A Review: Bob Dylan, On A Couch And Fifty Cents A Day by Peter McKenzie, plus an assist from Dylan’s Chonicles.

August 24, 2022

A Review:

Bob Dylan: On A Couch And Fifty Cents A Day

By Peter McKenzie

With An Assist From Dylan’s Chronicles

Review by R.E. Prindle

As an addition to the Dylan library this year brings us a valuable memoir by Peter McKenzie who has intimate knowledge of the Bob in 1961 as he was threading his way through anonymity to fame.  To this point in time the Mckenzie family seems to have escaped the scrutiny of all biographers.  And yet they are an important missing piece of the Dylan puzzle.

In May of ’61 Bob moved in on the McKenzie family that included a fifteen-year-old by the name of Peter, or Pete, McKenzie.  Pete in his memoir relates a lot of details that clarify many misrepresented or inaccurate accounts.  Bob’s arrival in New York in the January of ’61 is one of them.  The chronology  from then until Albert Grossman becomes his manager can be now put in order.

Dylan left Minneapolis, he says, hitchhiking in a frozen Minnesota winter.  Daring enough.  His ride took him into Madison Wisconsin where the university is located.  The stay in Madison is as confused as well as his journey down to and stay in Chicago.  Pete clears that up.  In an almost miraculous manner Bob hooks up with a kid one year younger than himself named Kevin Krown.  Until reading Pete’s memoir I had never heard of Kevin Krown but now he appears to have been a key figure in Bob’s success.  Mr. Krown is amazing.  On the streets of Chicago he  recognizes Bob’s immense potential as a folk singer, it seems with a single look, deciding then and there to become his advocate.  Remember Kevin is only eighteen at this point.  Takes Bob around Chicago and even gets him a couple gigs.  Then he, Bob and Kevin’s friend Mark Eastman get in a car and drive to New York City.  So Bob didn’t catch a ride with strangers as his biographers would have it but two simpatico new friends.

In NYC it will turn out that Kevin comes from a wealthy family living in the Hamptons on Long Island.  Pete doesn’t explain Kevin’s situation in Chicago or even in New York.  His hooking with Bob can only be described as incredibly fortuitous.  A dream. 

The ride to NYC is usually represented as Bob being picked up as a hitchhiker, while using his later developed singing voice he howls from the back seat driving his companions silly who dump him off in NYC thankfully.  Actually Bob’s natural singing voice is quite pleasant, or was, and smooth.  I once saw a clip on the internet in which he and Joan Baez were running through some tunes and Bob was an excellent singer.

Thus a slightly different chronology emerges from Bob’s arrival through his signing by Albert Grossman, his manager in August of ’62.  According to Bob himself, from his arrival in NYC to his emergence in Greenwich Village in February of ’61, he spent the time scoping out the scene, apparently working out his persona, voice and plan of attack.  This occurred in four stages:  establishing credibility by visiting Woody Guthrie in the hospital in New Jesey, sponging off Dave Van Ronk, transferring to the McKenzies  and then living with Suze Rotolo in their own apartment on Fourth Street.

If you’re reading this I presume you know the cast of characters but, if you don’t, I’ll give short explanations.  Woody Guthrie was the major folk figure from the Depression through the fifties.  He contracted  Huntingdon’s disease and lay dying in ’61 when Bob paid him several visits.

Dave Van Ronk who earned the sobriquet The Mayor of Greenwich Village was a leading folky of the fifties and early sixties.  He was an accomplished singer, arranger and guitar player.  These were the reasons Bob swooped down on him, forced his presence on him, and moved into his apartment, sleeping on his couch for a while until he had the milk the cow could give.  This behavior became Bob’s modus operandi.  He says he  stayed on many couches perhaps for a night or two or perhaps several days  in his memoir of 2004, Chronicles.  Bob was a lad from the Canadian border town of Duluth, then moving a few miles away to Hibbing, Minnesota on the Iron Range.  That’s way up North for those who aren’t keen on geography.

Hibbing was very small town, the transition from Hibbing through Minneapolis to NYC required some serious adjusting on his part.  He solved that problem by pretending to be an Okie from Muskogee in imitation of Woody Guthrie, at nineteen he pretended that he had been working in the circus for a while.  Untruthful but rather clever.  He was walking a mile in Woody’s shoes.  He had developed  a faux Okie dialect which he used for his singing voice.

Thus having completed the first stage of his entry by visiting Woody for some creds he next moved to the second stage, his association with Dave Van Ronk and his wife.  Dave was important because of his high status in the Village, his guitar playing and arranging skills.  His voice was worse than Bob’s.  For my tastes Dave’s voice makes some hard listening but the talent is there.

With Dave, Bob improved his technique while learning a lot of songs from him while developing his top creds further.  First Woody, then Dave.  Dave had an extra fillip, he was the main attraction at the Gaslight Club.  The Gaslight Club was the premier club of Bleecker and MacDougal Streets in the Village.  Dave and about five other singers monopolized the Gaslight as a closed circle.  Bob says in his memoir he used Dave to break into that circle.  Cultivating Dave he mooched a guest appearance, quickly becoming a regular.  That would have been a paying gig.

The Van Ronk episode covers the time from late February through the first part of May.  In May Bob transferred from Dave’s couch to that of the McKenzies.  In that same May he met Suze Rotolo.

Bob successfully maintained his pose as a penniless drifter, or maybe grifter, even baffled Suze until, after they had taken their apartment, returning from a party, he drunkenly dropped his ID that Suze picked up and learned his real name, Robert Zimmerman.

In point of fact Bob was never hard up for cash.  As he says he could pick up a few dollars at the basket houses and even a as much as twenty dollars busking on the streets.  This was a different America as you may surmise, while at the time 50 cents was still money putting a little distance between your situation and absolute poverty.  In addition, Bob was on a short leash with his parents.  He had committed that he would have a year to try to make it as a singer and if not to return to school to learn a regular manner of living.  He phoned home several times a month and received money from home.

Thus his pose as a penniless busker was pure fraud.  His imposition on the McKenzies was fraudulent although Pete didn’t know it and still doesn’t.   The question here is why the move on the McKenzies?  Woody and Dave are easy to see but the McKenzies are a surmise on my part.  The second Chapter of Dylan’s memoir is titled The Lost Land.  The lost land apparently begins with the McKenzies as indeed we get a brief introduction before moving on.  Bib is never a plain speaker so he creates a couple named Ray Gooch and Chloe Kiel instead of Howard and Eve McKenzie.  Pete gets written out of the part.  Howard and Eve seem to be enclosed in Ray and Chloe, although Dylan does mention the McKenzies in this way, p.66:

Quote:

These guys at Camilla’s place weren’t like that, though they looked more like tugboat captains or baggy pantsed outfielders or roustabouts.  Mack Mackenze had been an organizer on the Brooklyn waterfront.  I met him and his wife Eve who was an ex- Martha Graham dancer.  The lived on [W.] 28th St. Later on I’d be their houseguest, too…sleep on their living room couch.

Unquote.

That’s all Bob has to say about the McKenzies, unless you include his comments on Gooch and Kiel, although according to son Pete McKenzie Bob was there for a four month stay in 1961, Spring, all of Summer into September and that leaves no room for Gooch and Kiel in the time frame.

The period was very important, even essential, to a young fifteen year old  hero worshipping Pete.  Dylan being then twenty  hero worship was inevitable.  Bob let him wear a shirt or two of his, play his guitar and gives him a pair of worn out boots, those Bob is wearing on the cover of the Freewheelin’ album. 

Eve, who Bob mentions correctly, became a surrogate mother to him which he acknowledges in his memoir.  Howard McKenzie must have been somewhat a legend in the Village.  He was an important labor organizer, a founding member of the NMU and officer.  NMU=National Maritime Union.  ‘During WWII,’ Pete writes, ‘my father was on the National War Labor Board under Eleanor Roosevelt.’ And he was Chief negotiator  for all labor contracts.’

So once again Bob is establishing creds.  In addition Howard had the fabulous library Bob attributes to Ray Gooch.  Gooch is problematic because there seems to be no record of him except in Bob’s mind.  For me, Gooch and Howard are one as are Eve and Chloe.

Now, following Bob to the McKenzies were Bob’s two companions on the drive to NYC, Kevin Krown and Mark Eastman.  Kevin’s parents lived out in the Hamptons and were rich.  Eastman plays a minor role.  Kevin is quite the character at eighteen years of age.  Himself Jewish he is chutzpah on a stick.  Bob certainly has chutzpah but he is a dwarf beside Kevin on that score.

Why Kevin took such an interest in Bob isn’t clear.  He appears to be acting as an agent of some sort.  Following Pete’s description he actually bullies Bob as though Bob was his charge.

Pete does partially clear up one mystery, that of Robert Shelton’s laudatory review in the NYTimes of which Shelton was the music reviewer.  Bob had scarcely established himself as a character around the Village while building somewhat of a reputation as a performer.  At this time in his career you either got him or you didn’t.  The talent was not so obvious.

Many wrote him off.  Howard McKenzie in an attempt to move Bob’s career along wrote to famous leftist talent agent Harald Leventhal, enclosing a tape for his consideration.  Howard was playing on an old relationship.  Harald, who should have been able to recognize talent, listened and returned the tape politely wishing Bob luck but not then. So Shelton’s rave review contrasts sharply with that of Leventhal.

I, myself, having heard the first three albums, had no use for Dylan until he went electric.  I couldn’t get the first three then and I can’t now.

Thus, before Shelton his career needed a boost.  Kevin Krown was there and at eighteen he either knew what to do or someone was guiding him.  Notice Shelton, Dylan, Krown, Eastman and later Albert Grossman are all Jews.  Kevin began making phone calls to Shelton.  At first he was blocked by Shelton’s secretary but, he was so persistent, calling dozens of times a day, that she finally put him through.  That’s what’s called chutzpah.

Given Shelton’s ear Kevin was unstoppable. He dogged Shelton, pitched and pitched.  Finally bob obtained a commitment at Gerde’s Folk City, the club of clubs in the Village.  The date was 9/26/61.  Kevin turned up the heat, bullying Shelton to make an appearance and write a review.  Shelton was there on 9/26 and his review appeared in the Times of 9/29/61 lauding Bob.  He had three days to think about it and here’s a quote:

“A bright new face in folk music is appearing at Gerdes Folk City.  Although only twenty years old, Bob Dylan is one o the most distinctive stylists to play a Manhattan cabaret in months.  [remember, this is September, Dylan arrived in January, call it February.]

Resembling a cross between a choir boy and a beatnik, Mr. Dylan has a cherubic look and a mop of tousled hair he partly covers with a huck Finn black corduroy cap.  His clothes may need a bit of tailoring but when he wails his guitar, harmonica or piano or composes new songs faster than he can remember them there is no  doubt that he is bursting at the seams with talent.

Mr. Dylan’s voice is anything but pretty.

Unquote.

The review put Bob on his feet and running.  The astonishingly positive review amazed everyone.  While in retrospect, after Dylan’s also astonishing career, the review may not seem out of place, at the time however Dylan was no universal favorite, many could not see the talent, performing talent that is, although Bob’s song writing was in a different class.  People were walking around in a daze asking how that happened.

While there are still some unresolved questions it is possible that the record producer John Hammond was also in the audience, plus he would probably have read the Shelton review, he may then have viewed Dylan differently.  At any rate, within a month he had signed Bob to a recording contract.

This astonished the people at Columbia records, especially after Dylan’s first record laid an absolute egg.  He become known as Hammond’s folly around Columbia.  Once again time alters all attitudes but Bob’s first record found no listeners.  He did not burst upon the scene.  Nor did he with his second.

More importantly, his future manager, Albert Grossman, may have had his attention directed to Dylan, I suspect not for his performances but for the fact that he was a budding song writer, writing them ‘faster than  he could remember them.’  Grossman, a fellow Jew, was blessed with lots of chutzpah, he was at that time organizing  his soon to be successful folk super group Peter, Paul and Mary.  While two of the members were actually named Peter and Mary there was no Paul.  Grossman was seeking a singer to change his name to Paul.  Dylan says that he was among the people offered the role of Paul which he declined if for no other reason that he would he would have to be billed as Paul Dylan.

A Village habitue by the name of Noel Stookey accepted the offer and became Paul Stookey.

At the same time Pete Seeger, the doyen of Village folkdom might also have had his opinion reshaped.  Seeger was a Leftist who had been blacklisted back in the fifties.  Dylan at the time was writing songs that appealed to leftist tendencies so that Seeger believed that Dylan was sincere and represented the New Wave of Leftism.  Dylan then was spotlighted at the Newport Folk Festivals.

During his time with the Mckenzies Bob began to mature as a song writer, coming up with the sensation of the moment, ‘Blowin’ In The Wind.’  When Grossman realized that Bob was going to be a good songwriter, the man fitted perfectly with Grossman’s plans.  Dylan boomed as a song writer while his performance career dragged along.

Grossman signed him in August of ’62.  Peter, Paul and Mary recorded the song in their, or Grossman’s, pop folk style so that Blowin’ In The Wind was a big radio hit.  Now Bob was the lead horse in the race.  In fact there was no folkie who could touch him.

I don’t think it widely known but the big money is not in the performance or even touring when you become known.  The big money is in the writer’s royalties because many artists could cover songs, include them on their albums, adding perhaps millions or more sales.  Grossman, who knew the ropes didn’t miss a beat.

Now watch this.

In point of fact, Dylan would have been a blip on the national folk scene without Grossman’s masterful promotion.  Peter Yarrow, the Peter of Peter, Paul and Mary, has stated that without Albert Grossman there not only would have been no PP&M but also no Bob Dylan.  That’s how important Grossman was to Bob’s career.

As Bob’s manager, Grossman took a commission of 25% and that was considered high at the time when 10% was normal but Grossman was worth it as Dylan agrees. Consider Elvis’ manager Colonel Parker. It appears that he took everything and more while giving Elvis only what he had to.  Fifty percent in Bob’s case would have been fair.  But here’s the catch, playing on Bob’s trust and innocence, Albert wrote in the contract that he got 75% of the publishing royalties to Bob’s 25%.  Dylan was naturally outraged when he found out.

But, and there’s always a but, Albert was a maniac after those dollars.  Without his songwriting Bob was a noisy nobody.  His record sales were never that high, he had a specific audience of misfits not unlike himself.  He churned out songs and Albert got them recorded by everybody.  If you were there at the time you were astonished at how ubiquitous Dylan’s songs were.  Albert had everyone recording his stuff. And I mean everybody, he had actors reading the lyrics on thirty-three and a third RPMs.  Many of the records were hits so that publishing proceeds rolled in and because his of his publishing Bob’s own record sales responded but cut back because of his raucous voice.  Many, many people could not tolerate Bob’s voice.

Toward the end of his sponging off the McKenzies Bob was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

He created quite a scene at the McKenzies according to Pete McKenzie  while by end of Bob’s mooch, the fifteen year old hero worshipper had stars in his eyes.  Bob had linked up with Suze Rotolo in May and he introduced her into his circle at the Mckenzie where she was beloved.

Suze was a very attractive seventeen year old and no girl is ever more attractive than at seventeen.   She also apparently had a lovely personality so that everyone loved Suze.  Young Pete especially.

When Dylan checked out with the McKenzies it was to move in with Suze beginning the fourth phase of establishing himself.  All of a sudden Bob had enough money to pay rent and spend, for a fellow without a job, fair amounts of money.

As Pete describes it he played the poverty role with the McKenzies pretending to be fundless.  Eve especially took a maternal interest in the lad.  In the first place, Bob was living in a comparatively luxurious apartment, was fed, and accepted charity from the McKenzies of 50 cents a day, hence the fifty cents of the title. In  today’s  inflated dollars that 50 cents might be five or ten dollars, possibly even a twenty, and he was given that gratis every single day.

Dylan was not broke.  He received money from home while at the same time scrounging money as a busker, playing the basket houses, and also playing paid performances.  It would be difficult to estimate his income but I don’t think a hundred or two a week would be an excessive guess.  That’s four to eight hundred a month when three hundred and fifty a month was a pretty good wage.  Thus he treated the McKenzies rather fraudulently.  He could have paid rent for his spot on the couch.

Dylan, to touch on another side was ravenous for education.  I believe that that is where Howard McKenzie came in.  Pete has a chapter titled ‘A History Lesson.’  Bob was a bourgeoning history buff.  Much of his time at this period was spent at the New York public library.  He had an interest in the life in the Southern States at about 1855 to 1865.  He went right to the source reading newspapers of the time and he came away with a pretty solid idea of how it really may have been.

Howard McKenzie was also a history major who had lived long enough in tough circumstances to put history into perspective while becoming very well read but mainly probably in general historical literature although his library was well stocked in biographies, and an eclectic collection.  Bob picked Howard’s mind.  He profited mightily by his stay.

For those who care, Bob’s creds began with his visits to the dying Woody Guthrie, having been taken under the wing and having slept on the couch of the most respectable of the folk musicians, the mayor of Greenwich Village, Dave Van Ronk.

Bob slept on many couches during his sponging period as he boasts in his memoir and each couch was a notch on his belt placing himself above them.  Then to actually have been admitted to the family of Howard Mckenzie, adopted by Howard’s wife Eve, gave him incredible creds bolstered by the unheard of laudatory review of the reviewer of reviewers, Robert Shelton of the newspaper of newspapers, the New York Times, and then signed to the then top label, Columbia Records by the top talent finder, John Hammond, why Bob Dylan was royalty, the prince of Greenwich Village.

What a disappointment it must have been to sell only a few copies of his first record and a second.  Even his Village subjects rejected him, just a slight he took on the road to glory from Fourth Street.

From the McKenzies, Bob set up his own household with the first Slum Goddess of Greenwich Village, Suze Rotolo.  Not too bad for a boy from the unknown pits of the Iron Range.

But, this is Pete’s story.  Bob’s story with his family was quite brief although of the most intense duration, for young Pete idolized Bob in only the way a fifteen year old could idolize his adopted older brother.  Pete includes Bob’s stay in his memoir as well as every other incident that Bob figures in his life.

Interestingly during his stay Bob left behind numerous mementoes of his stay in the form of hand written lyrics, drawings he made and even several tapes of him performing for the family.  His faithful amanuenses, Pete, recorded all and kept the slips of paper all of which in Bob’s fame became valuable.

Later, along life’s highway, Howard died and Pete’s mother, Eve’s, health failing required funding.  Then Bob’s mementoes became a little treasure.  By that time Bob’s canoe was far down stream and his early odyssey was long forgotten, the inglorious past was not needed.

Pete, who realized that the mementoes could be turned into fairly substantial cash, not wanting to take advantage of Bob, who had taken advantage of Pete’s own family, notified Bob to advise him that he wanted to sell the items.  Cruelly and insultingly given his earlier relationship Bob said to Pete like this:  ‘Now, look Pete, now that I’m famous and rich I have a lot of people, relations and whatever always trying to sponge on me, you see…’ A couch and fifty cents a day, purloining Howard’s reputation and Eve’s good will, along with Pete’s idolization now meant nothing to Bob.  Pete was crushed.  But, if you want to learn the rest of the story, Pete’s memoir is worth the slight expense of a few dollars, perhaps one of those fifty cent pieces inflated, might even be a gift for Dylanophiles

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