That Pan-Terrestrial Back-at-Home Jig
In honor of the holiday season, I’ve decided to give you one final gift. That’s right, another post about my visit to Dylan’s birthplace!
What’s left to say, you might ask? Well, quite a bit actually. Because after I posted the tale of the walking tour and all the Dylan landmarks it contained, I realized I’d completely forgotten to share the highpoint of the story. An encounter with … well, read on.
It all began outside of Zimmy’s, a theme bar/restaurant located at the south end of Hibbing’s main street. Not far from the bowling alley where young Bobby Z won numerous trophies and the fancy hotel where the Zimmerman family celebrated his bar mitzvah, Zimmy’s is purposefully nondescript for two reasons. First, it has to blend in with the older, stately shops that make up Hibbing’s main strip; and second, like some medieval Gothic church, it saves its true riches for inside – much as does the body with the soul.
The riches were indeed splendorous, as Tracey and I quickly learned. After enjoying "Forever Young" veggie burgers and local beers, we wandered the room, gazing at the artifacts and holy relics: battered guitars, both acoustic and electric; photos of the pudgy-cheeked Zimmerman in sneering, cigarette-dangling Presley mode; an artist’s rendering of Bobby D in reverse-negative Johnny Cash aspect (wearing a white, rather than a black suit, that is), and, like it was a splintery piece of the true cross, a slightly chipped, but still clearly identifiable plectrum (guitar pick) used by the man himself.
Yet perhaps best of all was a tidbit of information imparted to me by Zimmy’s owner, and the subsequent rendezvous with destiny it inspired.
"Are any of Dylan’s old friends still around?" I asked, wisely avoiding my earlier mistake of seeming to conflate the MILF before me with the now Zayde-esque Bobby D.
"Oh sure, you betcha," she said, waxing eloquent on such local legends as Echo Helstrom, Dylan's all-too-symbolically named high school sweetheart, Mr. Z, a distant Dylan relative referred to only by his initial and (are you sitting down?), Leroy Hoikkala, a former iron ore miner, but at onetime the drummer in Dylan's first band, The Golden Chords.
"His first drummer still lives here?" I stammered, an adenoidal crack exposing my inner adolescent.
"Sure," she said. "In fact, he comes in here all the time. Want to meet him?"
Did I want to meet him? Did I want to touch the hand of God, or at least the hand that touched the hand of God, much less brought forth His righteous thunder?
"I guess," I said, feigning indifference. “Yeah sure. Why not."
And so, after a brief phone call and a seemingly unendurable five-minute wait, the backbeat of God himself entered the room and, spying us, sat down and ordered a drink.
As I did my best not to stammer or break-voice again, I took in the image of the man who knew Dylan before the beginning. Like John the Baptist or one of the other disciples (aside from Judas), the friendly Leroy Hoikalla sat before us, beatifically sipping vodka on the rocks. His crest of silver-blond hair curled forward like the prow of a Viking ship, his blue eyes and large white teeth called to mind fjords, his barrel-like chest--or rather, gut—all but echoed with the resonance of a drum, the slapping skin and whomping boom together heralding the way of the Lord, the Lord our GOD – Robert Zimmerman.
"So you knew Dylan as a kid?"
"What was he like?"
"Oh, you know, a good guy. Yeah, a real good guy."
"Mm hm. Well, was he different at all?"
"Different from other kids in the town?"
"You know, quieter, more creative, angry, that sort of thing."
Leroy tipped his glass slightly so that his ice clinked. Then he slowly set it down and looked directly into my eyes. The blue of his own suddenly seemed as powerful as glaciers.
"He wasn't angry,” he said, lowering his voice a half-octave and speaking slowly, so as to make sure I got his point. “He was just a kid like the rest of us. A friend of mine.”
“Okaaay,” I said, now speaking slowly myself, though more in the way a backpacker might to a threatening bear whose habitat he has trespassed. “I just meant…” But I wasn’t sure how to continue.
Evidently, Leroy took pity on me. Or perhaps he believed he’d put me in my place. Apparently he’d suspected motives.
“We all got along here, it wasn’t a matter of him being Jewish or not…”
“It was just … well, he was like me, one of the outsiders. We were into rock ’n’ roll, motorcycles, that kind of thing.”
“You rode motorcycles?”
“That’s so cool!”
“Yeah,” Leroy said, pleased. “You know, I remember the time Bobby was almost killed on one of our rides.”
“Um hm. We were all out at the railroad tracks and a train was coming, and suddenly Bobby took off like he was going to make it across before the train blocked him. It was impossible, really, but we all liked doing crazy shit like that. He just tore off and when he realized at the last minute that the train was going to beat him, he took the bike down, into all the rocks piled up around the tracks, and he slid almost right under the train. He was just lying there as the side of it went right by his head. We thought he was hurt for sure. But after the train passed he just got up and brushed himself off. ‘Hey Bobby, are you alright?’ I asked. ‘I’m ok,’ he said. ‘You almost just got yourself killed,’ I shouted. ‘I’m ok,’ he said again. ‘How did you feel when you went down?’ another one of our group asked. ‘I was ok,’ he said. And though we kept talking about it for a while and would bring it up again in the weeks to come, he never said much more than that. He didn’t talk much. I guess he was different that way. He was pretty quiet.”
“I should say,” I said, marveling more at the fact that this story was almost like an omen, a prophecy of the mysterious motorcycle mishap of ’66, when Dylan disappeared for a year, only to return never the same. From the surrealist poet of the underground, he emerged the prophesying—and acoustic—John Wesley Harding. It was almost like in the New Testament where the miracles of Jesus fulfill prophecies foretold in the original Five Books of Moses. It was almost religious in its dimensions, and definitely mythic. But I didn’t say any of this to Leroy. I didn’t want to get back on his bad side with such a touchy subject.
Strangely enough, he did so for me.
“Yeah, Bobby didn’t talk much at all, you know. In fact, I remember this girl who had a thing for him and she asked him once what it was like to be Jewish in Hibbing and he didn’t say anything, but he looked unhappy. ‘Don’t ever ask him that,’ one of my friends told her. ‘He doesn’t like to talk about himself. Especially his private life.’ And I guess he didn’t really. Though it always seemed to me he was just quiet in general.”
“What about as a performer? Was he quiet then too?”
Leroy threw his head back and laughed, waving for another drink.
“Oh god no,” he smirked. “I still remember the first time we played together in public. It was at the Civic Auditorium. I think it was the first time he ever played actually.”
In Dylan’s wonderful memoir Chronicles (supposedly only the first in a series), he describes seeing the wrestler Gorgeous George here and being inspired to pursue a music career after the legend winked at him busking in the lobby.
“I thought the first time was at the school talent show?”
I’d read about this in the Dylan Museum time-line. Like the motorcycle mishap, it played out like a foretold prophesy, Zimmerman's classmates mocking him as he rocked much as Dylan’s former acolytes at Newport denounced him for going electric, the principal in this case playing Pete Seeger’s role and threatening to cut the cables.
“Yeah, there was that talent show,” Leroy said. “But this was even before that. It was his first public performance and his first professional one. We were so loud that they ended up shutting us down before we finished. Just cut the juice on us so that we had to stop.”
What? Now I was really confused.
“Didn’t that also happen at the talent show?”
“No, it was at the Civic Center.”
“But I keep reading that the same thing happened at the talent show.”
“I don’t know, maybe it did. But it definitely happened here.”
I didn’t push it and Leroy didn’t seem to care too much either way. He’d said most of his piece about the Bobby that he once knew, and he was working on his third and final drink and feeling the mellow pull of home.
“Well, it was great meeting you,” he said, rising and extending his hand.
“No, great to meet you,” I said, genuinely excited.
This one-time link to the great man, this former drummer in The Golden Chords who brought forth the main volume on which the riotous first performance was based, was a down to earth, natural, easy going sort, completely humble and without pretension. He was faithful and loyal and all those other things that the best are supposed to be. And he did it all with a grace that belied his nondescript, middle-aged image. I could see how he had become Dylan’s friend. And I could see how he had been able to beat those drums. The shake he gave me in parting was powerful to the point of pain, though clearly not intended that way.
“See you,” he called from the door.
‘See you,” we returned in unison.
And it was only then that I realized I’d forgotten to ask the one question that had been on my mind since Leroy had entered. Like the rest of those we’d met, he had a pure Minnesota accent, complete with the laconic monotone slipping into singsong at the ends of sentences and the sures and you betchas. Why then, I’d wanted to ask, had Dylan sounded like Woody Guthrie when he first appeared, only later to speak like a black beatnik and Daffy Duck in turn? What was up with that? Had he always talked that way?
But the man who had helped bang out the word of God for the public was already gone. And God himself certainly wasn’t speaking. At least not to me.
“Damn,” I muttered.
“Damn what?” Tracey asked.
I looked at her, assuming she was joking, but she wasn’t.
‘We’re in Zimmy’s and they just did you a huge favor letting you meet Leroy.”
She looked almost maternal in her concern as she said it, and I realized she was right. It was wrong of me to curse, especially here. I was in Hibbing, at Zimmy’s, in a restaurant named after the great man. I was on hallowed ground.
P.S. Ok, so this turned out to be even longer than my earlier post about Dylan. What can I say? I got on a roll. And considering Dylan was in part revolutionary for breaking the formula of three-minute pop songs, it seems somehow fitting. Just be glad I didn’t throw in a harlequin or some circus imagery. Or Napoleon in rags, for that matter. And the language that he used.
*Regarding the asterisk above in reference to Bobby D’s cousin, a certain Mr. Z., I must admit that in my enthusiasm to track him down, I ended up going through the local phone book and calling all of the Zimmermans I could find. Though they were surprisingly friendly, considering the prank-phone-call possibilities inherent in my question (“Are you related to Bob Dylan?”), none claimed to have any connection. Damn.