On a gravel road in Saugerties, NY, approximately 108 miles from New York City, sits a cozy pink house that sleeps six and rents for approximately $700 a night on the website VRBO. A spot perfect for hikers, city dwellers looking for a Catskills getaway, and/or bird and wildlife enthusiasts. The house boasts a midcentury-style kitchen and a wood stove fireplace. It's unlikely you would drive past this house accidentally; the road was only recently included in GPS navigation applications. It’s even less likely that you would guess that it contains a concrete-floor basement studio, where Bob Dylan and The Band recorded the legendary 1968 album Music from Big Pink.
The house is currently owned by Donald LaSala, a musician and sound engineer, who bought it in 1998, when LaSala had been seeking a country getaway for his wife Susan and their young son. His only requirement: a place for his kid to play and for Susan to garden and take hikes away from the city. At the time, the house was owned by another musician in NYC, who was selling it to raise college tuition for his kid. According to LaSala, "The house was a tough sell in those days because rumors were that the place was a mess, completely destroyed."
Given his background, LaSala was aware of the home's history. By then, it had been converted into a two-family residence, with the top-floor dormer unit still preserved, the place where Band drummer Levon Helm had slept.
A few years before hearing Music from Big Pink, I had already been a fan of Dylan's. His iconic song "Like A Rolling Stone" became the soundtrack to an early teen summer at a camp where the kids found themselves loosely supervised. Several counselors had exited after the second week due to a salary "misunderstanding." This set the stage for frequent bus trips to a nearby Rhode Island beach. We swam, got sunburnt, ate french fries, sang along to the refrain, "How does it feel? To be on your own, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone."
As high schoolers, my friends and I knew somehow that this twangy, bluesy music was different, less commercial, more honest. Certainly, it wasn’t typical of what we had heard on the radio in the ‘60s. We would pile into someone's car and drive to New York City's Chinatown for late-night noodles, still listening to songs like "The Weight,” "I Shall Be Released," and “Rocking Chair”. Years later, living in Atlanta, I felt I finally understood the complicated depth and tragedy of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a song from the perspective of a poor white Southerner during the last days of the Civil War, but only through the soulful way The Band delivered it.
The tapes recorded in Big Pink’s acoustically-unsound basement were the beginning of The Band’s raw, rootsy direction, one that captured an authentic Americana sound that talked about salvation, history, and a longing for home. Perhaps the isolated, reclusive feel of the house’s surroundings, where almost nobody knew who its residents were, contributed to the introspective mood. Rick Danko, a founding member of The Band and its bassist, discovered the house. By then, Dylan had gone electric, hooked up with The Band, and nearly died in a motorcycle accident. As a result of Dylan’s injuries, which were never made clear and about which many rumors circulated, their planned tour had been canceled, with the group already writing and recording sessions in nearby Woodstock in June 1967.
According to Robbie Robertson in a 2012 interview, Big Pink was ”ugly” from the outside, the basement a recording “disaster” due to its cement floor, cinder block walls, and metal furnace. The resulting tapes represent a kind of ”field” recording, a unique and personal sound. (Because the material recorded at Big Pink was only meant for Bob Dylan’s publishing company and The Band, what became known as The Basement Tapes weren’t released until March 2009.)
Big Pink’s main floor is a two-bedroom unit with a sunroom that served as Danko’s quarters. It consisted of a living room with a sofa, a writing table, and chairs near the picture window. In a 1994 interview, Levon Helm, the drummer, said this was the table where Dylan and Danko set up a typewriter for notes about lyrics to read and refine.
Danko’s old room opens into the dining area with an antique, glossy table glowing beneath the light of a period chandelier accompanied by six chairs. The kitchen maintains the mid-century look with white-painted cabinets and a laminate countertop edged in aluminum. On the same floor are two bedrooms, one with a queen-sized bed, the other with two twin beds. The updated dormer unit at the top of the central staircase was Helm's bunk area. There is a magic about the ordinariness of Big Pink, a humble place where anyone, not particularly talented or famous, could live an unremarkable life.
In time, The Band broke up, and Dylan went his own way, but the house survived. It emanates ‘60s comfort, that time before social media-ready slickness, making it even more ironic that it is now a property to rent on VRBO.
According to LaSala, owning the house where Bob Dylan lived and wrote in the ‘60s has been "strange." Sometimes, local newscasters and reporters appear on his driveway seeking interviews. LaSala has been a sound engineer for many influential regional groups, including Massachusetts-based NRBQ (New Rhythm Blues Quartet), a cult band whose sound brings to mind a combination of Jerry Lee Lewis, Thelonious Monk, and Carl Perkins Jr. He started to rent out the home on VRBO in 2014, but kept the basement as a recording studio for himself and his musician friends.
Things stayed quiet until later that year when Jeff Bridges filmed a Go-Pro video about the house, and Sony Legacy remastered The Basement Tapes. LaSala states, "This started a wave of interest in the house, and things became a bit crazy – some fans were aggressive."
These days, La Sala says he likes to engage with renters prior to agreeing to their request. "I limit the numbers, and no parties are allowed. I keep the price point reasonable, and there are a lot of repeat visitors.” He rents the primary and top floors where Dylan and The Band lived and wrote. Really, he wants to keep the home exactly like it is - he describes the style as “‘60s rock and roller", "basement chic." Everything is original except minor changes, the windows along with updates to the bathroom and kitchen.
As such, LaSala describes "a certain mojo" to the location of the home. He says the Saugerties-New Paltz-Woodstock-Highlands area is regarded as the "un-Hamptons," which continues to attract creative types. Celebrities like Sting live nearby, younger generations passing them on the street without recognition.
Repeat-renter Christopher Boucher, with whom I became acquainted through LaSala, says he likes to meet his friends at the house once a year in the fall to jam and catch-up. He learned to love the music of Bob Dylan in high school and college but was aware of The Band's music through his father.
"I took a deep dive in my early thirties, gobbled up all the info and books and listened to all I could. In 2011, I got to go to one of Levon Helm's Midnight Rambles not long before he passed away. My friend and I decided to make a pilgrimage to the house but chickened out. Then in 2015, I read about how Don and Susan were renting out the house. I texted four friends, and we’ve been going up for one weekend every fall since."
For Boucher, the magic is not about the connection with Dylan or The Band, but his friends, who accompany him on his visits and bond over the place and the music it inspired. "We strum a few chords, and sing a few songs. You really feel what it might have been like to be them. Other visitors have written poetry and lyrics in the guest book, there is so much inspiration here.”
Rock and roll, like any genre, any artform, is a living, breathing thing. It exists in the hearts of its fans. As Helm said in 1994, you don’t need sex and drugs to sell rock and roll. Is Big Pink such a hallowed place that visitors shouldn’t be welcome for more than a quick, quiet pilgrimage? I doubt Dylan and the members of The Band would feel that way. With Robbie Robertson’s death in early August, Garth Hudson is the last surviving member of The Band. The house itself is just a symbol, albeit an expensive one. At least fans who want to rent Big Pink through VRBO can project their passion onto something tangible, a place that symbolizes a moment in time. As LaSala likes to tell his renters, "What you get when you stay in this house is what you bring.”