Dick Weissman. Bob Dylan’s New York: A Historic Guide. New York: Excelsior Editions, 2022. 154pp.

K. G. Miles. Bob Dylan in the Big Apple: Troubadour Tales of New York. Carmarthen, Wales: McNidder & Grace, 2021.176pp.

REVIEW BY Matthew King


Before I can review the latest books in the growing canon of “Dylan in New York” literature, I have to travel directly to the source. To Greenwich Village, the bohemian enclave where a young Robert Zimmerman landed in January 1961, and introduced himself as “Bob Dylan” from “the West” at an open-mic hootenanny. Specifically, I need to visit the apartment- museum of historian Mitch Blank, who holds a copy of Bob Dylan’s New York: A Historic Guide, a new work by folk guitarist, composer, and author Dick Weissman, who was performing in the Village years before Dylan arrived.

“Collecting is a disease,” Blank jokes, shortly after I step into his place one afternoon, his tone infused with a mix of humor and confession. Hidden behind his scruffy mustache is a ready smile, a playful energy. He gestures for me to get comfortable on the living room couch, which wraps around a large coffee table that doubles as a work space.

“There’s been tons of books about Dylan and New York, Dylan and everything. They pop up every year,” he says, shuffling through stacks of boxes. Many of these, I’ll learn, are either on their way out – to the Dylan Center in Tulsa, where Blank is an associate archivist – or newly received and in need of cataloging. “I really wonder what Dick is up to.”

A Village traveler since the 1960s, Blank has amassed a trove of cultural items to rival any small museum. His one-bedroom apartment feels like an archival wonderland, jam-packed with material yet meticulously organized. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves contain labeled binders and folders. Hanging near the kitchen-turned-closet are custom, built-in sliding panels of cassette tape holders. The walls hold countless framed posters and programs and concert tickets, mini-collections of buttons, postage stamps, baseballs. Dylan is his central subject, but the collection’s breadth spans artists and genres, as well as other items that Blank calls “cultural detritus” – political buttons, 45 vinyl adapters, old packs of condoms.

“The neighborhood is always changing,” Blank says at one point. “Back in the 60s and 70s, just a few blocks from here is no place you’d want to go. You don’t want to know what went on there. Today I wake up and it’s the trendy Meatpacking District, with clubs and shops.”

Like many wayward teens, I was drawn to the Village myself over a decade ago. (Dylan hitchhiked from Minneapolis; fifty years later, I flew in from Chicago.) The neighborhood felt like a magical anomaly, a cluster of tree-lined streets within a sprawling metropolis, the ground floors of its prewar tenement buildings offering a kaleidoscopic mix of retail and entertainment to suit any taste. Live comedy, dance clubs, hookah lounges, jazz bars, board game cafes, black box theaters. A paradise of late-night munchies, from falafel and kati rolls to specialty pizzas by the slice and Belgian french fries with dozens of sauces. By now, over half these old haunts are gone or remade, which is a fraction of the change long-time residents like Blank have seen over the course of a half century. Once-iconic coffee houses have been replaced with fast food and pharmacy chains; artistic hideouts turned into sports bars.

Meeting me at the coffee table, Blank sets down the book as well as a couple vinyl records. “This is Dick,” he says, scanning the covers and liner notes, where sure enough Weissman’s name and artist photo are featured. He’s the counterpart to Pat Foster on Documentary Talking Blues (1957), an homage to the spoken verse style that Dylan later employs in Freewheelin’. He’s one of ten young musicians featured in 5-String Banjo Greats (1964), where he plays on “Old Joe Clark” and “Whistle While You Work.”

Years before Dylan arrived in New York, Weissman had established himself as a rising star in the Village folk scene. This connection is featured prominently in the flap copy of Bob Dylan’s New York, which notes that Weissman “walked the same streets, played music in the same venues, and witnessed the growth of the folk music revival from before Dylan became popular to after the height of his impact on the music scene.” Holding one of Weissman’s records brought this point home, but it’s a fact that wasn’t immediately present when reading the book.

Bob Dylan’s New York functions as a kind of annotated bibliography of the bard’s early years in the city. There’s no introduction or preface about Weissman’s backstory (perhaps assuming a certain familiarity on the reader’s part). He doesn’t ground the project in any personal narratives. Rather, his “I” pops up here and there to share an amusing detail or anecdote. The fairly succinct guide, at 156 pages, serves primarily to assemble an index of notable places, people, concerts, facts, albums, collisions, and cultural moments, including those that only an insider like himself might know, and pointing engaged readers towards areas of further exploration.

Altogether, the entries total nearly 100 different sites of interest, and range in length from several paragraphs to a single sentence. Of “The Bagel” at West Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue, he simply notes: “Suze Rotolo reports that she and Bob frequently snacked here.” In longer passages about more significant spots, Weissman does an admirable job marshaling various quotes, texts, and voices to convey the complex character of a space (and often its eccentric proprietor). One memorable passage incorporates stories from Jack Kerouac, Gore Vidal, and Michael Harrington – as well as an album cover by Fred Neil – to paint the scene of the San Remo Café, one of the few gay-friendly bars in the area after World War II.

While it’s illuminating to comb through this exhaustive list, throttling between subjects and characters so frequently, and hopping backwards and forwards in time, can undo forward momentum. But the book pulled me along nonetheless with its wealth of detail, including the several historical gems from Weissman’s own experience that he graciously preserves for us.

He recalls the hunt to find his first East Village apartment, navigating the patronage system of rent-controlled units that eventually earns him a spot at a mere $22 per month, but with a $1,000 payoff to the previous tenant. During visits to the Folklore Center, he remembers Izzy Young would leave the store for spells at a time, trusting his customers to look after the place. In one poignant scene, Weissman describes a late-night set at the Village Gate, where John Coltrane is playing for a handful of people, and the manager has begun flashing the lights, even as Trane keeps on blowing for another twenty minutes. “More commercial parts of town… would have shut down the show for obvious economic reasons,” Weissman writes. “In the Village there were still opportunities for an artist to be an artist. Even if it irritated the light man.”

Bob Dylan’s New York also makes clever use of multimedia formats. Each of the nine main chapters begins with a walking map of a specific block or corridor, dotted with a dozen or so key places. And the written entries are paired with nearly as many photographs, an inspired collection of candid portraits, warm glimpses of street life and backroom jam sessions, and exactly one picture of a young Dick Wesissman – circa 1959, in the front row of a house party where Reverend Gary Davis strums his guitar. This geo-visual tapestry provides a surprisingly rich and tangible sense of the Village, its cramped rooms and lively, zig-zagging streets, its subtly shifting centers of influence.

Weissman’s project looks uptown as well, to the Midtown Manhattan offices that form the commercial music apparatus, through which Dylan’s songwriting catapults him to mainstream artistic and financial success. The penultimate chapter briefly leaves the city to cover Dylan’s years in upstate New York, but not his move back to the city in the early 1970s.

If Bob Dylan’s New York feels more academic in its design and purpose, another new book on the same subject uses a more popular approach, arranging characters, drama, and narrative to draw the general music fan into the magic of a potentially arcane subject.

In his recent Troubadour Tales series, author and curator K. G. Miles has memorialized Dylan’s experiences growing up in Minnesota and navigating major performances across London. A third entry, Bob Dylan in the Big Apple, looks not only at the early Village years, but his relationship to New York throughout his career. Over several decades, even after moving his family to Malibu, Dylan has continued to return to the city, always bouncing back “like a proverbial rubber ball.” The book even brings us to the present day, shedding light on which dive bars fans frequent before and after Dylan’s regular sets at the Beacon Theater.

Big Apple anchors Dylan’s story in a more traditional (and saleable) arc, following him “from young Village troubadour to Broadway Bob.” Each chapter presents a new obstacle or detour along his journey to music-god status, from early gigs at Cafe Wha? and Gerde’s to his tussles with superfan A.J. Weberman, the 1970s casting of the Rolling Thunder Revue (from a booth at The Bitter End), and a mad-scramble TV performance live from Rockefeller Center. Miles foregrounds his memories as a Dylan fan to set the scene for many chapters. This persona story feels just as present, if not more so, to the book than Weissman’s to his guide, despite a much thinner connection to the subject. Big Apple also supplements Miles’ authorship with his own kind of revue, enlisting a variety of contributors who were there with Dylan over the years, and who provide their own oral histories alongside the general narrative.

There’s a conversation with Terri Thal, reflecting on Dylan’s early performances – endearingly clumsy and Chaplinesque – and how he “resisted all attempts by Dave [von Ronk] or me to become more political.” Bret Johnson pens a couple of present-day dispatches from the Washington Square Hotel and the Horse and Kettle, trying to unearth the “salvageable heart” of the old Village, while conceding that, “I can’t promise you’ll find Bob Dylan in a bar, any more than I can promise you will find him in the Grand Canyon at sundown.” In a short interview, violinist Scarlet Rivera recalls the awakening in her strict, Catholic high school, when she first heard “The Times They Are A-Changin’” on the radio like “drops of water to someone dying of thirst in the desert”; she also describes the legendary encounter with Dylan on the street – he in a limousine, her walking with her violin case – when he was casting Rolling Thunder, and she was just another dreamy midwestern transplant enamored by the Village, “a place of fellow adventurers, hippy clothes, head shops, people playing chess on the streets, musicians, artists, freethinking spirits.”

As a reader, I found it much more enjoyable to follow Dylan’s story in real time. We meet his contemporaries as fully developed characters, who enter and exit his life at different stages. The book can feel novelistic, and the sustained narratives allowed me to better synthesize all the key places and characters and events, and how they fit together. It helps that Miles is a stylish writer, with solid narrative pacing, who’s found a way to position this Dylan mythology as fresh and memorable, even if some of the contributions feel clipped. (His chapter with the much-hyped A.J. Weberman runs only a few paragraphs.)

If there’s a downside to Miles’ approach, perhaps it is that readers gain less of a sense for the physical setting of the Village. Big Apple includes a centerfold section with a small map and some photographs, but these are easy to overlook, and they’re not particularly interesting artifacts. The photos primarily show building facades, storefronts, street signs; no faces, no instruments, no performances. Because Miles has included somewhat self-interested contributors, there’s also a tendency for these guest voices to posture, stretching to stake their claim as an essential catalyst in shaping Dylan’s trajectory. That includes Terri Thal, Weberman (“I revived his fucking career!”), and even Peter McKenzie, whose parents hosted Dylan on their couch for a few months during his first summer in New York (“What occurred during that stay is the unknown missing piece… People have been trying to figure out for generations”).

Taken together, both books build a case that Dylan and New York are inseparable. Dinkytown may have inspired a young Bobby Zimmerman, who was no orphan from the west but the product of “a very ordinary, comfortable upbringing in a lovely Jewish family.” But New York possessed the mix of artistic apprenticeship and commercial opportunism that opened the doors – not only to blockbuster success, but something more intangible. “I don’t know how I got to write those songs,” Dylan later said about his nearly unmatched spree of hits in the 60s and 70s. “They were almost like magically written.” The bohemia of the Village provided a space for him to mirror the greats and find his voice, through unending nights of live performances. The ambitious eyes of lurking Midtown agents helped him gain recognition. And, the fact that he arrived just as a historic wave of national and social protest was rising, affording him a potent topical subject matter, was yet another fortunate coincidence.

Reflecting on the Village in the 1960s, Liam of the Clancy Brothers recalls:

It was a certain sort of spontaneous combustion. It’s a thing that happens around the world at different times. It happened in Paris in the Twenties when Hemingway was writing: a mini Renaissance. It moves from place to place, and there are people who try to find out where it’s going to happen next, to follow it. But you can’t control it, you can’t predict it. What was happening at the Village at that time – it was a surprise to find yourself in the middle of it.

The figures of this legendary era, and its scholars like Weissman and Miles, are all well-versed in the practiced folklore. The underground basket houses along MacDougal Street, where audiences began snapping their applause to placate the upstairs neighbors. The first lone guitar player in Washington Square Park, George Margolin, originator of the “Sidewalk Hootenanny,” who inspired Pete Seeger and an entire folk revival movement, then disappeared from history. But there are common elements left out that I was curious to know more about. Why is Dylan’s family almost entirely absent from these histories, and how do they feel about his journey, the way he’s mused that he “maybe [was] not born to the right parents”? Neither book perhaps reflects enough on the wake that Dylan leaves behind him, how while he forged a success story for the ages, so many in the Village folk scene were sliding to the bottom.

It’s nevertheless a beautiful thought that Clancy describes above, and that Weissman and Miles uphold in their respective projects. The seemingly timeless allure of the Village makes me reflect on this relationship between culture and place, especially in today’s hyper-digitized era. Does the next Dylan need to cross a continent to launch their career? What is the unique power of a Washington Square Park or MacDougal Street when everyone has access to the biggest public stage imaginable, right inside their pockets? Today’s aspiring artists across the heartland might not need to uproot their lives to be discovered; they’re doing it from their bedrooms, on YouTube and TikTok and whatever the next platform will be. And while it certainly might help to be in a crowded place, learning to copy the best and rub shoulders with the powerful, does it matter less than it once did?

If there’s any truth to this emerging placelessness of pop music culture, then rooted book-length studies like these become even more valuable, capturing something like an endangered anthropological phenomenon. But perhaps this speculation is premature. One of the most fascinating pages in Weissman’s book is the map that begins its final chapter, “Other Famous Village Inhabitants,” which reveals Dylan as one tiny star in a busy constellation of cultural giants who all lived within those few square miles, from Poe and Twain and Eleanor Roosevelt to Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dos Passos, Lou Reed, and Henry Miller. If it was ever in doubt, Greenwich Village furnishes undeniable evidence of the enduring relationship between geography and culture.

Collecting may be a disease, as Mitch Blank likes to say, but it’s a rare condition that strengthens our social memory. Reading both books renewed in me a certain gratitude for the work of preservation, not just of physical items but of stories, moments, and cultural shifts that are hard to see when looking merely at dates and facts. Whether in nonfiction book form, or the archives of a jam-packed city apartment, these cultural treasures help us re-experience the past, understand the forces that mold a singular figure like Dylan, and observe, in the abundance of ephemera and anecdotes, all that was different, and how much never changes.