Inside Llewyn Davis: Not the Greenwich Village I Knew
You might expect that I should love the film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” about the folk scene of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, seen through the eyes of a young folk singer, who is a reinterpreted version of the young Dave van Ronk. Van Ronk was a legend by the time I hit that scene, as a young singer-songwriter, in the early 1980s. I barely knew him, but I did work the soundboard for one of his performances at the Speakeasy — a folk music club and artists’ cooperative, which put on nightly shows behind a falafel stand on Macdougal Street. I thought Van Ronk was an awesome performer, with a dominating stage presence. I found him intimidating at the time.
Folk music was serious business to the artists who were keeping it alive in those clubs. As a newcomer, you had a steep hill to climb, to prove yourself worthy to be in their company. Van Ronk’s memoir, on which the movie was partly based, is called “The Mayor of Macdougal Street.” I haven’t even read it yet, but I thought of him more as the Pope. I didn’t dare approach Van Ronk, partly because I was not even a true “folky” — though I did get one song, “Epiphany Dream,” onto a “Fast Folk” record album, a periodic collection that was published as a “musical magazine” by the Speakeasy cooperative, and which you can still find online. (I thought of Jack Hardy, editor of Fast Folk, as the mayor.)
I spent several fun, formative musical years in that colorful Speakeasy / Folk City / Macdougal Street music scene, which is painted in brownish-grayish tones in the Coen Brothers film. I have some beautiful memories, too: the legendary Odetta watching my show, complimenting me, hugging me, the memory of which gladdens me still. At the same time, however, I was also fronting a rock band, playing at clubs in the rougher parts of the East Village and Soho, clubs with names like CBGB, 8BC, Kamikaze. (This double life probably made me suspect in the folk world, but that’s another story.)
Yet despite this semi-personal connection to what was being portrayed on the screen, I did not love “Inside Llewyn Davis.” I found myself skipping and fast-forwarding through big hunks of it, in 10-20 second stuttering hops, trying to find parts I liked.
And I did find a few gem moments, most of them musical performances, including a surprising folk turn by Justin Timberlake. The film certainly captured the look of the New York folk music scene as I remember it, which (I now realize) had not changed that much by 1982. Indeed, my experience of New York itself was pretty much just as that movie portrayed it: a little run-down, funkier, more dangerous than the shiny place it is today.
So, I didn’t hate the film. But several others from that scene and time — most publicly Christine Lavin and Suzanne Vega — did hate it, and they went public with harsh criticisms. I mostly agree with their general complaint: the movie doesn’t reflect what I remember of life in that community. We were all young, aspiring songwriters, by turns cooperative and competitive, enjoying the feeling that we were part of something with a history. The Greenwich Village folk scene was a kind of musical nebula that occasionally gave birth to a star (Suzanne Vega broke out with two worldwide hits, “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner”, about the time I began turning from aspiring New York musician into an aspiring Seattle sustainability wonk who still did music). But mostly, that community was all about dedication to tradition, craft, songwriting, artistry, mutual support. Being a musician in New York — especially being a songwriter outside the mainstream of pop — was a hard business. We needed each other.
This is really my chief complaint about “Inside Llewyn Davis”: I felt nothing of that. In fact, I felt nothing at all. I really wanted to just get through the film and go back to work. (I was watching it on a long plane flight.) A reviewer who loved the movie noted that it’s just a fiction, maybe a profound one, and even called Lavin and Vega “narcissistic” for criticizing it — that is, for not accepting it as an original, aching, coming-of-age story, that has nothing to do with their reality. The Coen Brothers, in that reading, just borrowed bits of Van Ronk’s memoir, and images of that time and scene, in order to tell a different story about misplaced ambitions and the hard treatment dished by the real world on youthful dreams.
But I have to defend my old Speakeasy colleagues, Lavin and Vega, on this point: if someone takes your youth, full of colorful people and memories that you love, and repaints it as tawdry and sad, and then presents this portrayal to the world as The Truth On Film, you are fully entitled to hate that movie. And to attack it, critically. (Thanks, Christine and Suzanne, for doing that. I called you “colleagues” above, rather than friends, because while I knew you, I never really knew you. I always wished I had — I so admired your work, you were role models — but I doubt you even remember me. I was a junior, marginal player in that league. I was a Wednesday and Thursday night kind of performer; you were Friday and Saturday night. Still, it gives me pleasure to remember that we played on the same stages, sometimes in the same multi-artist shows …)
So the true Greenwich Village Folk Music Movie remains to be made. Or … maybe it would be interesting to make a movie about a folk musician who lives a double life as a rock ‘n’ roll artist, flitting between gigs in different parts of New York, dancing with the ghost of Dylan’s controversial flip to electric guitar, moving furniture to make a living with a fellow songwriter and, improbably enough, future Earth First! activist (my old friend Darryl Cherney, who recorded my first cassette album in his bedroom studio, and who was the spitting image of the guy playing Llewyn Davis), avoiding the muggers and the groupies and the drugs (I was a total nerd in that regard), performing at weddings and funerals and hospitals for the mentally disturbed, until finally getting a big break with the offer of a serious management deal (the guy that offered me that deal is now head of a major Hollywood movie studio), but then realizing he had a different calling in life, this thing we call “sustainability” …
Well, if you are into making movies, I’ve got a story for you.
PS: Hey, my new album — which which owes a debt of gratitude to those old Greenwich Village days, but is sort of “global folk-rock” — is finished, we are just working on the packaging and marketing now … Stay tuned …