Exhuming Bob IX: Pensees 6 Bob And Dave A Review

June 28, 2008

Exhuming Bob IX

Pensee 6: Bob And Dave

A Review

Dave Van Ronk: The Mayor Of Macdougal Street

by

R.E. Prindle

Dave At Work

Dave At Work

 Texts:

Dylan, Bob  Chronicles Volume One  Simon And Schuster 2004

Thompson, Toby  Positively Main Street  U. Minnesota 2008, reprint of 1971 text.

Van Ronk, Dave  The Mayor Of MacDougal Street: A Memoir  Da Capo Press 2006

     Van Ronk’s memoir published in 2006 becomes part of the ongoing Bob Dylan debate.  A part of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early sixties Van Ronk little knew how his life would be affected, destroyed, by the arrival of Bob Dylan from out of the West in 1961.

     At the time of Dylan’s arrival Van Ronk was one of the most important, if not the most important, folk singer in the Village.  Thus Bob set his sights to suck out Dave’s substance and cast the empty husk aside.

     On page 211 of the paperback Dylan is quoted at the beginning of Chaper 15:

I once thought the biggest I could ever hope to get was like Van Ronk.  And it’s bigger than that now, ain’t it?  Yeah, man, it’s bigger than that.

-Bob Dylan c. 1964

     Once Dylan learned of Van Ronk on his arrival, it is doubtful that he had heard of him in Minneapolis, he made it his goal to insinuate himself into Van Ronk’s life.  Dylan tells how he began his assault on page 21 of his Chronicles.  The scene takes place in the Folklore Center:

     One winter day a big burly guy stepped in off the street.  He looked like he’d come from the Russian Embassy, shook the snow off his sleeves, took off his gloves and put them on the counter, asked to see a Gibson guitar that was hanging up on the brick wall.  It was Dave Van Ronk.  He was gruff, a mass of bristling hair, don’t give a damn attitude, a confident hunter.  My mind went into a rush.  (My italics.)  There was nothing between him and me.  Izzy took the guitar down and gave it to him.   Dave fingered the strings and played some kind of jazzy waltz, put the guitar back on the counter.  As he put the guitar down, I stepped over and put my hands on it and asked him at the same time how does someone get to work down at the gaslight, who do you have to know?  It’s not like I was trying to get buddy-buddy with him,  I just wanted to know.

     Van Ronk looked at me curiously, was snippy and surly, asked if I did janitor work.

     I told him, no, I didn’t and he could perish the thought, but could I play something for him?  He said, “Sure.”

     I played him “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out.”  Dave then said I could come down about eight or nine in the evening and play a couple songs in his set.  That was how I met Dave Van Ronk.

Bob and Dave

Bob and Dave

     Possibly.  But one learns to take Dylan’s stories with a shaker full of salt.  Bob has a difficult time separating fact from fancy.  The way Van Ronk tells it he was hanging around with a bunch of the boys when someone burst in and said  ‘New guy, come on, you got to hear this.’ and it was Bob.  So Van Ronk would have had an idea who Bob was not that he necessarily would have acknowledged him.  There are some interesting points in Dylan’s narrative which I believe is Bob at his most fanciful.  That he marked Van Ronk for destruction is apparent when he says he looked like he came from the Russian Embassy.  Maybe.  But Bob was a Jew and the Russians were the enemies of the Jews throughout the last two hundred years so Bob was casting him in the role of the enemy.  Then he identifies Van Ronk as a ‘confident hunter.’  Jews usually associate hunting with goys while traditionally despising the practice so Bob is saying that the hunter didn’t know he was being hunted.  And then Bob placed his hands on the guitar as he spoke to Van Ronk indicating that he was appropriating the man’s tool or emasculating him.   Very significant action.

      Bob says Van Ronk was snippy and surly.  Well, maybe but since I think he’s making this up he is casting a character on Van Ronk to make you dislike him.  Besides who wouldn’t appear surly if you placed your hands on the musician’s guitar.  The exchange after that when Dave asked if Bob did janitor’s work was a particular Jewish insult that gave Bob his excuse for hurting Van Ronk.

     Then like a parasite or lamphrey eel Bob latches onto Van Ronk slowly ‘stealing everything that he could steal.’

     When the process was complete and Bob was way bigger than Dave could hope to be Bob then disses Van Ronk off.  As Van Ronk tells it p. 217: Van Ronk:

For myself I consider it fortunate that Bobby and I reached our parting of the ways fairly early.  Shortly after his third or fourth record had come out had gone diamond or whatever, he was holding court in the Kettle of Fish and he got on my case and started giving me all of this advice about how to manage my career, how to go about becoming a star.  It was complete garbage, but by that point he had gotten used to everybody hanging on his every word and applauding any idea that came into his head.  So I sat and listened for a while, and while I was polite and even asked him a couple of questions, but it became obvious that he was simply prodding and testing me.  He was saying things like “Why don’t you give up the blues?  You do  that, and I”ll produce an album on you, you can make a fortune.”  He wasn’t making a lick of sense, and I finally pushed back my chair and said, “Dylan, if you’re so rich, how come you ain’t smart?’  And I walked out.

     So within three years Bob met and surpassed his mentor then trashed him like he trashed everyone and everything else in his life.  Beware of Bob.  To a very large extent MacDougal Street is the story of Bob Dylan within the folk scene of Greenwich Village although within that context Van Ronk tells a rich and rewarding story of the emergence of Folk from 1940 to c. 1970.  A fabulous book with a generous dollop of belly laughs.  I loved the book.

2.

zzzzVanRonk2

     Van Ronk himself never made it.  I first heard of him in 1967 and listened to the Prestige Folksinger album.  There was nothing there.  Van Ronk rasped out all his vocals in a monotonous fashion in that same gargling hoarse voice with nary a variation from song to song.  At that age and time I found the songs uninteresting.  The arrangments didn’t grab me.  The music was about as exciting as the New Lost City Ramblers which is to say a stone bore.

     Van Ronk may have prided himself on his musicianship and it may have been pretty good, I couldn’t care less.  I know few people who listen to records for musicianship and I don’t care to listen to records with those who do.  So Dave was concentrating on all the wrong things.

     There were people running around saying how great he was but I was in the record business and nobody bought his records.  you can foget the Hudson Dusters.  Over the years his legend grew with that of the vanished Folk Scene and I guess twenty-five years or so after the fact he was able to cash in on that basis.

     There is one really great song Van Ronk did though called Don’t Leave Me Here.  I have it on The Folk Box, Elektra EKL 9001.  That’s a really fine four record collection compiled and annotated by THE Robert Shelton.  It has selections from nearly all the folkies of the Greenwich Village scene excluding Dylan.  A terrific collection and a perfect representation of the scene.  Hard to find though; I couldn’t find any copies on a quick search of the internet.

     However the story of Dave’s learning process is vastly interesting.  His history of the folk era, especially the late fifties and the people and personalities make the book a best buy.  But then we get back to Dylan.

     Bob not only wheedled his way onto Van Ronk’s stage but he wheedled his way into his very household appropriating Dave’s couch for his living quarters.  Now comes an interesting conjecture.  In Chronicles Bob says that he met a Ray Gooch and Chloe Kiel with whom he stayed for some time.  Now, Bob arrived in New York in January of ’61 and he rented his apartment with Suze Rotolo in the Fall of that year becoming financially independent thereafter never going back to anyone’s couch.

     So that gives him a maximum of nine months to sleep on all those peoples’s couches.  He says in Chronicles that he first met Van Ronk and through Van Ronk Paul Clayton.  These are two colorful characters.  He then says that through Clayton he met Ray Gooch.  So far, so good.  But then he gives a fairly minute description of the street the Gooches lived on, the building, the apartment and significantly the church across the street.

     Before w go on let us consider an incident from Van Ronk on page 4:

…Bob Dylan heard me fooling around with one of my grandmother’s favorites, “The Chimes Of Trinity,” a sentimental ballad about Trinity Church that went something like:

Tolling for the outcast, tolling for the gay,

Tolling for the (something, something), long passed away,

As we whiled away the hours, down on old Broadway,

And we listened to the chimes of Trinity.

     He made me sing it for him a few times until he had the gist of it, then reworked it into the “Chimes Of Freedom.”  Her version was better.

     Now let’s check into a passage from Toby Thompson’s ‘Positively Main Street’ pp. 210-211:

     But the larger portraits of Ray Gooch and Chloe Kiel are complex and layered with mystery.  Why haven’t we seen them before?  Correct me if I’m wrong, but their names appear in no biography of Bob.  Could they be projectionsof his own divided psyche.  Ray, the competent man of the world, the toolsmith, the gun collector, the would be warrior, and Chloe, the dreamy, slightly stoned performance oriented homebody?  Bob’s not certain whether they are siblings or lovers.  I’m not certain they are real.  Chloe was the heroine of Longus’s second century novel Daphnis and Chloe.   She was an orphan, nurtured by sheep, and is described as ‘a naive lily-white girl” who falls for the youth, Daphnis.  Echo is mentioned in the story.  In my case the apartment Ray and Chloe inhabit on Vestry is a boho Eden, Every hipster’s wettest dream of Manhattan digs.

     The Sunday after reading Chronicles,  a blustery afternoon in New York I took a subway to Franklin Street and walked north then west along Vestry, looking for the building that might have housed it.  Bob describes it precisely, Federal style, facing a Roman Catholic church with a bell tower, on the same block as the Bull’s Head Tavern, below Canal Street, not far from the Hudson River.  The neighborhood hasn’t changed much since the early sixties, but I could find no building that resembled it.  Not the church, not the Bull’s Head Tavern.  Houses disappear, but churches aren’t often torn down.  I wanted to locate that apartment, only because he described it so beautifully.

     So I think it safe to say the whole dozen pages or so in Chronicles is a fabrication.  Bob dreamed it a few times and wrote it down as fact.  A clue lies in the progression  Van Ronk>Clayton>Gooch.  Gooch has a made up quality to it so Gooch is probably a conflation of the personalities of Van Ronk and Clayton.  And possibly the pair are also a sentimental portrait of Abe and Beattie, the mother and father.  Not as they were but wouldn’t it have been loverly if they had been.  Ray’s background also coincides with Bob’s studies of the pre-Civil War era in the South in the New York Library.

     The church across the street reflects Trinity Cathedral in Dublin as in Dave’s song the Bells Of Trinity so that places the story after his stay with Van Ronk.  Note the specified bell tower on the church.  Bob’s not there and neither is most of his early reported life.  I’ll say again anything he says is untrustworthy.  As they say in Hollywood:  Based on a true story.

     The last couple chapters of MacDougal tell of the changes in the Village and performance after 1960 to 1967 when drugs took the scene down.  These are relevant and important chapters as he describes how Dylan’s success caused the failure of the scene.  ‘There’s no success like failure and failure is no success at all.’

     Altogether I give Van Ronk’s Mayor Of MacDougal Street exceptionally high marks, worth a second reading and retention as a reference work.  Positively Fourth Street by Toby Thompson has a place on your shelf also.  I’ll review that after a second reading.  It is well worthy of study, picking up the stray hint and fact here and there.

     Chronicles of course is important to understand what Dave called the convoluted workings of Bob’s mind.  Bob’s an interesting study because he has managed to fool a lot of people all the time and another pack of us for a time.  I tell ya folks if I could live my life over I’d do some serious homework before I began but then even that probably wouldn’t help.

2 Responses to “Exhuming Bob IX: Pensees 6 Bob And Dave A Review”

  1. AJ Weberman Says:

    Where did Bar Mitzvah boy Robert Allen Zimmerman pick this racism up from? From a Ray Gooch who was born February 16, 1931 and who died October 15, 1991. Gooch’s SS #224-38-4122 was issued in Virginia and his ancestor, Sir William Gooch was a colonial governor of Virginia. Dylan crashed at Ray Gooch’s crib.

  2. reprindle Says:

    Al: I think I was speculating on Toby Thompson’s search for the location described by Dylan that he was unable to find. I have only been to New York a couple of times and am no expert on the city.

    If a Ray Gooch did indeed exist that is not really the question, the question is then where did he live and did he really have this closet full of strange and obscure literature, and how much time did Dylan actually spend there? Much of what Dylan describes as fact in Chronicles obviously didn’t happen or didn’t happen in the way he describes it.

    Thanks for your informatio on Gooch which I’m sure a researcher like you is in a position to know. Don’t happen to have a picture, do you?

    As for racism, I don’t have any complaint against racism. As is frequently said, said even ad nauseum, this is a racist country. So what? Dylan’s as entitled as the next guy. As far as I know he’s fairly open about it. Gives quotes on his positions all the time.

    So why be sensitive or deny it? I don’t care but there is an agenda. That’s all. Easy.

    Give my regards to all concerned. R.E.

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