The Bridge Interview by Terry Kelly
"That boy ... this fellow, Toby ... has got some lessons to learn."
Bob Dylan, interviewed by Rolling Stone, November 1969.
Toby Thompson occupies a unique place in Dylan studies. In 1971, Thompson published Positively Main Street - An Unorthodox View of Bob Dylan (Coward McCann and Geohagen). Many UK Dylan fans must still cherish battered copies of the paperback version published by New English Library in February 1972. Based on a series of investigative articles Thompson had earlier written for The Village Voice and Us Quarterly, the book shed fresh light on Dylan's childhood in Hibbing, Minnesota, through a series of unprecedented interviews with the singer's close family, including his mother and brother, Beatty and David Zimmerman, and his former high school girlfriend, Echo Helstrom (possibly the inspiration for Girl from the North Country). The author of three other books and numerous articles for magazines such as Vanity Fair, Esquire, Rolling Stone and the New York Times, he is an associate professor of English at Penn State University, USA, where he teaches nonfiction writing. Toby Thompson has been largely silent on Dylan matters for more than 30 years. But he agreed to break his silence for this interview with The Bridge in January 2005.
Toby Thompson, could you say where and when you were born and tell us something about your family background and education?
As Positively Main Street is as much a memoir as a biography, I'm happy to do this. I was born on September 15, 1944, in Washington, D.C.-then very much a sleepy Southern town-but I was conceived in New York City during wartime. So I have that dichotomy within me, one of small town lassitude versus big city fervor. My father was a Washington physician, but my mother had been a model in New York during the 1930's, and her brother, William Nichols, was a pioneer in 1950's television, which then was broadcast live from Manhattan. In fact, he wrote and produced Your Hit Parade, a weekly roundup of pop songs that were dramatized in real time. It was much a predecessor to MTV. I remember being backstage for many of these shows, and their glamor suffused me with a sense of belonging that I cherish. (Such 'belonging' is characteristic of all fans and redolent of what Christopher Lasch has dubbed the culture of narcissism.) I still keep an apartment in New York.
During World War Two, when my father was overseas, my mother house-sat a brownstone overlooking the East River, where many artists and actors congregated. My mother and uncle seemed to know everyone. As an infant, I crawled beneath the piano while Aaron Copland polished his symphonies, and when I was perhaps a year old and hadn't walked, Boris Karloff tickled my toes and said, "You shall walk." The next day I did. My uncle played boogie-woogie piano, and later I would stand on the radiator by his side singing Rag Mop, an early r & b hit. That and 'There's No Business Like Show Business'. When I was five, the painter Max Ernst took one of my watercolors, 'Girl with Sunburned Lips', and refused to give it back. All this was great fun, and after the war, moving to Washington, where my father's family lived, was a tremendous letdown. I was sent to a proper Episcopal school, St. Albans, where sons of the politically adept or socially elite studied. Senator John Kerry and Vice President Al Gore were schoolmates of mine. Gore and I were in the boarding department together. When he lost to George Bush in 2000, I joked that it was the last opportunity I'd have to say I'd slept with a president.
Later I took a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Delaware, and an M.A. from the University of Virginia, but it was St. Albans that academically shaped me.
Presumably literature and music were twin passions when you were growing up. From Positively Main Street, I gather that your early literary heroes included F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. (In fact, the book reveals you were a frequent visitor to Fitzgerald's grave at Rockville, Maryland, just fifteen minutes from your childhood home). Which other 'heroes' - literary and musical - shaped the adolescent Toby Thompson?
J.D. Salinger, certainly. I wrote my honors thesis at the University of Delaware about his work. It had a hipness to its language that I found beguiling, and who could not identify with Holden Caulfield? Jack Kerouac was a big influence. And later, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and that rabid band of New Journalists which ransacked American letters during the 1960's. But as an adolescent, I thought of myself primarily as a musician. I was one of those fifties kids who bought his first guitar after Elvis's Hound Dog topped the charts. I loved Elvis for the usual reasons, and was affected deeply at his death. As, apparently, was Dylan. The Vegas-style, back jacket photo of Bob on Street Legal, mimics precisely that of Elvis on his last album, Moody Blue. A bit of our childhoods died with E. I remember being furious at my uncle for Your Hit Parade's middle of the road interpretations of his songs. "Make it sound like rock 'n' roll," I pleaded. But I also was interested in jazz. Two pioneers in classical jazz guitar lived and worked in Washington. They were Charlie Byrd and the lesser-known, but equally influential Bill Harris. Charlie Byrd was my first guitar teacher, but it was Harris who moved me. He was dark, mysterious, ethereally hip. He had been one of the Clovers, a seminal r & b group with hits like One Mint Julep, Love Potion Number Nine, Devil or Angel, and Blue Velvet. I'd been studying classical guitar with Sophocles Papas, the principal proponent of Segovia's method in the United States, and a man who'd founded the Guitar Shop in Washington. I was bored to distraction. I begged to learn jazz, and one week he relented and gave me a Spanish folk song, The Gay Ranchero. When this failed to engage me (it enraged me), he threw up his hands and said "There's a colored man teaching here, you should try him." That was Harris. Papas was professorial and very old world, but the day in 1959 when I met Harris, decked out in black continental suit, white shirt, skinny black tie and sharp-toed black loafers, was like a gift from God. He was my personal introduction to hip. I'd study, off and on, for five years with him.
Harris had abandoned rock 'n' roll for solo jazz guitar, and was much of the John Coltrane/Thelonius Monk/Wes Montgomery school. When he broke with Papas and started his own guitar studio, I'd drive forty-five minutes across town to Hamlin Street NE for my 11:00 AM Saturday session, park in that all-black neighborhood and shuffle warily toward the house. His wife would answer the door, saying, 'I'll get Mr. Harris, go down to the basement.' I'd wait and after about ten minutes, a sleepy Bill Harris would appear in immaculate white pajamas, carrying a cup of coffee, and say, "Play your lesson". He'd listen for a few minutes, head in hands, then sigh, "Give me the guitar". Off he'd go on improvisations that might last half an hour. It was the most amazing guitar music I've ever heard. He'd finish, hand back the guitar and say, "Like that". Later, writing about Dylan, I'd realize that my fascination with black music was very much akin to his. It was part of a cultural underground that suburban or small-town white kids were just being introduced to, via radio and TV. Its hipness was our way connecting with New York-or cities in general.
When did you first become aware of Bob Dylan? Was it a sudden or gradual 'conversion' through a single song or album? Which was the first Dylan concert you attended and how closely did you follow his career throughout the 1960s and 70s?
A harmonica player named John Kerkam introduced me to Dylan's music, during the summer of 1962. I was avoiding jazz for the girls, by playing blues with Kerkam and guitarist Linn Barnes at a club called the Zen Den, in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Barnes and I had something of a blues act, and Kerkam sat in with us at the beach. He'd hung out in Greenwich Village, had a friend who'd studied guitar with Reverend Gary Davis, and was in the know. "You ought to hear this cat, Bob Dylan," Kerkam said. "He plays blues guitar and harmonica-very interesting." Dylan's first album was out and we found a copy. I was impressed with the roughness of his blues arrangements-unusual in the wispy, white bread atmosphere of that early folk revival. I learned most of the songs on Bob Dylan: See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, House Of The Rising Sun, Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, In My Time Of Dyin', Fixin' To Die. The death fixation was inescapable, but it was his performance of these tunes that impressed me-the rawness of them. I didn't notice his writing until the second album, Freewheelin'. There it was unavoidable.
It's hard now to reconstruct the power those lyrics held. Blowin' In The Wind, Girl Of The North Country, Don't Think Twice, It's All Right, Masters Of War, A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall. No one had written songs like those, they were brand new-hearing them was like a first reading of Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson. They seemed to emanate from our generation's unconscious. One of the first I learned was Girl Of The North Country. Eventually I'd learn them all, and began performing them, as I would intermittently in folk gigs throughout the sixties. Dylan, for me, had transmogrified from singer to writer. It was why I lionized him. His performances embodied everything I cared about: music, art, theater, showbiz and literature.
I stayed as current on his career as one could in those pre-internet days. I did not see him in concert until 1963, at Philadelphia's Town Hall. He held that crowd in the palm of his hand, with just guitar and harmonica. Later, I remember writing a term paper on his lyrics for a modern poetry seminar, using the early Newsweek profile to spice it up. He seemed a mysterious older figure, a New York guy-a hipster. While the rest of us were pledging our time in gulags of the educational hinterland, Bob was getting it on with Suze Rotolo in Greenwich Village.
Prior to Positively Main Street, the only previous book about Dylan was Folk-Rock: The Bob Dylan Story (Dell Publishing, New York, 1966) by Sy and Barbara Ribakove, which was mainly drawn from the cuttings file. Your book pre-dated Anthony Scaduto's biography by a year and was certainly unique in terms of its interview material. What were you doing at the time you started your research, circa 1968?
There were also Daniel Kramer's photography book, and the insights provided by the film, Don't Look Back. I'd read Bob's Playboy interview, and Nat Hentoff's early New Yorker profile of him. But there was this gap in Dylanology, to use a term that did not exist. He was in seclusion in Woodstock and writers were intimidated by his disdain for the press. And by his power. In the fall of 1968, I'd finished graduate school at the University of Virginia and had spent the summer in Charlottesville writing short stories. I'd send them off and back they'd come, with impersonally phrased rejection slips. I was desperate to get published. A friend, John Holland, now a producer for NBC's Nightly News, had noted my fascination with Bob and said, "Why don't you drive to his hometown, Hibbing, and see if there's a story?" So that was in my head. And on a single day in August, Tom Wolfe had published The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Pump House Gang, two books that defined the New Journalism, underscoring the notion that today's story, whatever it might be, was out there in America. You had to get out from behind your desk to find it. I remembered that Newsweek article, knew Bob's family name was Zimmerman, and that his father was named Abraham. So I called information in Hibbing. Abraham's number had been disconnected, but I got one for Zimmerman's Furniture and Electric and dialed. A gruff voice answered, "Zimmerman's." "Is this Mr. Zimmerman?" I asked. "I'm one of them." "Are you Abraham Zimmerman?" A pause. "Abraham passed away last June, I'm Maurice Zimmerman." I screwed up my courage and said, "Are you Bob Dylan's uncle?" He said yes, and the conversation began. I must say, the fact that Bob's father had died sparked interest. Because Bob would have been home for the funeral. I knew little of journalism, but sensed I needed a news hook. I asked if anyone had ever been out there to report on Bob's life. "One fellow, years ago," Maurice said, "but not recently. We've always wondered why not." I summoned every bit of strength I had, and said, "If I drove out there, would you talk to me?" "Sure kid," Maurice grunted, "When you coming?" We made a date for the following week. I had no assignment, but my foot was in the door, and that's all you need.
Positively Main Street often reads like a picaresque novel, with yourself at the centre of the knockabout narrative. The book is clearly a product of both New Journalism and a Beat-influenced approach to biography. In very general terms, what do you feel about the book now, more than 30 years later?
I like the book. It's got a smart-alecky tone that fits its time and the age of its author and protagonist, who'd just turned 24. It's also cannier than it seems. It's a meta-book. I'd studied modern literature at Virginia, and was aware of both the postmodern tradition, where experimentation rules, and that of the 19th century Bildungsroman, or novel of initiation-where a young hero sets out against impossible odds, acts foolishly or ineptly, but confronts his enemies or the dragon, then returns home sadder, wiser. I'd studied Freud and I'd studied Robert Graves's complicated poetic theory in The White Goddess-which Bob mentions in Chronicles and which his songs would reflect in Desire and Renaldo & Clara. I knew that, in literature and psychology, one had to slay one's hero to become the hero. There was an oedipal tinge to this. To win the queen, and sleep with her, one must kill the king. All this had to do with what it meant to be a true artist. In Graves's mind, the only role of the poet was to court the muse, or moon goddess. And here we go a bit weighty. As Graves explained it, "The Theme, briefly, is the antique story ... of the birth, life, death and resurrection of the God of the Waxing Year; the central chapters concern the God's losing battle with the God of the Waning Year for love of the capricious and all-powerful Threefold Goddess, their mother, bride and layer-out. The poet identifies himself with the God of the Waxing Year and his Muse with the Goddess; the rival is his blood-brother, his other self, his weird". So my little book exists, however modestly, on two levels: one, the story of Toby, Echo and Bob, and what happens realistically to them, and two, what happens metaphysically, symbolically, and psychologically to them and what they represent, both within Graves's mythic construct and within American culture. Nothing in it is fabricated; it's found.
On page 25 of the New English Library (NEL) edition, you write about "the lack of any previous journalistic attention having been paid to Hibbing." In fact, the book now reads like a document from a very innocent time, before media saturation and public cynicism. Looking back, does the Hibbing of 1968-69 now feel like a different world?
It was a different world. And remains so, I've found, during my various trips back. Hibbing is so far out in the middle of nowhere, so removed from the pop Zeitgeist, that in 1968 it was still hard to get rock on the radio. In 1958, it was nearly impossible; Bob's father had rigged a radio wire to the house's rooftop TV antenna so Bob could pick up distant stations at night. The deep, endless forests surround Hibbing, broken intermittently by wide and primitive lakes. The town itself exists by default on the edge of one of the largest open pit iron ore mines in the world-three miles long, 458 feet deep, and a mile wide. Precariousness is in the air. You expect things to tumble any minute. The buildings are late Victorian middle-western, like a frontier town's. Quite stodgy. How Bob Dylan emerged from this environment is something of a miracle. I'll never forget my first drive down Hibbing's main drag. I'd been on the road for three days, the windshield to my VW was smeared with bug juice and the sun was setting at Howard Street's western end. I'd found an FM station from Duluth, 60 miles east, and as I turned down Howard Street, Bob's voice exploded from my speakers. It was Just Like A Woman. If that station playing that song at that moment wasn't a sign, I couldn't recognize one. Craning my neck, I edged past buildings where Dylan had spent his youth: the Androy Hotel, Crippa's music store, the L&B Café, Collier's B-B-Q, the Moose Lodge, Sammy's Pizza, and all those kickass miners' saloons, as he sang, "When we meet again, introduced as friends, please don't let on that you knew me when, I was hungry and it was your world." Hairs stand on my neck today as I remember it. I drove all the way out Howard Street to where its macadam dropped jagged chunks into that vast expanse of mine. Then I turned back toward the Androy and booked a room. This was the height of the counter-culture era, and my Levi's, wool turtleneck and leather jacket shouldn't have turned heads. But when I walked into the hotel bar, everybody stared. It was a piano bar and customers gathered about it singing songs like Tiny Bubbles. I had one beer then moved down Howard Street to the Kahler motel. Same scene. I sat at the bar next to a fortyish guy with graying hair and ordered a drink. He asked me where I was from. I told him and said I was here writing about Bob Dylan's boyhood. Did he know him? "Yeah," the guy said, "I used to be his babysitter." It went like that for days. Bob had only moved from Minnesota to New York in January of 1961. So everyone remembered him. Shopkeepers, former teachers, his high school principal, the young couple who'd bought his mother's house. I walked the streets and talked to everyone. It was a bit like Bob's pursuit of Woody Guthrie. I sat in his boyhood room on the edge of his bed and imagined Gene Vincent records spinning on his Victrola. I saw where he'd broken the brass pedal of a piano, at the1957 or '58 Jacket Jamboree talent contest in his high school auditorium, as he pounded the keyboard screaming Little Richard songs. I sat in his seat in his music and English classrooms. I lived at the Androy, where Bob had his bar mitzvah celebration. I remember thinking that reporting was the most exciting thing I'd ever done, and that I'd always do it. I was not yet wise to its pitfalls.
Echo Helstrom comes across in the book as an open-hearted free spirit, willing to share virtually all of her memories of Dylan with you, in a very uncensored fashion. You capture her in a very sympathetic and even fond manner in the book, giving every impression of falling for her charms. What was her reaction to the way she was portrayed in the book and did contact with the alleged Girl Of The North Country end with the publication of Positively Main Street?
Echo is a free spirit, and her open-heartedness became the center of my book. Nowadays, she's something of a folk heroine, featured in most biographies, in the current Seattle/Dylan show, and even is the inspiration for a Portland, Oregon, rock group called Echo Helstrom. But I was the first to write of her. And I did not find her immediately. Somebody said, "You ought to contact this girl Bobby dated in high school," but I was near the end of that first trip to the north country (to Minnesotans, that region hard by the Canadian border, hours north of Minneapolis and the likes of Bonnie Beecher) and was hesitant. I thought I had too much material as it was. But I called Echo's home and spoke to her mother, who was very nice and who said she'd relay the message to Echo in Minneapolis, where she lived. I was leaving next morning, and I believe Echo called back that night. She said she'd speak with me next evening. I also had an appointment in Minneapolis with David Zimmerman, Bob's brother. Their mother, Beatty Zimmerman, had been away, and I had not been able to interview her that trip. So I caught Echo nearly by chance. She was striking in appearance. She had Scandinavian blonde hair, looked vaguely like Brigitte Bardot, and was surprisingly friendly, but tough. I remember Tom Jones was on the television in her apartment as I interviewed her. She wore high black boots with a houndscheck suit, its skirt fashionably abbreviated. We chatted that night for perhaps three hours, and I realized immediately she knew Bob better than anyone out there-that they had been soulmates. In Chronicles, he calls her his Becky Thatcher. They were wholly American kids who shared dreams of a wider world, and I wonder if his development as a romantic and his eventual escape from Hibbing would have been so rapid without Echo's support. They were both outsiders-he a Jew in a town rife with prejudice, and she a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks-but they believed in each other. To answer your question more directly, we have stayed in touch, she continues to report that my book about Bob is her favorite, and that yes, I did fall for her charms. The following spring, on my second trip to Hibbing, we had a tiny romance. It's dramatized in PMS. The romance was delightful, but psychologically complicated for both of us.
Before that happened, I returned home to Washington and wrote up what I'd learned on my first adventure. I decided to use myself as a character, because in a way I was the archetypal Dylan fan. Quite narcissistic, in the Christopher Lasch sense of needing someone grander to complete one's psyche. I was fanatical about Dylan as was much of my generation. So why not use that? I composed the piece chronologically, starting with my encountering Bob's babysitter, and taking it through 60 pages of narrative until my finale with Echo in Minneapolis. I had no assignment and had no real idea what to do with the story. I pitched it via telegram to Esquire and Harper's, but they weren't interested. New York's Village Voice, then, was the counterculture's mouthpiece-Rolling Stone being still a San Francisco upstart. So I sent it, blind, to them. I waited perhaps a month, then telephoned Diane Fisher, the editor I'd mailed it to. She said, "I was just about to contact you. Your piece is awfully long." Yes, I know, go ahead and reject it. "How would you feel if we serialized it in six consecutive issues?" How would I feel? Fabulous is what, with six times the exposure and six times the money. She cut it slightly and the first excerpt was published in March of '69, way back on page 75 or something. It was slugged "Bob Dylan's Babysitter!" Other newspapers immediately began writing about it. The chapter got so much attention that the following week's moved up to about page 10, edging closer to page one until the last chapter with its banner headline, "Dylan's Girl from the North Country," with my name below, actually made it. I received twelve book offers, got an agent, and was off. Richard Goldstein, who wrote for the Voice and had essentially invented rock journalism in 1966 with his Pop Eye column, had been hired as editor of a counterculture journal called US, which would be published as a Bantam paperback, along the lines of The New American Review. He telephoned me and said, "I don't know where you've been, but you've arrived." He asked whether I had any material I'd held back from the Voice series, and whether I'd be willing to drive back out to Hibbing for a second trip. I called Echo and asked if she'd accompany me to Hibbing, to show me some of the spots where she and Bob hung out, and she agreed. So I was back on the American road. I picked her up in Minneapolis on a Friday afternoon, and she looked fabulous in a gray Austrian cape with a short skirt and knee-high white boots, very mod sixties-ish. We drove north on what then was the rural two-lane to Hibbing, talking like we'd known each other forever. I had a half-pint of bourbon in my glove compartment, and after a while I offered her a drink. She accepted. We shared that half pint and got to Hibbing around ten o'clock, just as the miners' saloons were rocking. There were four or five of them, and each featured an accordion-driven polka band. In Chronicles, Bob writes about hearing those bands as a kid, and I've always thought his affinity for the harmonica came from listening to those accordions wheeze. Very Lawrence Welk Midwestern. Anyhow, we danced, talked, drank Gold Belt Premium beer and closed the bars. At some point I stood on my head and my change, wallet and car keys spilled onto the dance floor. She laughed and we knew a connection had been made. For the next couple of days we were inseparable. She took me everywhere that she and Bob had hung out, to the pizza parlors and teen canteens, to the Moose Lodge, where she'd jimmied the door with her penknife and he played piano for her the first night they met, to old Hibbing, its abandoned buildings and the red dust mines, and to meet her family. Her house was in the country, on a service road paralleling the woods. I listened to the '78s his mother had kept-the same ones he'd write about in Chronicles-the Hank Williams and Jimmy Rodgers cuts that had been his earliest exposure to that music. Echo's father, a tough working man and hunter, had bear skins nailed to his barn door, and the old house where he and Mrs. Helstrom lived still had an outhouse. They enjoyed me, particularly the father. "He likes you 'cause you're fair," Echo said. Meaning blond. They held a Sunday cookout for me and I played and sang a lot of Bob's songs. Including Girl Of The North Country. It was confusing for them, I think. My theatricality and boyish enthusiasm made them feel as if Bob had come home, in some way. To use Graves's terminology, I seemed Bob's "blood-brother, his other self, his weird." Everybody's feelings on that were decidedly mixed.
Echo and I finished the weekend by visiting Hibbing's radio station, where Echo sang a song she'd written, called Boy from the North Country, to my guitar accompaniment. I have a tape of that. The DJ, a bored young guy on the day shift, interviewed us enthusiastically for hours. I sang and played guitar, and the switchboard lit up like neon. Hey, it was the sixties. But we said our adieus that afternoon. I needed to finish researching and write my US piece, so I stayed on in Hibbing. She rode back to Minneapolis with a friend. That week I made an all-out assault on Beatty Zimmerman, trying everything I could to land an interview. At first she dodged my calls, but eventually I reached her at work. "You're up here with that Echo," she said. But she agreed to meet me for lunch.
The interview with Dylan's mother in Howard's Restaurant is arguably the highlight of the book. (Since she mentions Dylan was then in Nashville, for a recording of the Johnny Cash Show at the Ryman Auditorium, we can presumably pinpoint your interview as on or around May 1, 1969). Considering how displeased Mrs Zimmerman had been about your initial Village Voice article, she comes across as very open and accommodating. The specificity of the details she provides is wonderful: Dylan phoning home after reaching New York for the first time to ask if David "had been shoveling the walk; "Dylan traveling down to Florida to play his mother his new songs for Nashville Skyline; or the much-repeated story of Dylan's Bible stand in Woodstock. Did you feel a whole new Bob Dylan was revealed by his proudly defensive mother?
She didn't reveal a new Bob Dylan, so much, as confirm impressions I'd received in Hibbing of the old one. I've interviewed a lot of people since Mrs. Zimmerman, but I don't think I've been more nervous than sitting down with her. Which I did on May 7th, 1969. At first she was defensive and accusatory, chiding me for upsetting David and for getting details wrong about the Cadillac Bob had bought for his father. "Why can't you journalists stop torturing this boy!" She told me that Abraham had been sick for 25 years, and that publicity had helped kill him. But within minutes she became motherly and protective-of me! "Eat your dessert," and the like. I realized I was in the presence of a true Jewish mom, one that clearly had shaped Bob's character. With curly blonde hair and blue eyes, she was his spitting image. She had a first-family-of-the town glamour. Her side of the family owned Hibbing's movie theaters, and she was quite theatrical. She gave me wonderful quotes, and if I'm not mistaken I was the last journalist to interview her. I wish I could reproduce our entire session here. Robert Shelton had gotten to her first, but his book would remain stalled for many years. I thanked her, then holed up to write my piece. In a few days I mailed it off, then drove back to Minneapolis to see Echo. We spent one last evening together and it was very sad. It was as if Bob, or someone vaguely comparable, had reentered her life and now was leaving. The emotions I felt were too complicated to name. The next morning, I headed back to Washington. Later I realized that, despite journalistic proscriptions against such behavior, our romance fit the Bildungsroman format I had in mind for Positively Main Street. And indeed the mythic one. Her name was Echo Star Helstrom, for God's sake,"sister of mirage and echo," as Graves writes, with "hair curled honey-colored to white hips," and more than one Narcissus might love her. That summer I wrote my book, realizing I had this construct. Somewhere in there she sent me Toby's Song:
Where can you be?
Somebody told me That you went back to
Washing Machine, D.C.!
How can that be?
You played for me on your old guitar,
Took me for a ride in your little car,
Drove me near and drove me far,
We looked at the moon,
And stared at the stars,
You stood on your head in my home town bar ...
How can it be you've gone so far?
Hey? Toby? Where you are?
I was touched. Personally, and because Echo was Bob's north country muse, having inspired one of his most endearing songs. I'd come out of the East a nothing writer, testing the winds of adventure, found success, courted the muse, slain my hero's calculated mythology by revealing his relative normality, "become" my hero, then retreated home. Sadder and wiser, I'm afraid, for knowledge has its price. Nothing is free, and the wicked messenger is universally despised.
Did Echo relate stories about Dylan that you chose not to use in Positively Main Street for legal, personal or other reasons? Are there any untold Dylan stories from your Hibbing research which you could safely reveal now?
The only thing she asked me not to publish was what he wrote about her in her high school yearbook. She thought it too personal. But the captivating thing about Bob's early prose is that it reads just like later Dylan-the dropped consonants at the end of words, the faux slang, the poetry of it. It comically depicts an incident he mentions in Chronicles, concerning Echo's father running him off one night with a shotgun and "his flashlight on my ass." Funny, rambling, "Bob Dylan's 219th Dream," so to speak. But it ends with him writing, "Love to the most beautiful girl in school." I also didn't get into details of their intimate life, which as teenagers' was typically clandestine and hurried. She indubitably was his first lover.
Her stories about Bob continued after my book was published. He telephoned her after he'd read it, and said, "You came off pretty good in the book." He calls every few years or so. My name has a way of coming up. Echo moves a lot, but he has this uncanny ability to find her.
Another very accommodating interviewee was Angel Marolt, the young Hibbing housewife who shows you round Dylan's childhood home at 2425 East Seventh Avenue in Hibbing, even giving you a tour of the former bedroom of the young Bobby and David Zimmerman. Again, you handle the scene very sensitively, but do you now find that kind of journalistic approach intrusive? In fact, the book contains a sort of stoned soliloquy on the very same question on page 94, when you seem to question whether you are "violating (Dylan's) past."
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