Review: Where Dylan Grew into His Genius, Bob Dylan’s New York By June Skinner Sawyers

Bob Dylan's New York By June Skinner Sawyers The History Press,142 pages, $21.99 First of all, a story: In April 2010, I was in downtown Duluth on a freelance writing assignment, and by 5pm or so I’d finished my interviews and was back at the Holiday Inn. Somehow, it clicked that Duluth was where Bob Dylan spent his first six years of life, and a quick check of the Internet, let me know that the building where he’d lived was at 519 North 3rd Avenue E, a walk of less than a mile from where I was. So, I walked. And, then, there I was, standing across the street from the two-story frame house. Some Dylan fans, more firmly devout than I am, might have gone over to ring the bell. That was never a serious thought for me.  What was there to ask whoever was in the house now? I had more fun simply imagining a little snot-nose kid named Bobby Zimmerman running around inside and outside that house doing whatever a musical and literary genius does at the age of 4 or 5 or 6. Then, reverie over, I went back to the hotel and got supper. I mention this by way of introducing June Skinner Sawyers’ Bob Dylan’s New York, a lively travelogue/history of Dylan’s formative years in and around Manhattan. The book, an updated edition of a work that initially saw the light of day in 2011, from another publisher, is summarized in three maps that appear in the first few pages—Greenwich Village (31 Dylan-related locations), The Upper West Side, Upper East Side and Midtown (16 locations), and Midtown, Chelsea, and Gramercy Park (8 locations). Each of these 55 locations is numbered, and, when a place is mentioned in the text, such as the Hotel Earle, Sawyers boldfaces the name and adds the location number so it can be found on one of the maps, as she does here: Baez invited Dylan along as her guest on her summer tour. Later that summer, on August 28, he sang with her at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. When they were in New York at the same time, they stayed at the Hotel Earle (35) at 103 Waverly Place (Dylan Thomas had also stayed there), across the street from Washington Square Park. That excerpt is a good example of how Sawyer, a colleague of mine among the Third Coast Review writers, packages all these Dylan sites. She has mined Dylan’s writings as well as memoirs and histories of New York in the 1960s and later, especially the folk music scene. As her book moves chronologically forward, she’s able to identify Dylan’s romantic partner or partners at any given point, such as her reference above to Joan Baez, and detail the music he was creating, and describe the places he was living, and analyze the controversies that routinely popped up around him as he became ever more famous. A Way of Participating in Dylan’s Life It seems to me that, for a fan of Dylan’s music—and Sawyers is clearly a fan—the creation of a book like this is not only an act of affection but also a way, a very minor but still real way, of participating in Dylan’s life. And it’s the same for the reader of such a book. By knowing specifically where Dylan was in what month or what year, a reader can imagine the boy-man folksinger arriving in 1961, or the mildly successful songwriter of a couple years later, or the cult figure of a later time trying desperately to find a way to keep his fans at bay. Sawyers is always looking to place Dylan and his places within the history, literary and otherwise, of the Big Apple, referencing other writers and celebrities, such as Dylan Thomas in the above excerpt, who frequented the same locations if often not contemporaneously. Even more, she locks her lively account into the physical New York world by including the full address of all of the 55 locations she details as well as others less important.  In many cases, things have changed. A structure may have been razed. A business has moved or closed. A fleabag hotel is now up-upscale. Certainly, as Sawyers makes clear throughout her book, the cheap rents and inexpensive lifestyles that Dylan found attractive when he arrived in Manhattan are long gone. The island is much richer and much whiter today. For instance, she writes: Eventually, Dylan found his own space, a one-bedroom apartment on the third floor of a red-brick four-story railroad flat, built in 1910 and located at 161 West Fourth Street (14) for $60 a month (in 2015, the apartment was sold for a considerably higher $6 million). With a Touch of Imagination I’ve been a fan of Dylan’s music for, like, forever. I learned some things from Bob Dylan’s New York, such as how he met poet Allen Ginsberg. Other Dylan aficionados are likely to pick up bits and pieces of facts and biography. But Sawyers isn’t aiming to create a definitive look at Dylan in New York. Her book is fact-filled and energetically told, and, as I said above, it’s a travelogue. You can sit in your chair and walk through all of these places Dylan haunted. Or, even better, you can walk around the Manhattan streets with this book in hand and find locations where, with a touch of imagination, you can see the musical legend when he hadn’t yet hit his stride—or when he was on top of the world. You can, if you look hard enough, see him growing into his genius. And you can see that genius as it is being shaped by New York City. Actually, it occurs to me that Sawyers could have just as easily named her book: New York’s Bob Dylan. We certainly wouldn’t have the Bob Dylan we have if he hadn’t gone to and lived so long in Manhattan. From his life as a snot-nose kid in Duluth, Bob Dylan became a true New Yorker. As if it were destiny.   Bob Dylan's New York is available at most bookstores and through the publisher's website.
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Patrick T. Reardon

Patrick T. Reardon is a Chicago historian, essayist, poet and writer who was a Chicago Tribune reporter for 32 years. He is the author of nine books including the forthcoming The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago (SIU Press).