Positively Bob Dylan

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Exclusive interview with Bill Cohen on Dylan's early years in New York

Posted on 03/08/2006

Bill Cohen, Ph.D was a young doctor at Greystone Park State Hospital, New Jersey from 1957 to 1963. One of his patients was Woody Guthrie, folk legend, and one of Dylan's biggest influences and idols at that time. Guthrie had Huntington's chorea, a severe and rare illness. He was kind enough to tell me about those early days in this exclusive interview.

Mike Hobo: When Woody Guthrie was your patient at Greystone, it wasn't the first time you actually saw him?

Bill Cohen: Guthrie lived in Seagate, a gated Jewish Community in Coney Island, Brooklyn/New York. He used to play on the boardwalk. I used to watch him as a kid, eating my hot dog from Nathan's. To see him years later at the hospital, read his medical file, and to know that he had a terminal illness was a heartbreaker.

In his book "Woody Guthrie: A Life" Joe Klein writes that Woody called the hospital "Gravestone"?

When Dylan describes the ward that Woody was on, he was being kind. The stench of the ward was unbearable, really horrible. Feces, urine, and vomit all blended together in a locked ward of 50-75 sick people. But we had accurate medical records on every person in the hospital. Perhaps it was an imminent "gravestone" for Woody, but I can assure you that his medical care was excellent. He was not a psychiatric patient. He was a person with a horrible medical illness.

And young Bob Dylan still did visit him occasionally.

Young Dylan did come to see him. I do not remember Pete Seeger, Cisco, or any of his friends being there, but Dylan was. His wife Margie was a lovely woman who travelled all the way out to see him. Dylan is a fantastic human being who has done so many things in life, and never asked for credit.

When did you first hear about Dylan?

After I came back from Korea, I moved into the village and shared an apt. with a friend. His name is Buddy Friedman, who was later to become very famous in Comedy Club ownerships. We lived on Christopher Street, down near what is now 12th ave. Buddy knew everyone, and we spent a lot of time in the clubs and coffee houses. I met Dave Von Ronk, who was very popular and could sing the blues like no white man ever could. The Von Ronks were very good to Dylan and let him live with them on Montague Street in Brooklyn. It was a short walk over the Brooklyn Bridge into the Village. I saw him in clubs and he was still nobody, but people were beginning to recognize his talent. I think that Joan Baez was most instrumental in getting his career started.

Did Dyan's music already fascinate you in any way?

I thought that he was really great, and had tremendous intelligence. A lot of the folksingers of his time were good, but didn't have much to say. Dylan was a voracious reader and understood much of life from the bible, shakespeare, the Greek Literature, and all the newspapers he could find. I have been a fan of his from the very start in the village, and have every album he has ever published. I have seen him every time he was in NY, or NJ - I guess for over 40 years.

Have you ever met Dylan in persona or talked to him during his hospital visits?

I have never personally been, or introduced myself to Bob Dylan. I know about his comings and goings at Greystone, and have seen him. He was there to see Woody. It was a very disturbing sight for him. I could not intrude and tell him that I knew who he was etc. - I was a Doctor, he was a visitor. It would have been very intrusive to go over and tell him that I was a fan and admirer of his. He is very polite, but that was not the time or place. In addition, I would not have been able go discuss any aspect of the patient with him, since he was not immediate family. It was just awkward. It just wasn't right.

Now those days are long gone. After 45 years you are still a fan? What do you think of Bob Dylan today?

He is a brilliant man. No matter what criticism anybody levels at him, he never responds, is never rude, or a Hollywood celeb. You will never ever hear any scandal regarding his life or behavior.

Thank you very much for contributing a very valuable feature to this website and the Dylan fans out there.

I loved to share this information and these thoughts with you.

Bill has also contributed to the song comments section of this site.

In addition to this interview I would like to show you this unaired clip from History Channel about Woody Guthrie at Greystone Asylum:

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