Being a bit brazen paid off in the Village. Performers cultivated idiosyncrasies to distinguish themselves . But there were many Dylan, Peter Paul, and Mary, or Joan Baez wannabees. . Walking down Bleeker or McDougal at any given time there were blue Chambray shirts and jeans for the Dylanesque and black turtlenecks and jeans for those more closely allied with the Beats in the neighborhood. The straight ironed-out hair of young women making the scene as Joannie added some visual appeal to Ithe landscape.
I was more of a hardship case. Mr. Dylan was not a role model for me.
I had casually met and now emulated Dave Van Ronk. Van Ronk, later called the “Mayor of McDougal Street,” was an outsized presence in the Village. His raspy voice is a trademark, and his guitar virtuosity was well known among everyone. Faking Dylan was easy. Emulating Van Ronk, let’s say my friends thought I had a chrome-plated pair even to be at attempting it. I think Van Ronk thought it amusing.
There I was, seventeen and very skinny without the growling chesty voice that was a Van Ronk specialty and rather totally inadequate on the guitar. But the bold in your face put on gathered attention. I was not a clone of the typical stars of our constellation. I had chosen to emulate a real nonpareil.
Then one night, I met “Mother Hibbard.” He was a not-very-successful poet of the Beat Generation in Greenwich Village. We started sharing tables in the back “music room” of Cafe Rienzi. He would work on his poetry, and I’d work on my guitar. One night we were both frustrated by a lack of progress. Looking over at me, he said, “You’re never going to be Dave Van Ronk, and I’m never going to be Ginsburg. But we can take them as inspiration to become better us’s. So if you promise to stop making a mess of Saint Louie Tickle, I’ll promise to stop trying to write Howl.”
Now I realize that this might seem pretty obvious. Of course, we can’t be what we emulate. But it’s familiar enough for people to strive to be what they can’t ever be and never wind up becoming who they indeed are.
We did not succeed at this right away. But slowly, we drifted away from our models and became ourselves.
Once in a while, around midnight, I pick up the guitar, stumble across a few bars of Saint Louie Tickle, and then move into a piece I wrote years ago that I genuinely like.