by CHRIS ROGERS
Toby Thompson got up the nerve. In 1968 he was a 23-year-old graduate student in Washington, D.C., still green around the gills and trying to get a break in the writing world, when he got the number from an operator and dialed Zimmerman Furniture and Electric Company in Hibbing, Minn. Bob Dylan’s uncle answered the phone.
Thompson dropped everything to travel to Hibbing and meet with Dylan’s brother and Dylan’s babysitter, breathe the same air the young folk hero breathed, and, by a stroke of fortune, interview Dylan’s high school sweetheart, Echo Helmstrom, whom Thompson reports is the “Girl from the North Country.” Helmstrom tells Thompson that she first heard Dylan sing a song about her at high school talent show, at which Dylan also broke a pedal on the school piano and got laughed at for his singing voice. Helmstrom’s seemed to be the only opinion he cared about. “Bob just walked me around in the cool evening air, asking over and over, ‘Didja like it? Didja like it?’” Thompson quotes her recalling in his book based on the trip, “Positively Main Street.”
Thompson is a stage-four Dylan-ophile, but when he left Hibbing to meet up with his college buddy —and current Winona Poet Laureate — Ken McCullough and gush about his near-Dylan experience, McCullough didn’t get why Thompson was so excited. “Going up to Hibbing and meeting Dylan’s mother and girlfriend, on the surface sounded like no big deal, but then when I read the stuff [Thompson wrote], I was really impressed by it — the way he infiltrated Dylan’s world and relived part of his life,” McCullough said. Thompson’s freewheeling account of Dylan’s formative years — first published as a series of articles in The Village Voice, then printed as a book, and more recently republished by the University of Minnesota Press — was one of the earliest, in-depth books on Dylan, McCullough said.
These days, Hibbing makes the most of its biggest claim-to-fame with its annual Dylan Days, but back then, as Thompson describes it, most people in Hibbing were nonchalant about their hometown boy’s success and surprised a writer would want to talk to them about Bobby. One of the few commemorations of him in Hibbing then was a plaque listing Dylan as just one of many distinguished graduates that helped Hibbing High School win an award for excellence, Thompson writes.
Thompson gleans quite a bit from conversations with Dylan’s old friends and family, and he is not alone in the ranks of Dylan experts who have written books about the folk singer without ever meeting the man. “He’s such a private person,” Thompson said.
Of course, Minnesota’s bard became a Nobel Laureate just last year. “Anyone who thinks he doesn’t deserve it is crazy,” Thompson said of Dylan’s Nobel Prize win. “My initial reaction was what a great thing for America in a dark, dark time — with everything going on and the divisions in our country and everything — that a guy who is so quintessentially American as Bob Dylan wins the Nobel Prize and who is so beloved by the whole world. It was such a feather in our country’s cap,” he continued. As far as Dylan’s reaction to the prize, including not showing up to the award ceremony, “All of that was so Dylan-esque,” Thompson added.
Thompson has travelled far and wide since 1968 and made a career for himself in creative nonfiction writing. He has written for Vanity Fair and Esquire, and produced several books full of travelogues, cultural vignettes, and human profiles.
Alma, Wis., appears in Thompson’s guidebook to American watering holes, “Saloon.” He was driving up the length of the Mississippi River when he stopped in the old Burlington Inn to chat with locals about river lore and witness an ice fisherman hauling his prize into the bar. “To know Hamm’s beer is to know it in Alma, Wisconsin,” Thompson wrote. “‘Saloon’ was my excuse for spending four years on the road searching for the great American bar. It was my Kerouac period, being on the road. Gas in those days was 35 cents per gallon and you could find motels where you could stay for $5 a night. So you could go out for 30 days at a time, easy, and afford to do it,” he said.
The old bars he visited for “Saloon” were physically beautiful buildings, and, Thompson said, during a time of turmoil near the end of the Vietnam War, “They seemed to be where the culture was holding together, where American culture was holding together.”
There were also places where the culture was a little bizarre. McCullough appears as a character in one chapter of “Saloon,” when he shows Thompson a bar in Montana that, by their description, would make the interior of the Handy Corner seem plain. It is filled with strange little puppets — including glow-in-the-dark spiders that dance together — that are all strung together somehow and connected to the barkeep, Luigi, who could make an entire barroom full of puppets dance along as he performed, playing whiskey bottles like a xylophone. When Thompson gives a reading in Winona this Tuesday, he plans on calling McCullough up to read his lines from that night.
In his latest book, “Metroliner,” Thompson shares stories from up and down the eastern seaboard, including profiles of Jackie Gleason, Tom Brokaw, and the De Blasio brothers, two working-class New Yorkers who are veterans of surprisingly excellent fishing holes in the heart of Manhattan. “The angling they do is perilous. Guy has been thrown from a pier into the East River by street punks, and there is always the threat of gangs. Billy totes an axe handle when he fishes alone,” Thompson writes.
“I loved to walk around New York,” Thompson said of how he stumbled onto the De Blasios’ story. “There was a pier that extended out below the Brooklyn Bridge, and I wandered out one day … These Puerto Rican kids were fishing off the end of this pier, and they were using these improvised strings of pop-top caps as lures and catching these size-able striped bass in the East River, and I didn’t even know you could do that in the East River.” It shocked him to discover that in the heart of America’s greatest concrete jungle, the waters were far from lifeless. Thompson found the only tackle shop in the area, and asked, “Who’s the king honcho of pier fishing?” The store regulars immediately answered: the De Blasio brothers.
In all of his writing, the people and places Thompson describes seem to be doorways into thinking about culture and what influences people. Many of the people Thompson has written about represented bigger cultural moments, McCullough stated. “Ultimately, you’re writing about America, and you’re hoping you have something to say about America,” Thompson said of the focus of his writing. “For me, that was the influence of writers like Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, they had people they were writing about, but what they were interested in was the culture.” In the introduction to “Positively Main Street,” Thompson writes, “What we’re concerned with is the past, and not exclusively Bob Dylan’s. An entire generational pudding should ooze through your skull if I play my cards right…”
As part of the Winona Poet Laureate’s First Tuesdays series, Thompson will read this Tuesday, December 5, at 7 p.m., at the Blue Heron Coffeehouse in Winona, followed by a poetry and writing open mic. The event is free.