Penn State professor, biographer reflects on Dylan at 70

University Park, Pa. -- In the fall of 1968, Toby Thompson, now associate professor of English at Penn State, was a young writer fresh out of the University of Virginia looking for a story to publish. Bob Dylan, meanwhile, was already the voice of a generation -- a hero to millions, including Thompson -- who had gone through multiple musical phases as layers of mythology and mystique built around him.

A conversation with a friend spurred Thompson to realize no one had really investigated what was beneath Dylan's often inscrutable public facade. So Thompson set off for Hibbing, Minn., where Dylan was raised as Robert Zimmerman, to see firsthand the town and people who shaped Dylan's early life. The journey resulted in a six-part series for The Village Voice that formed the basis for "Positively Main Street: An Unorthodox First View of Bob Dylan," an exercise in New Journalism, as much a personal memoir for Thompson as a biography of Dylan, and the first serious book about the rocker poet. A revised edition of the book was released by University of Minnesota Press in 2008 as "Positively Main Street: Bob Dylan's Minnesota."

"I'd never done any reporting and it was immediately very exciting to me," Thompson said. "It was just incredible. I was finding out stuff I knew was going to find its way into print. It was twofold: I wanted to find a story I could publish, but also I had this deep curiosity about Dylan, about the subject, which I always tell my students is absolutely necessary when you're doing a profile or biography. If you're not interested in it, nobody else is going to be interested in it."

As Dylan turns 70 years old on May 24, Thompson said that some of what he learned about the young Bobby Zimmerman is still recognizable in Dylan today.

"The first thing that struck me was ostensibly what a normal kid he was. He had more of a middle-class upbringing than he had pretended," said Thompson, who teaches creative nonfiction at Penn State. "There's still some of that left. There's that part of Bob that he likes to pretend he's an ordinary guy. But there's also this extraordinarily sensitive, visionary human being who is maybe a little off-kilter ... as most great artists are."

Dylan's upbringing made him an outsider. He was Jewish in an almost exclusively Protestant town. Where much of the town was employed in the mining industry, Dylan's father was a businessman and his family was comfortably middle class.

"I learned out there that he was enormously private about his life. Obviously, he still is," Thompson said. "The things that tortured him in Hibbing early on were, number one, being sort of a pampered mama's boy and, number two, being Jewish in a town that was almost 99 percent Protestant. He learned to compartmentalize his emotions and his psyche and indeed learned how to be somebody else that he wasn't. It was easier to pretend to be a tough rock 'n' roller from the Bible Belt like Gene Vincent or Elvis.

"He's still, I think, enormously divided. Robert Shelton interviewed him at great length [for the biography "No Direction Home"], and Dylan talked about how he didn't know who he was going to be from one day to the next."

Thompson's trek to Hibbing found him visiting Dylan's childhood home, meeting his teachers and interviewing Dylan's family, including his mother, who gave only a few interviews in her life.

Among the most revealing interviews was Echo Helstrom, Dylan's high school girlfriend and the likely subject of the Dylan classic "Girl from the North Country." Helstrom, whom Thompson posits as a considerable influence on Dylan, was one of the few people to whom Dylan opened up.

"I think he's learned to never apologize, never explain," Thompson said. "I think he learned that fairly early and I saw some of that in Hibbing. He was inscrutable to a lot of people there, too. He'd get excited when he was with his girlfriend, Echo. He'd be really excited with someone he was close to, but his surface persona was always one of calculated cool."

Thompson's work, meanwhile, did not go unnoticed by Dylan. In 1969, when Rolling Stone secured its first interview with Dylan, the Village Voice articles were among the topics tackled. At first, Dylan told Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner he had no problem with the reports. Pressed further, Dylan said he was only unhappy with some of the details Thompson included about Dylan's recently deceased father, leading to a quote that has been identified with Thompson's piece through the decades.

"But that boy has got some lessons to learn," Dylan said of Thompson.

"Of course when I read that I was both horrified and thrilled," said Thompson, whose work has appeared in numerous major publications such as Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and The New York Times. "I was writing my book and it was the perfect quote. That's what the book was about, learning some kind of responsibility as a journalist, as a biographer. It was absolutely perfect."

Dylan remains vital today, through decades of classic work and acclaimed recent releases, for not only the Baby Boomer generation that grew up with him, but for millions of others who have come of age well after the 1960s. He has toured almost nonstop for the past decade, and though his oft-lampooned live voice has been off-putting to some, people the world over continue to connect with his records and lyrics, Thompson said.

In fact, Thompson will teach a writing class focused on Dylan in the fall, a course met with great demand by students.

"When they listen to him on record, absolutely they connect with him," Thompson said. "I'm teaching a senior seminar on Dylan in the fall, and five minutes after it was posted online it was filled. I've gotten dozens of requests to be let into the class. [Students] are looking for a way to make it in the world and not sell out. They're looking for a way to make it because of the economy, and the idea that somehow they could make it as an artist or as a writer is even more appealing to students today."

Dylan's songs connect across generations, Thompson said, in large part because of Dylan's devotion to the craft. Dylan is a student of American music, songwriting and the avant-garde, as well as a master lyricist. And despite the jokes Dylan's voice inspired in latter years, Thompson is a fan of his singing.

"He's really underrated as a singer," he said. "He's a great singer the way Louis Armstrong was a great singer -- gravelly voice and all about the timing and phrasing. In his middle period he had range, too. Now since his voice is essentially blown out, it's timing and phrasing completely. People react to that once they get used to it on some sort of visceral level."

As Dylan turns 70, having already lived an arduous life on the road, Thompson said he has considered Dylan's mortality and wondered what the reaction would be -- for Thompson personally and across the world -- when Dylan passes away.

"I can remember how I felt when Elvis died, and Dylan talks about how depressed he was when Elvis died," Thompson said. "I went into a funk that lasted weeks. Dylan is such a huge figure associated with my youth and so many millions of people's youths around the world. Dylan is a great literary figure, in my view, as much as a musical one. He knows how to use words in ways that get under your skin and continue to get under your skin."

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Last Updated May 23, 2011