Llewyn Davis seems all but lost at sea. He’s a merchant marine who’s misplaced his seaman’s papers. Come nightfall he’s a New York folk singer who is more likely to receive a beating after a gig than get royalties for his obscure recordings. At the end of the day he bounces from one benefactor’s couch to another’s, but instead of repaying them with a nice bottle of wine he loses the first one’s cat and gets the other friend pregnant. Considering Joel and Ethan Coen’s fondness for sad sacks, it’s no surprise Llewyn is their creation, the cosmic tragic schlemiel at the center of their new movie Inside Llewyn Davis.
But as rootless as Llewyn is, he is anchored on not only one but a number of scruffy fugitives who moped about Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. Many episodes of Llewyn’s journey are lifted from those of the late folk singer Dave Van Ronk, but although the plots fit, the other aspects don’t.
To start, Llewyn, as played by Oscar Isaac, who is of Guatemalan and Cuban descent, with a head of deep brown bouncy hair on top of a paperweight frame, looks nothing like Van Ronk, who was 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds and could pass for a henchman in the Irish mob with the credentials to moonlight in the WWF. Llewyn Davis is not a portrayal of Van Ronk but a faint echo, which should be evident from the very start, when the film opens to Isaac not lip-syncing but singing the traditional anguished ballad “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” live. Isaac’s voice is pure and easy, unwavering and pitch perfect. His guitar chimes and rings bright and early in your ear. Van Ronk, on the other hand, sang like his voice scratched his throat so often that he needed to air it out. His challenging delivery demanded your attention. And that guitar! There were as many muffled and twangy notes as solidly struck strings, casual and rhythmic and one with the voice.
For the Coens’ sake, and for the purpose of mounting their brand of tragicomedy, Van Ronk is God’s gift to filmmakers. The wonderful thing was that he was a very good musician. Hear it from God himself. “When I saw Dave Van Ronk I knew,” Bob Dylan wrote in his memoir, the surprisingly lovely Chronicles: Volume One. “He was passionate and stinging, sang like a soldier of fortune and sounded like he paid the price.” He was the bee’s knees to the inchoate Dylan, who said that “I once thought the biggest I could ever hope to get was like Van Ronk.” Van Ronk did become a mentor for the new kid in town.
With his shoulders hunched up under a thin brown jacket, Llewyn is a walking echo of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan cover. He might be as much of an asshole. “I never thought anything so powerful could come out of that little toad,” Joan Baez once said after hearing Dylan play her “With God on Our Side,” according to Positively 4th Street, David Hajdu’s invaluable ensemble biography and portrait of the Dylan-Baez era. “When I heard that, it changed the way I thought of Bob.” It’s a motif oft recapitulated by those who heard Dylan chime. We forgive our geniuses.
No doubt the Coen Brothers could have made Inside Robert Zimmerman and done justice to the Bob Dylan creation myth. Just recall how lovingly they scored “The Man in Me” in The Big Lebowski and you’d recognize three kindred wits united in fondness for shaggy American roots. But the sad truth, and the source of much drama, is that Dylan was too great, and Van Ronk, like Llewyn, was only near-great.
Van Ronk’s other tremendous virtue was that he was the foremost authority on the Village music scene, “the musical mayor of MacDougal Street,” as Robert Shelton, who covered folk for The New York Times during those years, christened him. “He resembled an unmade bed strewn with books … a walking museum of the blues,” Shelton said, so much so that Shelton asked him to look over some of his stories before he filed them. And he left behind one of the most cherished accounts of the time and place in The Mayor of MacDougal Street, which he had hoped to write as the definitive history of the Greenwich folk years and not as the memoir that it became, when he left it for the guitarist and music historian Elijah Wald to finish when he died of cancer in 2002.
Van Ronk was born in Brooklyn in 1936 to a mostly Irish family and grew up adoring jazz, not folk, and his first professional instrument was the banjo, not guitar. When he dropped out of high school to try his hand at being a jazzman he was still young, but already 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds. “Six or seven months later, thanks to my devotion to jazz, I weighed 170.” Van Ronk got his first taste of starvation and learned his first lesson. He found that he could get more gigs being a finger-picking guitarist and singer, and he adapted, which would constitute another sign that he was altogether far brighter than the blindly uncompromising and grouchy Llewyn. “So I cast off my carefully cultivated jazz snobbery,” began singing the blues, half switched to folk, crashed at various friends’ pads, and eventually chipped in $5 with pals to rent a loft. Those were the salad days.
The opening title card to Inside Llewyn Davis tells us that it is winter 1961 at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village. We’re not told if it is January/February 1961 or November/December 1961, which makes a difference, since a certain Bob Dylan would arrive in Manhattan on Jan. 24, 1961, to a 14-degree freeze (it was minus-8 degrees on Feb. 2), and make a splash before the year was over, at which point the wintry temperatures were more manageable. After his set, and as another singer performs, Llewyn is called out to the alley behind the coffeehouse, whereupon a mysterious stranger nearly knocks his teeth out and puts him on the cold, hard ground—payback for Llewyn’s big mouth, the man says, though we’re not sure what this all means.
Something like that, as far as I can tell, never happened to Van Ronk, but Joel Coen has said that the image was the inception for the film. “OK, suppose Dave Van Ronk gets beat up outside of Gerde’s Folk City,” he once said. “That’s the beginning of a movie.” He was referencing the only Village folk club with a liquor license in those days. And since the “Gaslight” where Llewyn played served booze, it would seem that the dingy, musty bar in the film was actually modeled after Gerde’s, which had a “mysterious gray area all the way in the back that was real dark and dank,” recalled the folk guitarist and singer John Herald in Positively 4th Street. “You’d be playing the guitar, and you’d hear sounds from back there—some people were smoking dope or fucking—and you’d keep playing.” Sounds about right.
By 1961 Van Ronk was already the charismatic mayor—“king of the street,” as Dylan said. “He reigned supreme.” Llewyn, on the other hand, is not so lucky. He might not be rootless, but he is homeless, and it seems that he often wakes up on the couch of his uptown academic friends Mitch and Lillian Gorfein. When he leaves, the cat dashes out the door as it locks behind them, and so commences Llewyn’s merry chase through New York City, losing and finding and losing and finding the cat, whose name, in one of the Coens’ rare heavy-handed misstep, turns out to be Ulysses. Nothing like this is found in Van Ronk’s memoir either, though he had his share of crashing on sofas and housesitting for wealthier friends, and a delightful little detour chapter tells of how, when he moved in to an East Village flat for a few weeks in 1958, he helped a couple of guys hawk Japanese absinthe.
Van Ronk might have also inspired the cat itself, since standing behind him on the cover of his 1963 record Inside Dave Van Ronk was a little feline friend. Llewyn’s own album copped the name and the cover, which we see when he visits the office of his music label, Legacy, modeled after the legendary Folkways, which recorded Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Pete Seeger, founded by Moe Asch, who in the film becomes Mel Novikoff. Van Ronk described how when visiting Asch he would put on his “Folkways suit,” a filthy jacket that smelled of acetone. “Moe, you gotta lay some bread on me; I don’t even have a winter coat,” he’d say, at which point Asch would come up with $50 or so. But one time Asch offered him a camel-hair overcoat instead, something Van Ronk wouldn’t be caught dead in. “He called my bluff.” But while Van Ronk found it entertaining to play up the decrepitude, the Coens make Llewyn’s jacket genuinely thin, practically torturing the guy.
The next couch Llewyn crashes on belongs to Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake) and his wife Jean (Carey Mulligan). Jean might or might not be pregnant with Llewyn’s baby after a one-night stand with him, and spends the rest of the movie cussing him out and calling him a loser. (Van Ronk tells us that many folkies were anarchists deeply committed to “free love,” and combine that with the number of young women attracted to the scene, “there were pregnancy scares at least twice a month.”) The Berkeys share the name of an actual duo, but the real Jim and Jean Glover hosted not Van Ronk but another folkie, the protest singer Phil Ochs, who didn’t actually arrive in New York until 1962.
Van Ronk by that time didn’t need to sleep on couches—people slept on his couch. He was working regularly at the Gaslight, married, and had a pad on Waverly Place that served as a hangout for Dylan, Ochs, Paul Simon, and many others, including singer songwriter Tom Paxton, who is known as Troy Nelson in the film. Paxton was in the Army and visited the Village on the weekends to play gigs at the Gaslight and the Commons. At one point in the film Nelson joins Jim and Jean on stage at the Gaslight to sing the silky and bland traditional tune “500 Miles,” which was made famous in 1962 first by the Kingston Trio and then by Peter, Paul and Mary. In one maneuver the Coens put in contrast two trios that people like Van Ronk didn’t care for—he loathed the squeaky-clean Kingston Trio and thought the carefully chosen repertoire of Peter, Paul and Mary were quite interesting if “slick,” though he was grateful that they took a song he wrote, renamed it “Bamboo,” and put it on their debut album, providing him with one of the best paychecks he ever cashed.
Llewyn himself is pulled into a trio when Cromartie, a Columbia Records executive modeled after the great John Hammond, calls him down to the studio to meet Jim and Al Cody for a recording gig. Cody, played by a howling, grunting Adam Driver, wears a cowboy hat, which is the preferred headgear for Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, though by 1961 Elliott was something of an elder statesman in folk, representing the link to Woody Guthrie, whose son Arlo had to learn his father’s songs from Elliott. At one point Llewyn looks at Cody’s mail and notices that his real name is Arthur Milgrum, perhaps a nod to mathematician Arthur Milgram, who died on Jan. 30, 1961. Might this be a key to dating the events of Inside Llewyn Davis to early rather than late 1961?
The tune that Llewyn, Jim Berkey, and Cody tape is a hokey jingo based on a song written by folkies Ed Rush and George Cromarty and recorded by Mickey Woods called “Please Mr. Kennedy.” The original implored the president not to send the poor guy to Vietnam, but T Bone Burnett, who supervised the music for the film, and Timberlake and the Coens rewrote the song to beg JFK not to send them to outer space. Llewyn loathes the song (Berkey said he wrote it, which is partly true, since Timberlake had a hand in it), and foregoes the royalties in exchange for cash to pay for Jean’s abortion, with a little money left so that he can pay for gas while hitching a ride to Chicago. The song ends up a hit, and the schlemiel has done it again. By now, as long as Llewyn isn’t singing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” the general sentiment is that you really do want to hang him.
The trip to Chicago, as it turns out, was an actual journey that Van Ronk took, with some modifications. For one, Van Ronk went there in 1957, and he had a smooth trip there, whereas Llewyn’s driving companions are a Neal Cassady-like chauffeur named Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and a heroin-addicted jazz musician by the name of Roland Turner, perhaps based on the pianist Dr. John.
Llewyn’s reason for going to Chicago is to ask Bud Grossman, the owner of the big-time club the Gate of Horn, whether Mel Novikoff ever sent him a demo tape. In real life, a few weeks before the journey, Van Ronk had managed to get himself on the bill for the opening night of the first Village coffeehouse to feature folk music, the Café Bizarre. (The Gaslight Cafe didn’t even exist yet.) He played a few songs to warm up the crowd for the headliner, Odetta, the queen of American folk music. “She has a smile that could melt diamonds,” Van Ronk wrote, as he recalled Odetta offering to take a demo tape to Chicago to her manager Albert Grossman.
Albert Grossman was only 31 at the time, but already a kingpin in folk. In 1962 he would become Bob Dylan’s manager. Van Ronk saw the weeks pass without any news from Odetta or Grossman, and decided to hitchhike to Chicago to settle the matter in person. Twenty-two hours later, hopped up on Dexedrine pills, Van Ronk reached the Gate of Horn. A curious title, but it was an actual club. Its name, like the cat’s, comes from the Greeks. If Homer was right in The Odyssey, it is through the gate of horn that true dreams pass through, whereas false and empty ones exit through the gate of ivory. The Coens themselves could not have come up with a more serendipitous symbol, for of course it is Bud Grossman, played by F. Murray Abraham, who must hand Llewyn his judgment after a one on one audition.
“I don’t see a lot of money here,” Bud Grossman finally says. “You’re not a front man.” He offers Llewyn a break, however: lose the beard, and join a couple to form a trio, and there’ll be a gig here waiting. Llewyn’s response was that he used to be in a group, with a singer named Mike Timlin, who ended up throwing himself off the George Washington Bridge. Llewyn doesn’t seem to have recovered from the death, and rejects the offer. Timlin, turns out, is based on the singer Paul Clayton, who used to be one of Van Ronk’s best friends. He was gay, and indeed killed himself, but not off the George Washington Bridge, and not until 1967.
(Interestingly, years later, Grossman would actually semi-manage Van Ronk, and one day propositioned him to form a trio with Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers. “Oh, my God, we’re gonna have a village-spawned Kingston Trio here,” he thought, and said no. Grossman recruited Noel Stookey instead, who henceforth went by his middle name Paul. The Coens combined Grossman’s and Van Ronk’s rejections of each other into one defining Llewyn moment. “Peter, Dave, and Mary would have died the death of a thousand cuts,” Van Ronk said. “Still, every time I look at my bank balance…”)
What Albert Grossman actually said to Van Ronk, without batting an eyelash, was that Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White, Brownie McGhee, and Sonny Terry already play here. In other words, black musicians were playing the blues-infused folk songs that Van Ronk preferred better than him. “Grossman, you son of a bitch, you’re Crow-Jimming me!” he screamed, and stormed off back to New York. He decided that he would give up and return to the Merchant Marine. “Tasmania or Tierra del Fuego sounded about right.” On the way home, however, Van Ronk’s wallet was stolen. In it were his seaman’s papers. So there lies the port and the vessel puffs her sail, but Van Ronk wouldn’t be able to sail the dark, broad seas.
In the film, Llewyn also loses his papers, but in a different way. And so it is, back to the rat- and roach-infested Gaslight, where he puts back one too many drinks and starts heckling a somewhat hapless performer on stage, who’s played by the folk and bluegrass musician Nancy Blake. The following night, it turns out, is when Llewyn sang “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” not a similar version as the one we’ve heard already but the identical performance. The film is brought to a climax with the same anguished ballad. In that sublime moment it becomes clear that the film you’ve just watched has been a tone poem scored to a few down and out and weary chords in the key of constant sorrow, and by this point you might not have the energy to step out into the cold, dark world, as Llewyn would do in the alley. In a neat trick, the Coens have opened the film with the end, and at last the identity of Llewyn’s attacker is revealed to be the husband of the unlucky woman he tormented the night before.
But inside the Gaslight, the performer who followed Llewyn’s closing number, “Dink’s Song,” is playing a version of a similar English ballad, “The Leaving of Liverpool,” which he has refashioned (or stole, depending on your preference) into “Farewell.”
“Bob Dylan, spelled D-Y-L-A-N. ‘As in Thomas?’ I asked, innocently,” Van Ronk said of their first meeting. “I may have rolled my eyes heavenward.”
(Dylan remembered meeting Van Ronk before that. And in reality, Dylan wouldn’t have performed “Farewell” in 1961, as he probably learned the song during a trip to London in December of 1962, according to Positively 4th Street. Dylan had a small role in a BBC TV drama called Madhouse on Castle Street by the Jamaican playwright Evan Jones. He mangled his dialogue and his part was reduced to one line, but when he started singing he was magical, and the broadcast opened and closed with scenes of Dylan singing “Blowin’ in the Wind.” While in London he learned “The Leaving of Liverpool” and changed it to “Farewell.” It was a fruitful trip for him as he learned “Nottamun Town” and turned it into “Masters of War,” “The Patriot Game” into “With God on Our Side,” “Lord Franklin” into “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” and “Scarborough Fair” into “Girl from the North Country.” Anyway, Dylan didn’t record the version of “Farewell” that the Coens use in the film until March of 1963, at the Witmark.)
If at this point you were to pity Dave Van Ronk for being passed over, bear in mind that he is not Llewyn. The soundtrack to Van Ronk’s life was altogether not as hopeless as Llewyn’s; I’d like to think that the real story of the Village folk scene was not as weary as the Coens make it out to be. For confirmation you only have to read the little memoir that Van Ronk left behind. You might think that the folkies were all struggling to survive, bitter and starving like a pack of caged dogs. The best thing about having a not great—but very good—guide to the weedy patch of Greenwich is that Van Ronk had in his possession a folky and level head. “We weren’t all clawing over each other’s bodies, trying to fight our way to the top,” he said. “Win, lose, or draw, there was always something absolutely ridiculous happening, and we were laughing all the time.” When Dylan broke out, some were jealous of this toad, this filthy impostor, and some thought they were going to be the next Bob Dylan. “Yeah, sure, you could. All you had to do was write ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’—for the first time,” Van Ronk wrote before he passed away. “That was what Bobby had done, and none of the rest of us did that.”
The Coens love the music, it is clear, and they have a blessed talent for revitalization. But something is missing from this minor-key affair. It is the joyous laughter that Van Ronk was talking about. If a woefully luckless folkie is doomed to repeat his bleak winter nights over and over again, if it is so gloomy inside the mind of Llewyn Davis, how does it feel?
Ah, yes, I almost forgot about the jingle jangle morning. I can hear it now. The times are changing. And Dylan is just around the corner.