Dylan book 'Positively Main Street' back in print
What a long, strange trip it must've been. In the late '60s, 24-year-old Toby Thompson traveled from Washington, D.C., to Hibbing to chronicle Bob Dylan's formative years (without the singer's help). The trip spawned a series in The Village Voice...
What a long, strange trip it must've been.
In the late '60s, 24-year-old Toby Thompson traveled from Washington, D.C., to Hibbing to chronicle Bob Dylan's formative years (without the singer's help).
The trip spawned a series in The Village Voice and "Positively Main Street," which, until recently, had been out of print and hard to find. The book features numerous interviews with the legendary troubadour's family, neighbors and lovers, but it is perhaps best known for the relationship sparked between its author and Echo Helstrom -- most certainly the inspiration for Dylan's 1963 classic "Girl From the North Country."
To celebrate the book's reissue by the University of Minnesota Press, Thompson (now 63 and an associate professor of creative writing at Penn State University) spoke to the Budgeteer in a phone interview from his summer home in Montana.
Budgeteer: Are you still a big Bob Dylan fan?
Thompson: Oh yeah, of course. I was down in Chile on vacation back in March, and I saw him down there as a matter of fact -- which was quite amazing, because there were 12,000 Chileans in this arena and they were singing along to every verse of his songs. So, yeah, I saw him there, and I see him every couple years or whatever. I saw him in Bozeman, Mont., a couple years ago and he was great there. Of course, I'm a huge Dylan fan.
Do you remember exactly when you became a fan?
I discovered Dylan in '62 or '63, after his first album came out. I had started to play folk and blues, mostly, after studying jazz guitar. I just became a big fan then. And then, of course, when the "Freewheelin'" album came out, with his original songs, I was totally blown away. I never stopped listening to him, but I actually listened to him more as a writer afterwards then as a singer or performer, although I must say that I do love his voice and the way he phrases lyrics.
Did you ever end up meeting Dylan?
No, not met him. I have several mutual friends, as a matter of fact, and I've corresponded with him via his agent. I had an assignment from Rolling Stone back in '94, I think it was, to do a profile of him, and we corresponded through his agent. But, no, I've not met him personally.
Did you guys ever discuss the book during that correspondence?
He wanted to see the book again. He had seen it when it first came out, and he told Echo -- who is the main character in the book and, you know, probably the inspiration for "Girl From the North Country" -- that, "You came off pretty good in the book." And various people over the years have told me that he has read it and liked it. ... He said in Rolling Stone that he thought he understood what I was trying to do in those articles (in The Village Voice) and that he wouldn't have read them if he thought that I was just using him to, you know, get them published.
With the Internet today, and gas prices what they are, do you think you still would've done a book like this if you'd had gone out on your own without a budget?
[Laughs] It would've been, believe me, a lot tougher. I was just in a Dylan daze, and the amount of money it took to get out there -- I mean, the combination of motel prices and gasoline prices -- I would've had to, I think, save a lot more. But, you know, I think I would've scraped together the money somewhere and been able to do it.
When you first arrived in Hibbing, were you surprised by the lack of Dylan records in the town's record store?
I was really surprised by that. And they still called him Bobby "Die-lan"; they didn't know how to pronounce his name. They were not terribly impressed by Bob while he was there and, after he had gone, particularly after he had made disparaging remarks about Hibbing, there was no image of him anywhere -- I mean, except in the basement of his house, which of course I was able to get inside of and see the shrine there that his father had created, with all the posters and the Dylan memorabilia and stuff that was down there. Now it's totally different. Well, it's not totally different, but the people who run Zimmy's (a Dylan-themed restaurant) and who organize Dylan Days certainly are very much pro-Dylan. You know, I think, for the most part, his musical style and perspective on the world eludes the interest of most of the people who live in Hibbing.
Have you stayed in contact with Echo or anyone else from the book after it was published?
I communicate with Echo one way or the other, usually about every five years or so. She's out in California now and ... you know, it's funny: When I was at Dylan Days, both her first cousin and her sister were around, and I had a chance to speak at length with both of them. I signed a book for Echo, and the first cousin said she was going to get it to Echo. And then the next day we had the Dylan tour -- which is a wonderful bus tour, if you've never taken it. It stops at Echo's house, and I have photographs of her sitting in this swing that Dylan used to sit in and play his guitar out in front of the house. As I was looking at that, Echo's sister came up in this golf cart. She lives next door [Laughs] and she's quite a bit older than Echo, so she uses this golf cart to get around. We chatted for some length about Echo, and Echo had called her the day before to send her best to me. Yeah, we stay kind of in touch, but she moves around a lot and she's sort of hard to find. Dylan stays in touch with her too. Not quite as often as I do, but I would guess every seven or eight years. He has this uncanny ability to find her, even though she moves about every couple years. But he does.
Do you go to Dylan Days a lot, or did you just go there once?
This was the first time I've been to Dylan Days. I've been back to Hibbing maybe four times since 1969, just driving through. I have a summer house in Montana, so I head west from the East Coast....
What led to the reissue of the book?
What happened was I participated in the University of Minnesota's conference "Bob Dylan's American Journey," which happened about a year ago in March. People started coming up to me with copies of the original edition, which has been out of print since 1977 -- these were copies that they had carried with them from all around the country and, indeed, as far away as Japan. I signed 25 copies of this book that had been out of print since 1977, so I got in touch with my agent and said, "We need to start trying to get this thing back into print." The University of Minnesota Press was one of the first to make an offer. And they've turned out to be the perfect press to redo this, because of the Minnesota contacts and stuff, if nothing else. It's a handsome book; they do very nice books.
After the book came out, what other types of works did you do?
... I'm an associate professor of creative writing at Penn State University. I have continued to write a couple of other books that are in print. I have written for numerous magazines, like Vanity Fair, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Playboy and dozens of others, so I've never stopped writing.
Have any of your other books caught on like the Dylan one -- or does it still draw the most fans?
The Dylan book is the one that I have continuously gotten mail about over the years. Even before this edition was reprinted, it sold in used editions on eBay and stuff; but I still get notes from the other books. I wrote one book called "Saloon," which was after the Dylan book. I just decided, in '72, to take off on this sort of countrywide search for the great American bar. [Laughs] ... And then I did a book about the 1960s ("The '60s Report"). But the Dylan book, you know, is the one that gets the most interest because it's such a quirky book, and it's such a personal book and [Pauses] because it's about Dylan.
I'm not the biggest Bob Dylan fan, but I find the book fascinating -- just your writing style and this adventure you chose to go on just so abruptly, it seems.
Well, thank you. You know, I had just gotten out of graduate school -- where I had started writing mostly fiction -- and I didn't really know what I was doing. And there's a terrific freedom when you don't know that there are rules to be broken. As I said, obviously I was under the influence of Tom Wolfe and other journalists of that time. But, you know, I teach memoir writing today, and I had no idea that when I was writing this book that, essentially, it would be a kind of memoir -- that it would be more about me, really, than Dylan. But I think what I realized, even as a 24-year-old writer, was that this obsessive Dylan fandom, the state of being a fan, was an important story, and that Dylan, particularly the professional Dylan, did not exist without this kind of fan and that there was a terrible kind of complicity in the kind of hero worship and hero posturing that rock and roll stars were going to come up with.
If Dylan had had a better reception while he was living in Hibbing, do you think that he would've had the same career?
He said once somewhere in some interview that, "Do you think that if I would've made the basketball team I'd be doing this?" I mean, sure, it was his way of making his mark and standing out. As Echo says in the book, he was this goody two-shoes who wanted to be a bad boy. Rock and roll and, indeed, Echo allowed him to be a bad boy. In pictures after about age 15, you rarely see Dylan standing around Hibbing -- or anywhere, for that matter -- without a guitar in his hand.
Finally, looking back at the book, is there anything you wish you would've done differently?
Not really, you know. I seem to have had an instinct for how to find the story. And I think, given the amount of time that I had to spend, the journey aspect of it -- rather than the formal biographical research element that it might've had -- gave the narrative the juice, whatever juice that it possesses. So I think that I got to most, if not all, of the important people who were left around Hibbing and Minneapolis. The book has had a life that I never would've thought it would have when I wrote it. I finished writing it in the fall of 1969, and it took a little over a year to come out because a couple of different publishers got involved. ... I don't think that I would change anything substantive. I've had opportunity in this new edition, and I did tinker with a little of the prose; but I didn't change anything factually unless I just simply got somebody's name wrong in the original edition. It's basically the same book as the one I wrote in 1969.
NEWS TO USE
The reissued and expanded edition of Toby Thompson's "Positively Main Street: Bob Dylan's Minnesota" is available now through the University of Minnesota Press. Visit www.upress.umn.edu for more information.