Was Dylan Thinking?; A Wide-Open Space in Little Italy

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"I love Irish cock," the girl announced to us as we passed. How utterly charming. Top of the evening to you, fair colleen...

Actually she was ragged and melancholy, if young: a slackjawed and sad-eyed girl sitting on a Mulberry St. stoop, north of Spring St., with a couple nondescript guys whom we didn't even bother noticing as we passed.

Neither of us was Irish. "Great," we groaned, and kept walking.

"I love Italian cock, too," she called to us down the street.

Neither of us was Italian, either.

Her face hung loose and unhappy. Mook to the left of her, jamoke to the right. They leaned with their elbows on their thighs, looked at us with bored and glassy expressions, sucked their gums.

Besides, she was just being fundamentally erroneous. How many years has it been since there's been a significant, workable amount of authentic Italian cock in Little Italy? I wanted to tell her she was five, 10, maybe even 15 years too late. The world has changed, honey. Guttersnipe cock? That you'll find in Nolita. Young movie-celebrity cock? Bingo?hang around outside Cafe Habana at the corner of Prince and Elizabeth Sts. long enough, and it will make itself known to you in all of its glory. But Italian cock below Houston St. and east of Lafayette? Not likely. It's mostly passed from the human experience.

So anyway, we'd been sitting at the bar of this Mulberry St. establishment called Velvet. Goateed and leather-trousered downtown clubman catches our attention from the other, the street, side of the windows?climbs out of a chauffeured SUV and slip-slides with ball-bearing hips into this lush and techno-pulsing loungey joint in order to share, with his lady, that comfy sofa right there?right there across from the bar. A stretch and a reach and a funny, flat, fake-innocent expression on his face?and presto, he's slipped his arm around her. Sly dog.

The thing about Velvet that's appealing is that it's empty. We showed up on a Wednesday evening and were struck by how pleasantly void of people it was. We could sit at the bar?we could sit anywhere we wanted. Had we wanted to, we could have nabbed a table?or else even sat together on the low sofa, but we don't swing that way.

I can't stress enough how valuable an empty drinking place is in downtown Manhattan?or, for that matter, in uptown Manhattan, or in most of White Brooklyn?at this point. First we'd tried 288, as usual, and found it packed, in that unpredictable way that it can be sometimes. We didn't even bother with the always-crowded Milano's, but rather checked out the newish Puck Fair on Lafayette St. It, too, was jammed. (And, just as bad, it reminded us of Boston.) The Spring Lounge?where, as recently as four years ago, you could still expect to find room at the bar on a Wednesday night?was unmanageably full, with topers, revelers?weird distorted drunks and mummers?spilling out, beastly and depraved, into the misty night. I was struck again by the change that's overcome the city over the course of the 12 years I've lived here. I moved in 1989 to a city that seemed defined by a poetic emptiness: the emptiness of a dying city, a place people wanted to abandon, a place where on stark autumn afternoons the shabby boulevards of the Upper West Side offered lonely and depopulated vistas that stretched out under sere, hard light, and as for Central Park?there was no one in it. You could go to the Met on a Friday evening, any time of the year and?this is now inconceivable?look at pictures alone. Alone and bittersweet, down in the American Wing, in the shadows of the Hudson River School pictures, and you'd groove on the idea of a lost world. A city fallen into a sepia-toned sleep, trash blowing in the wind along Broadway, and all the stores shuttered, and no one ever in the bars and men passed out on the trains.

Obviously, it's different now. Now the experience of New York is one of crowds, of a hectic plenitude. Which makes the place just hard to use.

I don't care about Velvet at all. It's another slick-elegant lounge-bar-restaurant of the sort that proliferated in the 90s, and that might not last any longer. But until the day it closes, it's there on Mulberry St., and it's relatively empty, which is the important thing, and I pass it along to you, for your enjoyment and patronage. If you're thinking of meeting somebody for a drink anywhere in the vicinity of the Puck Bldg., you might need it.

Velvet, 223 Mulberry St. (betw. Prince & Spring Sts.), 965-0439.


He Was a Friend of Mine

In your May Vanity Fair, you'll find?flip flip flip through the glossy pages?you'll find an excerpt from a forthcoming book called Positively 4th St., by a man named David Hajdu. The book's either a Bob Dylan biography or a study of beatnik-era Greenwich Village, or perhaps both of these things, or possibly something else?the magazine never makes it especially clear. But whatever it is, the excerpt is a detailed history of the Village folk scene around 1961, particularly as it involved Joan Baez and a barely adult Dylan. You're maybe familiar with some of the article's references: Gerde's Folk City, the Kingston Trio, the awful Weavers, Allan Block's W. 4th St. Sandal Shop?the whole middle-class folk-scholar slab of fatty white meat, marinated in a musty Old Left ideological ambience?that ambience that must have drifted around that silly scene just like the smell of tobacco drifts around a betting parlor, and dig yourself, man.

Sample passage, a quotation from the aforementioned sandalmonger Block: "In the beginning, most people saw sandals as something very European or feminine... Then, I think, people started relating the idea of exposed feet and natural leather and something handmade with folk music and crafts."

It would be interesting to do deep research, in order to understand the process by which sandals, of all things, became associated with rural American proletarian "authenticity." Since when do authentic rural Americans resemble gay men in Key West? One imagines rural Americans would have been more likely to cudgel a sandal-wearing Pete Seeger if he happened by the holler to discuss the International Proletariat than they would to stop wearing workboots, which were probably?as opposed to sandals?their footwear of choice. (Given, after all, that they worked for a living.) Who did these middle-class folk-music aficionados think typified the American proletariat? Percy Shelley?

If?as I do?you worship Bob Dylan, it's hard to understand this period of the great man's career without blaming it on the naivete of his youth. Give him a break, you want to say, he was only 19, 20. You're allowed to be imperfect when you're that young. And yet the fact that Bob Dylan used to hang out with Seeger, Dave Van Ronk and Peter, Paul and Mary is hard to come to grips with. No matter that he would someday rebuke and abandon it, the weird fact remains that the great, cynical, caustic, anarchic, all-American punk-rocker known as Bob Dylan was, early in his career, a part of the precious Greenwich Village folk scene. A scene that, no matter how much slack you try to cut it, seems to have been characterized by a high level of fraudulence. There's an inverse proportionality at work between how exhilaratingly great Dylan was during his Golden and Silver Ages?between, roughly, Bringing It All Back Home and Blood on the Tracks?and how bad Peter, Paul and Mary and their ilk were as they warbled and empathized their way through that Folk City milieu in the first years of the 60s. What did Dylan talk about with these people? Did he really admire Theodore Bikel?

There's a tantalizing little nugget of information in the Vanity Fair excerpt. The year is 1961. Hajdu writes: "September 29 was also the day Dylan was supposed to play backup on a new album by Carolyn Hester, the most prominent female folksinger in the Village. The recording session, at Columbia Records' Studio A on Seventh Avenue and 52nd Street, was unofficially coordinated by her husband, Richard Fariña, a writer whose circle of pals included many of Dylan's folkie friends as well as the aspiring novelist Thomas Pynchon."

Also, Fariña, who's described as "Dylan's friend," would later marry Mimi Baez, Joan's younger sister, in a California wedding. Pynchon was the best man.

Amazing. Pynchon and Dylan in the same broad social circle. Did they know each other? Did they get along? This is a beautiful thing to learn. The punkest, funniest, most anarchic, cerebral, paranoid, important and quintessentially American novelist of the second half of the 20th century moved in the same circles, might even have known, the punkest, funniest, most anarchic, cerebral, paranoid, important and quintessentially American musician. I'd love to know if they ever really met; and if they did, where. And what did they talk about? Pynchon writes appealingly of his youthful beatnik days in the introduction to his short-story collection Slow Learner, but he doesn't mention Dylan.

So who knows? It's a longshot, but maybe Pynchon played Ezra Pound to the younger Dylan's T.S. Eliot, shaking him by the shoulders, telling him no, forget this folk crap, forget Seeger, forget Bikel, forget sandals, get louder, wilder, sicker?start breaking stuff?it's your business to freak out precisely these people?

It's a tantalizing thought. I'd love to verify it with either one of them, but I doubt they'd return my calls.


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