Bob Dylan: New York, June Skinner Sawyers’s contribution to the MusicPlace Series that also includes titles on Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, and grunge, serves two primary purposes, each for a distinct readership. For the uninitiated, the book works as a rudimentary biography, covering many of the milestone moments of Dylan lore: encountering the bohemian scene of Dinkytown, Minneapolis, meeting Woody Guthrie in a New Jersey hospital, plugging in at Newport, getting the Beatles stoned for the first time, the motorcycle crash—it’s all here. For the Dylan enthusiast, to whom these anecdotes are old news, Sawyers’s contribution is the inclusion of maps locating Dylan’s New York exploits. The book practically demands a walking tour of the bottom half of Manhattan to take in Dylan landmarks like Cafe Wha?, the White Horse Tavern, Hotel Chelsea, and even the New York Public Library, where an already anointed Dylan spent days poring over the Civil War-era microfilm that would inform so much of his later work.
Of course, today’s New York is not the same as the one whose dynastic pull drew Dylan from Minnesota in 1961, and many of the book’s historical locales have been replaced, perhaps most significantly the Gaslight Cafe (dubbed by Sean Wilentz as t he Greenwich Village equivalent of Carnegie Hall). Unfortunately, Bob Dylan: New York has no secret map back in time to the Gaslight, which has been closed since 1971, but if it sends readers to listen to songs like “Moonshiner,” which was recorded live at the Gaslight in 1962, it’ll have told them everything they need to know. The real fun of this book, as is the fun of all Dylan books, is that its stories lead back to the music—the wonderful, perplexing, relentlessly contemporary music, heart-crumpling and spirit-invigorating, and incomprehensibly vast.