When Lucian Truscott Comes to Your Bob Dylan Class
Lucian King Truscott IV is, to quote Liz Imbrie in The Philadelphia Story (1940), no homespun tag. Its bearer has a long American heritage on both sides of his family: grandfather Lucian Truscott Jr. was a highly decorated World War II general; and grandmother Sarah Randolph was Thomas Jefferson’s thrice-great-granddaughter. The heritage Truscott has forged for himself since the 1960s as a writer is a story he tells best himself, in his excellent, intense and ongoing online memoir Dying Of A Broken Heart. Read it.
Truscott began writing for The Village Voice, in a way, while he was still a cadet at West Point in the mid-1960s. He wrote letters to the editor, chiefly political letters, complaining of pieces in the paper. “I was bored out of my mind up there [in Garrison, NY],” he recalls, “and so I wrote these letters they were really happy to publish. Then people wrote in criticizing me, and they printed those too.” From this auspiciously combative start, Truscott ended up on the staff. His journalism for the Voice was, and is, both historic and prescient, an almost impossible combination until you consider that Truscott has managed what most journalists dream of: being in absolutely the right place at the right time.
Wavy Gravy, once upon a time Village stand-up man Hugh Romney, and his Hog Farm collective, throwing a free Electric Circus in St. Mark’s Place on Christmas Day 1968? Truscott was there. The Stonewall Riots in Sheridan Square, June and July of 1969? Truscott was walking down the street on that first night, and saw it coming to pass. He took out his notebook. More recently, Truscott’s cover-story political essays on Donald Trump and his rise to power proved all too prescient.
Truscott has written for Playboy, Rolling Stone, and a host of other magazines and newspapers. He has covered everything from rock and roll tours you only wish you’d been there to see, to war zones you are almightily glad not to have experienced. His bestselling novel of 1979, Dress Gray, a chilling story of murder and homosexuality at a military school, was adapted by Gore Vidal and made into an NBC television miniseries in 1986. The miniseries smash-started the career of Alec Baldwin (previously known for his tragically concluded role as Julie Harris’ tormenting and tormented son Joshua on daytime soap Knots Landing); you can certainly see why in this notable scene.
This semester, I am teaching a class at The New School called Words Rang True: The Arts of Bob Dylan. It’s the first university class I’m aware of that is devoted just to Dylan that covers not only his work as a singer-songwriter, but his fiction, essays (including liner notes), memoir, films, painting, and sculpture. Truscott came to visit my class last week to talk about Dylan. He brought a couple of friends along with him: Joe Levy, of the Voice and Rolling Stone, and Jon Friedman, author of Forget About Today: Bob Dylan’s Genius for (Re)invention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution (2012). “They’re gonna keep me honest,” Truscott grinned, and Levy quipped: “We’re his fact-checkers.”
“He was a sponge,” said Truscott by way of introduction, echoing what Liam Clancy has also said of Dylan — and, indeed, what Dylan has said of himself when he first arrived in New York. Eager for information, for influences, for inspiration, Dylan soaked up everything from new and old songs to newspaper articles of Civil War times to overheard conversations and sheet music at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center on MacDougal Street. Their mutual friend Bob Neuwirth, schooled in the jazz clubs of Cambridge, Massachusetts, “spoke all the hipster lingo,” and Dylan picked that up from him. A decade of wild fame later, Dylan retained the same curiosity. When Truscott went to cover Dylan and The Band on their 1974 tour, and made his way into the after party with his friend Bob Gardner (“we opened the door and bumped into Ringo Starr…spilled his drink”), Dylan took Gardner aside and talked to him for an hour. The subject of their discussion? Truscott grins. “Trucks, and trains.” Gardner was a long-distance truck driver who also worked, sometimes, in switching yards. “Dylan took notes. He always had a notebook with him.”
In the late 1960s, from the West Village down to the East, it seemed as if “there were about a thousand people,” Truscott says. “None of them were hedge funders, and the rich people involved, well, they were kinda town fathers, who supported the arts. The thousand people were writers, artists, musicians. And everybody knew everybody.” By way of illustrating his point, Truscott recalled driving back into town after several months on the road, crossing the country. As he headed along West 10th Street, “I saw a bouncing person.” Rising from his chair, Truscott imitated a beatific, swinging walk. “There was only one bouncing person then, so I knew it was Allen.” Allen Ginsberg it was. “Hi, Allen,” he called, and Ginsberg replied, with a cheery wave and without breaking stride, “Hey, Lucian, where ya been?”
The way the Village looked, and lived, then was very different. “It was grubby, run down, with a lot more empty, derelict space.” East Village tenements had no hot water. “That’s why they had bathtubs in the kitchen — so you could boil water,” Truscott explained. “Everybody lived cheap, within walking distance of each other, of what they did.” There were no restaurants in SoHo. “No restaurants, no street lights, no power at night. After five, when the warehouses closed, all the power, the heat shut off. You had to have an illegal Con Ed feed rigged up.” Truscott lived for a time on Broome Street; “the company upstairs made little plastic dolls.” Later, he moved to a loft on Houston Street. Several months into his rental, the landlady told him about the first-floor apartment with its windows painted green. “That’s Bob Dylan’s studio,” she said, and Truscott just nodded and went on with his day. Only last autumn did he write about his downstairs neighbor, in the essay “When Bob Dylan Practiced Downstairs.”
Truscott’s memories, spoken in person, of those days are warm and matter-of-fact. He learned to cook “from a guy at an Italian red-sauce place” in the neighborhood, and Patti Smith would come by late at night for leftovers. “She’d call up from the street, and I’d throw my keys down.” No doorbells, no buzzers, no phones — except at work, where a teenager named James Wolcott was the Voice’s receptionist. His words about Dylan, who had gone to Woodstock to be quiet and raise his family, but — ironically — been driven back to New York for privacy after people came to his home in the Catskills at all hours (even walking on the roof), are well considered. “Being tagged the voice, the inspiration of a generation, the whole idea that we were a generation and ‘Bob Dylan’ an avatar of it, well, that would really constrain your ability to be someone else, namely yourself.” He does not pretend to have been a close friend of Dylan’s. “Once [Dylan] helped me carry some groceries upstairs, and I said, ‘Want a beer?’ He said, ‘Sure,’ and so we sat and had a beer. He was an all right guy — it was not very easy to get to know him. Guys I knew who knew him well said he was really funny…I don’t think I ever saw him laugh.”
The second half of our class was a full-on discussion of Blonde On Blonde (1966), which Truscott says is Dylan’s “most New York album” of all. “Yeah, it was recorded in Nashville, but from the cover on in, it’s all New York.” Jerry Schatzberg, who took that cover photo, would likely agree:
“Visions of Johanna” is the song on which we spent most of our time; Truscott calls it as his favorite Dylan song. “As a writer, I write in the third person because when you write in the first person, it’s all through the eyes of the I. In the first person you constantly need a foil, or else a whole first-person novel, or story, has to be from the consciousness of that I. In ‘Visions of Johanna,’ Louise is that foil.” Then Truscott filled in some background for us: “Let me tell you a little about The Factory. There were these people called the Mole People. They shot speed and listened to opera for days on end. And they made everything silver…mirrors everywhere. That line, ‘She’s delicate and seems like the mirror’ — I think of the Silver Factory every time, the mirrors, and all the tinfoil that the Mole People had put up on the walls.” The fish truck? Truscott fondly recalls the bustle and smells of the old Fulton Fish Market. All-night girls on the D train? Night watchmen? City people. A place where lights flicker from the opposite loft, and the heat pipes just cough? Truscott laughed. “No place but New York.” And he tags “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” as “the speediest line ever written.” He told us about the Chelsea, the artists’ co-op and hotel now under demolition and reconstruction as a luxury palace, and about having rich girlfriends, girls like Edie Sedgwick, back in the day. The portrait Truscott painted, with his words, of the streets we walked on our way out of class and to our homes, can’t be set down here by me. It was an in-the-moment fresco, old memories of the 1960s and 1970s made fresh and vivid as they fell on the ears of students born in the 1990s.
After class, I went out for a ramble through the neighborhood. My feet took me anywhere, everywhere, away from the avenues and onto the quietest streets, some of which Truscott had mentioned, and many of which no one ever seems to. In front of one battered, beautiful building, I stopped, looked up, and smiled. I’d noticed it a long time ago, and it made Truscott’s argument seem, literally, set in stone. Did a girl named Johanna ever live here, in her building? or one named Louise? Or was it just a name cut deep in old marble, that stuck in the mind of a local guy, years ago? Phone in hand, I snapped a picture, and kept on walking, still smiling.