I first heard of Bob Dylan in the late 1980s.
I was a high-school junior in suburban Milwaukee and came across his albums at the public library. They were his folk records from the early 1960s, heavy on protest songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They are a-Changin’," their sleeves encased in thick rubberized plastic like fragile relics.
I assumed his name was pronounced dialin’ as in stylin’. I did not yet associate him with the paunchy guy in the Members Only jacket who was the worst thing about “We Are The World.”
He sounded, of course, like an 80-year-old asthmatic trapped under a barbell. Like he just didn’t care.
Here is a guy, I thought, who knows how to get chicks.
My instincts were not great. At 17, I had a mullet and a pencil-thin mustache, as though I couldn’t decide whether to play hockey or open a speakeasy. I watched a lot of old movies, and my romantic role models were Errol Flynn and Bob Hope. I was all set to seduce your grandmother.
It didn’t matter to me that Dylan was less hip in 1988 than Rice-A-Roni. Our heroes have a way of collapsing time. They’re there when we need them — for whatever reason, in whatever form we require. Young Elvis Presley. Old Johnny Cash. Folkie Dylan.
There was something of Dylan in his scruffy, earnest, protest-song incarnation that I wanted: idealism, self-invention, a young Joan Baez.
And perhaps because no one else wanted it, it seemed there for the taking.
Just like Dylan
My parents found a cheap nylon-string guitar for me. I bought a Dylan biography and studied the first few chapters where Dylan comes down from Hibbing to the University of Minnesota in 1959, steals his friends’ folk records, and hits the Dinkytown coffeehouses.
Studied it like a blueprint, until it seemed doable.
I’d never been to Minnesota, save for one night in a tree-less campground off I-90, when my family was en route to the Black Hills. But it sounded, to a kid stuck in a cramped bedroom of tube socks and model airplanes, like one long night of candles in wine bottles. A dim room of young women in tall boots reading thick books. A place to get famous.
In the fall of 1990, my parents delivered me to Centennial Hall at the U — I’d turned down a full scholarship elsewhere to go.
I ordered a Dylan-esque worker’s cap, flat and blue, from Northern Sun on Lake Street, hung a Dylan poster in my dorm room, and headed up to Dinkytown.
It never occurred to me that things might have changed since the early 1960s. Musical tastes. The coffeehouse scene. Our tolerance for people who drop the “g” from present participles, as in dyin’ and ramblin’.
I knew Dylan left long ago, for New York and rock music and celebrity. What I didn’t know was what it meant to grow up. To move on. To end one phase of life and begin another.
The coffeehouses I’d read about were gone: the Ten O’clock Scholar was a Hollywood Video; the Purple Onion, where Dylan slept in a back room the night before leaving for New York, was a hair salon. The only folksingers still hanging around were grey-haired ghosts, haunting broken-down West Bank bars I was too young to patronize.
One night I went to a campus concert by a couple of Dylan’s old Dinkytown pals and asked them about him, as though he’d only recently left town. They paused while packing up their guitars, looked me up and down, and gave me a story about Dylan stealing their frozen steaks.
Leaving my hero behind
Shortly after graduation, in the mid-1990s, it was my job at the Minneapolis bureau of The Associated Press to update the obituaries of famous Minnesotans. Prince, Mondale, Dylan. Alive enough in real life. But in a server on the fourth floor of a bunker-like building near the Metrodome, they had all been dead for a long time.
On slow news days, I would pull up the obits and add recent marriages and divorces, accomplishments and failures. All that remained to be filled in was age and cause of death.
Suddenly I was in control of Dylan’s story, our roles reversed.
It’s a truism that the lives of celebrities are no longer their own, but neither are their deaths. The tributes I updated — like those recently eulogizing David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Glen Frey, Rocky Rococo — would be used to mark the passing of eras, a kind of cultural open casket for everyone to peer into one last time.
Yet it’s our own lives we mourn when our heroes die. An innocence lost. A time when they meant something to us, when they changed our trajectory.
By the time I landed at The Associated Press, I hadn’t thought about Dylan in years. It turned out that my college friends were into grunge music. I didn’t care for coffee or coffeehouses. I never played my guitar outside my room.
Dylan, as quickly as he’d entered my life, had slipped away. He’d marooned me in Minnesota, where I’ve been ever since — longer than he was. He got me this far, which was just far enough, and I got what I wanted.
Tim Gihring is a former editor of Minnesota Monthly magazine. His reporting and essays have appeared in Best Food Writing, Fodor’s, Salon and newspapers around the world. He authored the Star Tribune's Debut Dad blog last year.
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