Bob Dylan
Expecting Rain



SO I WATCHED THAT SUN COME RISING
FROM THAT LITTLE MINNESOTA TOWN: 
TOBY THOMPSON REVISITED

A J Iriarte

(First published in The Bridge number 31)

At long last, a welcome paperback reprint of one of the most
sought-after (and collectable!) books on Bob Dylan. Originally
published in 1971 as "Positively Main Street. An Unorthodox View
of Bob Dylan", it also happens to be one of the few truly
essential titles in the ever growing bibliography on our
subject, already so vast that it will soon prove impossible to
encompass. "Positively Main Street" can be labelled a classic
without any undue qualms. The first thing worthy of notice is
that the book's subtitle has now become a far more accurate "Bob
Dylan's Minnesota", more suited to its contents and to the
present state of affairs in the field of Dylan studies.

The author, Toby Thompson, is described on the dust wrapper to the original edition of the book as "a young writer and musician whose articles on Bob Dylan attracted wide and admiring attention when they appeared in 'The Village Voice'. He has also written articles for 'The Washington Post' and 'US'". Now, all these years down the line, Thompson teaches non-fiction writing at Penn State University, is the author also of "Saloon" (1976) and "The '60s Report" (1979) and has written for many periodicals and magazines, including "Rolling Stone", "Esquire", "Vanity Fair" and "Playboy". Additionally, after his inaugural master stroke, he has kept largely silent on Dylan matters for over thirty years, until Terry Kelly interviewed him for The Bridge early in 2005. When he set out to write what would become "Positively Main Street", however, Thompson wasn't even 'a young writer', rather a maverick would-be journalist, a follower of the so-called 'New Journalism' championed by Tom Wolfe, albeit probably closer to Hunter S Thompson's 'gonzo' approach to that discipline.

Fresh out of University and a long-time Dylan fan, Thompson hit upon the idea of inquiring into Dylan's past, to find the proverbial man behind the mask, at a time when Dylan was in seclusion and nobody really knew too much about his origins (or only the tall tales he had carefully disseminated). With this purpose, Thompson travelled all the way to Hibbing in the fall of 1968, hoping to track down Dylan's relatives and childhood friends, intimately convinced that the articles he intended to write about his investigative trip and potential discoveries would get him into print for the first time and thus launch his career. That he achieved his aim is, of course, a matter of record. What finally became "Positively Main Street" evolved basically from an original series of articles published in "The Village Voice" from March 1969 and a follow-up article commissioned by "US Quarterly", plus some material first published in the "San Francisco Chronicle".

Thompson made two trips to Hibbing, and also visited Minneapolis and Duluth. Rather than carry out proper interviews, in the strict journalistic sense, he chatted with sundry acquaintances, friends and relatives of Dylan's. Names now long familiar, like those of B J Rolfzen, Dylan's English teacher at school, or Ellen Baker, an acquaintance-cum-flirt of Dylan's brief University days, to mention but two, first surfaced in these highly entertaining pages. Thompson also more or less stumbled upon Echo Helstrom, with whom he established an intense relationship; he was the first one to make the connection between Echo and Dylan's song Girl From The North Country. To all this, add if you please that he also had a tense encounter with David Zimmerman, and a more pleasant one with Dylan's mother, who invited him out to lunch. How many reporters or biographers can claim the same? What Thompson established with his groundbreaking investigation was that Dylan was an ordinary Joe ("I'm just average, common too / I'm just like him, the same as you"), with a family, an education and a geographical background most people could relate to. The underpinnings of the myth, so to say, were laid bare for all to see, but in an affectionate and caring manner.

Although 'gonzo' journalese can occasionally be hard to digest, Thompson's highly literate prose proves on the contrary pretty engaging, and it flows smoothly and with a certain elegance, without any undue familiarities nor excessive display of city 'cool' or 'hipness', a pleasant surprise given the situation: a 'sophisticat' –as Michael Gray would say– among the hicks. Only a few patent concessions to the fashions of the day or his journalistic models may now prove slightly irritating, such as the extremely silly headings used for the book's chapters (e.g. 'four gush', 'historogush', 'gushicon five', etc.). Almost forty years down the line, Thompson has every reason to be satisfied with the book. It is indeed a remarkable achievement both as a journalistic investigation and as literary work.

As a matter of fact, "Positively Main Street" reads like a novel, now probably more so than when first published. As Thompson himself admits nowadays (p. 187), he conceived the book as a Bildungsroman of sorts, with the narrative dwelling as much upon his gradual discovery of the background, setting and details of Dylan's youth as on the shaping of his own personality by these experiences. "Positively Main Street" is all about growing up in America: not only Dylan in Minnesota in the 1950s, but more so Thompson himself in 1968-69, when confronted to Dylan's roots but also to the changes that American society was undergoing. Upon his return from Hibbing, Thompson was not the same naēve young man who had set out on the journey. He had learnt things about Dylan, but many more about himself.

Of course, what Thompson discovered about Dylan mostly holds no surprises for today's reader, but one should keep in mind that –as Greil Marcus says in his cover blurb– "Toby Thompson was there first". In fact, Shelton had been the first to go to Hibbing, with Thompson coming in a close second, as the book explicitly states, but more importantly, Thompson was the first to publish his findings, and one might argue that his approach was most attractive. Many of the oft-repeated anecdotes on Dylan's childhood and early adolescence were originally put down on paper by Thompson, and it always repays, at any time, to go back to the original sources. In that sense, the book is as invaluable now to researchers as it was when first published. But it has nowadays acquired an additional virtue, bestowed upon it by the sheer passing of time: it portrays vividly a place and a spirit that are no more.

The Hibbing that Thompson visited was still very close to the one Dylan had been brought up in, even if it was starting to show the first symptoms of change (as Thompson notes during his second trip there). That Hibbing, of course, has long disappeared. Thompson is an excellent travel writer: he has a feeling for space, with intensely rendered descriptions of places, buildings and people, and either by chance or intention, has also managed to capture the spirit of the time. This makes his report infinitely more valuable today, when we are further away from those more innocent times. Thompson's book operates as a time capsule: it manages to take you back in time, what most biographies fail to do to the reader's loss.

"Positively Main Street" is indisputably one of the few books no serious Dylan fan or scholar can do without. If you don't own the first edition or the 1972 paperback and cannot afford shelling out from 100 to 150 dollars for the original hardback, then this book is urgently beckoning to you. And even if you do own the original, you may still wish to add this handsomely produced paperback (albeit with a distressingly ugly cover) to your collection. Besides, this is in fact an updated version of the book. Although the text has apparently not been revised, the book now includes a new preface by Thompson (also published in issue 30 of The Bridge) and, as a so-labelled "bonus track", the afore-mentioned extensive Terry Kelly interview with the author from issue 21 of The Bridge, plus –last but not least– previously unpublished photographs of Echo Helstrom in Hibbing in 1969.

Toby Thompson, "Positively Main Street. Bob Dylan's Minnesota", University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2008 (ISBN: 978-0-8166-5445-1, 218 pages, paperback, $15.95)

Bob Dylan's Minnesota.
Positively Main Street: Bob Dylan's Minnesota
by Toby Thompson
amazon.com .uk - .de.

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