[I was there … Newport 1965, when Dylan came out with his electric guitar. Half the crowd cheered, half booed. As the rhythm guitarist of the fabulous Van Voghs, Rhode Island’s own Beatle wannabees, you might think I would be raising my fist in triumph. Nope, I was among the naysayers who thought that Dylan was the wannabee Beatle. 60 years later I stand by my stand. Dylan was an American original who threw it all away to be a half-baked teenage idol. Big mistake, Bob! SB SM]
Freewheelin’ to fame – the untold story of Bob Dylan’s iconic VW van
The blue camper on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan summed up the free-spirited 60s. It was owned by a New York butcher and this is its hidden story
New York City’s Greenwich Village has always been a magnet for outsiders, artists and poets. In 1963, one of those types was Bob Dylan, a kid from Minnesota who had felt the pull of the Village and its cafes and nightclubs where young guitar players would plan their lives – alongside the old-school butcher’s shops, bakeries and other Village staples – as a new, anything-goes counterculture bubbled up.
Dylan was 21 years old when Don Hunstein, the great photographer for Columbia Records, dropped by his third-floor walkup at 161 West 4th Street one cold February day that year to shoot some pictures for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, his second album, which turns 60 years old in May. The cover shows the singer with then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo holding tight to his arm as they walk along a snowy Jones Street just outside their apartment. On the left side of the image is a parked blue Volkswagen van – a model nicknamed a “splitty” back then for the two-piece front windshield. You can’t miss it.
The 1963 VW van for which Jack Ubaldi traded the Dylan cover van, manufactured in 1961. Photograph: Courtesy of the Ubaldi family
It has since become one of the great iconic vehicles in popular culture. Years after the album’s release, Dylan fans have made the pilgrimage to Jones Street to recreate that pose for their own photos, and Cameron Crowe even had Tom Cruise and Penélope Cruz mimic the Freewheelin’ cover, including a blue VW van, in his 2001 film Vanilla Sky.
“The whole photograph speaks volumes about the vibe of things back then. And the VW van did become a cultural symbol for that time,” says Lucinda Williams, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and self-described “fan and student of Bob Dylan”, on the phone from Nashville. “I had a Volkswagen van when I first started taking trips by myself around the country. A cover when Dylan’s out on the street in New York, like on Freewheelin’, brings back a time. It feels like he’s one of us; we could have been in that situation.”
Hunstein’s daughter, Tina Cornell, also tells me the VW is a key part of the image: “The fact they are in the middle of the road, on a cold day but not bundled up, epitomises the freewheelin’ spirit – along with the bus.”
It has never been reported before, but the owner of that VW van was Jack Ubaldi, who used it for his store, Florence Prime Meat Market, at 5 Jones Street. Ubaldi was born in Italy and came to New York with his family when he was seven. His butcher’s shop was one of those Village staples – he opened it in 1936 and, aside from a stint in the US navy during the second world war, ran it until 1975, when he sold it to one of his employees.
Over the years, customers at the shop, which is still open today, have included Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, actor Lily Tomlin, former city mayor Ed Koch and playwright Edward Albee. Rich Ubaldi, Jack’s son, now 75, helped his dad at the shop that winter of 1963. Part of his job “was either putting dimes in the meter or telling him when the time on the street sign expired and he had to move the van to the other side of the street”. Rich thinks his father, who died in 2001, didn’t know about the album cover. “He was into classical music,” says Rich, now living in Virginia. “He didn’t know Dylan from Adam and Eve, certainly not in 1963. He would put on the classical music station, WQXR, and play it all day long in the store.”
Back in those days, Rich had a band, which he and his pals called the Wildwoods. They played “Borscht Belt” resorts in the Catskill mountains, plus weddings, bar mitzvahs and high school proms, with cover versions of pop hits – but no Dylan. “At the parties we played dance music. You couldn’t bastardise a Dylan song into dance music,” Rich says. But on their own time, they took on Dylan: “I knew enough of the guitar that I could play at least some early stuff: Blowin’ in the Wind, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right. Not that complicated.”
Jack Ubaldi plucking strings on son Gus’ guitar – he didn’t know how to play – in the early to mid-1960s. Photograph: Courtesy of the Ubaldi family.
For a while, Jack Ubaldi had used the family car – a 1961 Pontiac Catalina station wagon – as a meat wagon, commuting from his home in Astoria, Queens, to the city’s meat market on Manhattan’s far West Side and then hauling beef carcasses to his shop. As Rich’s brother Gus, 73, proudly recalls: “This was a man who could lift hind quarters of beef off the tailgate of a station wagon on to his shoulder and across the street.”
Ubaldi then got a used VW van – the one on the Freewheelin’ cover – in 1962, but traded it in late in 1963 for that year’s model. “He never kept cars that long because he wasn’t a mechanic, he was a butcher,” said Rich. Ubaldi told his older son that he’d buy him a car when he got his college degree – “He didn’t think I was gonna graduate!” – and Rich duly earned a 1968 Camaro, now restored and still rolling. Gus wound up with the Catalina station wagon, but that accidentally famous blue VW van has been lost to history – the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles doesn’t keep records that far back. “If I had it, I’d drive it!”, Gus says wistfully. Maybe Dylan would even come along for a ride back to Jones Street.