Bob Dylan: Positively Main Street
March 20, 1969
Part 1: A Good Family Boy
Bob Dylan’s babysitter! With a real name, Don Mckenzie, right there on the next bar stool! Longish gray hair, fisherman’s knit T-shirt, stylishly snug black slacks tapered to … elf-toed monk strap slip-ons? In Hibbing, Minnesota? Population 17,731 in the summer, when the mines are working… The mines! Hibbing, Minnesota, hometown of the old scruffy-necked, blue-jeaned Bob Dylan, site of the largest open pit iron ore mine in the world, “the town of 60 saloons”… and, Bob Dylan’s babysitter?
This bar, all English pubby and deep cushioned Howard Johnson’s in the brand-new Kahler Inn Towne Motel, filled with freshly coiffed mid-cycle women with balding guys in graveyard worsteds and shiny white shirts, all laughing, warbling “Tiny bubbles…” around a piano bar, an upright with one of those fake flowing Steinway bodies and the padded elbow rests, plus the words to all your favorite songs mimeographed. The bartender, a moonlighting third grade teacher from Chisholm, is pouring Don Mckenzie and me another drink. Don’s saying:
“Must be 20 years now since I last took care of Bob for Abe and Beatty. He was a real quiet boy, even at that age. His brother David hadn’t finished breaking in his first pair of diapers and already you could tell that he was going to be the extrovert of the two. Bobby stayed quiet, friendly, but, well, kind of slinky the whole time he was growing up. Used to write poems… don’t know if he still does or not. But whenever Mother’s Day or Father’s Day or somebody’s birthday rolled around, Bob would have a poem ready. ’Course that was a long time before he’d ever thought of becoming Bobby Die-lan… ”
“Sure, that’s just the name he took so people back East wouldn’t know his real name was Zimmerman. Seems a pity too, good Jewish family name like that… and Bob was always a good Jewish boy. Went to synagogue regularly, listened to his mother and dad… but why shouldn’t he, his family had more money than most. Zimmerman’s Furniture and Appliance. Good business… But you got to hand it to the Jews, they’re first class money makers, always have been I guess, and in a small town, they stick together… but nobody holds that against them in Hibbing, I know I don’t. And the Jews own a lot of the businesses, the movie theatres, Feldman’s Department Store…”
“The movie theatres? What about Bob’s movie, was it shown here in Hibbing?”
“Bob’s movie? Didn’t know he’d made one. Funny, you’d think that if it’s played anywhere it would have played here. Especially seeing as how Bob’s uncle owns the two theatres.”
“Old Max Edelstein.”
Don Mckenzie’s voice drops a few thousand decibels, and he turns toward me with a quarter stool swivel and a nose bridged handcup:
“Now there’s an example of how the Jews in this town take care of their own. I don’t know what Bob’s movie was like, but you can bet more than likely something about it wasn’t exactly… well, Kosher — or it’d been running at both theatres 24 hours a day, for a year.”
“There was some profanity, but…”
“You see! Now in a big town like Washington or New York or Duluth, that sort of thing wouldn’t hardly scrunch ’em down in their seats. But here in Hibbing, a hometown boy like Bob, in the movies, with his family still living in town — except for poor dad, bless him, as nice a fellow as you’d ever want to meet — passed away last May — and I saw Bobby at the wake as a matter of fact…”
“Bob was back in May?”
“Sure he was back, think he’d miss his father’s funeral? He loved that man more… actually the funeral itself wasn’t held in Hibbing… the Jews don’t bury their dead in the cemetery here… have their own over in Duluth… but there was a wake right over at Dougherty’s and practically everyone in town… Bob loves the whole family, don’t get me wrong. He was home for just the funeral this time though, ’cause his wife was expecting their third back in New York. Named him after his father too. Seth Abraham Isaac Dylan. Told Beatty they decided to put the Isaac in ’cause he didn’t want the kid’s initials to be S.A.D. Yeah, Bob was just home for a couple of days this trip. But that didn’t stop him from findin’ time to fix his mother up with a brand-new Cadillac and his brother David with a Buick. Those stories you read about Bob and his family… Couldn’t be farther from the truth. Why Beatty’s always showing off some new gift Bob’s sent her, diamonds, furs, or talking about him calling long distance from all ’round the country. Like I said, Bob’s a good family boy, and in Hibbing that means something, ’cause these Jewish people, they stick together, why…”
The din from the piano bar has gradually welled up to the point where Don Mckenzie’s voice is inaudible. I tap my ear and shake my head, mouthing a rapid volley of WHATS? Finally Don Mckenzie’s lips stop moving and he breaks into the grandest of smiles. Leaning closer, and with a sweeping gesture to the room, he bellows in my ear, “Yeah, it’s a real live bunch!”
March 27, 1969
2. Join the Elvis Rebellion
Oh, yes, the Hibbing Chamber of Commerce will tell you, there have been times in Hibbing’s relatively short history when the future was less than bright. The lumberjack days for instance. Everyone thought Hibbing would die out with the timber like a hundred other Minnesota mining camps. But Frank Hibbing changed all that the day he stuck his head out of a tent on a 40 below zero January morning in 1893 and roared, “I believe there is iron under me. My bones feel rusty and chilly.” Frank Hibbing and his miners took over land the loggers were leaving and “the largest red iron ore open pit mine in the world” felt the bite of its first spade.
It was rough and tumble from there on in; Bret Harte and Emile Zola out front — but “progress” and “culture” in the wings.
Before long the Hibbing Village Chamber of Commerce got around to the village’s more cultivated claims to national fame:
Bobby Die-lan? No, not exactly…
In 1919, Hibbing gave birth to the Bookmobile! It was a 30 horse-power White truck, remodeled into the first library bus — to serve the mining camps up and down the Mesabi Range.
The Greyhound Bus System started in Hibbing with a 1913 Hupmobile bought as a taxi by “Bus Andy” Anderson for the 15-cent jaunt between Alice and Hibbing. If you ask the folks at the Hibbing Village Chamber of Commerce who Hibbing’s most famous citizen is, they’ll tell you “Bus Andy” Anderson every time.
After World War One mining Hibbing began to have its first serious problems. The town was still prospering. There were handsome public buildings in late Victorian Greco-Roman, fine homes for the villagers, streetcar lines, shady lanes and well-paved streets, sidewalks in front of family businesses, a healthy school system, and, as Dylan would say, “the lunch-bucket filled every season.” But prosperity threatened to devour its own, and yes “money doesn’t talk it swears,” for…
The Oliver Mining Company had somehow obtained mineral rights to the land under the village, and was making an offer of $2 1/2 million to property owners for the surface rights. Part of the deal was that 80 acres of company-owned land would be provided for development in “New” Hibbing — actually, the old mining camp Alice, one and a half miles south of “Old” Hibbing. Merchants would be allowed to choose sites in New Hibbing, three business blocks would be built by the company and sold to the merchants, and the company would move 185 dwellings, 12 frame business buildings, and eight brick business buildings on huge iron wheels, the mile and a half from Old Hibbing’s shady lanes and concrete sidewalks to Alice — an empty field sectioned off by a sewer pipe still above ground.
Took four years to complete the moving. And in another six years the Depression had hit and New-Old Hibbing faced a different kind of potential annihilation: Mining came to a near standstill.
But the village survived, and World War Two came along. That didn’t help much, but at least the mines were working again. Though day by day they were becoming too expensive to operate, ore was no longer plentiful, the few men left in the mines before the war were being drafted… women took over in the pits — and the profit was next to nil. After the war, taconite changed all that. Geologists say there is sufficient taconite on the Mesabi Range to last for more than 100 years. Resurrection! Taconite, it seems, was virtually worthless as a raw material for the steel industry until recently when research… But the times they’ve a changed, both mines and plants operate around the clock, Hibbing’s prosperity once again blossoms with Kahler Inn Towne Motels and junior colleges, two Sno-Mobiles in every garage…
Walk up Howard Street, the village’s main drag, from the Androy Motor Inn, past the Jolly Rodger and Sportsman Cafes to Woolworth’s and Montgomery Ward’s in search of a little of Hibbing’s newfound prosperity for Bob… Nary a Famous Face or Personality Poster applauds the worldwide notoriety of our hometown hero, and Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits is the only album in stock — if you’re lucky. Smiling salesladies offer you sticky-stringed renditions of “Blowin’ in the Wind” by the Muzak Strains of Jehovah Seventeen… But — to Crippa’s, Howard Street’s only music store, and surefire dealer for… two of Bob’s records? John Wesley Harding and the Greatest Hits. None of the fine old stuff on the early albums about Hibbing and the North Country? Neither of the folk-rock albums, Bringin’ It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited? The two that crucified popular music…
The saleslady at Crippa’s explains that Bob doesn’t sell well in Hibbing. People don’t like his voice. Some of the other groups that do his songs — the Byrds, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez — they sell a whole lot better. But Saleslady likes Bob. She sold him his first harmonica. And harmonica rack. Had to order that special. Bob was in Crippa’s a lot. From the time he was just a little boy. Always fascinated by music. Would spend hours in the store listening to records. All kinds. Liked classical music at first. But, sometime during his junior high school years, he got interested in popular music. Blues, country, rock and roll, everything. Chet Crippa remembers ordering all of Hank Williams’ records for Bob, at one fell swoop. Chet outfitted Bob’s rock band too. With amplifiers, mikes, guitars, right down to picks and guitar strings. Chet remembers that in those days Bob carried his guitar with him wherever he went. An old beat-up Sears and Roebuck job, with a leather strap. Slung it over his shoulder and down his back, through snowstorms and everything.
The Hibbing Daily Tribune doesn’t have much on Bob. Just one picture, a four or five year old publicity shot, and no real write-ups. Everybody asks “What’s Bobby doing these days?” The Hibbing Public Library has the Daniel Kramer picture book. But none of Bob’s records or lyrics, not even a file of clippings.
On up Howard Street checking for signs of the wicked messenger at every crossroad. And cafe. Into Mr. Jack’s, the L.B., Ewardsons’, and Sammy’s Pizza Palace. Straight to the jukebox. But not a Wurlitzer in town with a Dylan tune. Beatles, Bee Gees, and Bobby Goldsboro — but no Bobby Die-lan. And these are jukeboxes in places where kids hang out. Sammy’s Pizza Palace, for instance. A classic malt shop. No beer with your pizza here. Just soda pop and coffee. No tables either, but wooden booths, like in an Archie comic book. Stuffed deer heads and poorly mounted wall-eyed pike for decor. But good coffee. The kids drink a lot of it, four or five cups for their 15 cents. The kids look like kids most places, except for their dress. The girls are fairly up to date department-store tweed. No boutique fashions or hippie garb, to be sure. But rather stylish, nonetheless. The boys are the very opposite. Big pompadours with gobs of Brylcreem, gabardine sport shirts tucked into black slacks cinched up by skinny silver belts, white socks, and black loafers with horseshoe taps. Join the Elvis Rebellion. Circa 1956.
There are no hippies in Hibbing. The kids tell a story that last time Bob was in town, not for his father’s funeral, but before that, he came into Sammy’s for a pizza. Hardly anyone recognized him at first. He just walked over by the counter to wait in line for his pizza. But then some stupid girl sort of screamed, and everybody started giggling and making remarks. Bob got out of there pretty fast. But the funny thing was, not that there was Bobby Die-lan right here in Sammy’s Pizza Palace, but the way he looked. The hair, and those clothes. It was spooky the way everyone spaced right out over this weird little man. Who came on so funny, and just happened to be Bobby Die-lan.
The kids don’t have much to say about Bob. They’d rather talk about four-barrel carburetors or fuel injection. The hot rod thing, another later 1950s, early 1960s vogue. Popular music seems harder to come by in Minnesota than in most places. WMFG, Hibbing’s radio station, plays polkas and Andy Williams muzak. But no Bob. Keith Knox, their program director, did assure me, however, that they have a Montovani album somewhere with Bob’s music on it. (Good-time Evelyn over at the Androy Motor Inn piano bar says sure, she likes that song “Blowin’ in the Wind” — but try to get her to play it.) The only top-40 station you can pick up during daylight hours is WEBC from Duluth. And that’s not really top-40 but golden-oldie. The big Midwestern stations with solid top-40 formats all tune in at night — but fairly late and somehow sounding very far away.
Consequently, one wonders. About Bob, in the middle ’50s, when rock music was still struggling for play on big stations back East. And what it must have been like musically in Minnesota then.
April 3, 1969
3. Electric Bob Plugs In
B.J. Rolfzen. In a tan rain coat and conservative suit. A youngish fellow, lean, with dark hair. Outgoingly friendly and a tad bemused. At scruffy me? Or the possibilities of immortality for Bobby Zimmerman? No, not Bobby, Robert. The boy next door. Almost literally. B.J. lived across the street from Bob during the high school years. Excuse me — Robert. B.J. also was Robert’s 11th grade English teacher. Robert was a quiet boy, aloof. Used to sit in the front row of B.J.’ss class, to the left of the desk. Never said a word, just listened. Got good grades, B-plusses. Took life seriously. Spent a lot of time by himself, must have been thinking and writing — though B.J. never saw anything young Robert produced. Liked motorcycles, had a slew of them. And to have owned a motorcycle in the middle fifties, one would’ve had to be considered, well, could never have labeled Robert wild or hoody… he was always such a sharp-dresser but, perhaps… eccentric. The rock band he and some of the other kids had, for instance. Yes, that was quite a band. Electric. Folk music was far from fashionable in those days. Rock and roll was king, and even that was brand-new to Hibbing. One of the biggest shocks of B.J.’s life was the first time Robert and the band performed at a school concert. Eleventh grade. The Jacket Jambourie Talent Festival. Curtain went up, Robert gave the signal, and absolutely the loudest music anybody had ever heard… and Robert! Standing up at the piano, screaming this… music into three microphones, this quietest of boys from the front row of B.J.’s English class, bellowing like… a Negro or something, with the rest of the band, two electric guitars, a bass and drums just splitting your ears, and… Why the Principal told B.J. later that Robert had pounded so hard on the Baldwin’s fortissimo pedal that he’d broken it right off.
Positively Dionysian! That silent boy… And the way he acted the next day! Sat down in his usual seat there in the front row of B.J.’s English class, didn’t say anything, but… smirked the entire period. As if to say, that’s right, B.J. You saw it. And you can be a witness.
— Vachel Lindsay. The American poet B.J. considers closest to Robert. In style. And tradition. William Sanzinger and Hattie Caroll, you know. Maybe. “The ladder of law has no top and no bottom.” B.J. likes that line. Plus the dust jacket poetry of “The Times They Are a Changin’,” the part about Hibbing. B.J. assigns that to his 11th grade class every year. Those lines about the courthouse and the church with its arms cut off in the moonlight — great stuff! And “With God on Our Side.”‘ Unquestionably Robert’s finest song. B.J. never fails to play that one for the class, discusses it, tries to show exactly how… and they always ask so many questions. What was this Bobby Die-lan like? Did he really sit right there?
Sure, B.J. saw Robert when he was back last visit — for his father’s funeral. But not at the funeral parlor. Over at the Zimmermans’. All the Zimmermans were there, Maurice and Paul, their families, the Edelsteins, the Goldfines. B.J. spoke to each of them. Lingering with Beatty and David. But where’s Robert? Of course he’s home, David explains, back in the kitchen — you know, by himself.
Not a bit surprised, B.J. assures me. Robert always was a loner. Even around the house. B.J. excuses himself from those assembled in the living room. And walks back to the kitchen. All the way through, way off to the left in the breakfast nook, there’s Robert. Just sitting. Smoking a cigarette. Recognizes B.J. at once, though. Stands to greet him with a firm handshake. B.J.’s impressed. Robert always did have such fine manners. But Robert’s embarrassed, and yes, thank you, you’re very kind, but… quickly shifts the conversation to B.J. and Hibbing. How’s the class? Things still the same over at school? Miss it in a way… have you heard my latest album, John Wesley Harding? No, B.J. replies. Hasn’t gotten around to it yet, but will first chance. Robert standing calm, blue-eyed in the middle of the kitchen — goes on to say well yes, uh, wish you would. Think it’s my best, and after all Mr. Rolfzen I do believe you owe me as much. — What’s that?, slight flush, impudent young… ’Cause you, Mr. Rolfzen — a hint of the old smirk from front row, left center — you’re the one taught me everything I know.
…great Christ, Bob!…
— But to the scene of the crime!
The Hibbing High School Auditorium. 1957. The Jacket Jambourie Talent Festival, and Bobby Zimmerman, Hibbing’s original blue-eyed soul brother. On dirty-blues piano, standing up for your pleasure, the heir to Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and, uh, Little Richard.
“to join Little Richard”
Latin Club 2;
Social Studies club 4.
Bob Dylan’s high school yearbook! With Bob Dylan’s principal standing over me in Bob Dylan’s principal’s office. To join Little Richard? Oh blasphemous myopia, of yearbook staff volunteers the world over. And Bob Dylan, a member of the Social Studies Club? The Latin Club, maybe. But the Social Studies Club — a bunch of Friday afternoon kids sitting around discussing this week’s Senior Scholastic?
And Bob Dylan’s report card! Principal is careful not to let me see any grades. But I ask to take a closer look at that incredible junior high school picture pasted to the transcript — some fat little kid with greasy hair, in a plaid flannel sport shirt, beyond further description — and quickly glance down the list of grades. Ones I saw: Average as apple pie, with some B figures in English. I ask about Bob’s attendance record. Principal assures me it was excellent. What about all those times Bob was supposed to have run away? Was he careful to pick vacations? “Well,” Principal cornermouths, “for a while there; when Bob was just getting started in show business, you know, building an image, the family asked us not to divulge any information that might contradict his press releases. But now, Bob no longer seems to fear admission of his rather normal childhood in Hibbing, and the family has given us the okay to come out and speak freely.”
Apparently Hibbing High School, harrumph, has been chosen this year for the Francis Bellamy Award, a national prize for the state (Minnesota in 1968) high school whose spirit most genuinely reflects that of Francis Bellamy — the author of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. A key consideration of the Bellamy Award Committee is the list of noteworthy alumni submitted by a high school. Bob’s name appears on the Hibbing High School roster, tucked away among his fellow alumni’s laurels:
Modern folk song writer and singer. His fame and fortune was made with the singing of his ballad “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Peter, Paul and Mary. A millionaire at 25 years of age. Reached the top within six months after his arrival in New York.
June 5, 1959
Kids all up and down the halls are polishing trophies and plaques for the acceptance ceremonies. Principal ushers me downstairs to meet Val Peterson, Bob’s junior high school music teacher, an attractive, jovial woman alive with rhythm and musical smiles. I meet her at her desk in the classroom that has been hers since Bob was a music student at HJH. She greats me laughingly — oh yes, Bobby sat right over there. In the front row. (I have a seat.) Was an able student. Always participated well in class. Would do his course-work but never really got a good grade in something unless that something excited him. Once you got him excited, well, it was tough to reign him in. His brother David, on the other hand, just the opposite. An excellent student, steady worker, and fine pianist. But classical. Strictly. Now that boy could make his living from the piano!
Bob was interested in classical music, too. Though earlier in his student career. Pop music became big for him, oh, the first year of high school. He played guitar and piano then, and whenever the school had a music show scheduled, Bob would be there. Whether he was invited or not. His audiences didn’t take him very seriously in those days, Val Peterson fears. Didn’t understand what he was trying to do — recreate the harshness of the country, folk, and blues idiom. Bob performed by himself, primarily. Without the band. Always had marvelous stage presence, a natural. But people didn’t care. His sound was grating and they didn’t like it. But Bob finally did achieve a certain degree of notoriety in Hibbing — came in third one year at the Winter Frolic Talent Competition.
Of course Val Peterson is fond of Bob’s music! Plays his records for the class and proudly answer the same questions that besiege B.J. Rolfzen. She seems more aware of Bob’s influence on popular music, however. Uses terms like folk-rock, mentions key groups by name, and listen to her version of the infamous first school appearance of Electric Bob.
Back in the school auditorium, Principal at my side, pencil in my hand. Taking it all in. The auditorium — theatre in truth, modeled after the Capitol Theatre in New York, scaled down to village size, cost millions to build, plush, the best in sound equipment… sound equipment! According to Val Peterson: Electric Bob, mad for volume, decides that the group’s several microphones and amplifiers just won’t do the job…
So when the curtain rises, there’s Bob and the group out front, with not only their own sound equipment up full, but the entire school amplification system as well. Mikes in the piano, on amplifiers, in front of the bass drum, and three at Bob’s side for the vocal. KA-WHANG-ang-ang ! There is… confusion somehow… people are… dis… oriented and… no one’s able to react in a fashion appropriate… Principal in the first row, host to school system officials and visiting Iron Range dignitaries… fights… his way backstage and… halfway through Bob’s first number… ARGH! cuts the house mikes off with the flick of a switch. It’s still plenty loud out there, but Bob’s hopping mad. (Maybe that’s when he broke the foot pedal on the Baldwin. Same piano. Still right on stage, sheathed in a gray quilted cover. Out to pasture.) Anyway, Bob finished his set and stalks off stage. Amid shocked and indignant laughter. At music these villagers have never heard the likes of. And (agony!) Bob’s voice. A garbled howl, they chuckle. Sure wasn’t singing, guffaw. Bob didn’t speak to anyone at school for days.
April 10, 1969
4. Bob Dylan’s Iceskates?
A northwest wind is blowing hard and wet through Hibbing as I trudge down Seventh Avenue, a street Bob must have walked a hundred thousand times. Past the Blessed Sacrament Church where David was married last summer (scandal in the Jewish community — why couldn’t David have married a nice Jewish girl like Bobby did?) to 2425 East Seventh Avenue, at the corner of 25th Street, the Zimmerman family residence and the house where Bob grew up.
A strange looking house. Rectangular in shape, under a flat roof. Like a garage-attached Greek temple, with pseudo-classical mouldings and a column-lacking portico. All done in light tan stucco, behind a yard full of fat bushes. Neighboring houses are somehow less impressive. They run the gamut, from B.J. Rolfzen’s ex-residence across the street, a little pink cottage rambling off in all directions, to big split-level types around and about, to the house next door, more than a bit ramshackle. Plus 25th Street torn up by construction and partially closed to traffic — all lend the Zimmerinans’ place an air of permanence…
Mrs. Zimmerman? Un-unh. Terry Marort, a young housewife with a couple of kids. I ask about Mrs. Zimmerman. Nope, she doesn’t live here anymore. No? Flustered, I explain my presence. Terry’s very kind. And sympathetic. Of course you come in, do come in out of that weather. Across the threshold and inside: Wall to wall carpeting, blonde on blonde furniture in a color tv’ed living room. Terry explains that, yes, much of the furniture I see belonged to the Zimmermans, a dining room with a nice old table, a big kitchen sporting all the latest appliances, and… Bob’s breakfast nook! and Archie booth scroll-sawed into Hansel and Gretel Bavro-American.
Terry tells me that she and her family have just recently moved in. The Marorts are buying the house from Mrs. Zimmerman. The decision to sell had been a tough one for Mrs. Zimmerman to make. Bob had offered to take the house and keep it up in case he ever wanted to come back to Hibbing. But Mrs. Zimmerman had said no, and finally convinced Bob and David that letting the house go was for the best. Bob then, apparently, had said okay, but who are you going to sell it to? Who in Hibbing do you think will be able to afford that house? Old people, right? Old people with top price pocketbooks and no life in their hats. Nope. Not if Bob can help it. Find out what top price is for the house, then cut that price down to struggling-young-couple size and Bob will make up the difference. Doesn’t want anyone but young people living in his house. Young people with kids.
Typical of Bob, Terry says. Though she’s never met him. But Terry’s heard so much about Bob from Mrs. Zimmerman she feels as if he practically still lived here. And the basement recreation room for instance. Mrs. Zimmerman’s Bob Dylan Pop Center. Would I like to see?
Mrs. Zimmerman took down most of the posters and things before she moved out, Terry continues, but she hasn’t carted them away yet. There are a few still hanging. On the blonde pine walls of the rec room — a small wooden affair boxed into one corner of a basement already crowded with humming, rumbling appliances — and there are publicity stills from Bob’s movie, personality posters, and dust jackets to his records. In one corner however is a huge pile of stuff: pictures, posters, clippings, Dylan propaganda, from all around the world. There are photographs, color photographs with French or German captions that few people in this country ever could have seen. Obviously posed publicity shots of Bob in English three-piece suits, Pierre Cardin-type pastel shirts, and Carnaby Street ties. One in particular is a color photograph of Bob from a French magazine. It shows our impeccably attired 2425 East Seventh Avenue hero seated for lunch at a sidewalk cafe. He is coldly staring down his photographer from behind a shrimp fork stabbed into a lemon. The caption, roughly translated, reads: “Bob Dylan — American pop idol, etc., etc., confesses to reporters that ‘My past is so complicated you wouldn’t believe it even if I told you.’ ”
And there was more junk too, Terry tells me, things like clothes, teddy bears, shoes, and athletic equipment. Mrs. Zimmerman threw most of that out. Boy didn’t Terry bet Bob’s fans would have had a field day in that stuff! Teddy bears! Mrs. Zimmerman cried while she threw them away but she’d already decided it was for the best.
Terry saved some of the clothes for her kids, but the rest she fears are long gone. Too bad more things weren’t salvaged, but what could she do with Mrs. Zimmerman standing right there and… but, wait. Here’s something, this pair of iceskates. Terry had forgotten she’d snuck them out of the trash. For her little boy. The skates are still in excellent condition, black figure skates, the blades still sharp, look like they’ve hardly ever been used. Guess little Bobby didn’t spend a whole lot of time iceskating.
— Bob Dylan’s iceskates?
Back upstairs, Terry’s on the telephone. Calling people Bob’s age who might have known him in Hibbing. Gets me names of fellows that at one time or another were in Bob’s band: Chuck Nara, Bill Marinac, and Larry Fahbro. But all three have long since left Hibbing. Terry also finds me names of some people a little older or younger who might remember Bob, people still in town. And the name of a girl Bob used to go with, the only girl anybody seems to remember Bob sticking with for very long. A saucy little blonde number, Terry says. Down in Minneapolis now. A Swedish girl. Echo Helstrom.
I ask if there’s anything else left in the house that’s reminiscent of Bob. Well, uh, yes. There’s the original bedroom furniture upstairs in Bob and David’s room. Might as well take the entire tour. After all, Mrs. Zimmerman warned Terry this sort of thing might happen.
On the way upstairs, Terry shows me a little second story sundeck guard-railed onto the roof of the garage. It’s at the very rear of the house. Used to be one of Bob’s favorite spots. Neighbors have told Terry that in recent years the only way anyone would know Bob was back in town was if they saw him sitting out there on that porch. Sunning himself all alone, his feet up on the railing, surveying the scene, and…
Terry’s kept Bob’s room the same for more than just practical reasons. Apparently one of the semi-formal conditions of the sale was that Bob could stay at the Marorts in his old room whenever he wished to visit Hibbing. (Mrs. Zimmerman, when she finishes traveling, is to move in with one of Bob’s Hibbing-based aunts.) Bob and David’s room is across the hall from two larger bedrooms, the master bedroom and another where the boys’ grandmother had lived. The boys’ room — Bob’s bedroom, for godsake — looks cramped. There are two single beds perpendicularly set up, a chair, and an old pine dresser. With cigarette burns left by the careless hand of our man himself. I try out Bob’s bed, bouncing it gingerly. The view from Bob’s window in the cold afternoon light is the bleakest of bleak. Terry Marort rambles on, about Mrs. Zimmerman and her furs, Mrs. Zimmerman and her diamonds, Mrs. Zimmerman and her Cadillac. But I’m only half listening… Outside the snow’s swirling back and forth, steaming up the window. An occasional car goes by — a ’56 Chevy, a ’49 Ford. There’s music playing, Hank Williams, Carl Perkins, Elvis, or Gene Vincent, from an old Victrola in the corner. Smoke from cigarettes forbidden to use curls over the dresser, tries to hide in the closet. A stray foot kicks a beat-up guitar sticking out from under the bed. Strikes a hollow unfingered chord. Bedspreads, school books, curtain rods, and warm socks. Bluejeans, black loafers, Bible stories, and Bo Diddley — playing loud from the corner now. Over chains through new snow in the street…
It’s been a long day. Thank goodness for scrapbooking motherhood. And helpful Terry Marort. I finally got hold of Melvin Edelstein, too — one of Bob’s cousins and manager of Hibbing’s two movie theatres. Melvin Edelstein told me the usual, Bob had been a loner as a kid, used to come to the movies an awful lot, by himself, mostly. Yes, Melvin Edelstein knew of Bob’s movie Don’t Look Back. Yes, that’s correct, the film had not been shown in Hibbing. And would not be. Personally, Melvin Edelstein had been all for a showing, but Bob’s father had seen the film somewhere and so had several other out-of-town relatives and, well, there had been raised eyebrows. What with all the very embarrassing gossip about Bob and drugs only just beginning to die down in social Hibbing, the family had decided against a hometown run. The film had been scheduled to play in Duluth, but somehow that had never come to pass either. Yes, Melvin Edelstein had seen Bob at the funeral. He had looked fit; and as a matter of fact, Melvin Edelstein had raised the question of a possible Hibbing showing for Don’t Look Back. But Bob himself had been against the idea. People in Hibbing, he feared, just wouldn’t understand.
April 17, 1969
5. Girl From the North Country
Barreling down fabled Highway 61 away from Duluth and the frustration of several futile telephone calls, I’m headed south to Minneapolis. South to Echo Helstrom, David Zimmerman, and the University of Minnesota — Bob’s freshman year alma mater. But Highway 61! Roaring out of Lake Superior’s industrial backwash, cutting a swath through East Minnesota’s hunting and fishing territory, over rivers with names like Kettle and Willow, big choppy lakes like Sturgeon and Moosehead, past Northwoods towns like Mahtowa, Sandstone, and Pine City. The entire countryside is blindingly bright in the loudest of red and yellow falls, colors intensified by reflections in shoe-shine black water, the sky once again wide open to cloudless blue infinity. And not another car on the bare mid-afternoon highway.
For experiment’s sake I keep fooling with the radio, trying everything — AM, FM, even short wave. But can’t pick up much. Local reports on hunting and fishing, some Lawrence Welk-super-market-swing, and an occasional forest ranger chewing the fat. Pretty soon though, I’m getting top-40 stations from the Twin Cities area, civilization is sprouting up all around me, Bee Gees are wailing “gotta get a mess-edge to yew-ew,” and before I know it I’m beneath the Golden Arches of a Minneapolis McDonalds’ Drive-In.
I find a telephone booth and ring up the number Echo’s mother has given me, the office of a Minneapolis film company. A secretary answers promptly. It is Echo:
“Oh yes, I was expecting your call. But another five minutes and you would have missed me. Now just a minute. Don’t have to go through all that. I’ve heard everything about you. Momma telephoned and told me you were doing a story on Bob. ’Course you can see me, but’ll have to be at my place which is a mess, and hope you don’t mind making it pretty soon ’cause I have to drive up to Hibbing tonight…”
I have about 15 minutes to kill before I can meet Echo, so I start tracking down David Zimmerman. He’s given me three numbers where I should be able to get him, his apartment, his office, and the scene of a rehearsal he’s to attend this evening. David Zimmerman is a student at the University of Minnesota, seeking a degree in music education. But as the September 6 issue of the Hibbing Daily Tribune reads, quoting from a Sunday supplement article in the Minneapolis Tribune, “at the age of 22 David is ‘eking out a fairly good career discovering, managing, teaching, and working with young performers.’ He’s very candid about the ‘indispensable in,’ that the fact he’s brother to folk-rock hero Bob Dylan ‘initially opened a lot of doors at Columbia’ for him.” An undergraduate A and R man I suppose one might call David, with “high office relations” on the Board of Governors.
Catch David at the first number I try, but there is confusion as to where and when we should meet, the hint of apprehension in David’s voice at the mention of my appointment with Echo, a chaos of thwarted plans steadily building, until David gives me another number where he’ll be until 9:30, at least, call him before then if I get the chance.
Okay, off through the unfamiliar streets of Minneapolis, map in hand, Echo’s directions in my head, telepathic rays of sacred need-to-know drawing me to Echo’s basement apartment. Down a short flight of cement steps, past washer-dryer central, to bungalow no. 4. A simple tap on the door, and…
Echo — blue eyes, Swedish-long-blonde hair, black and white houndstooth outfit, skirt way up above knee-high black patent leather boots, all topped off by the finest little smile this side of White Bear Lake!
Echo ushers me into a small, laundry-cluttered living room, shoves a stack of Sunday newspapers off the couch, and invites me to sit down. She seems less sure of herself here than on the phone, but keeps up a steady flow of conversation, all about having spoken with her mother this afternoon, how excited she had been that a writer wanted to interview her daughter, and it’s not long before Echo settles into a more relaxed state, the smile really comes on, and she’s remembering times with Bob:
“Place I first actually met Bob I guess was over at the L.B. Cafe in Hibbing. That was back at the beginning of our 11th grade year, 1957 I think. I’d seen Bob around school before, but he’d never spoken to me until that night. He was always so well dressed and quiet, I had him pegged for a goody-goody. You know, one of those kids that never wanted to have any fun, always going to church and listening to their parents, you know. Well that’s the way I figured Bob was.
“We were sitting in the L.B. that night, my girlfriend and me, when Bob came over. He was with a friend of his too, and they just came over and sat down. I suppose you could say they were trying to pick us up, but I don’t know. He still looked so innocent and well-scrubbed I never even thought about that.
“We talked for a while about nothing in particular and had another soda I suppose, until I thought of asking him what seemed to me a pretty stupid question at the time, you know, just conversation. He’d just finished telling me about how he played the piano and was forming a band, when the name of a song I’d heard the night before popped into my head. The only rock and roll music you could get in Hibbing in those days was broadcast late at night over a colored station from Little Rock, Arkansas. Some of us listened to it every night, but I never would have thought Bob did. I guess I mentioned the name of that song really just to show him how much he knew about music. Anyway, the song was ‘Maybelline’ and it was brand-new to me.
“ ‘Maybelline,’ he screamed ‘Maybelline’ by Chuck Berry? You bet, I’ve heard it!’ And on and one about Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, everybody that was popular at that time, about their music and how great it was, how he loved to play it himself and how someday he wanted more than anything else to be a rock and roll singer — all with his eyes sort of rolled up in his head, in a whole different world, until it finally dawned on him. He stopped what he was saying, leaned half way across the table, his eyes great big, and whispered ‘you… you don’t mean that you listen to Gatemouth Page out of Little Rock, Arkansas?’ I said yes I did, had for a year and just how long had he thought he was so special being a fan of Gatemouth’s.
“Well, that did the trick. We talked about music and how he wanted to so much to be a singer, about movies, actors and actresses, and I even told him how I was planning on being a movie star, which he really got excited about, promising he could get me into all the movies that came to town, free, because his uncle owned the theatres. We kept talking about how great show business was, and how someday we’d sure surprise everyone in Hibbing, until the L.B’s closing time. But Bob wasn’t anywhere near ready to stop then, so he said, ‘Come on, follow me!,’ and led the four of us upstairs over the dining room where he said there was a piano. The door was locked and Bob picked it with his penknife, but the rest of us were too scared to stay so he didn’t either. He asked if he could meet me after school the next day though, so I could come over to his house and hear him perform. I said yeh sure I wanted to, ’cause he’d surprised me all right and I no longer thought he was a goody-goody. Still, now that I think back, it was a whole month before he even kissed me.”
Echo laughs to herself at this, looking at me for the first time since she’s started talking about Bob. She’s hardly moved. Hasn’t fidgeted at all. Just tucked her legs up under her on the couch. But her facial expressions have been going like gangbusters. Echo’s a good actress. And storyteller. But not for me. For somebody out there across the room somewhere.
“His family didn’t take to me at all, ’specially once they realized I was becoming more than just Bob’s little friend from school. I don’t know if it was ’cause I came from the wrong part of town or ’cause I wasn’t Jewish. I expect it was partly both. I didn’t even think about Bob being Jewish till quite a while after we’d met. And I only asked him about it once. There was another fellow, John Bucklen, who used to pal around with Bob and me. The three of us, gosh we were always doing things together. John wanted to be a disc jockey. That was going to be his claim to fame. Anyway, one afternoon we were riding around in Bob’s car when I said ‘Zimmerman, that’s a funny name. Is it Jewish?’ Well, Bob didn’t answer anything at all, just kept driving with his face sort of funny. Later John took me aside and said ‘Listen, Echo, don’t ever ask about Bob being Jewish again. He doesn’t like to talk about it.’ That same year, the 11th grade, Bob came over to my house after school one day and told me he’d finally decided on his stage name. Yes, it was ‘Dylan,’ after that poet, I think.
“We went steady that whole 11th grade year. A winter and a summer, I think. Bob was pretty serious about his band and they practiced a lot. It was all a blues sound then, what we heard on the radio from Little Rock. Bob sang and played the piano, and he used to practice with the band in garages around the neighborhood. Nobody liked their music much, least of all Bob’s voice. I used to get so upset, for days ahead of time when I knew he was going to sing in public. He and the band played around town fairly often, at school assemblies, at the youth club, and at Collier’s Barbecue. People would laugh and hoot at Bob, and I’d just sit there crying. One time in particular I remember the band was scheduled to perform over at the armory. I was nervous as usual, sitting right in the front row waiting for them to come on. Finally they did, and I shut my eyes and put my fingers in my ears like always. They were so loud! And I didn’t want to see or hear people laughing. Well the band started, and l was sitting there like that praying everything would be all right, when the girl next to me pulled my hands away from my face and screamed ‘Listen!’ At first I couldn’t hear anything but the band. They were doing a Ray Charles sort of boogie, really loud. But gradually it got so I could distinguish Bob’s voice… and you know what he was singing? He was howling over and over again, ‘I gotta girl and her name is Echo!,’ making up verses as he went along. I guess that was the first song I’d ever heard him sing that wasn’t written by somebody else. And it was about me! You know, people didn’t even laugh at Bob that night. But I cried anyway.
“We talked about each other’s careers a lot. How someday we’d really show people in Hibbing. Boy, neither of us could wait to get out of that town. There was really nothing in Hibbing either us cared about. Except each other. Oh, we were really in love. Everybody laughs at kids when they fall in love, saying how they don’t know what it means or anything, but that’s not true. Kids know. We’d talk about getting married a lot, just to get out of Hibbing for one thing, but Bob always said no, we can’t even think about that. Would interfere with our careers. It was always the career with Bob. I thought about a career a lot too, sure, but with Bob it was an obsession. He really wanted to show everybody. And he has, I guess. Though few people in Hibbing could even care.”
Echo pauses here a moment, slowly smoothing her skirt. She’s still staring way off across the living room. I venture a question: “What about some of Bob’s later songs — the ones that don’t specifically mention Hibbing but sort or sound like they might have Hibbing in mind. Can you think of any like that offhand?”
“Yes… yes, that song ‘Positively 4th Street.’ I remember when it came out I said to myself, Bob wrote that song about Hibbing! For all those people who used to boo him when he played. And who probably now couldn’t be nicer or more polite when they see him. Some of those people up there were just awful to us. I’m glad he wrote that song. I really laughed when I heard it.
“We had some good times together though, up there. Bob was always so crazy! He’d imagine the nuttiest things, and then we’d have to act them out. He’d keep pretty quiet most of the time, but when he got an idea his eyes would get great big and you couldn’t stop him talking until he’d finished telling you everything about it. He was all the time making things out to be more serious than they were, too. Like I remember once after school we were up in Bob’s room listening to records or something, and nobody else was home. I wasn’t supposed to be allowed upstairs, you see. Well all of a sudden the front door slams and Bob gets really scared. Actually, I don’t know now if he was scared so much as he saw the whole situation as an opportunity to do something crazy, and he was just excited. Anyway, his eyes got all big and he told me we couldn’t let them find us alone up there. He’d have to do something. So he put me in the closet and told me to wait until I heard him go outside, and then climb out the window and he’d catch me. He gathered up all his schoolbooks and went downstairs to tell his grandmother, I think, that he had to go to the library. Then he snuck around the side of the house to catch me coming out of the window. The plan worked somehow. And Bob was so proud! But he was awful silly about things like that. I mean, sure, his grandmother didn’t find us, but there I was in broad daylight, hanging out of Bob’s second story window, my skirt up around my waist, with Bob down below waiting to catch me and I guess everybody in the whole neighborhood saw that!
“But we didn’t care. I suppose I was just as crazy as Bob to go along with some of those things, and enjoyed them as much too. We had our fights though. I remember one time we’d had a big one. Over at my house, and my mother and father had gotten into it. Everybody was mad, and I didn’t see Bob for a couple of days. Till one afternoon I was sitting in the living room doing something or other with my parents, when the doorbell rang. I got up to answer it and thought I heard music, but didn’t even think until I opened the door, and there was Bob, decked out in one of the tv gambler’s vests he used to wear, beating on his guitar and singing ‘Do you want to dance and hold my hand,’ you remember that song that was popular then. Anyhow, boy was I surprised. He stood there on the doorstep and sang it all the way through once, then pushed past me into the living room and sang it again for my parents. Then he just wouldn’t stop, but paraded around the house singing that song till all of us were laughing so hard we’d forgotten what the fight was even about.
“Bob was always looking around. For anything different, but mostly things he thought would help him in his music. Like Negroes. You know, there aren’t any Negroes in Hibbing? To this day. That used to make Bob just furious. He loved their music so much, every time he’d hear about one coming through town he’d go and find him just to meet him and talk to him and find out what he was like. That probably sounds funny to you, but it was really funny, not funny but strange for us to see one of those people. Bob would all the time drag me along too. I remember one day we had to drive way over to Virginia‚ that’s a town out on the Range — just to see this one colored fellow who was visiting the radio station over there, and who was from the South I think. Anyway, he was offered a job over in Virginia as a disc jockey, and we all got to be pretty good friends.
“Traveling started to become important for Bob too, and I suppose that’s one of the big reasons we broke up. He began taking off every weekend, going down to Minneapolis or St. Paul to listen to music he said, but I knew he was seeing other girls as well. That didn’t bother me so much as just being left alone all the time. This went on for a couple of months I guess before I finally couldn’t stand it any longer and got up enough nerve to give him back his ID bracelet. Was right after one of those lonely weekends… on a Monday morning. I knew I’d see Bob in the hall at school, so I decided to give him his bracelet back then. I spotted him strutting through the crowd with a couple of his friends in tow, all full of show business and image and telling tales of gosh knows what had gone on down in Minneapolis that weekend. I just walked right up to him and told him I had something to say, and handed him back his ID bracelet. His first reaction was to push me up over against the lockers and whisper real loud, ‘Shh… not here!’ His eyes were all big but I don’t think he really took me seriously until later. I didn’t see him all day, after school or anything, but that night he came over to my house. He was crying. And wanted to know what I thought I was doing. I told him again. He wouldn’t stop crying, but he understood.
“After that, I didn’t see him for a good long while. He went out with some other girls, and I had plenty of dates too, but neither one of us ever went steady again. He wrote a page-long sort of letter-poem to me in my yearbook the day we graduated — no, that’s up in Hibbing at my mother’s, I don’t have it here — but after graduation and that next summer I didn’t see Bob until Minneapolis. I’d moved down here, and he was a freshman at the university. He was living in a fraternity house off campus, and we went to a few parties together. But gradually he got into the beatnik business, with the coffee house and everything, and I stopped seeing him altogether. He’d call me occasionally, but the parties I didn’t like much ’cause everyone was sort of, well, degenerate. Like he called me once right before he quit school and invited me to this party where he said there was free food, free wine, free love, and all the girls were sitting around with no blouses on. I drew the line at that. And don’t guess I saw him again till he came back from New York a year or so later.
“He’d just recorded his first album, and was in Minneapolis for a concert at the university. He called me and asked if I wanted to go to a party. I said okay ’cause I hadn’t seen him for so long or anything. He’d changed a lot. He was skinny, whereas he’d always been sort of chubby. He had on bluejeans and a workshirt and was… dirty. I asked him about New York and the music he was playing, and whatever had happened to the hard blues stuff? He said, ‘Oh don’t worry it’s still there, but folk music is what’s really going to be big,’ and that’s how he was going to make it. I told him I didn’t like the sound of it as well as the other stuff, and he said ‘I know, but this is the coming thing.’ With his eyes all big. He played his guitar at the party that night and everybody loved it and Bob was happy in the limelight again like old times, only now they didn’t laugh at him. We both got pretty tipsy and later when we were alone he got very sentimental and asked me to come back to New York with him, and said he’d get me an apartment and we could be together again. I started crying and telling him no, but he kept talking about it until finally I got mad and said ‘What about this folksinger Joan Baez you’re supposed to be in love with, just what about her?’ He didn’t say anything, but got up and walked across the room to his suitcase. He pulled out a photograph, came back over and shoved it in front of me. It was Joan Baez. ‘Do you see this face,’ he said, ‘do you see it? Do you think I could ever fall in love with a face like that?’ Well I really started crying then, and got sort of hysterical and left. Left all by myself. I guess that was the last time I saw Bob. Though he’s called me just to say hello since then. Since he’s really become famous. Once or twice.”
Echo’s sitting quietly again. Toying with a strand of hair. I ask if she’s ever heard that song “Girl From the North Country.”
“Yes, that’s on Bob’s second album isn’t it?”
“Uh-huh. Do you think it’s about you?”
Echo’s silent for a moment. “Sure, I think it’s about me. I know it’s about me. There’s no else it could be about. And even if there was… no, it’s about me. Bob never wrote me a letter to tell me it was about me or anything, but then that would have been kind of silly, wouldn’t it? And besides… he knew he didn’t have to.” There’s a knock at the door. Echo starts; but gets up to answer it. Her nephew. Come to pick her up for the weekend jaunt to Hibbing. Echo introduces me and hurriedly explains my presence, packing a few things for her trip.
Echo’s nephew was just a little boy when Bob was still around. He remembers meeting Bob, but that’s all. Echo’s nephew doesn’t say much. And Echo doesn’t have much more to say either. Except that she’s sorry she has to rush off. I tell her don’t be silly, she’s been extremely helpful and more than kind to allow me so much of her time. And that I understand perfectly. It’s a long way back up to Hibbing.
April 24, 1969
6. For Old Times’ Sake
It’s a couple of hours yet before I can see David. Supposed to meet him by 10 at a bar called Duff’s in downtown Minneapolis. To kill time I drive down by the University of Minnesota campus, just to see what it’s like. I pass by the fraternity house where Bob had lived as a freshman. I don’t even notice what chapter it is. I look for the Ten O’Clock Scholar, a coffee house where Bob used to perform. In a student quarter nick-named “Dinkytown.” I can’t find it. Ask a policeman who informs me that the old Scholar has been replaced by a new Scholar in another neighborhood. He gives me directions and I finally locate Scholar-new. It seems depressingly passé. There’s practically no one else there, and the first set is about to begin. The fellow running the place tries to get $1.50 cover charge out of me just for an interview. He remembers Bob, but didn’t know him personally. That was all a little before his time. The old Scholar. I tell him thanks anyway. A couple more people wander in. A waitress is setting up microphones on stage. I leave before the music starts.
Find Duff’s after a complicated journey through Minneapolis’s central shopping district. A futuristic, one-way traffic hang-up virtually impossible to navigate. Huge glass and steel skyscrapers towering over fountained malls and 50-foot-wide sidewalks. Captain Videoed corner-bus-stop lounges heated for your north country convenience. And everything so clean…
Duff’s is terrible. Some sort of Friday night singles club, everybody respondent in midwestern-hip, lots of carefully trimmed sideburns and white turtleneck sweaters. Pictures of the Minnesota Twins and Viking all over the walls. A strange place for Bob Dylan’s brother to want to meet you for a drink. I make the mistake of arriving a half hour early. And David Zimmerman is late.
I’m sitting near the door when he comes in. By himself. And I’d expected to meet his wife. David and I recognized one another immediately from mutual telephone descriptions. David is short like Bob but stocky. Close too fat. He wears glasses. And well-tailored sports clothes — stylish — jodhpur boots, mod-English jacket, cuffless tapered trousers — the whole trip.
Turns out his wife Gail is circling the block. Apparently she can’t get into Duff’s with slacks on. The weekend, David explains. We leave Duff’s to try someplace else. David says let’s put some people on. Gail pulls up in David’s brand-new Buick. David pretends we’re trying to pick her up. Howsabouta ride honey? We both pile into the front seat. David and Gail have a chuckle. The doorman at Duff’s doesn’t look too put on.
We stop at a combination restaurant-fancy motor inn, that has its own parking lot. David’s worried we won’t get in here either. Because of Gail’s slacks. We do though. But on the way, David tries another put-on. At the cashier’s counter he pauses to grab a toothpick from a little stainless-steel dispenser. He spills about 30 toothpicks on the floor. As he’s bending over to clean up the mess, the cashier says consolingly, that’s okay, people do it all the time. David gets up and says, oh really, well in that case I don’t want to be different — and leaves the toothpicks on the floor. The cashier doesn’t look too put on. Just a little pissed off.
We finally settle down at a table. David with a Bloody Mary and a five ounce sirloin-hamburger-special he wants to share with Gail. Me with Budweiser. David’s doing a lot of talking. But he’s not saying much. He asks me who I’ve seen. I tell him. And he tries to discount practically everything they’ve said. He tells me Terry Marort’s iceskate story is false. Bob never skated in his life. The skates were David’s. He says he’s never heard of Bob’s babysitter, Don Mckenzie. And some of the guys I have listed as having been in Bob’s band he tells me Bob never knew. Just can’t trust people when they’re talking about celebrities, he says. Not their fault really, but people tend to make things up. Hmmmm. I inform David that I’ve just spent a very interesting couple of hours with Echo Helstrom. He has nothing to say about that. Pulls on his Bloody Mary instead.
I play back a few of the stories Echo’s told me. David’s reaction is interesting. Silence. So I try a difference tack. Talk about my visit to the high school. And how I saw old teachers, heard some great tales, and had a glance at Bob’s transcript. What’s that, David bites. Bob’s transcripts? Who showed it to me. Oh, someone in the office. Who though, the Principal? Gosh I don’t remember, anyhow I snuck a look, he didn’t xerox a copy for me or anything. David’s silent. Visions of principals dead in his head.
I ask David about Don’t Look Back. He tells me Bob was dissatisfied with the film. So much so that he sued D.A. Pennebaker. But lost. Judge said if Bob knew some yo-yo was following him around with a camera, he should have known enough to watch himself. Mis-representation of Bob’s character, baloney.
David tells me a couple more interesting things. I ask about Bob listening to Little Rock, hoping at least that’s correct. David says yes, he can remember Bob doing that. He also remembers the L.B. Cafe and concerts at Collier’s. But he doesn’t expound upon anything. I ask if he’s seen the story in a recent Village Voice about Bob giving his motorcycle to a gardener. No, David says, he hadn’t seen that. Though he remembers the gardener. At Albert Grossman’s in Woodstock. The gardener was an old guy, a real loser. I ask if the bike wasn’t pretty well smashed up from Bob’s accident. David laughs and says, know how Bob hurt himself on that motorcycle? He was riding around the backyard on the grass and slipped! That’s all. The newspapers played it up big. Writers’ll do that. They had him scarred, blind, an idiot, and half dead. He really didn’t break his neck then, I ask. Sure, David says — if a cracked vertebra is a broken neck.
Gail finally yawns. And David announces that it’s time to go home. I pick up the check. And face the silent rage of our put-on cashier. In the car, I ask about Bob back in New York — what sort of music he likes now, the contemporary songwriters he admires. Bob doesn’t listen to much of anything anymore, David tells me. Except country-western. We pull up across the street from my car. I thank David and Gail for having met me so late. It’s after midnight by now. David says that’s all right but — just one thing. Watch out when you write your story, man. You mean about Echo, I smile. Yeh, about Echo. Don’t turn the whole thing into a “true confessions” piece. You know. Just watch the nitty-gritty. Sure David, I know. Goodnight, as the big Buick drives off. Condensation from the dual exhausts trailing him up the street. It’s cold. Ten or 15 degrees. And I don’t seem to be able to get used to it.
Somewhere in the maze of city blocks between Duff’s and Interstate 94 East, I come across Highway 61. Weird seeing it again in the heart of downtown Minneapolis. Nothing but a street, grey, anonymous, and cut up by traffic lights. Highway 61. A long way from the Lake Superior hills. Duluth. And the Village of Hibbing.
Two weeks after leaving Minneapolis, I received a letter from Echo. Enclosed was a Xerox copy of the page long letter-poem Bob wrote in her high school yearbook, the day they both graduated. The letter-poem’s format is standard yearbook “remember when?”, but Bob’s phrasing already shows characteristic irony and understatement. He is already dropping consonants and vowels — “yo” for “your,” “‘m” for “them,” “ol” for “old.” The letter-poem is scribbled in faulty penmanship and smudged from Echo’s mother’s attempts to censor an offensive word. But Bob’s schoolboy sentiment otherwise remains intact. The letter-poem reads very much like one of his songs. Finishing with the shakily determined flourish: “Well Echo, I better make it, huh — ”
Echo is chatty in her note. But fears she may have somehow invaded Bob’s privacy by her remarks to me. “Even though I never have anything to do with him anymore or him with me,” she writes, “I wouldn’t want him to get mad at me, just for old times’ sake.” I wrote back and told her not to worry. I wouldn’t write anything I thought would hurt Bob. Not because I feared his wrath, necessarily — a wrath rumored terrible swift — but because, well, just for old times’ sake, too.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 14, 2019