Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Man Who Knew

Back in 2005, I was living in Duluth, MN. This was significant to me as a fan of Bob Dylan--I didn't move there there to find inspiration, necessarily, but, perhaps owing to my exposure to hundreds of hours of Dylan music, I told myself I recognized things: themes, vibes, scenes, moods. On a rainy day in Duluth, even though the song may have nothing to do with the town itself, "You're A Big Girl Now" can be felt, deep in the depths of your soggy soul. Is this true on a rainy day in any town? Perhaps. Something about looking out over that frigid water, though...

I wrote about Bob a couple of months after his 64th birthday, and am reposting it here. A friend of mine, who went to high school with Bob, announced he was retiring from his job as a math teacher. (No proof will ever be revealed but I always told myself that he was the the mathematician from the song. Too cool to be true, I'm sure...). It occurred to me that, because he was famous, Bob Dylan would never have a retirement like J. This is both a bad and good thing. As long as he is enjoying his work, no need to retire, but...we listeners tend to be relentless in our desire for artists to never disappoint, and who needs that kind of pressure when you're old? Even if he did announce that he was going to retire, we would likely get pissy about it--it's selfish of us, but we call it love.

It also occurred to me, as a resident of Duluth, that although the man is celebrated there, as he is in Hibbing and most places in Minnesota, that there were no real tributes in the town. You can't take a tour of the house where his family lived when they brought him home from St. Mary's Hospital, for example. Somebody owns that house and last I heard, people live there.

I wondered, what will it take for Duluth to say the fact that one of the greatest poets in human history was born there is historically significant. I think they are getting there, thanks in large part to other musicians who make the town their home, and also to the great former mayor, Don Ness, who nurtured the local music scene during his recent tenure.

When Prince died, and we all snapped into the perspective that can only be found through loss, we wanted to scoop up our remaining treasures and protect them from harm--or rather, protect ourselves from the pain of losing yet another. We started to look at the ages of our icons and realized that would could be in for a hell of a rough patch of grieving. With Prince, we mourned in a way that we knew was meaningful to Prince--we danced, all night. Perhaps with Bob, when that day comes, we will look to things that had meaning to Bob. For Duluthians, there is none more notable than that fateful night at Winter Dance Party when he and a group of friends went to see Buddy Holly play at the armory. Bob would later say that Buddy Holly *looked at him*, and that's when he "knew". That's when he decided who he was. It's one of the biggest days in music history.

Happy 75th to the man who knew.

I live in Duluth, MN, where Bob Dylan was born, and Duluthians are funny about Bob Dylan. And by funny I don't mean "funny-ha-ha", I mean "Funny", like we are a 6th grade girl crushing on a cute boy in our school, and we never say word one about our undying affection for the cute boy to the boy himself-we "tell" him by telling our best girlfriend, with the implied reason for our admission being that our best girlfriend will then tell the cute boy's best friend, and the information will somehow filter on down to the cute boy himself without us having to make an actual gesture to the boy in person.

And then, we rise or fall depending on what the cute boy does with the information.


When Bob accepted his Grammy for Album of the Year in 1998, he mentioned seeing Buddy Holly at the Duluth National Guard Armory when he was a teenager, and this simple comment gave a serious kick in the butt to the notion that The Armory building, which was facing a wrecking ball, might be worth saving for historical purposes.

I remember watching the Grammys that night, and, since I live here, in the town where he was born, thanking my lucky stars that I was taping it, because a clip of Bob Dylan saying ANYTHING in reference to Duluth, MN is like a piece of broadcasting gold in this town. Duluth television news programs played that clip several times. As for me, being part of a morning radio show, I dutifully took my VHS tape into the studio the next morning early, so I would have time to edit it for our use. I was not the only one, though-every radio station in town played it and talked about it, including Lew Lotto, a local radio show host who had been the MC and promoter of the Duluth stop of the Winter Dance Party back in 1959, the very show Bob attended. (Later, when I had the opportunity to work with Lew, I was fortunate to hear his story of that night.)

It is true that any time Bob Dylan utters the word "Duluth," a lot of Duluth residents go a bit nuts. Not an understatement. If you want to continue with the earlier metaphor, I would say it is akin to the cute boy admitting to some uninterested 3rd party that he has seen the crushing girl "around school."
Not only did Bob mention seeing Buddy Holly in Duluth, at the Armory, but later that same year he played a concert here, taking the stage here for the first time ever.

The newspaper from the next day ran a full front page story, with people in the article commenting on the fact that Bob "smiled," when he was on stage here. Did I mention that we are like 6th-grade-girls...?

We were beyond thrilled. The air felt different, and the town was electrified. People start thinking about things like one of the last documented times he was here-Winter Dance Party in 1959, when Buddy Holly played and teenagers from all around the area went to the armory to see him, including Bobby Z., It all started to sink in.

The beginning (of Bob Dylan), the end (sadly, of Buddy Holly), and just another busy evening in the middle of the life of the Duluth National Guard Armory.

Buddy Holly, of course, died within a week of performing in Duluth. Robert Zimmerman eventually became Bob Dylan, and as for the Armory, it was used for an amazing number of things for years after (until it was retired in 1978), from high school graduation ceremonies and proms to sporting events, flea markets, custom car shows, a shelter to victims of a massive fire, farmer's markets, military funerals and concerts.
Efforts to restore the building have been met with a somewhat bumpy road. As much as we Duluthians tend to go nuts whenever Bob Dylan mentions our name, we have nothing in this town that admits to any link between the city and the legendary singer. There are no plaques or markers anywhere, no statues-no gesture.

As such, it would seem to someone just peeking in that this is not something that we care about all that much. This impression isn't necessarily earned. After all, the building was scheduled for demolition, but somebody (many somebody's) stepped in, and there it still sits. The next phase of the process of restoring the Duluth National Guard Armory is in place, complete with an informational web site. They are selling bricks (make that "stones") in an effort to appeal to the Bob Dylan fans, and one would think that this is a relatively easy route to take-so many people love him, after all.

When thinking of famous Minnesotans, I admit that I always think first of Sinclair Lewis, then of Bob. When Sinclair Lewis published Main Street in 1920, the entire city of (what is now) Sauk Center, MN, (where he was born) was FURIOUS. The satire was so wicked. Residents of the town recognized themselves in the characters and were not amused. People everywhere loved this book, except in Sauk Center, where it was banned. His ashes were scattered there a year after he died, in the 1950's (his brother had to beg permission to do this--they still hated him when he died) BUT...if you go to Sauk Center today, you exit I-94 to a huge sign that bears the name of Nobel Prize Winner Sinclair Lewis-streets and schools are named after him, and every July the town celebrates "Sinclair Lewis Days". You can buy farm land from Main Street Real Estate in Sauk Center, and see a movie at the Main Street Theatre. It would seem that they got over it whatever it was that was bugging them.

It is just different when you know someone for real, in person-or, in most of our cases, you know someone who knew someone. Even a carpet-bagger like me knows a few people who knew Robert Zimmerman back in the day-I worked with a guy who was actually there that night, at the armory, watching Buddy Holly, after traveling WITH Bob from Hibbing to Duluth to see the show.

(My buddy announced his retirement, by the way, just to give you a point of reference for the number of years that have gone by since this show, and I would imagine that most of his high school class-mates have done the same or soon will-except Bob. You want "funny"? We can look at everyone else in that age group and tell them that they deserve the break and they should retire, but if you have the misfortune of being famous, we expect you to work until you die...)

I can stand outside of my own experience as someone-who-knows-someone-who-knew-someone and say "that concert was an historical event" and feel the need to document in it some way-some BIG way, but in my day-to-day life in this town, when my whole world consists of my job and my kids and my family, it doesn't even crack the top 10 dinner conversation topics.

Is this true because I live here? Or in spite of the fact that I live here? Or am I just one of the many metaphorical giggling pre-teen girls not admitting to anything?

What I want to ask most is, because of how we are, we Duluthians, did we earn this? After so many years of being coy, one wonders...Are we here in the community big enough fans to expect the support of "real" fans around the world with this project? Are we ready to step up and make the gesture? Certainly, we are not as hypocritical as Sauk Center...are we? Or are we going to wait until the inevitable end of Bob's productive days before we say, out loud, that we think he is great? Is that what it will take to soften us? The scattering of ashes?

I do know that a lot of us think that he is worth the effort NOW. Some of us will even admit to it under direct questioning.

It's a start...

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