The Nettleton School

The Nettleton School

Dylan went to kindergarten here, two blocks from his house.

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The Duluth Home

The Duluth Home

Bob lived on the second floor of this two family hill house until he was 6. Lake Superior is visible eight blocks away.

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DAY 7 • JULY 17, 2012

Where to begin?

First with a postscript from last night. Lake Superior was still steaming in an entirely unusual 95 degrees at 9PM, when we met two farming couples from South Dakota. They had terrible tales to tell ofterrible drought & farms going under. They told us they had to go on vacation because they just couldn;t stand looking at their dying corn crop. May have to be plowed under, a total loss. Sounded like the 1930s dustbowl and, in fact, some articles in today’s paper confirmed this.

Our Tuesday began in Duluth, amidst dreary skies and a very large lake out there that had been transformed into a crystal ball of fog and apparitions. The temperature had dropped almost 30 degrees, to the mid-60s. We were ready for action. This was the big day. We were no longer nibbling around the edges. We were going in for the kill.

After a civilized breakfast, eaten while rotating atop the Hotel Radisson-Harborview,mwe went linear: ensconced in our Dylan-mobile, we proceeded to knock off in quick succession every Dylan-related site in Duluth. This included his first house, which we found after some wandering, thanks to the intervention of a mailman we happened upon ( “You have to go east, not west!” he told us with some amusement). This is worth a word or two. When we found the house, high on the hill above the lake, we found ourselves wary of getting out to photograph it only because there was a large unleashed German Shepherd on the porch next door. However, we had traveled 1600 miles to get here, so we screwed our courage to the sticking spot despite Fido’s evident agitation. Yup, we got out and went about our business (which involved sticking our nose into other people’s business.) From there we visited the Nettleton School a block away where little Robert attended kindergarten. (The Zimmermans moved to Hibbing when he was six). Bill went inside and spoke to several staff who were running a summer camp. They had no idea Dylan went there, nor did several parents walking with their kids near by. But the librarian did know, and she told Bill that the school had put on a play last year, and one of the kids played little Bobby. We then visited the following: the hospital where he was born; Leif Ericsson Park where Bobby went with his Dad to a Truman rally; the armory where he watched a Buddy Holly concert a few days before the tragic air crash; the sign marking the beginning of Highway 61. Thus, we were swept along Duluth’s “Bob Dylan Way.” Others have may have trod this 1.8 mile path before us, but how many dared to face down a ferocious German Shepherd?

All this historical digging made us extremely hungry, and we found our way to a local café owned by a Norwegian expatriate. After some delicious food and good conversation, she introduced us to a Duluth booster and local film producer who kept telling us he had to rush off to a phone conference, but simply couldn’t desist from telling us more compelling details about Duluth, which were all amplified by his repetitive mantra that the city was “a deep well.” Gee, we believed it, as there was certainly a hell-uva a big well in their backyard, specifically the largest fresh water lake in the world. Lots of interesting people up there in Duluth.

It was then off to Hibbing, the name of which, even now, causes us to tremble.

After settling into a an old 1930s style hotel in the town of Virginia some 20 miles away ( and becoming slightly ill watching Romney on the lobby TV), we drove to Hibbing and soon found ourselves on the main street. Gosh, we were here! Quick impressions: larger town than Bill thought; nice leafy streets, but with well-kept houses right next to….hmm… decaying ones; fine looking main street, but…hmm…on closer examination many empty storefronts. This was definitely a town on the way down, but with many unusually fine public buildings financed by the wealthy mine owners who even once moved the entire town so they could expand the mines first things first!).  Clearly Dylan knew of local hardship even back then. Listen to North Country Blues. This nice, supposedly middle class boy was a neighbor, so to speak, to some very complex realities. Though he personally never wanted, he did not need Woody Guthrie to educate him about the hardships in this vale of tears. He saw them around him, in Hibbing and in the surrounding countryside. (Indeed one of his teachers noted his social compassion even then).

And so we went on the Dylan walking tour, which within 15 square blocks took us to his high school where he first rocked out at a talent show, his elementary school, home, synagogue, movie theater, grandparents’ clothing store, music store, hotel where he had his bar mitzvah party, department store where his mom worked, diner where he spent time with his girlfriend Echo after school, his Dad’s appliance store, and the bowling alley where he won an award. Another impression: he came from a small town that proved way too small for him, but even within that town, the orbit of his universe was even smaller, measured in only a few blocks. But boredom can provide a fertile soil for the imagination of a bright kid. Perhaps the same thing that sent him running from Hibbing also helped to create him.

We met some locals who shared with us what they knew about Dylan. Joe, the new owner of the synagogue, seemed a little puzzled by our quest, but told us a bit of history regarding the place. Alas, Bill’s best efforts to wheedle his way into the synagogue–now a private residence–did not succeed. Well, at least it succeeded in amusing Larry who understood just what his fellow traveler was up to.

On our walk through the area around “Bob Dylan Drive,” we had some very interesting interactions with Nick & Debbie, a couple of nice people in their 50’s or 60’s sitting on a bench. Nick originally asked us if we were “terrorists,” based on us skulking around and taking a lot of pictures. We reassured him by telling him we were simply Dylan fanatics and he relaxed. it turns out Debbie knew the Zimmerman family and told us that Bob had been hassled a lot by neighborhood bullies. Why we asked?  He was just different, “too brilliant for them,” she said. Even now she finds Hibbing a close-minded, narrow place. We left pondering Dylan’s childhood environment once again. We are planning to return to Hibbing tomorrow. Still some unfinished business.

After some excellent hamburgers at Zimmy’s, a local eatery drenched in Dylan memorabilia, we drove back to Virginia. Larry put the album “Times They Are A-Changing” on the Dylan-mobile sound system. How about this unbelievable lineup: Times…Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Only A Pawn…, Restless Farewell, North Country Blues, With God On Our Side…When the Ship Comes In. Previously we had listened to songs and then discussed and dissected them.

This time, speeding through the North Country night, we just sang.

ps: Photos coming tomorrow.

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DAY 6 • JULY 16, 2012

We spent the morning touring the beautiful Madison campus from Bascom Hill to the lakeside terrace, and then peeked in on the spectacular marble statehouse on the other end of State St. Inside the now famous rotunda where we all watched chanting thousands on TV, there is now one woman with a sign calling Governor Walker a liar and demanding that he be indicted. We gave her the thumbs up. Inside one of the men’s room, hard by a row of urinals, we bumped into a state assemblyman. We considered talking politics, finding out which side he was on, but decided to just praise the building to his delight.

There is no way to prettify what followed. It was a long-ass haul from Madison to Duluth, some 350 miles through 100 degree heat. But don’t feel two badly for these two travelers because we did our hauling and hurtling in our air-conditioned bubble. Within it we read the last of Shelton’s chapters on Dylan’s Hibbing Years (Lots of quotes from Mom & Dad Zimmerman), read excerpts from Whitman’s Song of Myself (in Leaves of Grass) to compare the images and language therein with those of Dylan’s songs, and to see how the Beat influence on Dylan may well have be traced back to Whitman’s redefinition of poetry, it language, content, and style. (Our pal Google informs us that Dylan has actually cited Whitman as an influence and inspiration). We also listened to and compared the earliest versions of Dylan’s songs on the “Whitmark Demos” with some of the same songs on the Freewheeling Bob album (the album with the fabulous picture of Bob and Suze Rotolo), and found that we liked both. Heard some rare songs on the Whitmark collection as well. We both really liked Paths to Victory, a song that combines the hopefulness of left wing politics, a hymnal and spiritual church song.

We arrived in Duluth around 6:30 pm after a drive that seemed to go to the end of the earth, culminating in a powerful view of the industrial north country as we came into Lake Superior (“By the shores of Gitche Gumee…”) and Duluth. We semi-got lost due to some road construction detours but finally found the one bridge that would carry us across.  We went downtown to find a restaurant, and saw a few folks were playing acoustic instruments outside. Bill thought one song sounded like a Woody Guthrie tune. After we ate, Bill asked one the musicians about the song and said he didn’t know the Guthrie song Bill thought he was playing, but they had in fact played three Guthrie songs while Bill and Larry were inside demolishing some fajitas. They said they were aware it was the 100th anniversary of Guthrie’s birth. They went on to tell us that there was a big folk scene in Duluth. Bill asked if this was part of the Dylan legacy (Bob spent the first 6 years of his life here), but the young man said he didn’t think so. He actually wasn’t sure why folk was big here. (Perhaps because there is a branch of the university in town?) Another musician told us something we already knew: there has been a Dylan festival for the past couple of years, though the man himself has never showed up. We may check out some Dylan sites tomorrow.

We got back to our hotel hoping to view once again a fine Scorsese documentary about Dylan, something to pump us up even more as we prepared to head to Hibbing tomorrow. But our evening got chewed up trying to find some place to stay in the Hibbing area. The places in Hibbing proper are dreadful apparently. (One Trip Adviser reviewer recommended to travelers that they would do better to “stay in your cars.” It was tough to find a room even in the surrounding area, but we finally found some a room at a hotel 20 miles away.)

All this way and we almost couldn’t organize the logistics of a Hibbing visit. This certainly gave new meaning to the line “No Direction Home.”

No matter. Tomorrow…Hibbing, “where the winds hit heavy on the borderline.”

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DAY 5 • July 15, 2012

Chicago. Legendary Promised Land of the black migration. City of Big Shoulders. City on Lake Michigan. City of the Chicago White Sox…and the hapless Cubs.

In fact, that’s what today was about: Seeing the Chicago Cubs play at one of America’s oldest ballparks, Wrigley Field. Nothing to do with Bob Dylan, though we thought something magical might occur. But a good time and we all agreed Wrigley is a rival to Larry’s beloved Fenway. Has that old time feel. (Bill prefers the original Yankee Stadium. What? They should agree?)

Actually, last night we turned on the TV at the home of our superb host, Jamie Schechter, (Bill’s son) and found ourselves watching Field of Dreams. So naturally later at the ball  park, we were closely watching the Wrigley scoreboard and hoping for an unscheduled appearance by Bob that only we could see. It didn’t happen.

But Bob did pop in unexpectedly on no less than two other occasions. First, Larry received a call from an old friend who knew he was passionate about Dylan but who forgot he was on this Bob road trip. She wanted to alert him to the current controversy on a PBS history detective show regarding an important guitar of Dylan’s: The daughter of an airline pilot who once flew Bob around claims to have the Stratocaster electric guitar that Bob used to generate so much controversy at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Bob says not true, he has it.

The second miraculous appearance of Bob occurred after we had arrived in Madison, Wisconsin, and checked into our hotel. The ride from Chicago to Madison took 2½ hours and the entire trip was consumed by Bill reading to Larry from Robert Shelton’s Dylan autobiography, specifically the chapters about Bob’s Hibbing youth. A bit of a psychobiography? Good news: we are getting a better understanding of those formative years and will share our conclusions later on. Reaching that understanding has been a real struggle and it ain’t over yet. But progress. Good for us!

Oh yes, that second appearance. At our hotel, Larry extricated his suitcase from the trunk and this simple act ended up as a bit of an archaeological dig: he unearthed an old copy of the NY Times entombed in trunk since August 9, 2009, which he had saved because of an article on the front page he didn’t have time to read on that day. It was an article about Woodstock. Wow. More amazing was another story he hadn’t even noticed: Turns out that an episode of Mad Men, set in 1961, used Dylan’s song “Don’t Thing Twice, It’s All Right.” The reporter made the point that the producers goofed because that the world didn’t know that song existed until 1963. Gosh, if they had just asked, we could have told them that.

OK, so we are now in Madison Wisconsin–“Mad Town”– our launching pad to ground zero. We had a memorable steak dinner at a local landmark, the Tornado Room, and will tour the campus tomorrow. Let’s not forget that Dylan spent some time in Madison after dropping out of the University of Minnesota in 1960, before finding his way to Greenwich Village. He also reportedly rehearsed here secretly for three days in 2007.

Sated by their fantastic meal, Larry and Bill walked out into the Wisconsin night with the beautiful domed, white marble statehouse glowing behind them. T hey looked at each other, and joined in spontaneous prayer that Governor Scott Walker was not a fan of Bob Dylan.

Tomorrow….North Country here we come!

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DAY 4 • July 14, 2012

This was a day of portents on the Ohio Turnpike.

Today was really about the challenge of transporting a two-ton car and its cargo of two human beings from Ashtabula, Ohio, 300 miles down the road to Chicago Ill., a major stepping stone to the North Country of Dylan’s youth. We were both looking forward to our one planned stop, which was just an hour from our motel: the Rock ‘n Roll Museum & Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Let it be said from the get-go that Larry and Bill give the museum a 5 out of a possible 4 stars. From film clips to artifacts to information, the museum presents the complex history of rock in a vibrant and substantive way. Yes, Bob Dylan was an inductee of the Hall of Fame in its 3rd year, but that was a mere footnote to our visit. If you find yourself stranded in Cleveland–as the joke goes, “I spend a year there one week”–definitely go to the museum. The ocean called Lake Erie in its backyard is quote impressive as well.

The weird stuff actually began the night before. Larry was reading a free student copy of the NY Times we had picked up in Ithaca, when Bill heard a scream from his adjoining motel room. Turns out there was an article about a Brazilian dance that is captivating New Yorkers. But what caught Larry’s attention was the huge color photo above the story showing Manhattanites gyrating in….the Café Wha! Of course that was one of the first (then) folk clubs that Dylan performed in when he came to Greenwich Village in 1961. Where we pursuing this guy, or was he pursuing us?

After the museum visit, as we were trucking down the Buckeye Pike, things got a touch weirder. Bill decided to Google the speech Bruce Springsteen gave on the occasion of Dylan’s induction. There is a video available on the web, but not the print version Bill was hoping for. Still, Google offered up a link to an article that was quite strange. It turns out that Bob Dylan had been detained by the police in 2009. His never-ending tour had arrived to play a date in Long Branch, New Jersey. Before the concert Dylan had gone out for a walk in a heavy rainstorm, and concerned residents of the neighborhood called the police about a suspicious, hooded elderly man prowling the streets. Dylan was picked up but eventually managed to convince disbelieving police he was who he fantastically claimed to be. The article speculates that Dylan was trying to find the little house blocked away where Springsteen wrote his “Born to Run” album. What supports this speculation is that some time previously Dylan showed up at Neil Young’s boyhood Canadian home, asking the startled current owner if he could look around. He also asked questions like: “Do you think think Neil would be looking out of that window when he was playing the guitar?” Moreover, Dylan was noticed taking a public tour of John Lennon’s childhood home. All this raised the question: had Dylan gone on trips to pursue the truth about these artists in the same way we were pursuing the truth about him? This was about the only curve we had to negotiate on the relentless straightaway of the Ohio Turnpike.

The rest of the trip had us returning to our favorite conversation: the source of Dylan’s genius. As soon as we thought we had grabbed the answer, we opened our hands to find nothing there. There was some disagreement between the human cargo, but perhaps there was even some confusion about the nature of the disagreement. We listened to more early Dylan, and returned to some historical accounts of Dylan’s youth. This line of inquiry will be continued tomorrow.

Somewhere in Indiana, lightning bolts flashed and the heavens opened up. The window wipers couldn’t keep up. We were forced to seek “shelter from the storm” on the side of the road twice. A Hard Rain Did Fall, and not only after we had listened to the song.

We arrived in Chicago around 6:30 pm. Tomorrow: Madison, Wisconsin, where Bobby Zimmerman spent some time after leaving college.


Press button “Older Posts” for narratives of previous days


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R & R Hall of Fame and Museum, Cleveland, Ohio

R & R Hall of Fame and Museum, Cleveland, Ohio

Dylan was inducted. Larry was there.

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Two of Bill’s former students share comments

1) Lisa S: “Good luck!  Let me know when he files the restraining order.” 😉

2) Steve M: “Keep searching Bill! I “found” Bob on the streets of Portland Maine back in ’96…sat on a bench with him for about a half an hour talking about art, painting and music…he asked more about me than I did about him…then he signed a copy of Drawn Blank for me that I had with me…said the book was “unfinished”…I like to think he was inspired to go and finish them from the encounter…which he did…Cheers and good luck!

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Kent State…Not!

Kent State...Not!

“Four dead in Ohio”….but not here. We got the wrong Kent State. This is Ashtabula, not Kent. Damn.

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Bill returns….

Bill returns....

Site of the first Dylan concert he attended-Bailey Hall, Cornell, 1964.

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