(or: TANGLED UP IN NEW YORK)
(or: THE CURIOUS CASE OF BOB DYLAN)
By Francis Zen
In 1976 the artist formerly known as Robert Zimmerman penned (along with his co-writer Jacques Levy) the ballad of a boxer wrongfully convicted for murder in New York. The story of The Hurricane would become one of Bob Dylan’s best known middle-era songs, and one of his most vitriolic. But I can’t help the feeling that there may be a reason why the tale of someone put where he was for something he never did may have chimed with Dylan.
Bob Dylan – formerly Zimmerman – was there at the beginning. Lived through all of it. Knows the truth behind some of it, the way that most of us never will do.
Many of Dylan’s songs deal with injustice. I Shall Be Released, for example, or The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. Dylan got his break at the time of the folk revival and the heights of the civil rights movement, and he was certainly not shy of exploiting both of those things to achieve popularity – until he saw what way the wind was blowin’ and became the abstract beat poet of Like a Rolling Stone and the electric era.
Even by Dylan’s standards, The Hurricane stands out for its righteous indignation. Recorded after his run of classic 60s albums and the notorious motorcycle crash that saw him disappear from the public eye for a year and apparently “get religion” while hiding out with The Band at The Big Pink recording songs in a basement. The Hurricane is a venemous klezmer stomp that shows you even as a born again Christian, Dylan was still attached to his roots.
As usual with Dylan, everything was not all it seemed, and the story behind the Hurricane wasn’t as open-and-shut as he would have had you believe.
Dylan was a college dropout nobody when I met him in New York. He was the opening act for the Greenbriar Boys at Gerde’s Folk City. He had no songs of his own. Supposedly Ramblin’ Jack Elliott or Robert Shelton (who was really Robert Shapiro, a journalist at the New York Times) heard him playin’ his harmonica, or something, and decided he must be some sort of genius.
Now does that sound believeable to you?
The booking agent at Gerde’s at that time was Charlie Rothschild, and I think it was he who really gave Dylan his leg up.
New York City: 1961
Bob Dylan was sitting across the table from me telling Lou Levy, who was Leeds Music’s head guy at that time, how he came from “a long ways off and a long ways down.” He used to say that a lot. He used to claim that his father was an electrician from Buttfuck, Illinois. All lies, of course. His family owned a chain of movie theatres.
“Bob Dylan” who liked to pretend he was “from the farm” was from a well off Jewish family of cinema owners. Their chain of theatres were based in Hibbing, Minnesota, a town with some head-scratching ties to the mafia and government intelligence agencies.
Years later, when Bowie came to New York to track down Lou Reed, he would claim Dylan to have been one of his foremost inspirations. Not just in terms of songwriting, it would seem – Dylan used to put on personas in those days, just like Bowie did. That’s an artistic way of saying he lied about everything, depending on who he wanted to be. Except for one thing: he wanted to be famous.
It was late 1961, and we were sat in Jack Dempsey’s place on Broadway – or was it Greenwich Village? I can’t remember, but I have a feeling we may have been to both joints that evening, starting at the more upmarket eatery before barrelling down to the venue where Dylan would play many of his early folk-club shows. Given his connection to guys like Dempsey, perhaps it isn’t surprising at all that Dylan would go on to write about Ruben Carter, another former boxer. Maybe Dylan felt some connection to these guys who had to roll with the punches throughout their careers? But that was a long ways off at this point in the road.
There were a lot of connections, ripples if you like, that would grow out of the seed that was planted that day in NYC. Excuse me for taking my time setting the scene, for in hindsight the air that day seems to have been thick with resonance.
We were celebrating, I think, the fact that Dylan had just been signed to a contract. We were both signed up to write songs for what would become the folk division of CBS music. At this time I don’t really think they knew if they were gonna stick our faces on them, or someone else’s.
“Folk is overtaking jazz as the music of choice for young hip types,” Lou Levy was telling us. “It can convey something in words and music that don’t require a great big band. From the company’s point of view, it’s simpler and whiter! People are gonna remember the songs you write for years to come – and we want to make sure that we own them!”
“But how you gonna own a folk song?” asked Dylan, not quite digging. “Can’t nobody own a folk song, it belongs… to folk!”
“Because you’re gonna re-write the lyrics, genius, then we copyright the whole thing and we own it. Capeesh?”
I saw Dylan nodding. I think this may have been the first of a long string of revelations that would later result in songs like Maggie’s Farm and Gotta Serve Somebody. Anti-capitalist songs that made zillions for the record companies. Bob Dylan was nothing if not a master of shilling the rubes.
The woman at the end of the bar in the joint downtown with the gin and a houseplant sitting at the counter had been eyeing me curiously. I was a well dressed man even in those days, though I did not consider myself handsome, and my raincoat was torn at the shoulder. I would have to remember to persuade Lou to advance me some money for a new one. The lady was wearing a diaphanous dress, nursing the glass of gin, but the houseplant looked like it needed a drink more.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Chelsea. Chelsea Hotel. How do you do?” She asked me.
“I’m the Famous Blue Raincoat.” I had better get used to living with my newfound status as a recording artist on one of America’s premier labels, after all.
“Never heard of you,” she told me.
“To tell you the truth, I’ve never heard of myself either.”
I don’t remember much more. I do remember barrelling out into the New York City night, the young Dylan and I, dead drunk and looking for an angry fix the same as Ginsberg would howl about, in the frame of mind where nothing is very important past the next bar, woman or three minute lyric. Dylan was 17 when he signed his first professional record contract according to his own calculations (20 according to some), so I suppose it was illegal – everything we did.
“Come on,” said Dylan, hanging off a lamp post: “we got to get stoned.”
Man, I couldn’t see past the lights of the New York City taxies.
So we headed down to Ray Donovan’s place under the Hudson Bridge – a tumbledown old walk-up that’s been gone for years as I write this.
Donovan and his girl had a back room there full of books floor-to-ceiling and a couple of old arm-chairs where anyone was welcome. Old Donovan used to cook heroin there – I suppose he was sort of a William Burroughs figure for us. We savage young men, following in the footsteps of the beat poets, already faded from the decade gone before – our hearts were like the browning wallpaper in that tobacco filled back room in Donovan’s place.
“I had a twenty-five dollar a day habit,” Dylan would tell Rolling Stone, years later. “Cats would pick us up, chicks would pick us up, and we’d do anything you wanted… sometimes we would make a hundred dollars a night, from three in the afternoon until four in the morning.”
Typically, Rolling Stone assumed it was just one more of the tall tales he spun to journalists when people got wise to Zimmerman later on. No one knew who Bobby D. had been uptown when he came down to the village. No one, except me… and Lou Levy, I suppose.