May 24 is fast approaching, and Minnesota music fans know what that means: Bob Dylan's birthday (he'll turn 67) and the attendant events, including Dylan Days in Hibbing, Minn., next weekend and the Dylan Soundalike Contest Friday at the 400 Bar in Minneapolis.
This May also brings three new books to the Dylan library -- well, actually two new titles and a reissue. One is the most anticipated Dylan book since his own 2004 memoir: Suze Rotolo, his pre-Joan Baez girlfriend and early muse, reflects on 1960s Greenwich Village -- and her boy Bobby. The Pulitzer-winning legend himself contributes a coffee-table book of paintings. And the reissue explores Dylan's Minnesota roots.
All three merit attention for even casual fans of Minnesota's most revered musical icon.
"POSITIVELY MAIN STREET: BOB DYLAN'S MINNESOTA"
By Toby Thompson (University of Minnesota Press, $15.95)
Toby Thompson was -- not necessarily in this order -- a Dylan fan, an aspiring journalist and one crazy dude from Washington, D.C. In 1968, the 25-year-old set out to discover Dylan's roots, so he drove his VW all the way to Hibbing -- twice.
First published in 1971 (with the subtitle "An Unorthodox View of Bob Dylan"), "Positively Main Street" is positively entertaining in a Hunter S. Thompson kind of way. It's New Journalism, as they called it 40 years ago, with all the self-indulgent details of Thompson's (Toby, that is) consumption of Grain Belt beers as he bounced on Dylan's childhood bed, sat in Dylan's desk at Hibbing High and made music with Dylan's 11th-grade girlfriend (a k a "Girl of the North Country").
Thompson tracked down anybody who knew "Die-lan" (as the Hibbingites called him), including the guy at the local music store, the guy at the motorcycle shop, his English and music teachers, his uncles, his brother David and even his reluctant but ultimately charmingly chatty mother. Of course, Thompson traveled into a few dead ends. But the stuff with Dylan's mom and his high school girlfriend, Echo Helstrom, is priceless.
"Positively" is a free-wheelin', fun and quick read that is surprisingly informative. The only update is a 2005 interview with Thompson, now a professor of (surprise!) creative writing at Penn State, conducted by a British Dylan fanzine. He sounds deeply thoughtful -- no, make that erudite -- and nowhere near as much fun as he was in 1968.
"A FREEWHEELIN' TIME: A MEMOIR OF GREENWICH VILLAGE IN THE SIXTIES"
By Suze Rotolo (Broadway, $22.95)
The cover photo is iconic: an outtake for the cover of Dylan's second album, 1963's "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan." It's the singer strolling arm in arm on a snowy winter's day with girlfriend Rotolo.
She was reluctant to cash in her Dylan chip until he wrote his own memoir and she was interviewed for the 2005 Dylan documentary "No Direction Home."
Chronologically, "Freewheelin' Time" picks up Dylan's story where Thompson's "Positively Main Street" left off -- his move to New York -- but this book really is more about Rotolo and the 1960s New York that shaped Dylan. Eschewing a ghostwriter, Rotolo, a visual artist, is reasonably articulate, with a flair for vivid descriptions of settings, people, and the intellectual and musical environment.
For all but the most intense Dylan fans, a good-sized magazine article could cover what we learn about him in these 369 pages. Rotolo, who was with Dylan from 1961 to '65, writes about how he'd primp in front of a mirror to achieve his carefully disheveled look. He made up stories about his background, "calmly and knowingly" said "I am going to be big" and was seldom "swayed by outside demands or requests."
"Bobby had an impish charm that older women found endearing," writes Rotolo, who was three years his junior. "He had a touch of arrogance, a good dose of paranoia, and a wonderful sense of the absurd. But Bobby was also tough and focused and he had a healthy ego. The additional ingredients protected the intensive sensitivity. As an artist he had what it took to become a success."
"BOB DYLAN: THE DRAWN BLANK SERIES"
For his first museum exhibit (in Chemnitz, Germany) Dylan painted 322 watercolors and gouaches in eight months in 2007, based on pencil and charcoal sketches he'd done between 1989 and '92. This book contains 170 of them -- portraits, still lifes, landscapes, interiors and city scenes, in a style that recalls his painting for the 1970 album "Self Portrait."
Four experts, including Diana Widmaier Picasso (who has published books of her famous grandfather's works), weigh in with essays on Dylan's paintings. Let's just say that his art, like his voice, is an acquired taste.
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719