I WAS IN MINNEAPOLIS on business, visiting the University of Minnesota.
About three and a half hours north by car is the small city of Hibbing, home town of Bob Dylan.
I was so close. I felt I just had to go there. For many people of my generation Dylan was quite simply the greatest songwriter of all time.
Dylan lived in Hibbing from the age of six until he left high school. The only time he has been back since was for his father’s funeral.
It’s easy to see why he left. It is a godforsaken ugly little town, even on a sunny spring day. In winter, which lasts for six months or more in northern Minnesota, it must be a desolate and soul-destroying place. One of Dylan’s most depressing songs, the haunting ‘North Country Blues’, evokes it pretty well.
The summer is gone, the ground’s turning cold
The stores one by one they’re a-foldin’
My children will go as soon as they grow
There ain’t nothing here now to hold them.
It was a pleasant drive through the so-called Land of 10,000 Lakes from downtown Minneapolis. I was prepared for another anonymous American town, with its strip malls on the outskirts and its courthouse square and its small frame houses. I drove past the obligatory Wal-Mart coming into town and drove down the main street.
Looking for Bob
I looked for the center of town, but couldn’t find it. There were two streets with shops, if you can call them that, between the boarded up buildings and sleazy saloons. More of them, in fact, and more liquor stores, than I’ve ever seen in a town of this size. Little else to do, I suppose. I then sought out Dylan’s boyhood home, on 2425 E 7th Avenue.
There is no sign out the front. Indeed, there is nothing anywhere in Hibbing to indicate that its most famous son once lived there, except a small display of school children’s paintings in the local library. Obviously the output of some school project. I don’t think the general populace likes Bob Dylan any more than he likes them.
Dylan’s childhood home is a non-descript box-like two storey house on the corner of 7th Avenue and 25th Street. It’s a blue stucco place with a flat roof, quite unlike its more conventional neighbors. The place has not been well maintained, and there is a large motor boat in the back yard with weeds growing up through the trailer. The house is just two blocks from Hibbing High School, which Dylan attended and which is easily the most impressive building in town. I got out of my car and walked from his house to his school, as he must have done a thousand times.
It is a massive semi-gothic structure, rather fortress-like, and very imposing in a menacing sort of way. The courthouse and city hall, which I finally found on a backstreet, are modest by comparison. The school looks much bigger than it needs to be for a town of Hibbing’s size (18,000 and falling), and was probably built at a time when the city fathers were imagining a grand future for the place (it didn’t have one).
Is this it?
There is a block or two of halfway decent buildings on Howard Street. One of them is a bar and grill called Zimmy’s, which I suppose is named after Dylan, whose real name was Robert Zimmerman. But most of the places were pretty bad. I had a very quick Budweiser in the sleaziest bar I could find, called the Homer Bar.
I searched in vain for somewhere to buy some memento of Hibbing or of Dylan’s association with the town. I did not go to the town’s two main attractions, the Minnesota Mining Museum and the Greyhound Bus Origin Museum, I went to the library to visit the Dylan display, but the room it was in was booked for a yoga class.
After just 90 minutes in Hibbing I left for Duluth, a much larger and more attractive town, a port city 60 miles south on Lake Superior where Dylan was born and where he lived until his family moved to Hibbing. I drove across the bay to Superior, Wisconsin to rack up my 43rd state, then returned to Duluth and had a pleasant Mexican meal on the waterfront. That evening I drove back to Minneapolis.
(I subsequently found out that Gary Puckett of the Union Gap was also from Hibbing. He had a much better voice than Bob Dylan).
I had to visit Hibbing. It wouldn’t have been right to have been so close and not done it. I always said I would go there one day. Dylan is a truly great songwriter, but he’s weird. Now I have visited Hibbing, I know why.
Come gather ’round friends and I’ll tell you a tale
Of when the red iron ore pits run plenty
But the cardboard filled windows and old men on the benches
Tell you now that the whole town is empty.