Seventy years ago today, on Saturday, May 24, 1941, if you were walking the halls at St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth you might have run into members of the Zimmerman family. They would have been there for the birth of Abe and Beatty Zimmerman’s first child, a son whose arrival was noted in the News-Tribune five days later:
Today is Duluth native Robert Zimmerman’s 70th birthday. You know him better as Bob Dylan.
Dylan was featured in an Attic post back in November 2008 – a post that included the full text of a 1963 News-Tribune article that – introduced local readers to this local kid who was making it big in New York at the time. It’s a good read, if you hadn’t already seen it.
For this post, I’ve typed in an equally interesting News-Tribune & Herald article from June 29, 1986, when Dylan – in the Twin Cities for a concert at the Metrodome – agreed to an interview with reporter Bob Ashenmacher and spoke about his ties to the Northland.
One bit of background info… right before this interview the Duluth City Council voted to rename Harbor Drive to be Bob Dylan Drive, then reversed itself a few days later after public outcry against the idea…
His images of the North are faint but fond
By Bob Ashenmacher, News-Tribune & Herald
MINNEAPOLIS – Yes, Bob Dylan returns to his native northern Minnesota for visits.
No, he didn’t feel like an outcast in the days when he rode a motorcycle and had the plug pulled on his rock ‘n’ roll band at a Hibbing High School talent show.
And about last week’s short-lived Duluth City Council proposal to name a Duluth street after him, he’s puzzled and amused.
Dylan spoke freely about his youth on the Iron Range in a backstage conversation before his concert Thursday night in the Metrodome in Minneapolis. He was born Robert Zimmerman 45 years ago in Duluth, and raised in Hibbing from age 6. He left after high school graduation in 1959.
Through more than 20 years in the forefront of American music, Dylan has granted interviews infrequently. More than once he has given brooding, elliptical responses rather than straightforward answers.
A different Dylan talked plainly Thursday night. He spoke to the News-Tribune & Herald primarily because of the efforts of a close friend of his who lives in Duluth. The friend said he wanted Dylan’s fondness for Duluth and the Range to become known.
The backstage area was quiet. Dylan appeared from a room sectioned off by sheets hanging from the ceiling.
He wore the same outfit he would wear onstage, minus a leather vest: a blue sleeveless shirt, black leather pants with silver studs up the sides and Beatle boots. Close up, his eyes are very blue. His build is thin, almost slight. His handshake is dry, the grasp gentle.
The conversation was conducted sitting atop a musical instrument trunk in the room behind the sheet. Dylan eschewed small talk. He avoided direct eye contact at first and appeared uncomfortable, even irritable. When he began hearing some old names, remembering some old impressions, he seemed to begin enjoying himself.
It’s surprising you wanted to talk to the Duluth newspaper. You’re not talking to any others now that this tour is under way.
“Don’t you want me to? I can go, I really can. I mean, I got things to do. I thought you wanted to speak to me.”
But is there something you wanted to say specifically to Duluth and the Iron Range?
“No, nothin’. Nothin’.” He paused, seemed to soften a bit. “It’s just really hard going, here, with all these one-night stands.”
Have you heard about this Bob Dylan Drive idea in Duluth?
“Yeah, I’ve heard about it.”
What do you think?
Pause. “I really don’t know what to think. I would think there’d be a lot of other people in Duluth they could name streets for.” He laughed a little. “I think everybody who was born there should have a street named for them.”
“I don’t remember much about Duluth, really, except, uh, the foghorns.” He plucked at one of the hanging sheets, glanced into an empty adjacent room. “That’s about it.”
Did you come down to Duluth from the Range much as a kid?
“I saw Buddy Holly there, actually. I saw a few bands in Duluth, but there weren’t that many clubs happening. People who played back then usually just did it in their house.”
Do you remember any musicians from the Range or Duluth?
“There was a guy who used to live in our duplex in Hibbing named Chuckie Solberg, who a few years ago was playing piano with (a national act). And some other people from Minnesota I remember. I run into people from Minnesota in the strangest places, actually.”
What was the Range music scene like when you were growing up?
“Back then it was mainly polka bands. If you went to a club it was more like a tavern scene, with a polka band. There was country music, too, that I remember. My girlfriend, Echo was her name – Echo Helstrom – her father played guitar.”
She lives in Los Angeles now. Do you ever hear from her?
He smiled. “I see her occasionally.”
Was she the “Girl from the North Country”?
He smiled wider and said: “Well, she’s a North Country girl through and through.” He laughed. It was a nice laugh. It sounded kind.
They say she was free-spirited.
“Mm hm, she was just like me. We’re both the same.”
Do you remember Bill Marinac (a childhood friend of Dylan’s)?
“He’s a string bass player. We played together. Charles Nara, he was our drummer. We had a good guitar player in that band, Monty Edwardson.”
People always wonder – do you ever come back?
“I do sometimes. In, you know, odd moments. When I’m passin’ through.”
Once a year, maybe?
“Up to the Range, there? No, I don’t get up there as often as that. Duluth, a little bit more often, but, you know, I haven’t spent any great amount of time there.”
Do you like that you can visit and have it be low-key, not a bunch of fans pestering you?
“Yeah. It’s nice when that happens.”
Local legend says that at the Hibbing High Jacket Jamboree someone cut the electricity on your band because you were so loud.
“Yeah, I wasn’t very popular when I was there.” He laughed. “I don’t remember that, but it could have happened.”
Did people sometimes not understand what you were doing?
“Nah, we were just the loudest band around, it was mostly that. What we were doing, there wasn’t anybody else around doing. (The music scene) was mostly horn kind of stuff, jazz – there was one other band in town with trumpet, bass, guitar and drums. Mostly that type of stuff. And you had to play polkas.”
Did you actually play polkas?
“Yeah. Oh, yeah.”
It seems in recent years you’re less guarded about discussing things like this.
“Well, nobody really asked me about it. Nobody much asks people where they came from or what they’re doing while they’re growing up, so…”
When you started to get successful in New York, did the national press romanticize your past in Minnesota?
“I don’t really know. I don’t know what they did.”
You didn’t read it?
“Um, I didn’t really keep up with it at all.”
Could you ever see having a summer home in northern Minnesota, out in the woods somewhere?
“Yeah.” He chuckled. “Who couldn’t imagine that?”
That’d be neat.
“It would be.”
Well, Kevin McHale does it.
“Yeah, I saw Kevin out there (at the concert) just now.”
There’s a great story about him seeing you at a Celtics game.
“He did, he came right out into the crowd and shook my hand. That was an amazing thing to do.”
Do you ever listen to Garrison Keillor?
“A few years ago I used to listen to him. I like his show, I’ve always liked it.”
Does it ever make you homesick for Minnesota?
“Well, ah… yeah, it does. Well, I don’t get homesick for those kind of things he talkin’ about because, ah, I don’t know if my upbringing was like that. But I get homesick for where it all happened.”
Everyone says it was a very warm home you and your brother, David, were brought up in.
“Well, we had a big family, like a big extended family. My grandmother had about 17 kids on the one side, and on the other side about 13 kids. So there was always a lot of family-type people around.
Were you kind of an outcast when you were growing up? That’s part of the myth.
“I couldn’t really say.” He laughed. “To me, I was perfectly right.”
– END –
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