Books that rock: Toby Thompson’s “Positively Main Street”

“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.”

So begins the eager-beaver “Introgush” of Toby Thompson’s “Positively Main Street.” It was one of the first books I ever read about a music star and still one of my favorites. First published in 1971 and reissued in 2008 with the helpful subtitle “Bob Dylan’s Minnesota,” it depicts two trips to the North Star State taken by the recent college graduate in the late Sixties, while rock’s poet laureate was still in seclusion, two years after his mystery-shrouded motorcycle accident. Over the succeeding decades, books about Dylan have become a robust cottage industry and the exact number of Dylanologists now roaming the earth would be hard to quantify. Many of them have turned out portentous volumes indeed, befitting the decade’s “Voice of a Generation.”

But Thompson’s modest-seeming book turned out be a trailblazer, and it remains one of the most appealing on the subject, a genial and immersive street-level journal of time spent in Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing. He interviews friends, family, teachers and townsfolk. He visits all the relevant sights (both in Hibbing and in Minneapolis where Bob briefly attended college) and develops a friendship with Echo Helstrom, Bob’s high-school sweetheart who was the probable inspiration for his classic “Girl from the North Country.”

Echo Helstrom in 1969, photo by Toby Thompson. The pictures he took in Hibbing, of local landmarks as well as many of the adorable Helstrom, were previously used in “Positively Main Street’s” original incarnation as a series in the Village Voice. Several are reprinted in the look-back interview with Thompson in the new edition of the book. Helstrom later moved to California and passed away in 2018.

In today’s hyper-accessible and saturated media landscape, it’s a little startling to read how humbly the book came into the being. Knowing his subject’s real name and hearing an anecdote that his father and uncle owned a hardware store up there; he uses directory assistance to call the family business (actually Zimmerman Furniture & Electric Company) and is casually invited up to Hibbing by an uncle: Bob’s dad had recently passed away.

Thompson doesn’t need much convincing to pack up his semi-reliable VW Bug and take the long drive from D.C. to northern Minnesota during a deep Northwoods autumn. Toby is motivated as much by the imperative to become a member of the New Journalism as he is by fanboy fever. Sure, he’s the kind of guy who studied the lyrics of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding LP when it came out in late’67 (after a 20-month recording absence), comparing notes over the phone with friends. Almost a year later, with no other word from their hero, he decides on his mission—probably just as much to find himself as to get to the origin story of the man born as Robert Zimmerman.

There is a vivid Beat-style detailing of the drive thru the East’s REAL physical landscape, the infrastructure and turnpikes, before reaching out into the great Midwest Americana. Thompson tools down the legendary Highway 61 and hears “Just Like a Woman” on the radio as he’s approaching his destination. The clean-cut and unimposing (but insistent) young writer is soon out hitting the bricks of Hibbing, a small but somewhat well-appointed city with music shops, teen hangouts, lively taverns and a couple of cinemas (also owned by the Zimmerman clan).

You know it was the early days of the Dylan Studies discipline when Thompson is shocked to learn that Bob, who made his legend with socially-conscious folk songs, had fronted a rowdy rock band in high school. A glance at his school yearbook reveals a desire to “follow Little Richard.” But aside from the odd person (like his astute English teacher), there just isn’t a whole lot appreciation for “Bobby Die-lan” (as the locals often call him). The woman down at the music store, who sold him his first harmonica, says her old customer’s albums are not big sellers in these parts (“people don’t like his voice”).

These days, there is more appreciation of good ol’ Bobby Die-lan in his hometown. Each May, Hibbing holds a “Dylan Days” festival. This promotion for a Dylan cover-band concert is on the side of the house where Bob grew up. When the Zimmerman family sold this house, there was a codicil that called for his upstairs bedroom (included some personal possessions) to remain as is. Thompson visited that bedroom while writing his book and Dylan himself reportedly visits it from time to time.

Echo Helstrom was of course, someone who did get Bob. They went together their whole junior year of high school, bonding as two of maybe a handful of kids grooving to the sounds of the blues and the new rock ‘n roll emanating at night from faraway stations in places like Shreveport and Little Rock. Echo, who Dylan compared both to Brigitte Bardot and Becky Thatcher, is a fair-haired and mini-skirted blithe spirit with the “finest smile this side of White Bear Lake.” Although she had previously been interviewed (by author Robert Shelton for a book that would not come out until 1986), she was delighted with the attention and regaled Toby with tales of teenage Bob that few if any fans would have known. The two form a quick conspiratorial bond, heading up to Hibbing in the VW to kick up a little dust. They visit the old haunts, close down a bar or two and even a crash a local radio station so Echo can return the favor and sing a little tune she wrote (“Boy from the North Country,” natch), accompanied by Toby on guitar.

Nowadays, where self-serious writers like Greil Marcus pen whole books about a single Dylan song (Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads), Positively Main Street comes across as a breath of fresh air from a more ingenuous age. Towards the end of the book, Thompson interviews Bob’s mom at a local diner. She does protest a bit about a couple of unappreciated private details that showed up in the Village Voice article (and as to why he’s running around with “that Echo”) but the mostly cordial conversation reveals what readers have likely sussed out by this point: that Robert Zimmerman had a pretty solid and regular Midwestern upbringing.

And that’s OK, even better that way. I say this because there was a lot of deification of Dylan back then, as well a certain amount of mythmaking, some of it perpetuated by the liner notes of his first album that would have you believe he ran away to join the circus as a boy, never knew his parents, yada-yada. But real art and talent come from hard work and drive and knowing from whence you came, not from some magic talisman passed down to a lucky few. Bob Dylan did (and does) have a extraordinary knack for absorbing the great American experience in all its many forms, not the least of which was the stark but sensible place (“where the winds blow heavy on the borderline”) that informed his spirit, a place that Toby Thompson let Dylan fans feel for the first time.

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