Exhuming Bob 11:
Bob Dylan And Toby Thompson
Positively Main Street
Thompson, Toby: Positively Main Street, U Minnesota Press, 2008 reprint of the 1971 edition.
Toby Thompson’s self identification with Bob Dylan is an interesting situation. In a way he predated the Elvis impersonators; blazing a new trail. That he recorded his infatuation on the spot and got it into print is even more fascinating.
I suppose people have always identified with important people as the insane asylums full of Napoleon Bonapartes indicate, but when the movies came into existence things changed. Movie actors were designed to appeal to certain character traits making identification with the actors more accessible. That the actors came from social strata much like one’s own with no apparent effort or skills made identification easier. (See the novel Merton Of The Movies by Harry Leon Wilson) When sound was matched to image one could act like and even talk like these heroes.
Older people being formed already were more immune than younger people so that the John Wayne imitators, Bogarts, Jimmie Stewarts or what have you began to surface in numbers beginning in the fifties. Still there was a psychological distance between the people on the screen and oneself while a direct imitation brought ridicule on oneself.
Then in the mid-fifties Presley burst on the scene. Here was a guy who drove truck, we were told, one day and was a major recording star the next. Then, as immediately as it seemed to all of us, more to some of us than others, he parlayed that into becoming a movie star. That was just about every teenagers dream. Now that was something we all could do and a great many of the most venturesome did get at least to the level of recording stars but they all wanted the movies.
Presley was the first who created a legion of impersonators. The movies formed a cadre of amateur impersonators but Presley spawned a full frontal impersonation for a profit; People who became Elvis Presley as a surrogate for themselves. This began fairly early in the Presley career too.
Then as the sixties hit young people were conditioned by phonograph records. Records were the way the generation communicated with each other; They took the place of movies and literature. One could still write books or rarely, like Presley, make it into the movies but anyone with enough ambition, little training during the sixties and none in the seventies, could make a record.
This was no more evident than in the case of Bob Dylan. Quite frankly my own first impression was that here is a talentless guy putting out records. If Dylan could do it, if I wanted to, I could. It then became easy to identify with Dylan. Plus he was a nobody, had never even been to college.
After I and many others had written his early records off he surfaced in a way to seize your attention, however his appeal was limited to a certain psychology. But, now, in the twentieth century via records and radio if there were only a million of any certain type those million could make an artist very, very successful, viz. Janis Joplin.
When Big Brother And The Holding Company with Janis Joplin released its first CBS disc the record went to the top of the charts on the strength of a small minority of the public. The vast, and I mean vast, majority of the public had never heard of the band or Joplin. I was in the record business at that time and was astounded that a relatively few hippies made a group and singer unkown to 9 1/2 out of ten, at the minimum, could send a record to the top. Hippies were not known to take care of their possessions. They trashed that record in a week or two playing it perhaps a hundred times or more then coming back to buy another one after another. Each one of those sales contributed to the accumulation of a million so the entire course of American music was swayed by the success of a record purchased by a very small percentage of the population, and the lunatic fringe at that.
So with Dylan. Dylan provoked a violent split in society. Just as Pat Boone was opposed to Elvis as a role model so Simon and Garfunkle were opposed to Bob Dylan. In 1966-67 the S & G faction was much larger than Dylan’s. Bob got more TV attention however. His cult was as the misunderstood, oppressed genius, the Outsider who was shucking the world. You can see where his fan base came from. So, all of us who were in that category became devoted, almost obsessed, advocates of Bob Dylan. I was one, I’m merely analyzing not being superior. I never went as far as Toby Thompson in my obsession but then I didn’t think of what he did either and I was six years older. I already had a life of my own, such as it was.
The younger people took to the pop stars with ease. We had Jim Morrisons, various Beatles and Stones or whatever as well as Dylans walking around campus, people completely immersed in the various identies. I don’t even have to p[oint out the Deadheads and they were truly legion.
So Thompson's notion of reliving Bob's youth in his own person while extreme was not completely imcomprehensible. Still psychotic but borderline as he never completely lost contact with reality. Really interesting because unlike Freud's Schreiber he was able to write a book about it even as it happened.
Thompson was born in 1944 being three years younger than Bob thus being able to look up to him as a role model. Being three years older than Bob I always looked down on him as a younger sibling who was somehow outshining me. The identification was there nonetheless.
Through 1966 Bob befogged us all. Blonde On Blonde was such a towering effort both musically and lyrically that it was incomprehensible. No one could understand it. Some of it you couldn't even listen to but you were convinced it was a work of genius. The people who called it mere noise weren't entirely wrong either. Philistines nonetheless.
I knew that Bob had peaked along those musical lines and there would have to be a model change. But then the word came out that Bob was dead, close to it or paralyzed from the eyes down. He disappeared from the stage for a while but as he wasn't dead or paralyzed we all stood with out faces turned to Woodstock waiting for news from the East. We all, being those of like psychology.
Then Bob dressed like Billy the Kid or some other Western desperado released John Wesley Harding. the psychology was changed. What had drawn us in for '64 to '66 was the muse using Bob Dylan as an instrument and he now had been discarded. I dropped him as did many others.
A year later Toby Thompson conceived the idea of searching out Dylan's roots in Minnesota. He didn't go as a mere reporter though. He went as a Bob Dylan impersonator. There was Toby Thompson standing in Bob Dylan's shoes.
The Thompson that emerges from his telling is a very disturbed young man of twenty-four. His intake of alcohol and marijuana was prodigious. Of course, he's telling a story, but I can't recall one day that he wasn't stone drunk. He keeps a pint in his glove compartment. He gets so drunk he stands on his head in the middle of a dance floor and can't remember it the next day. The guy must have smelled like a brewery all the time. I'm sure the fumes coming from him when he interviewed Dylan's mother in the daytime gave her a very negative opinion of him. Robert Shelton, Dylan's biographer, future biographer at this time, had been out to Minnesota the year before. He was a professional Journalistic persona older than Dylan's friends. Thompson was three years younger and appears to have been accepted on a personal rather than professional basis. After all he had no journalistic history, he was only going to write.
On that basis he formed an intimate relationship with Dylan's high school sweetheart, Echo Helstrom. I'm going to concentrate on that aspect of the book for this review. Bear in mind that she is three years older than Thompson.
Thompson's visit to Hibbing must have had the locals' heads spinning. Thompson, in his book, doesn't seem to be aware of the impression he was creating. From his description it seems that he appeared among them as a Bob Dylan impersonator. Bobby Zimmerman left Hibbing ten years earlier, became Bob Dylan, and now ten years later this guy shows up impersonating him. Doing a good job of it too.
One can only imagine what Hibbingites thought.
The idea of this guy pictured below going forth to conquer the world of popular music appears to be absurd. We all have known kids who wanted to do the same. We may even be one of those kids but the odd
Look Out Little Richard
of succeeding were about a million and a half to one. How could anyone even suspect that Bobby Zimmerman, the kid above, from the virtually uninhabited North Country would be the ONE. Everyone in town must have been laughing up their sleeve, like the guy on the right above, when Bobby Zimmerman sallied forth to 'join Little Richard' and conquer the world.
Now, this guy Thompson using his own name came posing as a journalist but impersonating Bob shows up. Thompson seems surprised at the reaction of Maurice and Paul Zimmerman, Bob's uncles, but can you imagine being interviewed by a guy talking and acting like your nephew Bob. It's kind of crazy. Imagine what Beattie Zimmerman, Bob's mother, thought sitting across from Toby doing Bob. Maybe that's what Bob meant when he said 'This guy Toby Thompson has got some things to learn.'
Nobody knew what was going on there, did they?
When Bob and John Bucklen and Echo Helstrom were kids, like many another group of Musketeers, they swore that if one of them made it he or she would help the others along. Well, Bob made it but he forgot John and Echo. No big deal. Teenage vows even spoken in earnest have no meaning after the fact but the promise lives on in the innocent hearts of those who aren't pulled through by the successful one. There is a sense of betrayal. Added to that there was romantic ill will on Echo's part because of Bob's eleventh and twelfth grade betrayal.
Bob is making it big while Echo just has a job. A young woman trying to make her way has a tougher row to hoe than a guy. But, if she knows how to work it she does have a story that's worth at least a couple three or four years worth of wages. She doesn't know how to market it though. Robert Shelton came out to Minneapolis a year before Thompson and paid her a hundred dollars for an interview. She held the hundred up to Toby as hint but he wasn't thinking that way. She was only going to get screwed by Toby, literally.
If Toby hadn't been in an alcholic haze he might have realized that the story Positively Main Street was only subsidiary to Absolutely Sweet Echo. The money was with Echo.
As they’re driving up Highway 61 Echo pulls out a hundred dollar bill and says ‘See what Robert Shelton gave me for an interview.’ The light still didn’t go off in Thompson’s head. He reached into the glove compartment for his pint.
I am astonished at the amount of alcohol Thompson consumed on these trips. If he isn’t novelizing the guy was in a virtual stupor the whole time. When he and Echo arrive in Hibbing they go to a bar where Toby becomes blotto on beer, no less. He has no memory of the moment but Echo tells him that he stood on his head in the middle of the dance floor as coins and keys showered out of his pockets.
Echo must have been one tolerant girl or else she was hoping for something to happen. Perhaps a large part of the charm of Positively Main Street is the stunning unconciousness of Thompson. The guy was twenty-four years old at the time, not a kid- exactly. He had been telling Echo he was going to write a book. When he gets the first trip written up he sends her sixty pages. Echo writes back: ‘Sixty pages isn’t enough for a book is it?’ She has reasons to be disappointed. Heck, Toby is using her to attempt to make his fortune and he hasn’t even promised to cut Echo in for a dime. Think about this. The self centered naivete shines through with startling clarity. For that reason it is one of the most interesting books in the the Dylan canon.
Now, in these sixty pages Toby has misunderstood what Echo told him about the time Bob called her on the phone and played Bobby Freeman’s Do You Want To Dance claiming to be singing the song.
In his sixty pages he projects a better story where Bob shows up on Echo’s front porch playing guitar and sings Do You Want To Dance then strutting all through the house singing and playing somewhat like Elvis in the dime store in King Creole.
Echo points out this error. Toby liked his version so much he left it in the way he first wrote it. Then when Echo introduces this Bob Dylan impersonator into his parents home Toby whips out his quitar and reenacts his version of the incident strutting around the house as he plays and sings. The guy was absolutely out of his mind in his alcohol haze. He must have smelled like a brewery the whole time.
One is astonished that he was so well tolerated. Of course maybe everyone was thinking: ‘This is amazing, but it won’t last long’ and let it pass. Waved his car goodbe as he sped away.
One wonders what Echo’s emotional rection to the Bob Dylan impersonator was. Toby must have reactivated dormant affections for Bobby Zimmerman as he came on to her strongly in Bob’s persona. Echo had ten year old memories of Bob and now here he was, his double, coming onto her again. Frightening actually.
Toby left again and never returned. In the book he seems oblivious to the havoc he created in Echo’s life. In the interview at the end of Main Street given many years later he doesn’t seem to be any more aware. In fact he seems to be still posing as Dylan’s double. He mentions that he still contacts Echo, who has moved to LA, occasionally as does Bob but Bob seems to have better success in finding her.
Hurt and mystified that Thompson had no more use for her she wrote a poem for him that she mailed to him in far off Washington D.C.
Where can you be?
Somebody told me
That you went back to
Washing Machine D.C.
How can that be?
You came to town in your Volkswagen
And I’ll tell you we sure had fun!
And now you’re gone!
You played for me on your old guitar,
Took me for a ride in your little car,
Drove me near and drove me far,
We looked at the moon,
And stared at the stars,
You stood on your head in my hometown bar…
How could it be you’ve gone so far?
Hey Toby? Where are you?
- Echo Helstrom
Toby hadn’t gone anywhere. Like Bob he’d just never been there. His fantasy like Bob’s didn’t include anyone else, they were just bit players in his own movie. Toby was no longer thinking of Echo. He was married to the bottle. He was touring bars across the country to get material for his next book. Echo could just consider herself as one of those bars. Once Toby had visited it there was no reason to return.
The tragedy for Echo was that she was betrayed once by Bob in 1958 and then again by a Bob impersonator in 1968. Perhaps a wound was created in her heart that could never heal. One wonders what her later history was after she left Minneapolis and drifted West.
I wonder where you are tonight.
I wonder if you are alright.
I wonder if you think of me
In my lonely misery.
There stands the glass,
Fill it up to the brim,
Till it flows o’er the rim,
It’s my first one today.
Here’s to old memories. Bottoms up.