian coffee bar that's been in business since 1915. It was another club that he played at regularly in his Greenwich Village days. Dylan had been living in Woodstock but was finding that he and his family had little privacy there. He was hoping to return to the anonymity of New York, where celebrities are ten a penny, but discovered that if your name is Bob Dylan, you have no privacy. He was hounded by fans, his house was sometimes besieged by them, and he was discovered by the obsessive A. J. Weberman, who was constantly raiding Dylan's dustbins.
The more innocent, early days of Dylan's time in New York can be seen a short walk north, at 161 West Fourth Street. Here Dylan and his girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, rented a 2-room apartment for $60 a month. He describes it in his book Chronicles as being above Bruno's spaghetti parlor. These days it's above Tic Tac Toe, a shop that specialises in sex toys and fetish wear. It's a few yards from Jones Street, where the photo of Dylan and Rotolo which appeared on the cover of his Freewheelin' album was taken. The two look like any young couple caught candidly walking down the street, but the casual look is deceptive. As author June Skinner Sawyers reveals in her new book Bob Dylan: New York, Dylan took a long time trying on different rumpled outfits, before he was satisfied with the casual look he displays on the album cover.
A block from the top of Jones Street is Sheridan Square, known to New York's gay community for the Stonewall Riots - the Stonewall inn where the riots began is still there, but for Dylan fans so too is the newspaper kiosk where Dylan and Rotolo bought an early copy of The New York Times to read a review of one of his concerts by the young but influential critic, Robert Shelton. After reading the rave review (Shelton said that Dylan was 'bursting at the seams with talent', amongst other things), Dylan went back to the kiosk and bought several more copies.
Dylan's New York, as Sawyers' book shows, wasn't just Greenwich Village, though. Fans should make a stop at the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue at 42nd Street. Apart from being an astonishingly beautiful building, and a visitor attraction in its own right, it is also where Dylan spent an enormous amount of time, reading everything in an attempt to better educate himself about the world. He described the Library as 'a building that radiates triumph and glory when you walk inside', and that's still true today.
One place no true fan would want to miss is the Supreme Court building at 111 Centre Street. It was here on August 2nd, 1962, that Robert Zimmerman officially changed his name to Bob Dylan. Not only was New York and especially Greenwich Village the making of Bob Dylan as an artist, it was also where he transformed himself into Bob Dylan, the person. In fifty years Greenwich Village has changed surprisingly little. Well, apart from that 'crummy hotel', of course. The Washington Square Hotel is definitely more diamonds than rust, these days.
Bob Dylan: New York by June Skinner Sawyers is published by Roaring Forties Press in their Music Places series at $14.95 (www.roaringfortiespress.com).
The Washington Square Hotel is at 103 Waverly Place, New York 10011; Telephone: (212) 777-9515; www.washingtonsquarehotel.com. Rooms from about $260.
Rock Junket (www.rockjunket.com) offer a rock tour of Greenwich Village featuring many of the places Dylan visited.
* This 'Factbox' is not sponsored. I commission journalists to write travel articles and supply a factbox because I think it is useful information.