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