In his teeming Bob Dylan collection, Bill Pagel has more than 15,000 photos, 4,000 concert posters and 18 four-drawer file cabinets filled with manuscripts and ephemera. He owns the Minnesota native’s childhood homes in Duluth and Hibbing, not to mention little Bobby’s highchair.
Just don’t ask Pagel to analyze the Rock Hall of Famer’s songs, even though he has hundreds of Dylan recordings and bootlegs.
“I’m not an expert. I don’t try to see if there’s any hidden meaning. I just enjoy the music,” Pagel said. “I’m a collector. I’m also an archivist and a preservationist. I’m trying to preserve Bob’s legacy in northern Minnesota.”
Obsessive? Perhaps. Dedicated, for sure. Nerdy, you betcha. And unquestionably over the top.
“I paid way too much for that house,” Pagel said of the Hibbing landmark, specifically $320,000, easily three times its intrinsic value in July 2019. “ ‘End-stage collecting’ is when you start collecting houses right before you’re committed. That’s my demented humor, although there might be some truth in that one.”
At 78, a year younger than Dylan, Pagel is a bit like the enigmatic man he chronicles — determined, idiosyncratic, guarded, frizzy-haired and one of a kind.
In “The Dylanlogists,” a 2014 book about Dylan fanatics, journalist David Kinney described Pagel as “the ultimate Dylan pilgrim.” Around friends, “he is full of left-field wit and cracklingly dry Midwestern sarcasm,” Kinney wrote. One Hibbing pal called the collector a bloodhound who could work for the CIA. Concluded Kinney: “He couldn’t help himself. It was written in his code.”
It takes time for Pagel to warm up to outsiders. Many Bobheads think they know Pagel because he runs the essential Dylan website boblinks.com, the go-to place for concert set lists and reviews with more than 41 million visitors since 1995. Even Dylan’s own team reaches out to Pagel for information and items.
When he’s comfortable with you, the detail-oriented Pagel will share stories about his pursuit of Dylanabilia, as he did in a recent three-hour phone call from Hibbing.
With every artifact comes a story. Like the first piece in Pagel’s collection. Fittingly, it was where it all started for Dylan’s career: the Sept. 29, 1961, New York Times review of the 20-year-old singer that led to his first recording contract.
“A friend of mine from New York City who lived across the hall from me when I was going to the University of Wisconsin told me about some of the folk music he’d heard in the Village in the summer. Bob Dylan’s name came up,” Pagel remembered. “That fall Robert Shelton did the review in the New York Times, and I saved the edition when it came out. I bought it on the newsstand. It’s in a plastic sleeve now. Not pristine but it’s a nice thing to have.”
The holy grail
For dogged collector Pagel, the holy grail was the Hibbing house where the aspiring singer lived from 1948 until 1959 when he headed to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. For several years, Pagel badgered Gregg and Donna French, who had purchased the modest two-story stucco home in 1990 for $50,000 from the family to whom widowed Beatty Zimmerman (Dylan’s mom) sold it when she moved to St. Paul.
“The Frenches never really committed [to selling],” said Pagel, who had bought the house next door in 2010. “It wasn’t like we were bargaining. I did pay a premium ’cause it’s a collector’s house. That’s not a Hibbing price for that kind of house.”
Pagel moved to Hibbing in 2001 from Wisconsin Rapids to work as a pharmacist — and pursue Dylan collectibles. He specializes in paper — manuscripts, letters, newspaper clippings, books, photos, posters, fliers, tickets, backstage passes.
He has accumulated Hibbing phone books that include the Zimmermans’ listing as well as many Hibbing High School yearbooks with Bob Zimmerman’s signature.
Three of Pagel’s prized possessions came from people who knew Dylan in New York in the early ’60s:
• Typed lyrics for “Go Away You Bomb,” a 1963 song Dylan wrote for Izzy Young of the Folklore Center that was never recorded. Pagel acquired the only known copy of the lyrics at auction.
• Lyrics to “Ballad of Donald White” scribbled in a copy of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Tales of a Wayside Inn,” a 1906 book from a Brooklyn school library that Dylan had on the kitchen table of the McKenzie home where he lived for a few months in 1961.
• A letter from Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s girlfriend who was at college in Europe, to her mother, urging Mom to stop saying bad things to and about her boyfriend.
Ever cagey, Pagel won’t say what he’s paid for some pricey pieces. “Let’s just say I could have bought a very nice car, and in some cases more than one car, for what I spent on an individual manuscript,” he demurred.
Finding the highchair
One of Pagel’s ultimate treasures is the highchair. The story of the acquisition may be as priceless as the object itself.
In 1993, Pagel attended Hibbing’s centennial celebration. At a table featuring memorabilia, he noticed a small plastic pouch with a photo of young Bobby Zimmerman “with a thumb tack going right through the middle of his head on a bulletin board.” Inside the pouch was a folded piece of paper that read:
I gave Julie Znidar Bob Zimmerman Dylan’s highchair when we moved in 1968.
(signed) Beatty Zimmerman Rutman
Pagel went directly to the nearest pay phone, looked up Znidar’s number, called her and arranged to purchase the highchair, photo and note of provenance.
The highchair sits in the second story of a Duluth duplex, Dylan’s first home, which Pagel bought in 2001 on eBay, of all places.
“I was the second-highest bidder; I lost out to a group of buyers from Minneapolis,” he recalled. “It turns out that they were unable to come up with the money in the 30 days following the auction. At that point, I just made a private offer to the seller and she accepted it.”
Every state but two
Pagel grew up in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, collecting stamps, coins and baseball cards and listening to blues and jazz on the radio. While studying electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin (he eventually switched to a pharmacy major), he got turned on to folk music and bought Dylan’s 1962 debut album and many, many more records after that.
However, the avid fan did not see Dylan in concert until 1974 on the comeback tour with the Band. Since then, he has witnessed more than 500 concerts in every state but Hawaii — and Alaska, where Dylan has yet to play. He’s also caught up with Dylan in several European countries. In 1981, Pagel saw all 31 shows on the North American tour, putting 12,000 miles on his car.
In late 2019, Pagel enjoyed three of the 10 Dylan shows at New York’s Beacon Theatre, his most recent gigs. He doesn’t see the bard as often as he used to because set lists seldom change.
Don’t think Pagel is just a one-artist music lover. He experienced countless Grateful Dead, Who and Rolling Stones concerts back in the day. His most recent non-Dylan show was New Orleans jazz trumpeter Nicholas Payton in Chicago in December.
Pagel, who retired in late 2018, concentrates on restoring the Hibbing and Duluth houses, with an eye to opening them to visitors. Hoping to maintain the original integrity based on photos he tracked down of the Duluth duplex, he is looking for Armstrong linoleum pattern #5352 flooring, which was discontinued in the mid-1990s but, he learned, is returning this year.
Pagel is ever in pursuit of more Hibbing-related artifacts, specifically furniture from the Zimmerman house, Bobby’s teen guitar and anything handwritten from his Iron Range days.
A solitary man with little family besides his married sister in Kansas City and her children, Pagel has been working on a permanent exhibit in the Duluth Armory and talking with curators about donating items to the official Bob Dylan Center, which will open in Tulsa, Okla., in fall 2021, showcasing Dylan’s own personal memorabilia.
“I’ve given things away. I’ve traded with other collectors,” said Pagel, who has staged small exhibitions in New York, Chicago and Duluth. “I don’t do a lot of selling. I’m not in this to make money.”
Pagel knows Dylan is aware of him. He senses that the mysterious superstar might have an appreciation for the restoration of the houses because, after all, Dylan visited the childhood homes of James Dean in Fairmount, Ind., Neil Young in Winnipeg and John Lennon and Paul McCartney in Liverpool.
What would Pagel ask the Minnesota icon if he had the opportunity for just one question?
“In the Duluth house, which bedroom was yours — the one in the front off the dining room or the one in the back off the kitchen?”
Spoken like a true historian.