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Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography, Part One

Part one of a look at the rise of an icon, from his beginnings in Minnesota to his heights in Greenwich Village

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan on Issue No. 104

Following is the first of two lengthy excerpts from Anthony Scaduto’s authoritative biography of Bob Dylan, to be published by Grosset & Dunlap on February 29th. Together, the two Rolling Stone segments add up to a total of approximately 35,000 words, which is substantially less than a third of the book’s length. Thus, the book in its entirety is recommended to serious followers of the Dylan legend — and who among us these days isn’t that?

Anthony Scaduto is a former police and court reporter accustomed to ferreting out hard facts and making them stick. This he has done in tracing Dylan’s development as both man and artist. The end product is a richly-detailed and penetrating portrait of Dylan — and what Dylan mirrors of our times.

— Grover Lewis.

Dylan used to tell us that he came out doing it — out of the womb, singing and playing and writing,” folk-singer S. David Cohen, formerly known as Dave Blue, likes to recall. That’s an exaggeration, certainly, but possibly not by that much; at least, Bob Dylan said it so often, with so many variations, that he must have come half way to believing it. A man who is cloaking himself in myth must believe in his own magic to make it all work. “After a while,” a close friend from the early days recalls, “he didn’t seem to know any more what was truth and what was his own creation.”

During one of our talks, Dylan conceded that I was “right on target” in discussing the inner Self that he could not repress, that brought him so much pain he had to make himself invisible, and provided him with the strength to reach for higher levels of consciousness.

Eric von Schmidt, folksinger, songwriter, illustrator, writer of children’s books, was close to Dylan in his early professional years. He recalls: “Dylan’s mind seemed to make strange jumps, like electricity. His mind was the most exciting . . . like a calypso mind, making instantaneous sorts of connections, relating seemingly unrelated things and putting them together into something marvelous. He doesn’t go from A to B to C and so on — he can jump from A to G while other people are plodding on. He doesn’t need to plod. He is able to make connections, not out of something he studies, but viscerally.”

Von Schmidt recalls: “Dylan was continually inventing himself,” as a circus hand, carnival boy, road bum, musician, and many other roles in what have come to be called the Dylan myths. One of those myths was that he had started running away when he was ten, got picked up by the police and sent home, and ran away again. But he never actually ran away as a child; he ran from, and within, himself, because of what his parents wanted him to be, what the educators wanted him to be, what Hibbing, Minnesota, wanted him to be.

He was going to be Bob Dylan (whoever Bob Dylan might be), not Robert Allen Zimmerman. As he matured, he built a new identity every step of the way in order to escape identity; he would pursue privacy as some pursue notoriety.

Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography, Part Two

Echo Helstrom and Bob began going steady in Hibbing about a month after they met. He gave her his identification bracelet. “A symbol of our belonging to each other,” Echo says. “We were really in love. Everybody laughs at kids when they fall in love, saying how they don’t know what it all means or anything, but that’s not true.

“By the time I met him it was just understood that music was his future. All along we knew there was no other way for him to get out of there, to leave Hibbing. I just knew he had to go on to his career, his singing. I accepted it on those terms, that when school was over, after graduation, he would be off and gone. Get out of Hibbing.”

Echo’s mother, Martha Helstrom, recalls: “Bob and John Buckland always talked big dreams together about how they were going to make it. They decided whichever got to be famous first would help the other one. They were always planning about being in the limelight, get all the world’s attention, stuff like that. Elvis Presley — the idea was to be like him.”

“When I first met Bobby he claimed he was an Okie, a real Okie,” says Gretel Pelto, who was Gretel Hoffman back then while she and Bob were students at the University of Minnesota and residents of Minneapolis’ student quarter, Dinkytown. “He never talked about Steinbeck because Bobby was, at least superficially, non-intellectual, a primitive. He sort of was one of Steinbeck’s characters. He had a whole set of original stories that he was an Okie, that he was an orphan. And that he’d been on the road for years as a piano player.

“There was this thing about his imagination; sometimes he didn’t know what was truth any more. I knew about Zimmerman within a few weeks of the time I met him. He said that Dylan was his mother’s name. There were a hundred stories about his background. Then it dawned on us that they were all stories. But it didn’t matter. He was so vivid, so interesting, so much fun that I came to the conclusion after a while I didn’t care about the quote unquote truth about what he was.”

A Minneapolis girl, her mother a professional photographer, Gretel had been to Bennington for a while, was a dancer, played the guitar, and was part of the scene. She met Dylan in a folk club called The Scholar around February, 1960, about the time he was giving up on college. He was living above a drugstore by then, a short walk from The Scholar. She would get together with him and play the guitar, and she remembers introducing him to the old New Orleans whorehouse song, “House of the Rising Sun.”

Dylan, tracing some of his roots in a conversation a couple of years later: “And then you arrive at Woody Guthrie, who sounds pretty weird and obviously looks like you . . .”

He became Woody Guthrie. Paul Nelson, writer and editor, who knew Dylan at the university, would later write: “He was moving so rapidly that one could say his only style was that of transition, both in his artistic and personal life. It took him about a week to become the finest interpreter I have yet heard of the songs of Woody Guthrie.”

Dylan’s stories began to change to fit his changing identity. “I met Woody once in California,” he told friends. Some of Bob’s friends knew he would have had to be very young to have seen Woody in California, because of Woody’s illness, but they never let on that they suspected him of lying. As blues singer John Koerner put it: “I never bothered thinking about any of that.”

Ellen Baker was exactly Dylan’s age (one day younger) and a student at the university. Her mother was a Minneapolis grade school teacher, her father an industrial chemist who has been a folk music collector for years, with a house full of all the old People’s Songs, Sing Outs!, folklore material up to the rock era, and hundreds of recordings. The Baker house, on Gerard Street, not far from the university, was a second meeting room for the kids in the Folk Song Club at the school, and for other folkies. Once a week or so, for years, the place was filled with kids playing, informal, with coffee and cake and a lot of music.

“Some of the people around used to call him ‘That itinerant Jewish folk singer,'” Ellen recalls. “He wanted so much to be part of what he was singing about. I used to ask him, ‘How’s the man of the soil today?’ And that’s what he was.

“He so absolutely became Woody Guthrie in the months I knew him well, from September to about December. ‘We’re going to go see Woody in New York,’ he used to tell me all the time. He was painfully sincere in his feelings. He had an obsession about Woody Guthrie, and going to see him. And people used to put him on about it, especially when he was drunk. We’d be at a party and a couple of them would say, ‘Woody’s outside, Bob. Woody’s here. Woody wants to see you.’ And Bob would go dashing down into the snow in his shirtsleeves, crying, ‘Hey, Woody, where are you? Wait, Woody, wait!’ It got a big laugh. Very disgusting people.”

Ellen’s mother sensed some of the conflicts in Dylan. Mrs. Baker recalls: “I had the feeling he was a little lost boy. I felt he was rejecting a lot of things, sort of traveling in disguise. He built a character for himself and it’s hard living up to that. I felt it was just a posture, at first. I took it as a kind of chutzpah thing, this little kid making a model on a Woody Guthrie. I didn’t think of it as genius. I thought it was imitative.

“At the same time, there was this intensity, this singleness of purpose, within the boy. Whatever it was, he got a lot of support from inside himself. He was not compromising. He was going to entertain, that was what he was going to do. He was withdrawn, but I think inside he was on all the time. Once he lighted on Guthrie it all began to come together for him.”

Dylan had been in Minneapolis a year by the time Ellen got to know him well, and in that year he had grown a great deal. And Dylan felt the growth, and was very much aware that he had something. There was also a toughening of spirit and a deepening cynicism — even about Woody. A few who were very close to Bob at this stage felt that in adopting the Guthrie identity Bob was coldly calculating: he knew Guthrie was dying, was no longer able to write or perform, and that a vacuum existed in the folk world. A vacuum that could be filled by a young man named Dylan.

Most of his Minneapolis friends, however, don’t believe it was as conscious as all that. More likely, he intuitively seized on Guthrie as the final piece that would fully complete his identity.

John Koerner: “I don’t know about conscious designs. What it was, mostly, is that he was going to New York to see Guthrie and to get into a situation where some of the stuff he was doing could develop.”

But even his closest friends didn’t believe he would make it. “We all laughed,” Hugh Brown recalls. “It’s so easy to say ‘