By Todd Melby / Pic: REUTERS/Jack Rendulich
HIBBING, Minn. – Well before a teenage Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan and embarked on a legendary music career that earned him a Nobel Prize on Thursday, he set himself apart in Hibbing, Minnesota by busting up a guitar and setting it on fire to warm a cabin where he was staying with friends.
“He wanted attention. He wanted to be noticed no matter what,” said Leroy Hoikkala, 77, Dylan’s former bandmate in a Hibbing group called the Golden Chords.
To many in his hometown who still remember him, Dylan, now 75, was an outsider in the Jewish minority with greased hair working in his father’s home appliance store.
Dylan lived from ages 6 to 18 in the multi-ethnic mining town, part of the so-called “Iron Range.” His childhood home is still there and a street is named after him. But there is no statue or memorial for the rock star hailed as “the voice of a generation,” who became the first singer-songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
“Hibbing is a town where people don’t get too excited about anything,” said Hoikkala, adding his bandmate was “independent, impatient and restless.”
Growing up, Dylan saw the harsh realities of life in the town of biting winters about 180 miles (290 km)north of Minneapolis. While his family was relatively comfortable, he saw lots of local workers toil at mines that were in decline in Hibbing, which then had about 17,000 people.
“His sense of social justice is a function of his contact with a lot of working class people in Hibbing,” said Alex Lubet, a professor of music at the University of Minnesota who has been teaching courses on Dylan for the past decade.
One of Dylan’s early love songs, “Girl From the North Country,” also has been linked to his hometown, with many people thinking it is about a girlfriend from Hibbing High School.
Since leaving, he has seldom returned.
One notable visit came in 1969, when Dylan was riding a wave of global fame and stopped by for his 10-year high school reunion. He was met with enthusiasm by some classmates and anger by others who felt he turned his back on the town.
“You can see northern Minnesota in so many of his lyrics when he talks about the colors, the cold, the rails and working with iron,” said Joe Keyes, one of the founders of the former Dylan Days festival in Hibbing. He now leads Dylan tours in the town for fans making pilgrimages.
Dylan’s birth certificate and other artifacts are collected in the basement of Hibbing’s public library, which has also put together a walking tour. It includes a stop at the bowling alley where Bob Zimmerman and a team named the Gutter Boys won a competition.
Hibbing City Council member Jennifer Hoffman Saccoman said the Nobel Prize may add to the push for a permanent Dylan museum but she thought it may be best for local leaders to talk to Dylan himself to see how he wants to be remembered at home.
High school classmate Roz Whalen said she will always remember Dylan as the cool kid who played a rocking version of “Great Balls of Fire” at a school recital.
“I really, really liked his music when we were in high school,” she said.