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Bob Dylan, Caffè Lena’s Most Famous ‘Headliner,’ Turns 80

The answer, my friend, isn’t the only thing that’s blowin’ in the wind today. There are also 80 birthday candles being blown out, and the wind is coming from The Bard’s lungs. That’s right, Caffè Lena’s most famous “headliner” of all time, Bob Dylan, turns 80 today.

When the soon-to-be-dubbed “voice of a generation” showed up at Caffè Lena for his first gig in July of 1961, he was a virtual unknown. Dylan had just recently made his way from his home in the polar vortex of Hibbing, MN, to New York City, and was just getting his footing in the nascent Greenwich Village folk scene. Dylan had made the trek to the Big Apple for at least two specific reasons: one, to find and meet his hero, Woody Guthrie, who was suffering from neurodegenerative disorder, Huntington’s disease, and living out the final years of his life in a medical facility in New Jersey (Dylan would check that off the list quite quickly). The other, and this is probably debatable, but he wanted to become a star (he did some early harmonica work in a session for Harry Belafonte, who would later headline the Saratoga Performing Arts Center’s first nonclassical show).

As the story goes, after a long, cold, snowy NYC winter, Dylan ventured to Saratoga for his first out-of-town gig that summer. And while his setlist hasn’t yet materialized, it’s likely that Dylan played songs like “Hard Times in New York Town” and “The Death of Emmett Till,” show favorites from around that time. Though Dylan was ill received in his Saratoga debut—Caffè Lena’s late owner, Lena Spencer, reportedly “[asked] him to come back despite much heckling from the audience”—he made a second appearance in January 1962, just a few months before releasing his eponymous first album. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Fifty-four years after Dylan played that second gig, he was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. That, after releasing a string of some of the most revered folk songs and albums in the history of music, inspiring The Beatles, going electric and eventually selling his life’s work for an estimated $300 million.

Dylan even recently appeared in a New York Times article in Saratoga. Does that mean he’s scouting out his third show? We’ll have to wait to see. Regardless, Happy Birthday, Bob.

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