Bob Dylan in New York City
A decade ago when I was visiting Brooklyn, a decade before I would move here, I’d stay in Greenpoint. I would always get lost because Brooklyn was nothing but a blob to me, but I knew when I found the right street. It was (and still is, I think?) lined with American flags: Hausman Street. It was at the very end of a long walk from the Nassau G subway stop; I now see that walk clocks in at nine minutes, but it feels longer when you’re 23 and don’t know just how cold NYC winter is and don’t bring a coat. I remember the wind cutting through my hips, the blustery leaves, like a children’s book, and the pickle soup I was encouraged to try on my first visit to honor the Polish neighborhood.
One of my best friends from college lived here, on Hausman. I now see it’s only two blocks long (!!) (one residential, one industrial) but it was my home base. She lived there with two best friends, and later, her then-boyfriend (now-husband) moved in. My earliest memories of New York City, aside from field trips and driving the GW Bridge with my family to pass through it, is this apartment. They had a guest book for crashers. The living room was giant, also an entry way, and the kitchen was announced by a long, island counter jutting from the wall. The bathroom was small, the shower a tile stall; two bedrooms in the back and one up front. The stereo speakers were mounted above the kitchen cabinets and I’d sort through the vinyl of her roommate, who was also an audio student, and her then-boyfriend. We got along famously and spoke all the same sonic languages. They took me to a bar under the BQE and we smoked cigarettes outside in the cold, leaves swirling into my hair. I felt covered in the city and hated that I didn’t live here. Everything was here, everyone was here. As I write this, I now realize that this apartment on Hausman Street was my first NYC apartment.
My music memories often define listening experiences, and it’s always a first: on what TV show or movie soundtrack did I first heard this song, who first played me this song, and where I was when I heard it for the first time. This apartment on Hausman is one I return to often, long before I became a Dylanologist and especially since. We were hungover, and I had helped put a stumbling roommate to bed (also a first) around 2am earlier that day. Then-boyfriend put on an album and everyone started moving in silence. Eggs were cracked and scrambled, and we shared a mismatched breakfast while “Meet Me In The Morning” played at full volume. I’m positive now I had never heard it before.
Those clumsy, easy acoustic notes are the feeling of opening my eyes in the morning and the song’s cracked and humble scratchy start is the sound of eyelids fluttering everywhere. And then the first lines, the song title, the first words I hear as I blink and open my eyes a second time. I knew it was Bob but didn’t know the record then. Blood On The Tracks (1975) is the crowning favorite of many (though not mine), and upon its release was considered Bob returning to form.
My Godfather (/spirit guide; not sure why I have one since I wasn’t baptized and he’s Jewish) was born and raised in Brooklyn. (Hi, Danny.) He always has me meet him at Cafe Reggio down the street (MacDougal) from where Dylan lived several thousand Dylan lifetimes ago. A block from Cafe Wha? (which I knew about, I’m not a total jabroni and for those of you who are: it’s where Dylan was discovered at Folk Night), and around the corner from The Bitter End, where Dylan would work out what became Blood On The Tracks. My Godfather taught me about NYC Dylan and never fails to remind me that he “worships at the Church Of Bob.” (The first time I met him at Reggio, I showed up with the first volume of a 1k page Dylan bio. I didn’t know it at the time but this book by Ian Bell would change my life.) The Bitter End is also officially the birth place of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, the infamous 1975-76 tour of Bob (with a plastic mask he’d take off to reveal his face painted in white) with Robbie Robertson, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Roberta Flack, T-Bone Burnett, David Mansfield, and violinist Scarlet Rivera (among others). Rivera gives that era of shows a certain sonic universe, strings of one timbre almost complimenting another, but kind of off. Right and wrong in the same note, clashing and complimentary. My Godfather saw Dylan on The Revue but maintains the best live Bob he’s seen in all the decades was on Bob’s Christian/Jesus tour. For the last year or so I’ve been stuck on “Oh Sister” from Hard Rain (1976). It’s that loose smash on the snare and Rivera’s violin forcing me to make the volume as loud as it goes, especially when it’s cold out and I’m alone in my headphones.
Hard Rain was recorded, mostly, in Colorado but “Oh, Sister” was recorded on the second leg of the tour, in Fort Worth, TX. You can kind of see a screen of white film on his face there. Cue up my next Dylan-themed Halloween costume no one will get. (I wrapped myself in blue yarn for a few years. Get it?) There is so much to learn about Bob Dylan. Like when I play “Oh, Sister” really loud at home on the stereo and my husband points out that the lyrics are a bit …uh, saved. (“And is our purpose not the same on this earth/to love and follow his direction.”) Bob can be a stinker of an onion, telling you the opposite of what you want to hear, or what you think you want to hear. It takes forever to peel, a lifetime, and will make you cry.
“Oh, Sister” came out in 1976 on Desire, a sister record to Blood On The Tracks, for only a year separates them, well, a year and 1975’s The Basement Tapes, which we all know was recorded in 1967 so I’m not counting it. (One of my defining features as a Dylanologist is that I don’t care for The Band. But it didn’t stop me from visiting The Big Pink in West Saugerties, NY. I recently discovered a coworker grew up in the house next to The Big Pink and spent adolescence shooing people away from private property. If I had to pick something it would be the front half of Basement Tapes. You can have The Last Waltz.)
There is so much Dylan in New York. I don’t know if this is common sense or only common sense to those Really Into Dylan. Before I read Ian Bell’s biography of Dylan (also a vehicle to argue that Bob deserves the Nobel; Bell died in 2015 and didn’t get to see Bob win it) I was just another millennial in my mid-20s who fell in love with the infamous classic Bob trio Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966) and declared it lol, well, gospel. I can barely listen to these records now because I played them out for close to a decade. Maybe I am able to revisit Blonde on Blonde, sometimes, and I know this is a bold statement but “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” might be my all-time Bob track. Wait. I already take that back. It’s just… I love its outtake, Bob’s seemingly genuine belly laugh, and the rapid-fire drug-fueled weirdness of its nonsense story. I think of standout lines all the time, seeing things in the gutters when traipsing around Manhattan, when I read Moby-Dick (even though he says “Arab” and not “Ahab”), and certain words remind me of it, like “Bowery,” “hat,” and “etiquette” (and “boilin’ fat” and “bums” and every time I’m really hungry).
It’s safe to say I’m a woman obsessed. Ever since music started meaning something to me (circa 8th grade and, yes, it was Led Zeppelin), lines of dialog I hear every day that are just words in a certain order to you are actually lyrics to me. I hear music everywhere. When a stranger uses a certain turn of phrase, or I’m trying to get a word or a name right, I hear myself saying, “like the song?” It usually takes people a few beats to realize what I’m talking about, if they can put it together. Usually they don’t and I’ve never cared. The base of everything is music to me. It all goes back to music: everything I’ve learned and everything I will learn. It always comes from music. It’s why I have an impossible time separating music from my memories, memories from my music. Yes, it’s mine. It’s all mine.
These memories of Hausman Street (really, just one block!) in a part of the city (and borough!) where I currently live that I never go back to are as strong today as they were the day after they happened. Track one, side two. Those bending strings and strained voice. Even though many Dylan tracks sound exactly the same I will also argue that there are no two alike.
To get to the bottom of why music and sound is tied so close to memory is a book I haven’t written yet. Memory and smell go hand and hand too. A favorite meal or perfume, or the stench of a bar or whiff of a flower on a tree can transport me into the past. You, too, I assume. But smell doesn’t have the magic of a soundtrack, of an imaginary camera on a dolly moving you through the city, passing places historic and thrilling to you, boring and meaningless to others, just a corner to get turned around on. The way a beat, a harmony, a melody, a chorus, and even a simple turn of phrase can transport me, and you, to another time…that’s for music only. It’s true power is unity even though my memory will be different from yours. And yours different from mine. They are clear. They are sharp like the wire strings, and they moan at my temples, reminding me where I’ve been and where I have to be.
I refuse to forget. But in case I do one day, I got myself a memento last time. Next time I’ll go for the saucer.