In the early 1960s, Bob Dylan could be seen performing at downtown locations such as the Gaslight coffeehouse and The Living Theatre before becoming a Sixties icon.
Greenwich Village was filled with eccentrics and bohemians, but it was also where many families and kids resided, such as Lisa Jane Persky. “This place had a certain history in it,” she said. “It called to people who wanted to feel comfortable being different.” When Persky’s parents first moved to the Village in 1962, they stayed in a nearby apartment building off Sheridan Square. One of the first sights she saw while looking outside her bedroom window was Bob Dylan, who was sporting the same coat he wore on his first album cover. Bibbe Hansen was another kid who grew up in the Village—living at 609 East Sixth Street, between Avenues C and D, and on Great Jones Street. Her junior high school was in Greenwich Village, where her teachers imbued students with a utopian outlook. “One of the things to really get about these times is how incredibly optimistic we were, how incredibly blessed we felt,” Hansen recalled. “We conquered childhood diseases and diphtheria and smallpox and polio, and we were conquering the civil rights injustices.” It felt like so many evils were being eradicated, and they were inheriting a new world in which the seeds of social justice were finally bearing fruit. When Persky attended P.S. 41, near the progressive New School for Social Research, she recalled, “It was hammered into us that we were in a melting pot. So I thought by the time I’m an adult, there will be so much interracial marriage that we’d all just be one color.” It was common to see interracial couples in the neighborhood, along with other sights that would have scandalized people in other parts of the country.
From Chapter 1 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Soon after arriving, Harry Koutoukas befriended a gay coffeehouse proprietor named Joe Cino, who helped spark the underground theater revolution known as Off-Off-Broadway. “Caffe Cino encouraged creativity and no barriers,” Agosto Machado said. “You’d just say you’re a playwright, and then you would put on a play.” This storefront theater was located on Cornelia Street, a block-long side street that connects Bleecker with West Fourth Street and got little foot traffic. Cornelia was one of those charming little Village roads near Washington Square Park that could have easily appeared on Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (that iconic album cover was shot on Jones Street, just one block to the north). Coffeehouses proliferated in Greenwich Village because the area had plenty of empty commercial spaces; these establishments were much cheaper to run than bars, which required the proper city licenses and Mafia protection rackets. Caffe Cino had six or eight little tables with wire-back chairs that were complemented by a hodgepodge of other furniture found in the street. Its stage was usually set in the center, among the tables, though this arrangement often changed from show to show. In the back of the Cino, to the left, was a counter with an espresso machine and a hallway that led to a tiny dressing room and a toilet. During its early days, the place was lit by Chinese lanterns and other little lights, though Caffe Cino grew more cluttered as time went on.
The Living Theatre’s Monday Night Series, held during the acting company’s night off, hosted many kinds of artists: musicians John Herbert McDowell and Bob Dylan, painters Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, poets Diane di Prima and Frank O’Hara, dancers James Waring and Freddie Herko. In his memoir Fug You, Ed Sanders recalled that the Living Theatre “was an important place in my personal world. I had heard historic poetry readings there; I had first seen Bob Dylan perform as part of the General Strike for Peace in February ’62 . . . [and] I had typed the stencils for the recent issue of Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts.” It was this latter endeavor—his infamous mimeographed poetry zine, Fuck You—that established Sanders as a ubiquitous downtown presence. When the Living Theatre staged Paul Goodman’s The Cave, the group was fully prepared to go to jail. One scene contained three uses of the word fuck—something that was unheard-of—but these ahead-of-their-time punks staged it anyway.
From Chapter 2 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Andy Warhol circulated among the artists, poets, theater people, and gay crowds that populated Greenwich Village bars such as Lenny’s Hideaway, the San Remo, and the White Horse—which were central nodes in social networks that connected artists who worked in different mediums. Playwright Robert Heide first encountered Warhol around 1960 at a place named Aldo’s on Bleecker Street, a relatively upscale gay restaurant with white table cloths. “That’s where I met Andy,” Heide said, “but I didn’t really connect with Andy until a little later, though I would see Andy now and then in different situations.” In the late 1950s, Heide began coming to the Village from his parents’ house in New Jersey, hanging out in the Gaslight on MacDougal Street and other coffeehouses. Before it became known for hosting Bob Dylan performances in the early 1960s, the Gaslight was a haven for Beat writers. “One night there was Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Jack Micheline, Ted Joans, Taylor Mead—all these people,” he recalled. “So I was the middle of this crazy scene.” Heide permanently settled in Greenwich Village, and by 1965 he began working with Warhol on screenplays for some of his early films.
From Chapter 3 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Folk was also the music of the moment, and the best place to read about it was the Village Voice. Writers for that neighborhood paper had a connection to the downtown arts scenes that was far more intimate than, say, reporters from larger media organizations like the New York Times. Coverage from independent media outlets such as the Voice—and, later, the East Village Other and SoHo Weekly News—generated momentum and publicity for these scenes that allowed them to grow. It was a mutually constitutive relationship. Michael Smith and Richard Goldstein (who became the Voice’s theater and rock critics) shaped their respective scenes through their writing, and the same was true of the paper’s coverage of the folk phenomenon. The Bronx-born Goldstein first discovered the Village Voice in the late 1950s after listening to the independent Pacifica radio station, WBAI, which also cultivated the downtown’s underground scenes. Reading the Voice, he learned about the folk music that was happening in coffeehouses and at Washington Square Park, and began taking the subway down there with friends. “The club that we went to the most was Gerde’s Folk City in the Village, off MacDougal Street,” Goldstein said. “Gerde’s Folk City was one of the places that had these open mic events that we called hootenannies. That’s where I saw Dylan first.” The Gaslight was another coffeehouse that Dylan frequented, a basement venue that could squeeze in about 125 people. The older Italians who lived on the upper floors complained about the noise that wafted up from below, and they retaliated by throwing things down the airshaft. “So instead of clapping, if people liked a performance they were supposed to snap their fingers,” folk musician Dave Van Ronk explained. “Of course, along with solving the noise problem, that also had some beatnik cachet.”
From Chapter 4 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Bob Dylan also maintained his cool when he sat for his Screen Test portrait in late 1965 or early 1966—stone-faced in his dark sunglasses, scratching his nose and looking unfazed. When he got up to leave, the acerbic musician decided to help himself to Warhol’s silkscreen print of Elvis dressed as a cowboy: “I think I’ll just take this for payment, man.” Robert Heide recalled, “Andy’s face turned tomato-soup red, because Andy would promise people things, and he wouldn’t necessarily deliver. He wasn’t expecting Dylan to do that.” The friction between the two camps was partially rooted in the cult of authenticity that surrounded Dylan, a sensibility that clashed with Warhol’s unapologetic embrace of artifice and commercial culture. The musician’s involvement with Sedgwick (the likely subject of his songs “Just Like a Woman” and “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”) also exacerbated tensions. Dylan and his manager, Albert Grossman, hoped to turn Sedgwick into a film ingénue and encouraged her to break with Warhol, which she did. “If you get to the emotional truth of the thing, Andy and Edie loved each other,” Bibbe Hansen said. “Just like when two people are very, very fond of each other and something happens and people get in the way and they get riled up, the split is that much bigger.”
From Chapter 11 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Soon after Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg formed the Fugs, the Holy Modal Rounders teamed up with them to create the first incarnation of the Fugs. “Someone told me Sanders and Tuli had written a bunch of songs like ‘Coca-Cola Douche’ and ‘Bull Tongue Clit,’ ” Peter Stampfel recalled. “So I went to listen at the Peace Eye Bookstore, and I saw that the only instrument was Ken Weaver playing a hand drum. So I said, ‘Hey, you can use a backup band.’ It was an obvious thing to put together, so that’s how Steve Weber and I started playing with them.” After signing a deal with Folkways Records, the band recorded their first album in April 1965. Along with several original songs, the Fugs included two Blake poem adaptations on their Harry Smith–produced debut, The Village Fugs Sing Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Point of Views, and General Dissatisfaction. In addition to live gigs and vinyl records, the group could also be heard on free-form radio shows. Their performance of “Carpe Diem” at a Judson Church memorial service for comedian Lenny Bruce, for example, was recorded by Bob Fass and aired on WBAI (Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, and many other musicians, poets, and political activists also made appearances on Fass’s show over the years).
From Chapter 15 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore