Ranking Bob Dylan Songs, #95: Talkin’ New York

Greil Marcus once remarked that it is somewhat surprising that none of the puppet masters who got their hands on Elvis Presley ever tried to fabricate or glamorize his upbringing, the way some teen idols did in those days. The simple explanation for this, according to Marcus, is that no embellishment could have improved on the real thing. The story of a poor kid from Memphis who worked as a truck driver and turned into a rock star really couldn’t be improved upon.

Well, I feel like the same thing is true about Dylan. A kid from the Midwest drops out of college to go visit his idol—Woody Guthrie—who’s dying in a hospital. He starts performing in Greenwich Village and, by the time he’s 23 years old, he’s become the biggest folk music star in the world. You can make that stuff up, but it would sound like a cliché.

“Talkin’ New York,” the first of two Dylan-penned songs to appear on his debut album Bob Dylan, depicts the growing pains of that move. At this point, the tropes are all familiar: Young kid is intimidated by the skyscrapers, feels isolated by the mobs of the city, is mistreated by the unfriendly authority figures in the metropolis, moves from place to place seemingly without any control or agency in the matter. In retrospect, it’s always hard to tell the original from the derivative, but Dylan manages to put his personal touch on the issue regardless.

Someone accuses him of being a hillbilly instead of a folk singer, which is both a jab at New Yorkers’ closed-mindedness and a peek into Dylan’s own vulnerability. He also struggles to pronounce “Greenwich Village” which is understandable—how is he supposed to know the “w” is silent? There’s also a subtle Woody Guthrie shout-out—he’s the “very great man” who first said that “some people rob you with a fountain pen”—which shows that Dylan wears his influences on his sleeve, something he would do throughout his career.

At the end of “Talkin’ New York,” the singer leaves the city—for East Orange of all places—in an apparent act of defeat. Of course, that’s not really the ending the story would get. Dylan more or less became a hero in New York City. But he’s not really interested in that. He knows there’s no success like failure. But we’ll get to that later…

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