Tag Archives: Greenwich Village

After The Rain

The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir by Dave Van Ronk with Elijah Wald (DaCapo, $15.99, 272 pages)

“And so we’ll drink the final toast/That can never be spoken:/Here’s to the heart that’s wise enough/To know when it’s been broken.” Dave Van Ronk, “Last Call”

Mayor-of-MacDougal-Street-A-Memoir

Largely Unheralded Van Ronk Puts Interesting Life and Career on Paper with Ease and Authority

When a book begins like this, it’s a pretty good sign the reader is in for one helluva ride:

Back at Our Lady of Perpetual Bingo, where I went to school, along with the rack, thumbscrew, and bastinado, they had a curious custom of announcing grades in the final exams and then making everybody hang around for an extra week before turning us loose for summer vacation. Presumably they did this to reinforce our belief in Purgatory.

And so begins The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Dave Van Ronk’s outstanding first-person memoir (finished after his death by Elijah Wald).

While there are the tales of the boozing and other types of mildly unseemly behavior that one might expect, the book is first and foremost about the musician and the music. Van Ronk tells of his complete disinterest in school; how he started out as a jazz guitarist; was coaxed into singing; became a ringleader of the folk scene in Greenwich Village in the late 50s and early 60s; his migration out West because that’s where there were more, higher paying gigs; a short-lived attempt at a rock band in the late 60s; and his continued singing and song writing career that slipped largely under the radar from the 70s on.

Along the way, there’s some interesting political commentary, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the book is about the politics of the folk era. The book is about the music.

Mayor McDougal

There are stories of late night guitar sessions, his love of literature, and a few shenanigans and narrow escapes, but what is most interesting is the context in which other great musicians are discussed as Van Ronk’s tale unfolds. You get just about everybody: Odetta, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Leonard Cohen, Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, Leadbelly, Mike Porco, Izzy Young, Bob Dylan – of course – and many, many more. You get places: Cafe Wha?, Gerde’s Folk City, Gaslight Cafe, White Horse Tavern, Kettle of Fish, and more. You get songs: some more obscure such as “Duncan and Brady” and “Dink’s Song,” and others that one might expect such as “This Land Is Your Land” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

The cover of the book states, “The life story that inspired the Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis.” For modern movie goers who might not otherwise know about Greenwich Village and many of the seminal performing artists referred to in these pages, that might be a hook, but for any serious music lover, this book is a must read, movie or no movie.

The last chapter brings much of the scene into perspective. Of “Hard Rain,” Van Ronk writes, “The tune was borrowed from ‘Lord Randall,’ and it was in the same question-and-response form, but the imagery was right out of the symbolist school. It was not a flawless work – the ‘clown who cried in the alley’ always sounded to me like the verbal equivalent of a painting on velvet – but the overall effect was incredible. I heard him (Dylan) sing it for the first time during one of the hoot nights at the Gaslight, and I could not even talk about it; I just had to leave the club and walk around for a while. It was unlike anything that had come before it, and it was clearly the beginning of a revolution.”

For those who were envious when Dylan hit it big, Van Ronk simply states, “All you had to do was write ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ – for the first time.” And, of himself, he states acceptingly, “I have never made a fortune – as a matter of fact, I have often been deeply in debt – but dammit, this is what I wanted to do, and I have been able to do it for almost fifty years, and I haven’t been able to do anything else, and what more can I ask? I wanted to be a musician, and I am a musician, and that’s what it’s all about.”

Yes, Dave, it is.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Dave Moyer is an educator, drummer, and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

“Dave was the man on MacDougal Street when I arrived in the Village over forty years ago, and he is once more raucously ruling the street in these pages.” Tom Paxton

“Brilliant writing.” Christine Lavin

“In Greenwich Village, Van Ronk was king of the street, he reigned supreme.” Bob Dylan

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Nothing Was Delivered

Who is that Man?: In Search of the Real Bob Dylan by David Dalton (Random House, $26.99, 383 pages)

“Noontime, and I’m still pushin’ myself along the road, the darkest part/ Into the narrow lanes, I can’t stumble or stay put/ Someone else is speakin’ with my mouth, but I’m listening only to my heart.”   Bob Dylan, “I and I” from Infidels

What distinguishes David Dalton’s Who is that Man?: In Search of the Real Bob Dylan from the plethora of other Dylan books, many of them recent, is certainly the style of the writing.   There is little new information, though, as is the case with most of these books, there are subtleties based on the relative emphasis placed on certain events, time periods, or works, as well as the perspective from which the writer comes at Dylan’s fascinating life and body of work.

In this case, it appears as if Dalton attempts to match the style of the storytelling with the particular phase of Dylan’s career.   Rather than convey the information in a more traditional manner, Dalton’s book comes across more like a novel – almost as if he is creating a story for a reader and Dylan just happens to be the main character.

At times this is interesting and works, but at others it can be a little overbearing.   The opening, for example, does draw the reader in a bit, when Dylan is cast in the third person as a character ambling through his early experiences and making his mad break for fame in Greenwich Village.   However, when he shifts to the mid-60s, mod, hipster Bob, Dalton writes as if he’s trying to mimic Tarantula or Dylan and Bobby Neuwrith’s verbal sparring with their perceived “enemies,” and it just gets to be too much.

The portions of the book relating to Eat the Document; Dylan’s collaboration with The Band; and Dylan’s loner/withdrawn/lost in a bottle late-80s persona have their moments.   While it is fairly obvious that Dalton admires Dylan, he does not hold back when describing Dylan’s aberrant and even despicable behavior at various stages of his life.

Dalton, for whatever reason, chooses to allocate a good portion of his discussion to Dylan’s fascination with movies and misguided attempts at producing them and other appearances in film (Eat the Document, Renaldo and Clara, the Hard Rain concert film, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the more recent Masked and Anonymous, and the documentary No Direction Home), many of which qualify more as interesting sidebars than as highlights of his career.   He also seems to get stuck in certain phases of Dylan’s career and life, such as the mid-60s explosion, his attempts at domestication and faltering marriages, and tales of excessive drunkenness in the latter parts of the decades of the 70s and 80s.

Receiving minimal treatment, comparatively speaking, is Dylan’s renaissance, beginning with his Woodstock ’94 concert and spanning two decades and counting, with 1997’s Time Out of Mind, 2001’s masterpiece, Love and Theft, and the very fine Modern Times(2006).   This copy might not be as interesting to some as the inside scoop and dirt that permeates much of the rest of the book, but it should have received more serious attention.

Dalton’s interpretation of Time Out of Mind is that of an artist pre-occupied with death.   While this is certainly evident throughout the album, the coincidence of Dylan’s hospitalization just prior to the release of this album has caused many to focus too much on that element of it.   The lyrics and themes are much more sophisticated and complicated than that, which partly explains why the album was so well received.   Not only were music lovers relieved that Dylan pulled through and was still around to tell the world stories, but they were damn good stories, and there was a collective sigh of relief that – one more time, Dylan was back.

What is most disappointing is that Dalton never answers the question he sets up in the title.   Perhaps the point is that, after all this time (all these years), nobody really knows the real Bob Dylan and he remains a marvelous mystery.   Dalton tells a nice story at times, but it would seem that if you are going to title the book Who is that Man? about one of the greatest enigmas and artists of the last 100 years and fill it with information that leads the reader to believe that you have some insights into the answer to that question, then you should at least attempt to present the reader with your opinion on the answer when the very last page is turned.

Recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is the author of Life and Life Only, a novel about baseball and Bob Dylan.   Who is that Man? was released on April 24, 2012.

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