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Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography, Part One

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Ellen's mother sensed some of the conflicts in Dylan. Mrs. Baker recalls: "I had the feeling he was a little lost boy. I felt he was rejecting a lot of things, sort of traveling in disguise. He built a character for himself and it's hard living up to that. I felt it was just a posture, at first. I took it as a kind of chutzpah thing, this little kid making a model on a Woody Guthrie. I didn't think of it as genius. I thought it was imitative.

"At the same time, there was this intensity, this singleness of purpose, within the boy. Whatever it was, he got a lot of support from inside himself. He was not compromising. He was going to entertain, that was what he was going to do. He was withdrawn, but I think inside he was on all the time. Once he lighted on Guthrie it all began to come together for him."

Dylan had been in Minneapolis a year by the time Ellen got to know him well, and in that year he had grown a great deal. And Dylan felt the growth, and was very much aware that he had something. There was also a toughening of spirit and a deepening cynicism — even about Woody. A few who were very close to Bob at this stage felt that in adopting the Guthrie identity Bob was coldly calculating: he knew Guthrie was dying, was no longer able to write or perform, and that a vacuum existed in the folk world. A vacuum that could be filled by a young man named Dylan.

Most of his Minneapolis friends, however, don't believe it was as conscious as all that. More likely, he intuitively seized on Guthrie as the final piece that would fully complete his identity.

John Koerner: "I don't know about conscious designs. What it was, mostly, is that he was going to New York to see Guthrie and to get into a situation where some of the stuff he was doing could develop."

But even his closest friends didn't believe he would make it. "We all laughed," Hugh Brown recalls. "It's so easy to say 'I'm going to make it big' and so hard to do it." And Gretel: "I don't think any of us believed he was going to make it. Because it was all so tough. Not that he wasn't good, but there were a lot of good people. And, you see, at this time he was doing very little of his own composing. Mostly singing other people's songs."

Dylan stopped off at Lynn Kastner's house, carrying some clothing, records and books. "Hold onto this stuff for me," he said. "I'm going to New York to see Woody." He left, carrying his guitar and a knapsack.

* * *

One afternoon shortly before Christmas, Kevin Krown was sitting in a coffeehouse near the University of Chicago, when a chilled kid wearing a corduroy snap-brimmed cap wandered into the place.

"Kevin?" he asked.

"Yeah?" Krown asked in reply.

"They told me at your place you'd be hanging out here. I'm Bob Dylan."

"Great. Who's Bob Dylan?"

"Remember? Ya told me to look you up when I got to Chicago. I got here."

"Oh, yeah," Krown said. "Want to play piano somewhere?"

"I don't play piano anymore," Dylan said. "I play guitar."

Krown introduced him to the folkie crowd. "He played guitar in the girls' dorm that night and I listened and it didn't ring. Whatever he was before, he wasn't that now." Krown asked: "What happened? Why you playing the guitar?"

"Well," Dylan said, "I met this guy Woody Guthrie in a hospital in New Jersey and I started playing guitar." He had not yet visited Guthrie, of course.

Dylan remained in Chicago for several weeks. He moved into Krown's place for a couple of days. Then he met a girl — "She grows pot in her place," he said — and moved in with her. He came and went, drifting in and out of Krown's circle, over the next few weeks, playing at parties, coffee houses, dorms.

He was writing a great deal by now, mostly reworking old folk standards into something that he considered his own kind of music, often Guthrie kind of things. The only song from this period that is remembered is his very significant "Song to Woody," young Dylan's tribute to his idol who was slowly dying in a hospital almost a thousand miles away.

Dylan Arrived in New York at the end of January, 1961. The city was shivering with temperatures down near zero, the coldest spell of weather to hit in at least 15 years. A week before he arrived a foot of snow had been dumped on New York, with drifts ten feet high, and the paralysis that usually grips the snow-bound city lingered for many days. Dylan went directly to Greenwich Village and wandered around, taking in the sights, checking the coffee houses and folk clubs and tourist bars along MacDougal and Bleeker Streets. That evening, lugging his guitar and knapsack, he wandered into the Cafe Wha?, a coffee house on MacDougal. Maddy Bloom, then a waitress there, remembers that Dylan found Manny Roth, who still operates the Wha?, and said: "Just got here from the West. Name's Bob Dylan. I'd like to do a few songs. Can I?"

"Sure," Roth said. "Where you staying?"

"Don't have a place yet. Know anybody's got a place I can crash for the night?"

"I'll see what I can do," Roth said.

Bob climbed up on the stage. Maddy recalls Dylan with his guitar and his harmonica on the wire holder around his neck — "I'd never seen that before. Thought it was unusual and kind of kooky." — and the Huck Finn cap. He sang a couple of Guthrie's songs, and a few others, and between songs he told the audience a little about himself: "I been travelin' around the country," he said. "Followin' in Woody Guthrie's footsteps. Goin' to he went to. All I got is my guitar and that little knapsack. That's all I need."

The Wha? was half empty but, Maddy recalls, a number of people in the audience seemed to share her feeling about Dylan: "I remember thinking he was very raw, that he had no professional polish, but that he had a quality of such great innocence, in a way, that you just had to notice him, you had to listen to him."

After a few songs Roth took the microphone and told the audience: "This kid has just come into town and he has no place to stay. Can anybody help him out?" There were a half dozen offers, folk buffs from Queens and Brooklyn, straight people, not Village freaks. No one remembers now where Dylan spent that first night, but those who were there remember very clearly that he seemed to drill right into the hearts of the audience.

Within a day or two he was hitchhiking out to Greystone Hospital, a mental institution near Morristown in central New Jersey, with facilities for some non-psychiatric patients like Woody. Dylan was alone, and exactly what took place is known only to him. But Kevin Krown recalls another visit to Greystone a short time later: "Guthrie was very shaky, he could barely talk, and he was very difficult to look at. But Dylan would sit beside him and play the guitar for him and somehow they communicated. Guthrie legitimately liked the guy, he even tried to play 'This Land Is Your Land' for Dylan." By this time Huntington's disease had practically crippled Guthrie. He couldn't do much more than strum the guitar with his full hand by now, a chord, and a pause as he struggled for a word, and another chord.

Dylan sent a postcard back to David Whittaker a couple of days after he arrived in the Village, a brief message scrawled on the back of one of those cards printed by the Guthrie Children's Fund, the organization set up to provide for Woody's children. The card carried the classic photo of Woody in a workshirt, holding his guitar in front of him. Dylan's enthusiasm leaps off the card: "I know Woody. I know Woody . . . I know him and met him and saw him and sang to him. I know Woody — Goddamn." He signed it, "Dylan."

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