Bob Dylan: Freewheelin' Through The Village

Dylan returns to the Greenwich Village scene from whence he emerged

August 28, 1975
Bob Dylan, rolling stone, archive, robbie Robertson, madison square garden, new york
Bob Dylan performs with Robbie Robertson of The Band at Madison Square Garden as part of his 1974 Tour Of America on January 30th, 1974 in New York City.
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty

New York — The corner is still there, but the man who made the album Bleecker and MacDougal is not. Fred Neil, he's down in Florida, Coral Gables, Key West, somewhere. The San Remo Bar, its walls dark with the stain of Greenwich Village gossip and beatnik pipe smoke — it's gone too. The Figaro, for years the coffeehouse catty-corner from the Remo, couldn't take the Sixties' exodus to home-based pot parties and closed. Gone is the Gaslight, where Kerouac read poetry to jazz, where countless, nameless folk-singers wailed under a lone, hot, yellow spot. The Cafe Wha?, where Jimi Hendrix played lead while Richard Pryor tried for laughs between sets, reopened briefly a year and a half ago. Now it's closed too. Ditto the Cafe Au Go Go, home to Tim Hardin, the Grateful Dead, Odetta, others. The basements along MacDougal Street have been taken over by Middle Eastern restaurants and handmade jewelry stores. Bleecker is dominated by gypsy fortune tellers and Indian sleazeshops with brass hookahs in the windows. The neighborhood has been overrun by aging Sixties acid casualties panhandling for a pint of Wild Irish Rose with which to wash down their methadone tabs.

And so, when Bob Dylan returned to the Village about two months ago, people here sat up and took notice. Now it's got to be understood that Dylan is in and out of New York all the time and people in the Village aren't exactly moved to autograph-hunting frenzy by the news that he stopped in a neighborhood bar the night before. But this time was different. The city was collapsing, fiscally and physically, and Bob Dylan decided to come back? Now that was news.

For quite a while it has seemed as if a last beacon of hope had dimmed out, the Bleecker and MacDougal scene was finished. All movement in the city has been uptown, away from the Village. This year the gays dominated the club scene with places like Reno Sweeney, where Barbra Streisand lookalikes (male and female) sing smokey ballads and people primp and parade in ice cream outfits under lighting that makes everybody a star. The discos were drawing the crowds and live music had pretty much moved out of town. By last winter, it had become necessary to journey to the suburbs if you wanted to hear music that did not sound like it had recently escaped from a Broadway show that had closed after two nights.

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bob Dylan

In June, the old Bitter End, closed for about a year, reopened with a liquor license. Owned by Paul Colby, one of the original partners, rechristened the Other End, it was attached to a bar and restaurant next door. It wasn't long before you could see Dylan on the street, shuffling along in Levi's and a black leather jacket over a striped T-shirt, his head of tight brown curls bopping up and down, a guitar case in one hand, a sheaf of papers and notebooks in the other. For several weeks in the South Village, it seemed like Dylan was everywhere, walking the streets, hanging out late. One night he showed up at the Bottom Line and played harp with Muddy Waters. A few nights later he dragged friends of his to see Buddy Guy twice. But it wasn't until Dylan started hanging out at the Other End that the word finally spread: Dylan was back in town for the usual reason — his love for the energy of the city.

Dylan stopped by to see Patti Smith, the 28-year-old rock poet who looks like Keith Richards and sings like . . . well, like Patti Smith. She was packing the Other End every night with the cult-like following she has built up over the past couple years. Patti Smith stood defiantly onstage and threw challenges Dylan's way all night. Stuff like, "Don't you go near my parking meter, Jack." Dylan grinned, then went backstage after the late set.

When Ramblin' Jack Elliott, no stranger to the scene, opened on July 1st, Dylan was there. Jack, alone on guitar, sang "House of the Rising Sun," "Tom Joad" and "South Coast." Occasionally he left the stage and wandered through the audience, singing like a minstrel. Rosalie Sorrels harmonized on a few verses of "Tom Joad." Dylan simply smiled while Jack sang "I Threw It All Away." Around midnight, everyone went next door and drank until closing. Dylan ordered white wine, Jack Elliott drank tequila. A staggeringly drunk Phil Ochs stopped by and yelled at Dylan for a few moments. Dylan didn't seem to mind. Bobby Neuwirth, a guitarist and longtime Dylan friend who is rapidly becoming known as the Don Rickles of rock, popped in and started rapping in his customary mile-a-minute way. Logan English, who was singing in Village bars when Bob Dylan was still trying to pass senior math, sat down quietly.

"That you, Logan?" Dylan asked sleepily. "Yeah Bobby, it's me," said English. "Hey man, I thought you were dead," said Dylan. "I've heard the same about you a few times," English replied. They both laughed.

"This is like a reunion!" someone yelled as Paul Colby pushed everyone out the door at 4:00 a.m. "Let's get everybody together tomorrow night."

And so they did. Ramblin' Jack did half a set, then invited Dave Van Ronk onstage to sing "Salty Dog." Neuwirth was lured up for one of his rare personal appearances. He sang a beautiful new truck driving song of his called "Cindy" and accompanied himself on guitar. (Rumor has it Dylan will record "Cindy" as a single.) Dylan came onstage and played rhythm guitar for Jack on one number, then he and Jack sang "Pretty Boy Floyd," and Elliott stepped offstage. Dylan took the mike and, without hesitation, sang a song Neuwirth said Dylan had written that afternoon. Nobody knew the song's name, but "Pleeese let me in your room one more time, before I disappear," was the refrain. Dylan sang the song easily, with none of the gritty determination that characterized his singing while on tour last year. Though it was in the Blood on the Tracks vein, Dylan's voice was closer to what you hear on Freewheelin' or Another Side of Bob Dylan than on any of his recent albums. Then Logan English and Ramblin' Jack sang "This Land Is Your Land" and the set was over.

Again everyone went next door and drank until dawn. While the room careened around him, Dylan sat in a corner silently, his watery blue eyes hooded by eyebrows that bobbed up and down as he listened. And listen he did, hardly saying a word all night. Several onlookers guessed that he was drunk, but as Neuwirth explained later, "He's an audio voyeur. He's like that every once in a while, just listening to and watching people."

Early that morning out on Bleecker Street the crowd was breaking up. One groupie after another draped themselves about Dylan's shoulders like dimestore scarves. One jumped in a cab and held the door for him; Dylan turned away. Another threw her arms around his neck and whispered in his ear. Dylan smiled and walked off. A third, hardcore uptown type, who looked like an unholy combination of a Times Square hooker and Princess Lee Radziwill and was known as Kitty, stuck to his side like cement. Finally Dylan said goodnight to everyone and wandered off down Bleecker Street in the direction of Sixth Avenue.

"Hey. Where's he going?" asked Kitty. "He's going for a walk around the Village," Neuwirth answered. "That's why he likes this place."

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