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The road that Dylan took: a journey through young songwriter's slice of America



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In his recently published memoir, "Chronicles: Volume One," Bob Dylan describes what may or may not be a typical night at home. He and a houseguest, Bono of U2, stay up all night and polish off a case of Guinness while talking about their shared literary hero Jack Kerouac and their mutual love of back-roads America. "I told him that if he wants to see the birthplace of America, he should go to Alexandria, Minnesota," where, he explains, "the Vikings came and settled in the 1300s."

Dylan then becomes Bono's unbidden tour guide, mapping out a road trip with specific instructions to follow an unnamed roadway along "the river up through Winona, Lake City, Frontenac."

Curious, I opened a road atlas to discover that the only road that follows the Mississippi through those towns is Highway 61, the fabled Blues Highway that runs from the Mississippi Delta through Duluth, where Dylan was born and that Dylan mythologized in his 1965 masterpiece "Highway 61 Revisited."

I don't know if Bono ever made the trip, but if he did, he was in for some surprises. So I discovered in early June when, armed with a stack of Dylan CDs, I drove from Winona to Alexandria, using Dylan's directions to Bono as my map. I took the long route suggested in "Chronicles." Obviously, Dylan, who grew up 150 miles, or about 240 kilometers, northeast of Alexandria, in the remote Mesabi Iron Range town of Hibbing, wanted his Irish friend to see the countryside of his native state.

Or was Dylan, the maddeningly enigmatic songwriter whose line from the "John Wesley Harding" album, "nothing is revealed," pretty well describes "Chronicles" a memoir so bare of personal detail that the reader never learns the name of the wife puttering around in the background as Bob and Bono guzzle their Guinness cryptically sharing the secret of exactly how he goes about painting his masterpieces?

Before going further, I should point out that I am not an obsessed Dylan fan. I have seen Dylan live fewer than 50 times. Yes, I own all his albums, on vinyl or CD, as well as a Triumph Motorcycles T-shirt identical to the one Dylan wears on the cover of "Highway 61," my favorite Dylan album. But I have never pawed through Dylan's garbage, crawled out his window or stomped across his roof as have less restrained fans whom he flays in "Chronicles." To many observers, Dylan always seemed a tad too dark, too brooding, too hip to enjoy the warm embrace of his fair-haired fellow Minnesotans. Even now, the rest of the world seems to be in his thrall. Two new albums are in American stores (well, one, "Bob Dylan: Live at the Gaslight 1962," is sold exclusively in Starbucks; the other, "No Direction Home: The Soundtrack The Bootleg Series Vol. 7," is being distributed without the latte), and a documentary, also called "No Direction Home," directed by Martin Scorsese, is to be broadcast in the United States on Sept. 26 and 27. But in his home state he certainly enjoys nowhere near the iconic status of Elvis in Tennessee.

For instance, the annual Highway 61 festival near Duluth, held each August, is more blues than Bob-oriented, and the chamber of commerce in Hibbing, where the closest thing to a Dylan museum is a modest exhibit in the local library (unless you count Zimmy's, a bar and memorabilia-packed restaurant), only recently began to celebrate Dylan's birthday each May.

Even certain Dylanesque references proved to be misleading. "You can't get more Bob than that," I thought when I saw the "Positively Minnesota" branding slogan that was featured a few months ago on the official Web site of the state tourism bureau (www.exploreminnesota.com).

But a woman from the bureau told me that the phrase was not taken from Dylan's "Positively Fourth Street" but a bit of boosterism borrowed from the state's Department of Employment and Economic Development.

She also mentioned that her office received far more calls from visitors inquiring about Judy Garland, favorite daughter of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, where the annual Judy Garland festival attracts big crowds, than about Dylan. Consulting her computer to see if she was overlooking any Dylan-related tourist sites, she said, "He spells it D-i-l-l-o-n, right?" So it occurred to me when I set out to spend three days on the Dylan Trail that while I'm not technically obsessed, it's probably true that I am a bit more Bobbed- up than the next guy.

I began the road trip in Winona, then set out on an itinerary spelled out on Pages 174 and 175 of Dylan's memoir heading north on 61. A few miles out of town, I spotted an unexpected road sign. Turning off the four-lane Highway 61, I followed County Road 248 two miles west through lush and rolling truck farm and pasture land to a farming hamlet.

Entering Rollingstone, Minnesota, population 697.

As every Dylan fan knows, the opening line of the title song of "Highway 61" "Oh God said to Abraham 'kill me a son'" was plucked from Genesis. But who knew that the inspiration for "61," as well as the album's most famous song, "Like a Rolling Stone," might have come not from Dylan's Bible but from his road atlas?

Founded by emigres from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg in the 1850s, the town makes no attempt to promote its connection, intended or not, to what has to be among the most lavishly praised tunes in pop music history.

Voted the greatest rock 'n' roll song ever written by none other than Rolling Stone magazine, the tune is also the subject of "Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads An Explosion of Vision and Humor That Forever Changed Pop Music." That's the full title of Greil Marcus's 283-page book about that single song.

There are no plaques commemorating the town's namesake or even plans to adopt "Like a Rolling Stone" as the town song. The town does not hold Dylan Days festivities, and there are no chamber of commerce booster campaigns.

Back on the highway, I followed the Mississippi as it curved wide and muddy between skyscraping bluffs sculptured by glaciers and smoothed by wind and water. Highway 61 turns west at Red Wing, crossing the Mississippi at Hastings, where it joins U.S. 10, a heavily congested four-lane that skirts the Twin Cities and curves to the northwest while 61 continues north to Duluth. In stark contrast to the green, undulating river valley that 61 winds through, U.S. 10 slices through mostly flat, sparsely wooded prairie and farm country.

I stopped for a night at Wadena, a dusty freight rail crossing about 50 miles northwest of Little Falls, the prairie town where Charles Lindbergh was brought up. One hundred miles to the northwest, in Fargo, North Dakota, a little-known but portentous moment in rock 'n' roll history occurred when, on the night after Buddy Holly died in a plane crash on the way to a gig there in February 1959, an 18-year-old piano player named Robert Zimmerman (later known to the world as Bob Dylan) sat in with a fellow Minnesotan, Bobby Vee, whose band was conscripted at the last minute to fill Holly's place on the bill.

The next morning I set off early for my final destination, Alexandria and the Runestone Museum, wherein lies proof or not that a party of Vikings camped in the area 130 years before Columbus discovered an island chain off the coast of North America. If true, the Norsemen penetrated thousands of miles farther inland from their known North American settlement at Vinland, in present-day Newfoundland, than most historians believe.

I asked a waitress what she knew about the museum and its Kensington Runestone, a large, flat rock that bears a runic inscription supposedly carved by Vikings in 1362, and about a local farmer named Olaf Ohlman who was said to have found it in 1898.

"Never heard of it," she said.

The legend may not have reached Wadena, 50 miles north of the site, where the stone, left by survivors of an Indian massacre as a warning to Vikings who might follow, is displayed in the museum. But it left a lasting impression on Dylan. He recalled telling Bono that "there's a wooden statue of a Viking in Alexandria," referring to Big Ole, the 25-foot, or about 7.6-meter, Norse warrior that stands guard outside the Runestone Museum, "and it doesn't look anything like a dignified founding father of America. He's bearded, wears a helmet, strapped knee-high boots, long dagger in a sheath, holding a spear at his side, wearing a kilt holding a shield that says, 'The birthplace of America.'"

It was strange to see the fierce visage of the towering Viking exactly as described in "Chronicles." The statue was built for Minnesota's state pavilion at the 1964-65 World's Fair in New York and later bought by the town and installed outside the museum. An attention-getter in his own right, Big Ole helped draw nearly 8,000 visitors to the Runestone Museum last year.

"A nice write-up in the AAA guidebook also helped," the museum's manager, Julie Blank, said as she walked us through the museum, which has impressive displays of rare Indian and pioneer artifacts as well as an extensive and well-balanced collection of material devoted to the discovery and controversy surrounding the Runestone.

More than a century after Ohlman dug it up, Runestone's authenticity is still being argued. Rusted but still deadly looking medieval Norse battle-axes unearthed by settlers in the early 1800s, along with iron eyelets used by Vikings to moor their ships and river boats, bolster the claims of local historians. They believe parties of Viking explorers sailed west via the Hudson Bay and traveled south to Minnesota by navigating and portaging between a then-far more extensive network of rivers, streams and lakes.

Some locals even say that early settlers found bands of fair- skinned, light-haired natives living in the Dakota territories who are believed to be descendants of 14th-century Vikings. Others say it is all bunk and that Ohlman perpetuated an elaborate hoax.

Blank and Barbara Grover, a former president of the Alexandria Historical Society and a current member of the Runestone Museum's board, are among the believers, as are many visitors who seem swayed by the museum's displays, which are convincing without being heavy- handed.

As for that other local legend, Blank doesn't recall ever seeing Dylan or his friend Bono visiting the museum. But Grover does recall an incident that might give Dylanologists pause.

"Sure, I remember Bobby Zimmerman," said Grover, who in the late '50s and early '60s ran a coffeehouse called the 10 O'Clock Scholar in Dinkytown, the student quarter of Minneapolis. Dylan mentions the place in his book as a refuge where he practiced the six-string Martin guitar he traded for the electric guitar he had played throughout his teens.

According to Grover, years before Dylan was booed at the Newport Folk Festival for going electric, he was kicked off stage at the 10 O'Clock Scholar for going acoustic. "He was awful," Grover said. "He couldn't play and he couldn't sing. We had to kick him out. I made my husband tell him because I didn't have the heart."

(C) 2005 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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