Book note: Highway 61 visited and revisited

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”If you’re really a Dylan buff, I mean tuned right into the stereo microgrooves of his soul, you’ll get a kick out of this. I just finished speaking with the ‘Girl from the North Country.’ Right, the very same chick Bob wrote the song about. Her name’s Echo and she has long, Swedish blond hair that rolls and flows, and she’s a friend of mine.”

From the first words of Positively Main Street, the reader is hotboxed in the smoky, beery brain of Toby Thompson circa the late 1960s, when—for a not-insignificant fraction of America’s youth—Bob Dylan was the master of the universes, the slayer of squareness, the unlocker of mental doors that you never even knew existed, man! How could someone that groovy have possibly sprung from the loins of a mortal woman?

Thompson, like so many others before and since—probably including Dylan himself—gave great thought to these questions. Unlike most others, however, Thompson was inspired to actually get off his couch and make a pilgrimage to the motherland: Hibbing, Minnesota. Thompson also had the savvy and ambition to tell the story of his journey; his story was published first as a series of magazine articles and ultimately as Positively Main Street, which originally appeared in 1971 and has just appeared in a new edition from the University of Minnesota Press.

Unapologetically pursuing interviews with anyone who might have had contact with the young Dylan, Thompson met with astonishing success. In what must have been a virtuoso performance of charm and ingratiation, Thompson was shown Dylan’s academic transcript by the principal of Hibbing High, was taken out to lunch by Dylan’s mother, and actually—Thompson hinted in the original book and makes explicit in an interview appended to the new edition—hooked up with Dylan’s high school girlfriend Echo Helstrom.

Thompson’s writing was inspired by Tom Wolfe, avatar of the voguishly freeform “New Journalism,” and the book’s style is intensely subjective. That’s a good thing, since not only is the freewheeling narrative appropriate to the book’s time and subject, it’s the only reason that the book—which is, after all, fundamentally a creepy chronicle of stalkerish conquests—remains readable for an audience beyond hard-core Dylan obsessives. Whatever curiosity one might have about the particulars of Dylan’s youth, it’s much more fun to read Thompson’s own painfully honest story than it would be to read a piecemeal reconstruction of Dylan’s. As Richard Goldstein points out in an afterword, “the real meat of the book is that you start out wanting to find Bob Dylan’s ‘Rosebud’ and you end up caring more about Toby’s hidden bottle of Scotch.”

For Minnesotans, reading the book is apt to be both fascinating and annoying. Thompson documents the Minnesota of the late 1960s with many telling details—including praise for Grain Belt Premium (“absolutely the best American beer I’ve ever had; you can’t get it back east”) and multiple references to the “mammoth highway construction” tearing through the heart of the Twin Cities—but also with anthropological observations that are likely to inspire Gopher State residents to roll their eyes. For example: “Darkness comes fast in October, chilling the ever-present wind and driving one inside for coffee after coffee until the inevitable…give it up, ride it on out in the Crystal Lounge, the Kahler’s Pub room, the Jolly Rodger, anyplace you can get a drink and brood over your north country cold and the merciless weather.”

No doubt, Minnesotans enjoy their bars—but when I head to happy hour at Liquor Lyle’s, it’s not because I need to brood over the north country cold.