Bob Zimmerman got the last laugh
I’ve always wanted to interview Bob Dylan, but since that’s not in the cards, Margy Hughes is the next best thing. Hughes lives in St. Joseph and taught physical education at the College of St. Benedict for more than 30 years.
She was a member of the Hibbing High School Student Council and gave a thumbs-down when Robert 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.”
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 Dinkytown, playing in folk-music cafes – places the three female friends considered off-base.
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.”
Zimmerman 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.”
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.
“Bob got the last laugh,” Hughes said, chuckling. “The joke’s on us.”
(Dear readers: This column is a shortened version of a longer story I wrote about Hughes and Dylan. If you want to read the entire story, visit www.thenewsleaders.com.)