Bob Zimmerman was always on a “mission,” according to LeRoy Hoikkala, the drummer in his first band.
“Hey, let’s go on a mission,” he used to say.
Last week, I had the chance to talk with Hoikkala, thanks to a friend, Kerry Nelson of Lowry, whose sales work takes him often to Hibbing. Nelson met Hoikkala’s girlfriend, a Hibbing High School teacher, and he asked her if I could interview LeRoy. She asked LeRoy and he said sure.
In the mid-to-late 1950s, hometown buddies LeRoy, Monte Edmandson and Bob formed a band called “The Golden Chords.” They played often in the garage of Bob’s home on 7th Street a stone’s throw from the high school.
The trio was often on a “mission.” That was Bob’s word for doing something cool. In 1955, they had their James Dean “missions.” At Stephens’ Grocery Store, they spent hours checking out stories and photos of that famed actor in movie magazines. They loved his three movies, and they were stunned when Dean was killed in a car accident on Sept. 30, 1955.
Some of the other “missions” were to get cleats put on their shoes and boots at Carlson’s Shoe Repair, hang out at the music store, take trips on their Harleys and cruise up and down Hibbing’s main street in a convertible.
“Bob was considered a hood (1950s’ lingo for “hoodlum”),” Hoikkala said. “A lot of us were hoods. But we weren’t mean or anything like that. Bob was a loner; we were all loners.”
The mid-1950s was, after all, the age of the “rebel” and the “outcast” – Dean, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift. Rock ‘n’ Roll (the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley) had just burst upon the scene, with teens dancing up a storm and parents cringing in panic.
The high point for “The Golden Chords” is the night they rented the Hibbing Armory to put on a “rock hop” like the ones in Duluth. They had to hire cops and a clean-up crew and even made their own tickets. The show was a hit, and they actually made some money.
“That was Bob’s first paying job,” Hoikkala said.
Four years later, Bob would record his first album in New York City, entitled “Bob Dylan,” and the rest, of course, is history.
Dylan’s fame does not surprise Hoikkala.
“He’s a genius, a great writer, a great everything,” he said. “He always was.”
Hoikkala remembers Bob always keeping his own counsel.
“He never talked about anybody else – his family, his girlfriend or anybody. He never gossiped. He was independent, impatient and restless. Those three words describe him best. Bob was Bob. Bob was for Bob. He was interested in himself and his music. Not that he was selfish. He just had his own mission. Back then, a lot of us had missions.”
Hoikkala never thinks of Dylan as a big star.
“He’s just my friend,” he said. “I haven’t seen him in years. He’s got his own life now. But I still think of him as a friend. Just a friend.”
Hoikkala said he still gets chills when he remembers how Bob almost got killed on his motorcycle near Hibbing. He waited for a train to pass and started across the tracks, but he didn’t see a train coming from the other way. He threw his bike down. The train just missed him.”
Now retired, Hoikkala hasn’t played his drums for years. He worked for decades as a manager for U.S. Steel in Virginia, Minn. He and his late wife, Bette, have two daughters in Owatonna and four grandchildren.
His favorite Dylan song, by the way, is “Not Dark Yet” from 1997’s “Time Out of Mind.” All of Hoikkala’s Dylan memorabilia, including a newspaper ad for the 1958 Rock Hop, he donated to Zimmy’s in Hibbing, a restaurant-bar that has become a virtual Dylan museum. Zimmy’s is a must for any Dylan fan who visits the “North Country Fair.”