On June 22, 1983 I was 31 years old, married for all of four months, and somewhat thinner than I am now. I was a New York City taxi-driver by trade and spent most of my off time in Greenwich Village, playing the blues and original songs in several of the truest dives I've ever known. It was embarrassing at times to walk down MacDougal Street carrying a guitar case, a little too "my bootheels to be a-wanderin'" for someone as self-conscious as a songwriter, but much of the time it was thrilling, late at night when the tourists had gone home, to drink in the Kettle Of Fish, scene of the famous picture of Kerouac, or climb on fire escapes that maybe Ramblin' Jack, John Sebastian, even Bob himself, might have climbed.
And there were living reminders, too. My mother-in-law was Cynthia Gooding, who'd had quite a career in the '50s and '60s as a performer and broadcaster. I was friends with Suze Rotolo (well-known from another iconic photo), Erik Frandsen, and the most truly legendary person I have ever known Dave Van Ronk. It was, as the memoirists say, or at least memoirists' reviewers, a heady time.
Of those four names only Erik remains, I'm sorry to say. And his mustache is no more. But on the night of June 22, 1983 you still needed a dowser's stick to find his upper lip as he emceed the first annual Greenwich Village Bob Dylan Imitators Contest at the Speakeasy, once upon a time the Cafe Rienzi and now festooned with mirrors along the walls and a giant fish tank the back of the stage.
The idea was my wife's, I think. Leyla tended bar there and had no choice on open-mike nights but to stay and listen as one doomed kid after another wheezed guitar-driven poetry and played harmonica on a rack. We regulars could always go outside and get high.
Since the dwindling number of local pros had, many of them, gotten their start as the same type of tribute artist, we could be reasonably sure that Gong-Show entertainment would alternate with real music. And the concept just took off. Cynthia Gooding (who had first met Dylan when he was an outcast freshman at the University if Minnesota) signed on as a judge and so did Mike Porco, who gave Dylan his first gig in New York at Folk City. We even bought prizes, which I think were mini-harmonicas you could wear on a chain around your neck. You registered in one of five categories: folk/protest Bob, amphetamine rock Bob, post-accident voice-change Bob, born-again Bob, and Freestyle.
Joe Lauro filmed the whole night (I'm told Dylan documentarian DA Pennebaker was also there filming) and edited a 25-minute presentation that somehow he managed to get on Danish TV. Like everything else in human history, this film has turned up on YouTube and it may be the best explanation of "what the '80s were like" I've ever seen. My own appearances (singing "Abandoned Love," for which I won a special citation for "best thank-you") are mercifully brief but there are some wonderful performances, including George Gerdes doing "I Believe" in a wig, a guy who had flown in from Japan winning "best nose," and glimpses of young and strong friends like Frank Christian, Jack Hardy, and Tom Intondi, now each gone before.
It got to me, and not just as a cliched Remembrance of Things Past. It was in its own way a mighty time, when nobody uptown was paying attention, just before the incoming era of Designer Folk. I still have the certificate I won. It's 25 minutes of your life but, hey, how many jingle-jangle mornings do you get to come follow? Watch the link here: