by Dennis Dalman
Margy Hughes admits Bob Zimmerman got the last laugh.
Hughes, a St. Joseph resident, was a member of the Hibbing High School Student Council and gave a thumbs-down when Zimmerman auditioned for the school talent show one year in the late 1950s.
“He got up on that stage, stood by the baby-grand piano and just pounded and pounded on the keys,” Hughes recalled. “He was just pounding away and screaming out some song, trying to sound like Little Richard, I think. We thought it was just awful. It didn’t sound like anything.
Even the principal, Ken Pederson, had to keep saying, ‘Bob, quit pounding on that piano! You’re going to wreck it!’ “
The student-council judges, including Hughes, unanimously agreed: thumbs-down.
But Zimmerman apparently didn’t care if he’d passed the audition, then or in the future. Years later, when he had become better known as Bob Dylan, he and his folk-rock-blues band were practically booed and jeered right off the stage in concert after concert circa 1965-1966.
None of it surprised Hughes or her high-school friends. Not in the least.
“Oh, he always had to do things his way,” Hughes said. “He was off-by-himself a lot. He was a guy who marched to the beat of his own drummer. He lived very much in his own world. No fear, just ambition.”
Hughes noted in the 1950s in Hibbing High School, as in schools throughout the nation, there were the athletes and cheerleaders who comprised the popular clique, then there were the bookish nerds off on the side and on a lower level of the pecking order were the loners and rebels. Dylan, she said, was among the latter. He even drove around on a motorcyle – something no respectable boy or girl would ever do back then – not in Hibbing, anyway.
“He did have a few friends, but I don’t know how close he was to them,” Hughes said. “He had a girlfriend named Echo (Hellstrom). A real sweet girl, beautiful blonde girl, although I didn’t know her very well.”
Hughes was a senior when Zimmerman, a junior, tried out for that talent show – and flunked.
After high school graduation, Hughes and two of her best friends, Marcia Banen and Rosemary LaMott, enrolled at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities. A year later, Zimmerman also enrolled there, telling his parents he intended to study English. The three girls were well aware Zimmerman didn’t exactly crack the textbooks. Instead, he spent a lot of time hanging round on the streets of Dinkeytown, playing in folk-music cafes – places the three female friends considered off-base.
“We’d go to movies in Dinkeytown a lot or we’d stop at Bridgeman’s (ice-cream parlor), but we never went to those cafes,” Hughes recalled.
They’d see Zimmerman now and then in passing and say, “Hi, Bob.” But that was about it.
“He kept to himself and didn’t say much,” she said.
One day in 1960, Zimmerman caught wind Hughes and her two friends were going back to Hibbing for a weekend visit, with Banen driving the car. Zimmerman asked if he could ride with, so Banen drove to the fraternity house where he lived to pick him up.
“He brought a whole bunch of stuff to the car, as if he was going to move back home,” Hughes said.
“How come you have so much stuff just for a weekend?” Banen asked him. “Because I just quit school,” he said. “I’m goin’ to New York City.”
Zimmermann then returned to the house to get more “stuff.” In the meantime, the gals in the car burst out laughing and began to buzz with comments.
“Can you IMAGINE what his parents are going to say?!”
“I’m sure glad I won’t have to go into that house when he gets home!”
“Oh, I can just hear it! You just don’t DO that – quit college!”
Zimmerman returned to the car and got in.
“I don’t think he said a word all the way back to Hibbing,” Hughes said. “Marcia kept trying to pump him for information, but he didn’t answer. If I remember right, he just kind of curled up and snoozed. He had messy hair and always looked like he just fell out of bed. He didn’t have much to say. Very private person. That’s the way he always was.”
In the next couple of years, during summers off from college, Hughes worked at Feldman’s Department Store in Hibbing where she came to know Zimmerman’s mother Beatrice (nicknamed Beatty), who worked there for years. A proud Jewish mama, Beatty would now and then bring clippings to work from magazines and newspapers from New York. She would beam with pride as she shared the clippings with co-workers – clippings that raved up her son as a new voice and presence in the New York City folk-music scene.
“Oh, she was so proud of him!” Hughes recalled. “And Beatty was the nicest woman. A heart of gold. She worked in coats and dresses, and she would treat every customer as if she/he was the most prized customer. She was just a beautiful lady. Everybody loved her. Bob’s dad, Abe, was also a good person. Such a gentleman.”
As Zimmerman became more famous, Hughes and her friends were stunned.
“It was terrifically shocking to us,” she said. “We all laughed so hard because we couldn’t believe it, because we thought that kind of success for him would never, ever happen.”
In her memory, Hughes and her friends could still see and hear him pounding away almost like a maniac on that baby-grand piano in the Hibbing auditorium.
Hughes said Zimmerman-Dylan returned, as far as she knows, to only one of his high-school reunions.
“He just flew in, flew out,” she said. “But I know he came back at least one other time.”
That’s because a female friend of Hughes, a married woman, bought the Zimmerman house in Hibbing. One day, the woman saw a car drive very slowly past the house several times. She went out into the yard and, sure enough, just as she’d thought, it was Bob Dylan. She waved at him. He stopped.
“You want to come in and see the house?” she asked.
Acting awkward, Dylan mumbled bashfully, “Well, I dunno. Not really.”
She convinced him to come in for a look.
He walked upstairs to his old bedroom and remarked to the woman about how he couldn’t believe how small it was, as if it had shrunk. Then he thanked her and left.
“That happened after he’d been living away for about 20 years,” Hughes said. “He must have had a twinge of nostalgia.”
After all the years, Hughes is very aware of Dylan’s achievements in songwriting and his influences on music and culture in general, but she admits she has never cared for his singing.
“Sounds like he needs his adenoids out,” she said. “I’ve never been to one of his concerts or bought his records. But don’t misunderstand me. He wrote some very good songs.”
For decades, the three friends (Hughes, Banen, LaMott) kept in touch through letters, phone calls, emails and in-person visits. And throughout all that time, it never failed. One of them would read or hear something about Bob Dylan, and they would call each other.
“Have you heard that Bob just sang for the Pope?”
“Did you hear the news? Bob won some big prize.”
“Guess what? Bob is going to be in a movie.”
And every time, they would burst out laughing because they had been so certain, way back when, that Bob Zimmerman wouldn’t amount to much
“Well, the joke’s on us, and that’s why we always laugh,” Hughes said, “because we always were reminded of how Bob got the last laugh. Oh, did he ever!”
Sadly, Banen died of Lou Gehrig’s disease two years ago in California. LaMott lives in Chicago and to this day, occasionally, she and Hughes play the “Did you hear about Bob?” giggle game.
“The joke’s on us,” Hughes said, laughing.