Many iconic musicians have called New York home. But two, above all of the others, compete for Burning Questions’ distinction of being called The Ultimate Rock ‘n Roll Star of New York:
John Lennon and Bob Dylan. Or, if you prefer: Bob Dylan and John Lennon.
Yes, yes, I am aware of the likes of Lou Reed, The Ramones, David Byrne, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry and the other shining lights of the late 1970s punk rock period (sorry, that awful moniker is still how we identify the period — don’t blame me!). And sure, Paul Simon deserves a strong mention. After all, he did write the lyrics, “the only livin’ boy in New York,” right? He did two memorable free concerts in Central Park, too. And remember, Buddy Holly was living in Manhattan at the time of his death.
But still …
It comes down to Lennon and Dylan, as it does in most music-related debates about, say, the quality of songwriting, singing, and just their general coolness.
Dylan came to New York in January 1961 from his native Midwest as a complete unknown, and proceeded to take over the music persona of the town, putting his stamp indelibly and forever on folk music. Once upon a time, in 1965, he wrote a love note of sorts to his adopted hometown: “I’m going back to New York City/I do believe I’ve had enough.”
He lived in Greenwich Village for a few years before preferring the quiet of Woodstock to the chaos of the city.
He badly needed to get some fresh air, metaphorically and literally, and find a way to keep his burgeoning family safe from the crazy and intrusive fans.
When the Woodstock music festival of August 1969 made his sanctuary a living hell — more and more butters came looking for Dylan after the celebrated weekend — he decided to return to the Village, taking a place on MacDougal Street. But quickly, lunatics hassled him and his loved ones, going through his garbage for “clues” about his lifestyle, political leanings, and music. Before long, he had relocated to Arizona and then Los Angeles, which he has called home since 1973.
Meanwhile, Lennon had married Yoko Ono, who loved New York as her home, in 1969. The English people in London resented Yoko, blamed her for breaking up The Beatles in 1970, and for changing their beloved moptop Lennon out of all recognition. London had become intolerable for the first couple of rock n’ roll. They needed a new home. Anxious to please Yoko and seeking some creative inspiration, JohnandYoko (as they were known at the time) moved to…Greenwich Village, on Bank Street, before single-handedly making the Dakota, on West 72nd Street, Manhattan’s most alluring address.
When John arrived in New York, his old friend Dylan reportedly took him on a bicycle trip around the island and pointed out the cultural and gastronomical highlights. Imagine being a fly on the wall of those conversations, or for the time in November 1971 when they sat together in a New York recording studio at someone else’s session and hung out.
Lennon has his corner of Central Park, in Strawberry Fields, a fitting and dignified patch of John forever.
But I’m struck by how little New York recognizes or appreciates Dylan’s stamp on the city. I just got back from a few days of vacationing in Vienna and Salzburg. It’s a little unsettling to see how Mozart has become synonymous with the centuries-old cities. Hi has become a tourist destination all by himself and they couldn’t be more proud (as one person on the guided tour I attended said, “According to this guide, Mozart was born in three separate places”).
So, then, why hasn’t blessed New York City given Dylan his due? You’d think that the City by now would acknowledge his accomplishments and give him…something. A street name? The City renamed River Avenue in honor of Yankees pitching great Mariano Rivera (and watch as it renames The Bronx in Derek Jeter’s honor next!).
It’s an impossible question to answer authoritatively, I know (that’s why I posed it, in the first place!).
OK, what do I think about it?
I’d have to vote for Dylan. He became an icon when he moved here. Lennon was already a mega-star by the time his plane touched down in September 1971. Dylan more intimately speaks of New York. It plays a central part in much of his early work. Lennon loved New York with the devotion of a convert.
But ultimately, Dylan gets the nod.
I do believe I’ve had enough.