On Dylan’s Birthday, Appliance Dealers Ask “What If?”

HIBBING, Minnesota.  As tributes marking Bob Dylan’s 81st birthday appeared in the national news yesterday, word spread around this town of 17,000 in northeastern Minnesota that its most famous local musician was being celebrated for his longevity and not, for once, his creativity.  What did he think of the milestone, this reporter asks Al Sklarski, a shift supervisor at a local iron mine.  “You mean Gary Puckett?  I used to love that song of his, what was it–‘Lady Willpower’?”


When informed that the subject of the profiles was Bob Dylan, the world-renowned singer-songwriter, Sklarski drew a blank.  “Never heard of him,” he said as he took off in his pick-up truck.

The confusion stems from the fact that when Dylan left Hibbing at the age of 18 he was known as Bobby Zimmerman, son of a local appliance store owner.  Dylan changed his name after moving to New York City, and skyrocketed to fame when the folk themes and styles he revived found a new audience among college protestors in the 1960’s.

Dylan, ne Zimmerman

But others in this town recall Zimmerman/Dylan with a mixture of pride and regret.  “He could have been one of the great ones,” says Mike O’Dwyer, owner of O’Dwyer Appliances.  “He could’ve become manager of his dad’s appliance store and done real well for himself.  Instead, he took the easy way out and became a Nobel Prize winner.”

Dylan got his start singing at “Sidewalk Days” promotions for his father’s store, which handled several major “white goods” brands including Maytag and Frigidaire.  An early attempt to capture the discontent of the fifties was his “Dryin’ in the Wind,” about the superior quality of a stackable, front-loading Amana washer/dryer:

How may loads can one dryer dry
Before its motor conks out?
Where do you get the best appliance deals–
At Zimmerman’s, there’s no doubt.

Competition was intense among aspiring folk singers in the late 50s and early 60s, but Dylan outpaced others with his gift for wrapping political commentary in powerful lyrical images.  “A lot of people thought Phil Ochs would emerge as the voice of that generation,” says Arnie Welstead, former editor of Folksong! magazine.  “Where Phil went wrong was he was tough on warranty claims if your ‘big ticket’ item broke.”

Image result for phil ochs
Phil Ochs:  “If only I’d had Dylan’s background in gas and electric ranges.”

In addition to Dylan and Puckett, Hibbing was home to Kevin McHale, forward for the Boston Celtics and later coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, the professional basketball team, not the carnivorous predators.  The local Chamber of Commerce here has invited the three famous sons to a “Celebration of Hibbing” tentatively scheduled for October of this year when Puckett will turn 80.  When asked if he would attend, Dylan, a reclusive artist known for his obscure lyrics, replied in a cryptic email “What time is the Early Bird Special at Applebee’s?”

Dylan v. Joni Mitchell: Battle of the Folk Music Heavyweights

Bob [Dylan] is not authentic at all.  He’s a plagiarist and his name and voice are fake.

                                          Joni Mitchell, Los Angeles Times

“That’s not an A minor chord, you doofus!”


It’s been a tough coupla decades for a folk music fight promoter, lemme tell ya.  Like everybody says, if there ain’t no action in the heavyweight division, the lacka no action trickles down troo da weight classes.  You got da middleweights, yer Phil Ochses, yer Tom Rushes.  Folks will come see dem on an undercard, but not da main event.

“Sing Greensleeves–that oughta get him!”


You drop down to your lightweights, yer Melanies and yer Arlo Guthries.  Sure, they’re good for a Friday night hootenanny, but are ya gonna get any kinda draw on pay-per-view?  I don’t think so.

“I got a brand new pair of roller skates, you’ve got an object that completes my double entendre.”


But boy, lemme tell ya, da prospect of a Bob Dylan-Joni Mitchell slugfest, that’s got my mouth salivatin’.  Lessee–“Rumble in the Jungle” has already been used.  How about “Crash in the College Gym” or “Collision in the Episcopalian Church Basement.”  Sumpin’ like dat–it’s a promotional thing, see?

A lotta people say they don’t like the pre-fight hoopla, say it’s all fake.  I say it’s part of the fight, psychin’ out your folk music opponent like Cassius Clay did ta Sonny Liston.  So I say Joni’s got every right to run her mouth off at Dylan.  Everybody knows she’s just yankin’ his chain about the fake name.  “Joni Mitchell” is a phony as a three-dollar bill.  Her real name’s Roberta Joan Anderson and everybody knows it.  Personally I think it’s a cheap crack callin’ Bobby out ’cause he didn’t wanna be Bobby Zimmerman any more–who would?  Lotsa champs change their name.  Clay became Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson was Walker Smith, Jr.  Who cares?  It’s part of the business.

T.S. Eliot:  “I said it and I meant it, see?”

The plagiarism stuff–that’s more serious, tho.  What is it T.S. Eliot said?  “Immature poets imitate? Mature poets steal.”  I know Bob stole “Corrine, Corrina” from Bo Chatmon and the Mississippi Sheiks and Robert Johnson.  That just shows he’s mature.

I mean–what has Joni ever stolen?  Maybe the hair, from Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary.  Maybe the open tuning on her guitar from Richie Havens.  The dippy demeanor, tho, that’s hers, she came up with that.  That’s her gift to music, she should get credit for it.

Anyway, it’s gonna be da fight of the century.  I know that ain’t sayin’ much since the century’s only nine years old, but still, we ain’t had a major folk music fight The Chad Mitchell Trio took on The Kingston Trio in a battle royal on Hootenanny!

I’ll lay you 2 to 1 Dylan knocks her out.

Bob Dylan, Republican Party Animal

          There was no point in arguing with Dave [Van Ronk], not intellectually anyway.  I had a primitive way of looking at things and I liked country fair politics.  My favorite politician was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater.

          Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Vol. 1

Saturday morning; I’m sitting in the cellphone lot at Logan Airport, waiting for the call from Terminal B–or is it C?, I always get them confused despite their distinctive names.  When it comes, I will make my way back through spaghetti strands of roadway to pick up the man who wrote and recorded what Rolling Stone magazine called the greatest song of all time.  I think there’s a conflict of interest because the song’s title is “Like a Rolling Stone,” but this is Massachusetts, where conflicts of interest are the daily bread, nay, the Hostess Twinkie, of our polity.

That’s right–Bob Dylan, ne Robert Allen Zimmerman–will be riding shotgun with me as we head north to fight the good fight against the Democratic Party’s war on women.

It had taken a long time for me to realize that Dylan might be a kindred political soul.  I was aware that the only politician he’d ever endorsed was Barry Goldwater, but I had long assumed it was because they were fellow Members of the Tribe, and that Dylan/Zimmerman only supported Goldwater because he would have been America’s first Jewish president.

Barry Goldwater: Dylan’s fav!

But then I started to do a little research.  There was “Oxford Town,” his song about the ordeal James Meredith went through in order to enroll at the then-all-white University of Mississippi; Democratic Governor Ross Barnett was the one who tried to block his path.

There was his quip to USA Today about the song “Let’s Impeach the President” on Neil Young’s anti-George Bush album “Living With War.”  “What’s funny about the Neil record,” Dylan remarked, “when I heard ‘Let’s Impeach the President . . . I said, ‘That’s crazy, he’s doing a song about Clinton?'”

And then there was the 2004 concert of anti-Bush musicians organized by Bruce Springsteen.  Dylan’s name was mentioned in the advance press as one of the stars who would campaign for John Kerry in swing states, but he demurred.  Maybe it was the presumption of the thing–assuming that Dylan would share a stage with Springsteen, a pretender to his throne from New Jersey–or maybe it went deeper.

Marilinda Garcia

And so I gave him a call and asked if he’d be willing to do a little outreach to undecided voters in New Hampshire to help a female GOP state rep who’s running for Congress.  Marilinda Garcia is half-Italian, half-Hispanic, a Harvard grad, an accomplished harpist who has taught music at several universities.  She had to be stopped, so Democratic males compared her to a porn star.  When they were called on it, they apologized–to the porn star.

My phone rings, and my guess is it’s Bob.


“How many hours must a man wait in line, before his ride finally arrives?”

“I didn’t know you were here–I’ll be right over.”

He’s standing at the curb, suitcase in his hand, post-Freewheelin’ glower firmly in place.

Glower Power

“Great to meet you!” I exclaim as he gets in, like a stupid autograph hound.

“No you’re not.  How many albums of mine have you ever bought?”

I gulp; he’s got me there.  There was Greatest Hits, Vol. II, with pretentious Roman numerals as if he’s a Super Bowl or something.  And there was Highway 61 Revisited, which my high school girlfriend Candy called me on.  “You don’t really like that, do you?” she asked.  “You’re just trying to be cool.”

This was the woman whom I’d spent many happy hours doing the boogaloo and shing-a-ling with, dancing to the music of The Temptations, Wilson Pickett, and Sam & Dave.  She knew me too well.

“Not that many, but I’ve got a couple of your songs on my iPod.”

“How many by me?”

“Uh–just one.  Tomorrow is a Long Time.

“That girl Kiki turned you onto that, didn’t she?”

What is it with me–am I like the Visible Man, the plastic model of a human whose innards were exposed to the world in the hobby shops of my youth?  Is my every thought and feeling available for public inspection?

“Yes.  But I’ve got You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere by The Byrds, and I’ve got the reggae version of The Mighty Quinn by Bradley Brown.”

“Yeah, that’s a classic.  Who’s this woman you want me to help?”

“New Hampshire state rep.”

“So, a girl from the north country?”

It must be hard when so much of your work has ended up permeating the spirit of the times that you can’t keep from quoting yourself.

“That’s right.”

“GOP has done a lot for women,” he says broodingly, and I can tell that he’s irked by the current strategy of the Democratic Party; find some ignoramus from Chitlin’ Switch, Mississippi who is willing to be quoted saying something stupid, then tar good, decent moderate Republicans with it.  The heirs of Nelson Rockefeller, who died the way we all want to go; a heart attack after sex with a woman he wasn’t married to.  As they said at the time, he thought he was coming, but he was going.

“I know what you mean,” I said.  “First woman elected to the House and Senate . . .”

Margaret Chase Smith

“Margaret Chase Smith,” he replies, as we begin a game of GOP “dozens,” going at each other mano a mano to see who knows more Republican Party folklore.  “First female Supreme Court Justice?”

“Sandra Day O’Connor, a Reagan appointee,” I reply.  “First African-American Secretary of State?”

“Condoleezza Rice,” he says, then waves off any further competition to light a smoke.

“So the rumors really were true?” I say as he cracks his window a bit.

“What rumors?”

“That you’re a closet Republican?”

He turns and glares at me, the same look I imagine that he used to train on dimwitted reporters from Time who wanted a quote from The Voice of a Generation.  “What if I am?”

“That would be okay with me,” I say, “although not with most of your fans.  If you’d come out, you’d be joining a long list of revolutionary artists of the 20th century who were Republicans.”

“Like who?”

Zora Neale Hurston

“Edward Hopper.  e.e. cummings.  Duke Ellington.  W.C. Handy.  Zora Neale Hurston.  Jack Kerouac.”

“Kerouac?”  I’ve piqued his interest.  The Lowell, Mass. native produced the long-form literary work that Dylan once yearned to create, but my guess is he realizes no one will ever compare Tarantula to On the Road.

We cross the border into the “Live Free or Die” state, and it’s almost as if a weight has been lifted from The Great One’s shaggy mane.  “I don’t know how you stand to live in Massachusetts, man,” he says with disgust.  “Founded by Puritans, and they’re still in charge.”

“I know what you mean,” I say.  “Did you know you can’t smoke in a public park in Boston anymore?”

“Figures.  Do they put you in the stocks?”

“No.  First offense is a $250 fine.  Repeat offenders have to listen to Aerosmith covers of Tiny Bradshaw’s Train Kept a Rollin’.

“That was problem with most rockers.  Instead of going back to the original, they just copied the last white group who covered the song–The Yardbirds.”

“I know.  I’m always quoting you on that point.”

“You mean ‘I don’t steal from anyone who hasn’t been dead at least 50 years’?”

We both crack up, and when I calm down I realize I almost missed my exit in Plaistow, where we’ve been invited to a ham ‘n bean supper of the Rockingham County Republican Club.  We pull into the parking lot of the Italo-American hall just off 95 North where we’re greeted by Harrison Knopf, Secretary-Treasurer of the group.  I make a note to talk to him afterwards since he’s the one who has to reimburse me for tolls and mileage.

Dylan makes the rounds and, since he’s 72 years old, he fits right in.  He compliments Addie Bayless on her Republican cloth coat and graciously accepts a present from Bob Marquis, the club President; an autographed first edition of his self-published biography of our only unelected president, “Gerald Ford: Former Model, Model President.”

It’s clear that, just as the internet message boards say, in a private setting such as this Dylan is tres simpatico with these fans of free-market economics, fiscal conservatism and a strong national defense.  On the last point, he’s challenged by Mort Pressy, a state legislator, to point to just one of his many songs where the man who wrote “Masters of War” has departed from the gospel of unilateral disarmament of the no-nukes crowd.

I think he’s going to refer to his 1968 interview in Sing Out! magazine, in which he said he remained friends with a man who supported the Vietnam War.  When he was pressed on the point, Dylan asked the interviewer “Anyhow, how do you know that I’m not, as you say, for the war?”

Instead, he gives Pressy a look that says “You’re on” without uttering a word.  I happen to have brought along my acoustic guitar, just in case someone asked for a song.  Dylan takes it from me, tunes it a bit, then begins to sing:

“Everybody’s building, the big ships and boats.”

Passed Over for Dylan, ? Asks “Where’s My Medal of Freedom?”

WASHINGTON, D.C.  Bob Dylan, an enigmatic and sometimes obscure singer-songwriter who gave voice to a generation that wanted to seem intellectual while sitting around listening to music, was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, last night, a move that drew criticism from an unexpected quarter; other sixties musicians.

“The DEA wants to talk to you about that ‘Everybody must get stoned’ line.”

“We’re just as enigmatic and obscure as Dylan, and we had a #1 hit,” said ?, a punctuation mark who escaped from the ghetto of English grammar books to front his pioneer garage band The Mysterians.  “If he gets a medal, we deserve one.”

?, at left.

“The President does not comment on his choices in music or punctuation,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs snapped at pool reporters who peppered him with questions to determine whether Dylan was available to autograph their frayed copies of “Blonde on Blonde.”  “There was no political dimension to this award, even though Dylan fans were polling low on voter enthusiasm, or enthusiasm of any kind for that matter.” 

“??–please.  I can’t stand ’96 Tears.'”

Dylan’s identity has been traced to Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota, where he is ranked the second-most famous musician to call the town home after Gary Puckett, a 60’s hit machine with his band The Union Gap.  The identity of “?” has never been revealed, although he is believed to be either Rudy Martinez, Lee Harvey Oswald or Judge Crater, a New York jurist who disappeared in 1930.

Chicks dig ?!

? is said to be frustrated that his contributions to American music have not received the same recognition as artists who rose to fame after his trail-blazing hit “96 Tears.”  “It had everything going for it,” says rock critic Nils Berwang of Screw magazine.  “A cheesy organ riff, a haunting bridge in a minor key, and an obscure allusion to oral sex.”

Dylan to Return to Roots for Golden Years

HIBBING, Minnesota.  There’s a buzz going around this town of 17,000 in northeastern Minnesota as rumors spread that its most famous musician has decided to spend his retirement here, sparked by an article in Friday’s Wall Street Journal depicting a grey-haired man and woman in a parody of the cover from “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.”  Will that be a boon or a nuisance, this reporter asks Al Sklarski, a shift supervisor at a local iron mine.  “You mean Gary Puckett is coming back?  That’ll be great for kids who’ve never heard ‘Lady Willpower,'” he says.


When informed that the returning celebrity is not Gary Puckett but Dylan, the world-renowned singer-songwriter, Sklarski draws a blank.  “Never heard of him,” he says as he takes off in his pick-up truck.

Bob Dylan, ne Robert Zimmerman

The confusion stems from the fact that when Dylan left Hibbing at the age of 18 he was known as Bobby Zimmerman, son of a local appliance store owner.  Dylan changed his name after moving to New York City, and skyrocketed to fame when the folk themes and styles he revived found a new audience among college protestors in the 1960’s.


With his wealth, Dylan could retire to one of the golfing compounds favored by the affluent, but friends say homely Hibbing is better suited to the working man’s image he has always cultivated.  “I played in a foursome with him at the Doral del Boca Vista Rey,” says former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca.  “He kept scribbling down lyrics when it was his turn to putt.”

Iacocca and Snoop Dogg:  “C’mon folk-boy, shoot yer fershizzlin’ shot!”

Dylan got his start singing at hootenannies in the Hibbing area, usually without compensation other than complementary apple cider and chocolate chip cookies.  His big breakthrough came in 1954 when he placed third in the Winter Talent Contest at Temple Beth El, Hibbing’s only synagogue.  “A star is born,” reported the Hillel Enquirer in the following week’s edition.  “Bobby Zimmerman enchanted with his interpretation of ‘Jimmy Crack Corn, and I Don’t Give a Damn.'”

Shakespeare:  Two-time Grammy Award-winner.

Other artists have retired to their home towns from larger metropolises, most notably William Shakespeare who returned to his native Stratford after a successful career as an actor, playwright and theatre-owner in London.  Shakespeare, a two-time Grammy Award-winner, died in Stratford, famously willing his “second best bed” to his wife, his Cuisinart Food Processor to his daughter Judith, and his Craftsman Weedwacker to his elder sister Susanna. 

The Rolling Stones at Sir Morgan’s Cove, Worcester, Mass.

Artists sometimes choose out-of-the-way locations to hone their acts in the hope of reviving their careers.  In 1981 The Rolling Stones performed at Sir Morgan’s Cove in Worcester, Massachusetts, a small nightclub whose previous claim to fame was a 2-for-1 Margarita and Wet T-Shirt Night promotion.  The Stones cut their set short when they were informed that they were not in Worcester, England.

Dylan, now 69

Dylan, a reclusive artist known for his obscure lyrics and cryptic comments, would neither confirm nor deny that his retreat to rural America was intended to set the stage for a new phase of his storied career.  When asked if he would be working on a new album in Hibbing, Dylan replied “What time is the Early Bird Special at Applebee’s?”