Which Direction Home

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Yesterday around 5pm I walked out of the NYC subway at Christopher St. and couldn’t resist stopping in the nearby bookstore Three Lives and Company where I couldn’t resist buying a book just released yesterday, Bob Dylan in America by the outstanding historian and writer Sean Wilentz.  Only an hour earlier in a mid-town meeting I was promised that a review copy would be mailed to my home in North Carolina, but I couldn’t wait that long.  What I didn’t know until I was in the store is that the book’s cover (above) is graced with a mid-1960′s portrait of Dylan by Gene Smith from Columbia’s studios on 30th St.  I had to have it.  (I also like supporting Three Lives).  I went back to my room at the Washington Square Hotel and sent an email to let my associates know they could send the review copy to somebody else.

Dylan traverses Smith and 821 Sixth Avenue in nebulous ways.  On one of Smith’s loft tapes from January 1964 there is an argument between Smith and loft resident, bassist Jimmy Stevenson over security in the loft.  Smith is complaining that his equipment is often stolen and he doesn’t want keys to the sidewalk door passed out to random musicians.  Exasperated, Stevenson responds by pointing out that when he moved into 821 Sixth Avenue in 1961, four years after Smith moved in, the loft scene was “a dope fiend pack of rats” and there wasn’t even a door downstairs at all, Stevenson exclaimed, just a gaping entryway from the sidewalk into the stairwell.

During this conversation (transcribed on p. 185 of the JLP book), Smith says to Stevenson:

“I can give you the name of a reputable folksinger who, understand, who has a high reputation, et cetera et cetera, that, um, can also print somewhat and was working for me one weekend and who walked off with a camera.  And then he said, ‘Well, gee, I saw them all there and I didn’t have one and I just couldn’t resist.’”

This is an instance on the tapes in which we can hear Smith editing himself in live conversation, knowing the tape was rolling.  He didn’t want to indict the folksinger for posterity.  So we may never know who it was.  We have oral history evidence that folksingers were in the loft 1960-61, but nobody remembers their names.  On Smith’s tapes from that period the Israeli folk musician Nechama Hendel can be heard singing and playing her guitar.  But that’s all the hard evidence we have.

I always wondered if the folksinging thief was Dylan.  He was well known to walk off with people’s things – books and records, tunes and traditions; “Love and Theft,” as Dylan would name a great album four decades later.  In Smith’s 1969 Aperture monograph, laid out by him and his longtime loft mate Carole Thomas, there is an image of Dylan in the loft section.  The image is another one from Columbia’s studios, but I’m not sure Smith would have inserted the image into the loft section of his monograph, next to a portrait of Thelonious Monk, if Dylan hadn’t been in the loft at some point.  But maybe he would.  In 2005 I contacted Dylan through his righthand man Jeff Rosen and after a few days Jeff responded by saying, “Bob has no recollection of being in that loft.”  That doesn’t help much.

I read a hundred pages of Wilentz’s book in LaGuardia and on the plane home today.  It promises to be terrific and unusual.  One interesting point Wilentz makes early in the book is that the two hip, downtown New York scenes of the 1950s and early 1960s – the Beat scene and the folk revival scene – were quite distinct and there was tension between them sometimes.  The Beats wore dark suits and listened to Charlie Parker while the folkies dressed like hoboes and listened to lonesome rural blues, dust bowl and mountain music. Both were anti-establishment, though, and there was some overlap.  On p. 63, Wilentz describes the scene on MacDougal St. in the early 1960s, the folk mecca where jazz partly co-existed.  He writes, “Among the jazz musicians who played at the Fat Black Pussycat were the pianist Sonny Clark and the tenor saxophonist Lin Halliday.”  I can’t imagine that Wilentz got this note from anywhere other than the JLP book.  I’ve been studying Sonny Clark for almost a decade and I’ve never seen that mention made anywhere else.  I got it from conversations on Smith’s tapes.  There’s not a citation in Wilentz’s book, so I can’t be certain, but in any case I’m heartened to see Clark’s and Halliday’s names come up in significant context like this.  They deserve it.

Dylan has been a major part of my record collection for twenty-five years but I never aspired to write anything about him (what could I add?) until I noticed back-to-back tour dates on his summer 2009 calendar – Norfolk, VA and Durham, NC, the region of the vintage Piedmont blues.  The invaluable wizard John Cohen once told me that “the Piedmont was the sound of the blues in New York” before Robert Johnson and the starker Delta blues came along, with help from Zeppelin and Clapton and the Stones, and squashed it.  In my view the swinging, ragging Piedmont has a larger role in the history of jazz than is typically noted, as well.  I attended Dylan’s shows in Norfolk and Durham, both in AAA baseball parks.  There were two days in between and I drove around that haunted landscape connecting those two towns with a pack of relevant CD’s in my car.  The region includes Jamestown, the first colony, and the former Jerusalem, VA where Nat Turner was hung.  It includes Rocky Mount, NC where Monk was born and Scotland Neck, NC where Max Roach were born.  It includes Edenton, NC where Coltrane’s influential maternal grandfather was a minister, and Northampton County, NC where McCoy Tyner’s parents were from.  It’s also where John Cephas, Sonny Terry, Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller, Peg Leg Sam, and countless others played Piedmont blues.  I worked up about 7000 words invoking all this, including Dylan and the new Piedmont revivalists the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and a few stories from 821 Sixth Avenue.  I never finished the piece.  My working title was “Which Direction Home.”  Now I’m thinking about adapting it as a piece based on Wilentz’s important new book.

Which Direction Home, Pt. 2 click here.

-Sam Stephenson

4 Comments

  1. Mike Hacker Said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 12:29 am

    Yes, please – finish up the long piece and publish it somewhere – thanks -

  2. Frank Amoss Said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 5:33 pm

    Jimmy Stevenson’s description of the entry to 821 as being without even a door is inaccurate. I invited Jimmy to move into the 5th floor in the spring of 1961. At that time and for the rest of my tenure there, through the summer, fall and into the early winter, no one gained access to the building unless someone unlocked the ground floor door. Many times this was accomplished by throwing a key from the window to the sidewalk but no one kept possession of a key who wasn’t a resident.

    It is true that many of the players who joined in the sessions were junkies. No one was denied participation in the scene who could play and had a burning desire to do so. The curse of befriending junkies is that they steal and feel justified in doing so. This is the nature of the addiction.

    By the time (1964)of the argument quoted above, Jimmy was living in the 5th floor with his family and the all-night open sessions had given way to those (Jimmy’s Jams) to which he invited the players.

    Gene Smith’s complaint that Jimmy had issued keys to random musicians leads me to believe he was fed up with this self-granted entitlement to steal. It was the the same frustration that led me to flee the loft scene. I eventually tired of my possessions being cashed in at pawn shops by denizens of the night who came to blow.

    It comes with the territory.

  3. ed grazda Said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 4:47 pm

    whose Nikon SP is that on the cover of Highway 61 Revisited?

  4. Richard Gess Said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 5:54 pm

    I landed here while Googling “Bob Dylan Gene Smith” to find out more about the Wilentz book cover photo, which I’d just assumed was Daniel Kramer’s, or maybe Don Hunstein’s (though a bit moodier than either of their usual styles)…until I checked the credit on the jacket flap. I too wondered, reading JLP, if Dylan was the culprit obliquely referred to by Smith. But rereading the tape-bite in Sam’s post above, I see internal evidence that might point suspicion away from Bob. According to Smith the noted folksinger/thief “can also print somewhat and was working for me one weekend.” I can’t recall any mention in the various Dylan biographies I’ve read about Dylan having darkroom skills, much less enough enthusiasm for that craft to serve as a lab assistant for Gene Smith. (“Assistant,” as a rule, is not Bob Dylan’s style, at least after his semi-conceptual apprenticeship to Woody Guthrie.) So unless there’s a source unknown to me (and there certainly could be) that verifies Bob as a devotee of the safelight and the Dektol vapors, it seems like he should be off the wanted list for this particular heist.

    Sam’s comments on Wilentz are right on the money, fabulous book. As a JLP fan I had the same flash of recognition when Sonny Clark and Lin Halliday popped up. Very gracious of Sam to applaud Wilentz’s expansion of Clark and Halliday’s renown instead of waxing disgruntled about not being cited.