Today marks the 55th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s arrival in New York City: To celebrate, each day this week we’ll be taking you to a different landmark integral to the half-century-old Bob-in-NYC story, hosted by the most deadpan voice-over guy in history (that’d be me) and filmed by Voice video guru Jeremy Krinsley. In today’s episode, we visit the still-intact Cafe Wha? (where it all started back on January 24, 1961) and 94 MacDougal, where Dylan lived — unhappily, it would appear, thanks to that guy rooting through his trash — for a few years after returning to the city in 1969.
When Dylan first arrived in New York City on Tuesday, January 24, 1961, he caught a subway down to Greenwich Village and blew into the Café Wha? in a flurry of snowflakes… Dylan asked the owner, Manny Roth, if he could perform — and he did, playing a short set of Woody Guthrie songs. In the following weeks, Dylan would appear occasionally at the coffeehouse, playing harmonica… behind Mark Spoelstra and Fred Neil…
John Bauldie, Positively 4th Street Revisited, Q, No. 104, May 1995, p. 56.
In the Village I played with Mark Spoelstra, Fred Neil, Bob Dylan, and Lisa Kindred. We hung out at the “Café Wha?” It was a grubby, awful scene there…. We were all treated like shit…. Although Dylan could neither sing or play the guitar, he clearly had something on stage that none of the rest of us did. He could entertain… When he got a job at Gerde’s for $90.00 a week it was big news.
Eric von Schmidt and Jim Rooney, Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, Garden City, 1979, p. 125.
Q. When and where did Bob Dylan make his debut in New York?
A. Mr. Dylan, age 19, drove with two friends to New York City from Wisconsin in mid-January 1961, arriving Jan. 24, according to Howard Sounes in “Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan” (2001, Grove Press). He had two immediate goals: to meet Woody Guthrie and to perform in Greenwich Village’s thriving folk coffeehouses.
“On his first night in Greenwich Village, on or around Jan. 24, 1961, Bob went into the Cafe Wha? on Macdougal Street,” Mr. Sounes writes. “It was ‘hootenanny’ night, open-mike night when almost anybody could get up and perform. ‘I been travelin’ around the country,’ he told the crowd. ‘Followin’ in Woody Guthrie’s footsteps.’ ”
Soon afterward, on a Monday open-mike night, he performed at Gerde’s Folk City on West Fourth Street, which became renowned as the premier folk club in the city and was owned by Mike Porco. “Bob, who spent Monday evenings going from club to club, appeared to be so young that Porco wanted proof of his age the first time he asked to play,” Mr. Sounes writes. “Finally the young Dylan got onstage and regaled the Gerde’s audience with obscure Woody Guthrie V.D. songs. Tom Paxton and Dave Van Ronk were sitting in the audience drinking beer.”
Bob Dylan’s life is short on concrete facts and figures, very much by design, but the experts seem to agree on this one: The man born Robert Zimmerman arrived in NYC on January 24, 1961, exactly a half-century ago. He immediately started showing up at the Village’s Cafe Wha? (that’s him on the left with Karen Dalton and Fred Neil, in a pic dated just a few weeks later, February 6) and lying about having arrived in town via freight train. As he explains in his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One:
When I arrived, it was dead-on winter. The cold was brutal and every artery of the city was snowpacked, but I’d started out from the frostbitten North Country, a little corner of the earth where the dark frozen woods and icy roads didn’t faze me. I could transcend the limitations. It wasn’t money or love that I was looking for. I had a heightened sense of awareness, was set in my ways, impractical and a visionary to boot. My mind was strong like a trap and I didn’t need any guarantee of validity. I didn’t know a single soul in this dark freezing metropolis but that was all about to change — and quick.