Was Dylan Thinking?; A Wide-Open Space in Little Italy

Written by Andrey Slivka on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


"I
love Irish cock," the girl announced to us as we passed. How utterly charming.
Top of the evening to you, fair colleen…

Actually
she was ragged and melancholy, if young: a slackjawed and sad-eyed girl sitting
on a Mulberry St. stoop, north of Spring St., with a couple nondescript guys whom
we didn’t even bother noticing as we passed.

Neither
of us was Irish. "Great," we groaned, and kept walking.

"I
love Italian cock, too," she called to us down the street.

Neither
of us was Italian, either.

Her
face hung loose and unhappy. Mook to the left of her, jamoke to the right. They
leaned with their elbows on their thighs, looked at us with bored and glassy expressions,
sucked their gums.

Besides,
she was just being fundamentally erroneous. How many years has it been since there’s
been a significant, workable amount of authentic Italian cock in Little Italy?
I wanted to tell her she was five, 10, maybe even 15 years too late. The world
has changed, honey. Guttersnipe cock? That you’ll find in Nolita.
Young movie-celebrity cock? Bingo–hang around outside Cafe Habana at the
corner of Prince and Elizabeth Sts. long enough, and it will make itself known
to you in all of its glory. But Italian cock below Houston St. and east of Lafayette?
Not likely. It’s mostly passed from the human experience.

So
anyway, we’d been sitting at the bar of this Mulberry St. establishment called
Velvet. Goateed and leather-trousered downtown clubman catches our attention from
the other, the street, side of the windows–climbs out of a chauffeured SUV
and slip-slides with ball-bearing hips into this lush and techno-pulsing loungey
joint in order to share, with his lady, that comfy sofa right there–right
there across from the bar. A stretch and a reach and a funny, flat, fake-innocent
expression on his face–and presto, he’s slipped his arm around her.
Sly dog.

The
thing about Velvet that’s appealing is that it’s empty. We showed up
on a Wednesday evening and were struck by how pleasantly void of people it was.
We could sit at the bar–we could sit anywhere we wanted. Had we wanted to,
we could have nabbed a table–or else even sat together on the low sofa, but
we don’t swing that way.

I
can’t stress enough how valuable an empty drinking place is in downtown Manhattan–or,
for that matter, in uptown Manhattan, or in most of White Brooklyn–at this
point. First we’d tried 288, as usual, and found it packed, in that unpredictable
way that it can be sometimes. We didn’t even bother with the always-crowded
Milano’s, but rather checked out the newish Puck Fair on Lafayette St. It,
too, was jammed. (And, just as bad, it reminded us of Boston.) The Spring Lounge–where,
as recently as four years ago, you could still expect to find room at the bar
on a Wednesday night–was unmanageably full, with topers, revelers–weird
distorted drunks and mummers–spilling out, beastly and depraved, into the
misty night. I was struck again by the change that’s overcome the city over
the course of the 12 years I’ve lived here. I moved in 1989 to a city that
seemed defined by a poetic emptiness: the emptiness of a dying city, a place people
wanted to abandon, a place where on stark autumn afternoons the shabby boulevards
of the Upper West Side offered lonely and depopulated vistas that stretched out
under sere, hard light, and as for Central Park–there was no one in it. You
could go to the Met on a Friday evening, any time of the year and–this is
now inconceivable–look at pictures alone. Alone and bittersweet, down
in the American Wing, in the shadows of the Hudson River School pictures, and
you’d groove on the idea of a lost world. A city fallen into a sepia-toned
sleep, trash blowing in the wind along Broadway, and all the stores shuttered,
and no one ever in the bars and men passed out on the trains.

Obviously,
it’s different now. Now the experience of New York is one of crowds, of a
hectic plenitude. Which makes the place just hard to use.

I
don’t care about Velvet at all. It’s another slick-elegant lounge-bar-restaurant
of the sort that proliferated in the 90s, and that might not last any longer.
But until the day it closes, it’s there on Mulberry St., and it’s relatively
empty, which is the important thing, and I pass it along to you, for your
enjoyment and patronage. If you’re thinking of meeting somebody for a drink
anywhere in the vicinity of the Puck Bldg., you might need it.

Velvet,
223 Mulberry St. (betw. Prince & Spring Sts.), 965-0439.

 

He
Was a Friend of Mine

In
your May Vanity Fair, you’ll find–flip flip flip through the
glossy pages–you’ll find an excerpt from a forthcoming book called Positively
4th St.
, by a man named David Hajdu. The book’s either a Bob Dylan biography
or a study of beatnik-era Greenwich Village, or perhaps both of these things,
or possibly something else–the magazine never makes it especially clear.
But whatever it is, the excerpt is a detailed history of the Village folk
scene around 1961, particularly as it involved Joan Baez and a barely adult Dylan.
You’re maybe familiar with some of the article’s references: Gerde’s
Folk City, the Kingston Trio, the awful Weavers, Allan Block’s W. 4th St.
Sandal Shop–the whole middle-class folk-scholar slab of fatty white meat,
marinated in a musty Old Left ideological ambience–that ambience that must
have drifted around that silly scene just like the smell of tobacco drifts around
a betting parlor, and dig yourself, man.

Sample
passage, a quotation from the aforementioned sandalmonger Block: "In the
beginning, most people saw sandals as something very European or feminine… Then,
I think, people started relating the idea of exposed feet and natural leather
and something handmade with folk music and crafts."

It
would be interesting to do deep research, in order to understand the process by
which sandals, of all things, became associated with rural American proletarian
"authenticity." Since when do authentic rural Americans resemble gay
men in Key West? One imagines rural Americans would have been more likely to cudgel
a sandal-wearing Pete Seeger if he happened by the holler to discuss the International
Proletariat than they would to stop wearing workboots, which were probably–as
opposed to sandals–their footwear of choice. (Given, after all, that they
worked for a living.) Who did these middle-class folk-music aficionados think
typified the American proletariat? Percy Shelley?

If–as
I do–you worship Bob Dylan, it’s hard to understand this period of the
great man’s career without blaming it on the naivete of his youth. Give
him a break
, you want to say, he was only 19, 20. You’re allowed
to be imperfect when you’re that young. And yet the fact that Bob Dylan used
to hang out with Seeger, Dave Van Ronk and Peter, Paul and Mary is hard to come
to grips with. No matter that he would someday rebuke and abandon it, the weird
fact remains that the great, cynical, caustic, anarchic, all-American punk-rocker
known as Bob Dylan was, early in his career, a part of the precious Greenwich
Village folk scene. A scene that, no matter how much slack you try to cut it,
seems to have been characterized by a high level of fraudulence. There’s
an inverse proportionality at work between how exhilaratingly great Dylan was
during his Golden and Silver Ages–between, roughly, Bringing It All Back
Home
and Blood on the Tracks–and how bad Peter, Paul and Mary
and their ilk were as they warbled and empathized their way through that Folk
City milieu in the first years of the 60s. What did Dylan talk about with these
people? Did he really admire Theodore Bikel?

There’s
a tantalizing little nugget of information in the Vanity Fair excerpt.
The year is 1961. Hajdu writes: "September 29 was also the day Dylan was
supposed to play backup on a new album by Carolyn Hester, the most prominent female
folksinger in the Village. The recording session, at Columbia Records’ Studio
A on Seventh Avenue and 52nd Street, was unofficially coordinated by her husband,
Richard Fariña, a writer whose circle of pals included many of Dylan’s
folkie friends as well as the aspiring novelist Thomas Pynchon."

Also,
Fariña, who’s described as "Dylan’s friend," would
later marry Mimi Baez, Joan’s younger sister, in a California wedding. Pynchon
was the best man.

Amazing.
Pynchon and Dylan in the same broad social circle. Did they know each other? Did
they get along? This is a beautiful thing to learn. The punkest, funniest, most
anarchic, cerebral, paranoid, important and quintessentially American novelist
of the second half of the 20th century moved in the same circles, might even have
known, the punkest, funniest, most anarchic, cerebral, paranoid, important and
quintessentially American musician. I’d love to know if they ever
really met; and if they did, where. And what did they talk about? Pynchon writes
appealingly of his youthful beatnik days in the introduction to his short-story
collection Slow Learner, but he doesn’t mention Dylan.

So
who knows? It’s a longshot, but maybe Pynchon played Ezra Pound to the younger
Dylan’s T.S. Eliot, shaking him by the shoulders, telling him no,
forget this folk crap, forget Seeger, forget Bikel, forget sandals, get
louder, wilder, sicker–start breaking stuff–it’s your business
to freak out precisely these people–

It’s
a tantalizing thought. I’d love to verify it with either one of them, but
I doubt they’d return my calls.

 

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