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Martin in Minnesota - in the footsteps of Bob Dylan
By Martin Kelner on Sep 4, 2007 - 1:05:23 PM

The trip to Minnesota was only partly Dylan-inspired. I also wanted to see my daughter, layabout student Anna Kelner, who has been spending the summer working at a Friendship Ventures camp near Annandale, looking after disabled people sent away for a week or so in the countryside, largely to give their families a break.

Little did these people know they were entrusting their loved ones to the tender ministrations of carers posessing all the specialised knowledge that only two years dossing around doing a drama degree at Loughborough can provide.

So I arrive at Chicago airport from Manchester to find my flight to Minneapolis cancelled as floods hit the state of Minnesota, and eventually, after many alarums and excursions, board an alternative flight - not the same one that my luggage is on, needless to say.

I get to Minneapolis airport, pick up a rental vehicle, and find that no-one there can give me directions to Annandale/Clearwater where the camp is. Avis were so busy trying to sell me extra insurance and so on that I might as well have been asking them directions to Hardcastles the Family Butcher, of Shrewsbury.

Eventually, someone points me in the right general direction, and I get in a strange car, driving on the wrong side of the road, on a dark drizzly night, while making 'phone calls on my cell 'phone to the three useless numbers my daughter has given me, trying in vain to get more detailed directions to the camp.

By now I have been up for 18 very harassing hours, and I should like to take this opportunity to apologise to anyone driving behind me, West out of Minneapolis on that Sunday night.

The camp turns out to be in the middle of nowhere. Everywhere in Minnesota, apart from Minneapolis and St Paul, is in the middle of nowhere. This is a state the size of the UK with a population of around 5 million, nearly all of whom live in the twin cities.

This is America. There are no pubs out in the country, no people walking about, just big houses with big garages every mile or so, set back from the road, with boats parked in their driveways. Eventually, the only way I can find Anna is by driving up someone's driveway in the dead of night, knocking on their door, and asking.

I was probably that close to being given both barrels for being a sinister Limey like Jeremy Irons, Alan Rickman, or Anthony Hopkins in the movies.

When I did manage to establish my credentials through an almost closed door, the family exhibited all the Minnesota niceness made famous by Garrison Keillor; made phone calls, drew maps for me, offered me food and shelter and a chance to play Yahtzee with their teenaged daughter, and sent me on my way. After a few more wrong turns, I finally reached my destination (the camp was at the end of a dirt road, not just in the back of beyond, but just slightly beyond the back of beyond).

And what a surprise when I penetrated the camp's elaborate security (theft of the handicapped is a big crime in the states apparently)to hear Anna described by the lady running the camp in words I never thought to hear used in connection with her. "She's a really hard worker," said the camp commandant. Cheerful, caring, and not averse to getting up in the middle of the night to help inmates with their toilet visits; that was Anna, apparently.

Not that I doubted for a moment Anna's ability to knuckle down - although I had suggested she become a counsellor at a fat camp, as outdoor activities would be a cinch given the speed those people move at - it's just that she is the first person in our family to do anything worthwhile.

Overnight, then, without luggage, in the Minneapolis Hilton, and breakfast the next morning in Hell's Kitchen, where among the specialities is their own delicious home made peanut butter, in the face of which Anna and I become junkies craving the morning fix. It's possibly the honey and extra sugar in the peanut butter which makes it so delicious.

Despite a drizzly morning, Minneapolis looked brilliant. It is a city of wide open spaces, loads of parkland, and a dozen or so full-size lakes, within the city itself. Also, it has a thriving arts scene. I know tourist guides always say that, but in the case of Minneapolis, it appears to be true. The prosperity of the city was built on grain - the Pilsbury dough boy and all that - and the huge mills on the banks of the Mississippi have been impressively converted into what the Americans would undoubtedly call recreational facilities; like Halifax, but on a vastly bigger scale.

Bob Dylan arrived in Minneapolis in 1959 at the age of 18, ostensibly to study at the University of Minnesota but actually to launch himself on the folk/blues/rock 'n' roll scene. He settled in the hub of that sort of activity, the quaintly named Dinkytown, the mildly bohemian student area of town. Think Burton Road, Manchester, or Woodhouse in Leeds.

We luncheon in Loring's Pasta Bar, on the site of one of young Zimmerman's student flats...

Former layabout student Anna Kelner, outside Loring's Pasta Bar, Dinkytown, Minneapolis

Father of hard-working Anna Kelner, outside Loring's Pasta Bar

Although Dinkytown is more or less the province of Somalian emigres these days, there are still plenty of bars, in one of which, Palmer's, we meet blues veteran Spider John Koerner, who performed with Dylan in Dinkytown during the year Dylan spent there. Spider said he got on fine with Dylan, although the young man's "attitude" was not to everyone's taste.

Radio legend Martin Kelner meets blues legend Spider John Koerner

In the evening, we go to the baseball game between Minnesota Twins and Seattle Mariners, which Seattle win 7-2. Not that many of the crowd will be aware of this, having spent the whole match going backwards and forwards to the plethora of concession stands to keep themselves supplied with popcorn, beer, peanuts in shells, cotton candy, hot dogs, corn dogs, albatross, dubbin, coq au vin on a stick etc. etc. It was not so much a sporting fixture as a running buffet, although there was no need for Kelner to stand on his seat, and shout at the top of his voice: "What's the matter with you fucking people? For pity's sake, sit down and watch the game."

The next day - hideously early - Anna had to be driven back to camp to take care of her charges, and I drove on the 170 miles or so north to Dylan's birthplace, Duluth, on the banks of Lake Superior. Among sites of Dylan significance visited were the home in which he lived from birth until the age of six..

Dylan's childhood home, from 1941 - 1947

Dylan's childhood home, from 1941 - 1947

....and the National Guard Armory in Duluth, where they used to host gigs, and where Dylan saw Buddy Holly on a snowy January night in 1958, just two days before Holly's fatal air crash. Dylan stood right at the front and claims to have made eye contact with Holly. Dylan enthusiasts in Duluth like to see that moment as a symbolic passing of the baton from one generation to the next, and have ambitious plans to revive the armoury as a music and arts centre.

I also went for a drive on Highway 61, along the northern shore of Lake Superior, a spectacularly scenic trip...

Highway 61 Visited

Highway 61 Visited

A giant cock at the side of Highway 61...posing with a wooden chicken.

...taking in Gooseberry Falls State Park, one of the most beautiful and most visited in Minnesota.

Gooseberry Falls

Gooseberry Falls

Duluth, itself, is a slightly worn-out holiday spot, reminiscent of a town like Scarborough, with great natural beauty, but somehow not quite using it to the best advantage. Particularly redolent of slightly down-at-heel seaside resorts was the crypto head shop on the main street..

Urine Cleaner anyone?

Brilliant hotel in Duluth, though, Fitger's Inn, where I had a huge whirlpool bath in my very room. What with adult toys, urine cleaners, and uncensored postcards of Duluth's famous lift bridge, what a night it was..

Lift Bridge

From Duluth, it was North again, 60 or so miles to Hibbing, the iron ore town where Dylan spent his high school years. Again, it's a town that may have seen better days. Mining now is not of quality iron ore, but taconite, a low grade ore, although still in demand. Strangely, the open cast mine, where a great big hole has been ripped in the countryside, is considered a tourist attraction.

Having said that, there is no shortage of countryside to go round. If you are into fishing, camping, hiking, any aspect of the outdoor life, this part of Minnesota is heaven on earth. Needless to say, I am no Davy Crockett, so contented myself with a leisurly drive down Highway 73 with the windows down and a country station on the car radio. Brilliant.

Joe and Mary, who run the Howard Street book store, were my first Dylan contacts in Hibbing. Nice people, and a damn fine bookshop. Also, one of the few businesses in the Western world still using a dial-up inernet connection.

Mary drove me out to the open cast mine - the man-made Grand Canyon, she called it - and on the way back we had a look at the railroad crossing, where an impatient young Bobby Zimmerman almost got hit by a train as a 16-year-old. Mary introduced me to Bob and Linda, who run Zimmy's restaurant and organise Dylan days around Bob's birthday in late May, when fans can visit some of the sites I did.

The most interesting of these is Hibbing High School, the most unbelievably grandiose school you will ever see, with marble staircases, elaborate murals on the walls, and an 1800 seat theatre with priceless chandeliers imported in the 1920s when the school was built, from Czechoslovakia. I got to sit in Zimmerman's very seat, on the front row of Room 305, where he sat enraptured by the literature lectures of his teacher B J Rolfzen, whom I also got to meet. Rolfzen, now 84 and not in brilliant health, still lives across the road from the school. He read me some poetry, and his wife Leona served cake with ice cream as I sat in their spotless living room.

Urinals where Bob Dylan once pissed...

Martin sat at Bob Dylans' School desk.

Eng Lit teacher B J Rolfzen

Hibbing High School, including the toilets where Dylan pissed, me sitting at his desk, and Eng Lit teacher B J Rolfzen

Hibbing has this unbelievable high school because an iron mining company in 1920 discovered ore right under the town, and persuaded everybody to move out, so they could move the town en masse two miles to the south. The mayor insisted on compensation, and the iron company, awash with money, built a series of outrageously lavish public buildings for a small town. Mary from the bookshop, who was a student and then a teacher at the school, was my guide to these fantastic buildings.

Bob and Linda introduced me to Leroy Hoikkala, who was the drummer in Dylan's high school band The Golden Chords...

Bob, Martin and Leroy outside Zimmys

...who said Bob (Zimmerman) was a great high school mate, whose talent was apparent at an early stage. Zimmerman was constantly writing his own little rock 'n' roll ditties, greatly influenced by Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and others. Leroy, 67, also told me rather more about his personal life than I needed to know. A widower, he has a new girlfriend, for whom he enjoys doing a bit of cooking.

Leroy Hoikkala, who was the drummer in Dylan's high school band The Golden Chords...

Other sites of significance visited included the Zimmerman's old home on Seventh Avenue, now renamed Bob Drive thanks to Linda from Zimmy's petitioning every single resident. I also went to the far side of town, beyond even the big Walmart, to Echo Helstrom's old house. Echo was Dylan's high school sweetheart, and probably the model for the Girl Of The North Country.

Androy Hotel

The Zimmerman family electrical store, where Bob's dad Abe worked after leaving Duluth, is long gone, as is Feldman's department store, where Dylan's mum Beattie worked for many years, but the Androy Hotel, where Dylan's barmitzvah was held, is still there.

Bob Dylan's house in Seventh Avenue, now Bob Dylan Drive, Hibbing

I felt that there was an awful lot of affection for the Zimmermans in Hibbing. Apparently, iron ore mining was seasonal work, and during the hard times when the miners were laid off, the family were very good about extending credit. Undeniably, though, young Bobby was incredibly driven - buoyed no doubt by a very secure family life and that privileged soda-fountain-and-cruising-round-in-chromium-rich-cars that teenagers seemed to enjoy in Eisenhower's America - and could not wait to get the hell out of Minnesota, rewrite his own personal history, and show the world what he was capable of.

There are signs, though, that he is beginning to grant his Minnesota childhood the odd, grudging, word of recognition. It is mutual, too.

Minnesota, a state which values niceness above all else, hasn't really made much of a show about claiming the famously grouchy Dylan as one of its own, but I get the feeling that the times may be a'changin'.

(Many thanks to my guides in Minnesota; Paul Sherburne, Beth Satrang, Gene Shaw, Mary and Joe Keyes, Bob Hocking, and Linda Southard)

(A shorter, more considered, and carefully written version of this piece will appear in the travel section of the Mail On Sunday)

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