I first decided that I wanted to move to New York when I first fell in love with Bob Dylan. Not the man himself, naturally – but his music. I was inspired like a million kids before me. And a million kids after that. His music was the music of change, in an era of change, and as a kid, from any time really, struggling to grow up into a grown-up, it served as a ship for self-discovery. His music, indisputably borne out of an era of divide, also came from a moment of unity. Amidst the stirred pot, things began to come together. Movements began to form. Ideas. There began to be a melding together of literature and poetry and art, of politics and culture and now, into music. No more dreamy croons of romance and riches, no more love songs – this was something to be heard. It was something to listen to. At the same time, the ever-hostile south found peace as rhythm and soul and blues bonded to country and rockabilly and folk to become the transcendent, all-genre-encompassing force of rock and roll. It was a cusp. An apex. Something was brewing all over the country but also quietly it stirred in the dark, little, dingy den of New York City’s Greenwich Village. There, there was a new New York.
For a kid, this story – which is what it’s always seemed to be, a story, not history, not truth – was the booze. It was fire. The idea of change and rebellion and a powerful youth was what it was for every generation before us – it was intoxicating – and decades after this story was first written, it was brewing once again in my generation’s mind, contained still beneath the roofs of our parents and behind the chalkboards of our middle schools and under the deadbolt of the closed mind. But we felt it: something was stirring inside of us too, but like the James Deans and his rebel yells of the past, we didn’t know how to express it. We didn’t know what to do with it. That jumpy, jivey, jitterbug of being young. Everyone feels it. But the idea of taking it and creating something – something maybe momentous, maybe something powerful, like Dylan did – well that was it. That was Shangri-La. If we could only use our energy. If we could only make something of it. We didn’t know what exactly, and we didn’t know how, but that story showed us we could.
So any kid who started up on Dylan or his fellow post-Beat poets – Joni, Leonard, Simon, Garfunkel, Neil Young, or Kerouac and Ginsberg and Kesey before that – was lucky. They got a sip of that booze. They got a fire under their ass. They panged to be their parents, to have been them, to have been there, now a few decades too late. Some wallowed in this land of nostalgia, in the romance of the past, in the great and lonesome valley of indecision, but others would take from it what they could. Out of the dark and dingy silence of that tide-changing Village came the most beautiful noise, so I took the music.
Dylan’s memoir didn’t help either, of course. Chronicles. It only heightened this thing that was growing in me: this desire to get out, to go, just scram. This city thing. This art thing. This thing that in just a few short years would grow into a real and full part of me. Back then, I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know what I wanted, and I still don’t. But I didn’t know if I wanted to be an artist, like my parents, like Dylan, and I definitely didn’t know that I wanted to write. New York seemed like a far off dream place and it was. It was “New York” or New York. It was in quotation marks or italics or the backdrop of a Hollywood movie. It wasn’t real – it was that magic place where all your “dreams” come true, which, REMEMBER KIDS, are only dreams. Yet New York is the only dream in the history of dreams that all the world has ever shared. There’s a million different versions of Heaven and true love and Jesus Christ but New York – “New York.” New York. – well whether you’re in Topeka or Tehran or Timbuktu, the dream’s all the same. It’s bright lights and jazz and possibility. You can change in an instant, or you can go on and out and be you. I knew back then that I at least wanted to go, and that alone meant, through the music and the feeling and what stirred up inside of me, that one day I would.
I wanted to walk those streets. I wanted to stand beneath the lamplight and to stumble home smelling of whiskey and wine and cigarettes. I wanted to sing from a rooftop and walk the Brooklyn Bridge and stare up at the moon. I wanted to live on a dime and burn the candle and watch the sunrise, all for the sake of being young, for the art of it, for all that damn passion – whatever it was for – and however chewed up and brokenhearted and just plain broke it left me in the end. I wanted to be a New Yorker, and isn’t that it? What more is there?
So here I am. I’ve seen and done a bit, I’ve walked those streets at night, but I’m still green. I’m tired and heartsick but I’m in love and wide-awake. Every day. All at the same time. It’s another era now, another time. There’s change, sure, and divide and a crux of identity for my fellow youth and all our madness. But like then, we come together in our mess. We commiserate in our loneliness and our discontent and our uncertainty. In our being lost. We are a new bohemia of New York City, albeit, maybe, the poetry and the music and the cause of the Village in the Sixties – or at least the moral fiber we who idolized them imagined them to have, even if they never did. But maybe we just haven’t found it yet. Maybe it’s right in front of us but we can’t read it till it becomes a story.
You can still feel that same jazz here on certain nights. When a cool midnight breeze pushes back that hot sidewalk heat of a long and smoky Saturday in July. Or when it just stopped raining and you’re hailing a taxi from the street corner and the light’s reflecting off the pavement and the puddles at your feet. When you walk along the cobblestone of the West Village, or past the little trees of the East, or on over to the river with all its bridges, fishermen and promenades. (For Whitman. For Miller. For Crane.) When you dance high in the sky by the Hudson, and with the tip of your martini, you look down and toast to the whole big wide city you see below. Your city. Or when you step out of the subway, or the office, or your apartment to the pulse of Manhattan – to all the high heels and the traffic and the neon and the noise. Better yet, when you step outside and hear the strangest sound of all: quiet.
Years ago, I fell in love. Dylan and New York. New York and Dylan. They are forever parts of me. I get chewed up, I fall down, I get lost, and they help me find my way. Even if one of them (you know who you are, Old Girl) puts me there in the first place. “Visions of Johanna.” “Girl from the North Country.” “Shelter from the Storm.” Lincoln Center. Alphabet City. Washington Square. They still sing to me of a dream I’ve yet to fulfill, yet to discover. Of the endless possibility of change.
New York City.