[Marxism] Dave Van Ronk on mainstream success

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Oct 4 17:47:49 MDT 2005

An excerpt from the final chapter of Van Ronk's memoir "The Mayor of 
Greenwich Village". Van Ronk was a folk-singer who died of cancer last 
year. He was also a member of the Workers League, a small now-defunct 
Trotskyist group in the 1960s.


Meanwhile, the sycophants appeared, crowding around and telling us how 
wonderful we were. I don't think that even the most vain among us really 
liked them, but when someone comes up and says, "Boy, you're so great," it 
is certainly better than the alternative and has an obvious seductive 
quality. Dylan drew more than his share of this attention, and after a 
while a sort of hierarchy was established of knights of the round table, 
princes of the blood, all paying court to the emperor with the long, bushy 
hair. And because of who he was, that became a pretty nasty scene. Bobby 
had always been kind of paranoid, and now he felt that he had to surround 
himself with people he could trust. But it was not reciprocal; he never 
felt that he had to be trustworthy himself. He was always testing the 
loyalty of the people who were near him, and it could really get vicious at 
times. There was this group around him--David Blue, Victor Maimudes, Bobby 
Neuwirth, and various others--and they would back up whatever he said, 
including when he chose to turn on one or another of them.

For myself, I consider it fortunate that Bobby and I reached our parting of 
the ways fairly early. Shortly after his third or fourth record had come 
out and gone diamond or whatever, he was holding court in the Kettle of 
Fish, and he got on my case and started giving me all of this advice about 
how to manage my career, how to go about becoming a star. It was complete 
garbage, but by that point he had gotten used to everybody hanging on his 
every word and applauding any idea that came into his head. So I sat and 
listened for a while, and I was polite and even asked him a couple of 
questions, but it became obvious that he was simply prodding and testing 
me. He was saying things like "Why don't you give up slues? You do that, 
and I'll produce an album on you; you can make a fortune." He wasn't making 
a lick of sense, and I finally pushed back my chair and said, "Dylan, if 
you're so rich, how come you ain't smart?" And I walked out.

That was that, thank God, and while I have seen Bobby off and on over the 
years, and we are always perfectly cordial, we were never close again. I 
decided just to go about my business, and to let him and his spear-carriers 
do whatever they wanted to do. Because I could see what was happening to 
people who let themselves get caught up in that scene.

As for the star-making rap, I had already heard versions of that from 
[Dylan's late manager] Albert Grossman, but Albert was a good deal funnier 
about it and he had the track record to back it up. Still, in essence it 
was the same routine, and the point was to prove that everybody has a 
price. Albert was a great fan of The Magic Christian, Terry Southern's 
novel about a man who does things like filling a swimming pool full of 
sewage and offal with some $100 bills mixed in, just to prove that people 
will dive in. So he came up to me one night and said, "Look, I have a 
proposal for you: I'll arrange all your bookings, and I'll guarantee you 
$100,000 a year. You can pick your own material, sing anything you want. 
You just have to make one change in your act: I want you to wear a helmet 
with horns on it, and change your name to Olaf the Blues Singer." He was 
completely serious, and I think if I had gone along, he would very likely 
have done it-not because he believed it was a good idea, but just to prove 
that I had my price. He died without ever knowing that it was $120,000 ...

The truth is that I was by no means immune to the lure of money, and I say 
that without any shame. I deeply mistrust the notion that musicians or 
other artists are "selling out" when they make a sound commercial choice. A 
lot of people who have grown up to be stockbrokers or dentists feel that 
they have abandoned their youthful ideals, and it is very important to them 
that their idols remain pure, as proof that there is purity somewhere out 
there in the world. Apparently, musicians don't have to make a living; only 
dentists and stockbrokers have to do that. So when someone comes up to me 
and says, "I admire you because you stuck to your guns, you never sold 
out," my temptation is to say, "Listen: I've been standing on 42nd Street, 
bent over with my pants around my ankles for thirty years." Obviously, 
there are things I am willing to do and things I am not willing to do, but 
the bottom line is that I have a certain set of skills and I have done the 
best I can with them, and if the cards had come up differently and I had 
had more mainstream success, that would have been very nice.

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