Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Down the Highway

The Life of Bob Dylan

by Howard Sounes

“Sounes [has] produced [a] fascinating and finely written account of Dylan’s life and times, while managing at the same time to provide interesting evaluations of his music and cultural contribution.” —The New Republic

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 608
  • Publication Date May 04, 2021
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-5864-2
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $22.00

About The Book

Based on three years of research, new documentary evidence, and interviews with 250 of Dylan’s intimates—many exclusive—Down the Highway has gone beyond the scope of other accounts to become the most complete, authoritative biography of Bob Dylan now in print. It was praised by The Orlando Sentinel for the insights it offers to Dylan at work . . . from young upstart to grand old man of rock ‘n’ roll. . . . This book makes us realize now, while he’s still with us, how valuable he has been to our culture these last forty years.”

Sounes’s prodigious research has resulted in new insights on every aspect of Dylan’s life. His is the only biography to seriously address the past twenty years of Dylan’s life, leading up to the extraordinary recent releases Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft. He has obtained exclusive information to provide the clearest picture yet of Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle accident and subsequent “lost years” in Woodstock, New York, and he uncovered the star’s unknown second marriage. He gives inside accounts of the tours, the creation of every album and the most celebrated songs, Dylan’s labyrinthine love life, his life-threatening heart illness in 1997, and more—directly from interviews with girlfriends, family, friends, producers, concert promoters, and fellow musicians. Candid, refreshing, and written with a sincere appreciation of Dylan’s music and influence, Down the Highway is an essential book for the millions of people who have enjoyed Dylan’s music over the years.


“Many writers have tried to probe [Dylan’s] life, but never has it been done so well, and so captivatingly.” —Steve Morse, The Boston Globe

“Sounes [has] produced [a] fascinating and finely written account of Dylan’s life and times, while managing at the same time to provide interesting evaluations of his music and cultural contribution.” —The New Republic

“Sounes . . . pieces together testimony and circumstantial evidence into a fairly detailed account of Dylan’s wreck. . . . It’s the kind of thing Sounes does well, opening new angles on the enigmatic polyhedron that is Dylan.” —The Nation

“[Sounes] offers information that, in sheer quantity, supersedes prior accounts.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Sounes’s book has the definite virtue of being the last one you’ll ever need to read about Dylan.” —Salon

“With little sensationalism, the inscrutable and intensely private Dylan is dissected, measured, and categorized.” —Esquire

“[Sounes] has scoured court documents and interviewed friends, family, lovers, band members and anyone else who had contact with the mercurial troubadour. . . . [He] appears to know every nuance of every track Dylan has ever recorded–and the inspirations for famous songs.” —Washington Post Book World

“Irresistible . . . finally puts Dylan the human being in the rocket’s red glare.” —Detroit Free Press

“[A] lively, exhaustively researched book. . . . Sounes strikes a healthy balance, packing the book with musical details aimed at Dylan diehards without wallowing in the dirty laundry that will no doubt make headlines.” —The Boston Globe

Praise for Charles Bukowski

“Bukowski is one of those writers people remember more for the legend than for the work . . . but, as Howard Sounes shows in this exhaustively researched biography, it wasn’t the whole story.” —Los Angeles Times

“Engaging . . . adroit . . . revealing.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Howard Sounes does an admirable job of re-creating Bukowski’s journey through the underground passages of the American literary landscape.” —Sarasota Herald-Tribune

“A must-read for anybody who is a fan of Bukowski’s writing, Howard Sounes successfully conjures up the voice of this outrageous character and offers clear-eyed insight into his extraordinary life.” —The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

“Excellent. . . . A fast-paced narrative and a great read.” —Minneapolis City Pages

“Howard Sounes writes with wit and compassion about this irascible wild man of American letters.” —Judith Wynn, Boston Herald

Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life is a generous tribute to Bukowski’s genius and it clearly and truthfully captures the essence of Bukowski both as writer and man.” —John Martin, Black Sparrow Press (Bukowski’s editor)

“With no shortage of anecdotes, pictures or big names, this [biography] is so thorough and sharp that it may as well be the last.” —Graham Caveney, Arena

“A remarkable account of the poet laureate of Skid Row’s bedeviled sojourn on planet Earth.” —Iain S. Bruce, The Glasgow Herald

“This is the first in-depth biography of Bukowski and succeeds by pulling into focus the hazy image of the apocryphal barfly anti-hero . . . a picaresque read.” —Nick Wyke, The Times (London)

“Wonderful . . . the first such serious and thorough Bukowski biography. . . . An excellent book about a remarkable man.” —Ross Fortune, Time Out

“A fine storyteller, descriptive and visual, Sounes sticks with the stuff that made Bukowski a legend.” —Tulsa Kinney, LA Weekly

“A lively portrait of American literature’s ‘dirty Old Man.”” —William Gargan, Library Journal

“The man who emerges from Sounes’s work is one who shamelessly pursued his needs for beer, women and recognition—a man capable of tenderness, who always paid child support for his daughter and who resisted the seductions of belated, relished fame. This biography is an affectionate and thorough introduction that will not be rivaled for quite some time. Its effect is to revitalize rather than reduce Bukowski’s work: poems and stories that help keep people alive.” —Guy Mannes-Abbott, The Independent


A finalist for the 2001 Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award
A Sunday Times (London) best-seller


Chapter One — North Country Childhood

Duluth is an iron-ore shipping town in northern Minnesota, built on a rocky cliff on the western shore of Lake Superior. Bob Dylan was born here as Robert Allen Zimmerman in May 1941. In a 1998 magazine article, Elvis Costello asked, “… what’s Robert Zimmerman doing living in Duluth? That’s in itself a story. His family had to get there from somewhere. There’s folk music explained right there.”

Bob’s father, Abe Zimmerman, was the son of Zigman and Anna Zimmerman, Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. Zigman was born in 1875 in the Black Sea port of Odessa and grew up in desperate times. As the power of Czar Nicholas II faltered, he blamed Jews for the problems besetting the Russian empire, and thousands were murdered by mobs. Anti-Semitic hysteria reached Odessa in November 1905. Fifty thousand Czarists marched through the streets, screaming “Down with the Jews,” and shot, stabbed, and strangled a thousand to death.

In the wake of the massacre Bob’s paternal grandfather fled the country, telling his wife and children he would send for them when he had found a place to settle.

Zigman Zimmerman caught a ship to the United States and found his way to Duluth, one hundred and fifty-one miles north of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Like many ‘migr’s, Zimmerman gravitated to a place similar to the land where he was born. Duluth was a small but bustling port, like Odessa, with an almost Russian climate of short summers and long, bitter winters. Duluth was a fishing port, but its main trade was in the iron ore from the Iron Range, a necklace of mining towns to the northwest. The ore was transported by train to Duluth and transferred to ships that carried it to iron and steel works in Chicago and Pittsburgh. Zimmerman worked as a street peddler, repairing shoes. When he was established he sent for his Russian wife, Anna. She came with three children, Marion, Maurice, and Paul. Three more boys—Jack, Abram (also known as Abe), and Max—were born after the couple was reunited in America.

Abe Zimmerman was born in 1911. By the age of seven, he was selling newspapers and shining shoes to help the family. Although Abe was not tall and wore glasses, he was an athletic boy. He was also a musician, and the Zimmerman children formed a little band. “Abe played violin. I played violin [and] Marion played piano,” says Abe’s brother Jack. “We had pretty good talent and played together at some high schools.” Abe graduated high school in 1929, a few months before the Wall Street stock market crash, and went to work for Standard Oil.

Bob Dylan’s mother, Beatrice Stone—whom everybody called Beatty, pronounced Bee-tee, with emphasis on the second syllable—was from a prominent Jewish family in the Iron Range town of Hibbing. Her maternal grandparents, Benjamin and Lybba Edelstein, were Lithuanian Jews who had arrived in America with their children in 1902, and came to Hibbing two years later. Her grandfather, known as B. H., operated a string of movie theaters. B. H.’s eldest daughter, Florence, who was born in Lithuania, married Ben Stone, also born in Lithuania, and they ran a clothing store in Hibbing, selling to the families of miners, most of whom were also immigrants. Beatty was born in 1915, the second of Ben and Florence’s four children. Her siblings were named Vernon, Lewis, and Irene. Like the Zimmermans, the Stones were a musical family and Beatty learned to play the piano.

Although Hibbing was the largest of the Iron Range towns, the population was only ten thousand, and the Jewish community was small. “It was quite difficult for us because there weren’t too many young Jewish people,” says Beatty’s aunt, Ethel Crystal, who was like a sister to Beatty because they were close in age. “So we used to go to Duluth to visit our relatives.” They were in Duluth, at a New Year’s party, when Ethel introduced Beatty to Abe Zimmerman. “He was a doll,” says Ethel Crystal. “Everybody liked him.” Abe was a quiet, almost withdrawn, young man, and Beatty was vivacity itself, but their differences were complementary.

Abe and Beatty married at her mother’s home on June 10, 1934, three days after her nineteenth birthday. Abe was twenty-two at the time. The country was still gripped by the Depression. Sharecroppers from the Midwest were migrating to California. Newspapers reported the desperate crimes of gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde, who were involved in a shoot-out in St. Paul in March. John Dillinger was shot dead in Chicago a couple of weeks after Abe and Beatty honeymooned in the city. It was a strange, hard time, and it would be six years before they could afford to start a family. In the meantime, they lived with Abe’s mother in Duluth.

It took the Second World War, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, to pull America out of the Great Depression. By 1941, Abe had been promoted to management level at Standard Oil, and he and Beatty had enough money to get their own apartment. Beatty was pregnant when they moved to 519 North 3rd Avenue East, a clapboard house with a steeply pitched roof and verandah, built on a hill above Duluth. They rented the two-bedroom top duplex. At five past nine on the evening of May 24, 1941, Beatty gave birth to baby boy at nearby St. Mary’s Hospital. He weighed seven pounds and one ounce. Four days later when the child was registered and circumcised he had a name. In fact, he had two. In Hebrew he was called Shabtai Zisel ben Avraham. In the wider world he would be known as Robert Allen Zimmerman. Robert was the most popular name for boys in the country at the time. Almost immediately he was known as Bob, or Bobby. His mother said he was so beautiful he should have been a girl.

* * *

The central hillside district of Duluth was predominantly Jewish and Polish, with a synagogue at the end of the road. There was a general store, a European bakery, the Loiselle liquor store, and a Sears Roebuck at the bottom of the hill. The weather was determined by Lake Superior, so vast and deep it remained icy cold throughout the year. Even in mid-summer, Duluth could be shrouded in frigid fog. There was a fresh ocean smell and the cry of seagulls. Ships approaching the landmark Ariel Bridge sounded their horns and a horn on the bridge blasted in reply. These were the sights and sounds Bob grew up with as the Second World War raged to its end.

In 1946, a year after the war ended, Bob enrolled at the Nettleton elementary school two blocks from his home. The same year he gave his singing debut at a family party. Children were encouraged to perform for the entertainment of the adults. When it was his turn, four-year-old Bob stamped his foot for attention. “If everybody in this room will keep quiet,” he said. “I will sing for my grandmother. I’m going to sing ‘Some Sunday Morning.’” It was such a success the audience demanded an encore. Bob obliged with “Accentuate the Positive.” These were popular tunes on the radio at the time. “Our phone never stopped ringing with people congratulating me,” said the proud Beatty.

Not long after, Bob had a second opportunity to perform, at the wedding of Beatty’s sister, Irene. The relatives wanted Bob to sing again. Bob was reluctant, even when an uncle offered him money, but Abe persuaded him. Once again he prefaced his performance by telling the excited relatives, “If it’s quiet, I will sing.” It was another great success. Everybody cheered and clapped and one of Bob’s uncles pressed money into his hand. With instinctive showmanship, Bob turned to his mother and said, “Mummy, I’m going to give the money back.” It brought the house down. “People would laugh with delight at heating him sing. He was, I would say, a very lovable, a very unusual child,” Abe remembered. “I think we were the only ones who would not agree that he was going to be a very famous person some day … When he sang ‘Accentuate the Positive’ the way other children his age sang ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ people said he was brilliant.” As Beatty said, it was amazing her son was not spoiled by so much attention.

In February 1946 Bob was joined by a baby brother, David Benjamin. Around the same time Abe was stricken with polio, which had reached the level of an epidemic by that year. After a week in the hospital he came home and crawled up the front steps of the house “like an ape,” as he described it. He stayed home for six months, and then lost his job at Standard Oil. Although Abe suffered his misfortunes manfully, the illness had a marked effect. He had been an active, even athletic young man. Now he had to learn to walk again. “My father never walked right again and suffered much pain his whole life,” said Bob. “I never understood this until much later but it must have been hard for him.” Without work, short of money, and needing relatives around to help them, the Zimmermans moved to Hibbing, where Beatty’s family lived and where two of Abe’s brothers ran a business.

Seventy-five miles northwest of Duluth, and separated from Canada by a hundred miles of forest and lake country, Hibbing had greatly expanded with the demand for iron during World War II. The population swelled to eighteen thousand and there was a busy downtown district around Howard Street and 1st Avenue. Mining dominated the town. The Hull-Rust-Mahoning mine was a gash in the earth three miles wide and more then five hundred feet deep. Local people called it “the man-made Grand Canyon of the North.” They had good reason to look kindly upon the mine, for the prosperity of Hibbing correlated directly with the fortunes of the Oliver Mining Company. When demand for ore was high, as it was during and just after the war, Hibbing enjoyed better than average standards of living and full employment. It was said everybody who could breathe could get a job. The mine itself was a mile and a half north of town, but iron ore was everywhere. The town was surrounded by hills of red overburden, some large enough for houses to be built on, and cars coming back from the mine were covered in iron oxide, as were the nearest buildings. There was a saying in Minnesota that one should wash out one’s ears after visiting Hibbing.

Hibbing was the quintessential small town, where American flags hung from every building on Independence Day and where virtually everybody knew one another, and probably knew their parents, too. People did not like to stand out or appear special. It was important to get on with one’s neighbors; they were the same people who worked in Feldman’s department store, taught at Hibbing High School, and sat at the next table in Sammy’s Pizza restaurant. The feeling of community was perhaps stronger than normal because Hibbing was so remote, lying closer to Canada than to any major U.S. city. There were bears in the pine forests. The northern lights could be seen flashing across the bleak horizon. In mid-winter people had to dig through deep snow drifts to their cars. “In the winter everything was still, nothing moved,” Bob has reminisced. “Eight months of that … you can have some amazing hallucinogenic experiences doing nothing but looking out your window.”

Originally, the town was established farther north. But when the Oliver Mining Company decided to expand in 1912, everybody had to move, jacking their houses onto wheels and rolling them down the road. They left behind a ghost town known as North Hibbing. To partially compensate the citizens for this upheaval, the mining company invested in grand civic building schemes including a new business district, the Androy Hotel, and a City Hall. The scale of these projects lent Hibbing a feeling of affluence. Many of the town folk had come to America as semiliterate immigrants and they wanted something better for their children, so the Oliver Company also raised an opulent high school as part of the rebuilding, complete with a luxuriously appointed auditorium copied from the Capitol Theater in New York.

The move from North Hibbing was still in progress when the Zimmermans moved to town. There was a temporary shortage of housing, so they lived initially with Beatty’s mother, Florence Stone, who had been widowed in 1945. She became like a second mother to Bob and David. Abe went into partnership with his two electrician brothers, Maurice and Paul, at Micka Electric on 5th Avenue. The brothers sold a range of household appliances and carried out wiring and electrical repair work.

In 1948 Abe moved his family to 2425 7th Avenue, Bob’s primary childhood home. This was a two-story detached house two blocks from Hibbing High, where Bob and David enrolled, and a ten-minute walk from downtown where Abe worked. Entering the house, one walked directly into the living room. There was a central, two-way staircase that led to three bedrooms. The house was connected to “city heat,” steam heat pumped underground to houses near downtown, so there was no need for a furnace. Abe converted the basement into a recreation room, cladding the walls in pine paneling. Bob carved his initials, B. Z., next to the wall-mounted telephone. He and David shared a bedroom at the back of the house with two windows, one looking south down 7th Avenue and one looking west on 25th Street. Under the window was situated a flat-roofed garage. The Zimmermans also owned a second garage, which they rented to a bakery as storage space. When the bread truck came in the late afternoon kids would gather around for leftover buns.

There were several boys of Bob’s age in the neighborhood and, from the time they first moved to Hibbing, Beatty helped Bob make friends by organizing enjoyable parties for him. Children were invited to the house, or to outings to Side Lake, a picturesque spot outside of town. The friends Bob made in this way included the Furlong brothers; Bill Marinac, who later played bass in one of Bob’s high school bands; and Luke Davich. The children played together in the playground adjacent to the high school and, when they got older, they rode their bikes to Bennett Park, or out to the manmade hills, skidding and sliding on the red overburden. In the summer there was fishing and swimming; ice-skating and hockey in winter. Sometimes it was fun to ride to the mine and peer over the edge at the trucks so far below they looked like toys.

In September 1949 the steam locomotives that worked day and night in the mine fell silent. There were no more horn blasts, or explosions. Miners across the northern states were striking for pensions and insurance rights from United Steel. This strike lasted two months; the miners struck again in 1952. The strikes were hard on Hibbing, but they created a feeling of solidarity. Shopkeepers knew their prosperity depended on the miners having money to spend and, with the support of the community, the miners got their demands. For Bob, it was an early firsthand experience of people pulling together to achieve justice.

When the strikes were won, the town boomed. A new consumer age was beginning and a large proportion of the iron for America’s skyscrapers, automobiles, and domestic appliances was dug out of the mines outside Hibbing. There were few rich people in town, but there were not many poor people, and most citizens were slightly better off than the national average. Micka Electric was enjoying success and the Zimmermans became fairly comfortable. Abe and Beatty were soon prominent in various social groups and organizations. The family home had good-quality furniture and fitted carpeting. They ate from expensive china, had crystal glass, and sterling silver cutlery. A small chandelier hung over the dining table.

Bob flourished in a stable home where he was denied almost nothing and yet was not spoiled. He was particularly lucky to have such a loving mother. Beatty was a popular personality in Hibbing, where she worked part-time at Feldman’s department store. “I think one of the reasons he did have a pretty decent childhood was because of Beatty,” says boyhood friend John Bucklen. “She was a very good mother, a very likable woman.” Around his tenth birthday, Bob wrote a poem for Mother’s Day. It was an unequivocal statement of love for his mother. He wrote that he hoped she would never grow old. With a touch of melodrama, Bob added that without her love he would be dead and buried. Beatty was delighted with the poem, and showed all her friends. She kept it, together with other poems Bob and David gave her, in a footstool with a hinged lid.

The following year Bob wrote a Father’s Day poem. This was slightly different. Bob’s relationship with his father was not as close as that with his mother. Abe was a reserved man, very quiet, authoritarian and hard to know. He was articulate and could be witty, in a dry way, but he generally said little, being shy of company, and preferred to sit with the New York Times crossword rather than make conversation. While Bob’s school friends remember Beatty as a radiant presence, Abe could seem disdainful. In his Father’s Day poem, Bob affirmed his respect for his father, stating that he tried his best to please him. He added that maybe this was hard for his father to believe. There were times when Abe got “real mad.” At these times Bob found it was best to keep quiet in case his father became even angrier.

It was around this time that Bob began playing music, for the Zimmermans had acquired a Gulbranson spinet piano. Beatty had played when she was young and Abe could pick out a tune, but the piano was bought mostly in the hope that the boys might show an interest. A cousin named Harriet Rutstein gave Bob and his six-year-old brother initial tutoring. “David, who was a very, very smart boy, took it all in … and he could play better than Bob,” says his uncle, Lewis Stone. “He was very musically inclined.” Bob became frustrated and dispensed with his cousin’s help, announcing, “I’m going to play the piano the way I want to.” He proceeded to teach himself, and without ever learning how to read music. The boys were encouraged to take up other instruments, too. Bob tried the trumpet and saxophone before settling on acoustic guitar, working with the Nick Manoloff Basic Spanish Guitar Manual.

After the Zimmermans bought a television set in 1952—one of the first in town—Bob and David watched comedies and Westerns. But reception was poor in remote northern Minnesota and there was only a short period each day when programs for children were broadcast. There was still plenty of time to be alone and think and Bob was by nature a solitary, contemplative child. He did have a brother, but friends do not remember Bob and David as being particularly close. Indeed, when Bob invited friends home he would shoo David out of the way. Bob loved to read adventure books, and he liked to paint and make up stories of his own. He would sometimes sit beside the railroad tracks watching the cars filled with iron ore rattling down the line to Duluth. He would wave shyly at the engine driver, count the cars, and listen as the wheels receded. As he did so, he later recalled, he absentmindedly uprooted hunks of grass or tossed rocks across the tracks. He did some light work at Micka Electric, sometimes going out on the truck with his uncles to do wiring jobs, or sweeping up at the store for pocket money. But he did not like the work, and seems to have been disturbed by the brisk way his family did business with people who owed them money. Bob usually had plenty of pocket money nonetheless, enough to buy cigarettes, a habit he took up furtively at an early age, and cokes and pie at one of the downtown luncheonettes.

There was a European flavor to downtown Hibbing. The town was built by woodsmen and miners drawn to northern Minnesota from all over Europe, but particularly eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Practically every kid in Hibbing had some European ancestry and most of the older people spoke with accents. Vowels were commonly pronounced in a Germanic way, most noticeably when people said “yar” for “yeah.” When they agreed strongly, they exclaimed, “Yaarrr!” At the Sunrise Bakery on Saturday mornings, with customers oh-yaarring over purchases of potica cake and other European delicacies, one would almost be in the Rhineland. Despite the prevalence of immigrants, there was some degree of anti-Semitism. The Jews of Hibbing were not Orthodox; the men, including Abe, were clean-shaven and the Sabbath did not prevent them working. Still, Jews were not allowed to join the Mesaba Country Club. Bob was known as Zimbo to some children, and although there is no evidence he was bullied or picked on, his Jewishness was a factor that set him apart.

The Jewish community was so small that Hibbing did not have a rabbi. When it came time for Bob to study for his bar mitzvah a rabbi arrived by bus from New York. The rabbi was a very old man, with black robes and a white beard, like a character from the Old Testament. The Jewish community found him a room downtown and, every day after school, Bob went there and studied with him. Bob had his bar mitzvah in May 1954. There was a party at the Androy Hotel, with relatives driving in from Duluth and beyond. Afterward, the Jews did not want to keep the Orthodox rabbi on—he looked too old-fashioned in go-ahead 1954 Hibbing—and so he went back to New York.

While Bob was not brought up in an Orthodox home, he did receive a grounding in the Bible–an important source of imagery for his song lyrics long before his Christian conversion of the 1970s–and his father instilled a stern ethical code in the boy. As Bob later recalled, Abe once told him it was possible to become so “defiled” that his own mother and father would abandon him. “If that happens, God will always believe in your own ability to mend your own ways.” Although from the outside Bob might seem manipulative, egocentric, and amoral in later life—especially during the first years of his success when he was showered with adulation and money–something of his father’s Midwestern values always remained with him. As he grew up, Bob rarely swore; he was never in trouble with the police; he was close to his parents; he was loyal to friends for long periods of time; he was, in many ways, a person of strongly held moral principles; and he worked hard at his music, which increasingly seemed to be his vocation in life.

As he became more interested in music, the artists he liked tended to write and sing lyrics with a serious core, and performed with a sense that they were singing about something important. Popular music first reached Bob via the radio. Years later he identified Johnnie Ray as someone whom he heard very early on. Ray, who wept as part of his stage act, was one of the big stars of the early 1950s. “He was popular and we knew he was … dynamic and different and really had heart and soul,” said Bob. “He was an anomaly. He was stuck in there with Perry Como and Patti Page. I remember thinking he could really make you feel something.” Then there was Hank Williams, who wrote and sang deceptively simple songs in a voice that was not pretty, nor particularly musical, but had abundant conviction. The son of dirt-poor parents from the backwoods of southern Alabama, Williams was an unhealthy, unhappy alcoholic. Many of his songs were about the heartbreak of being in love with faithless women, which seemed to reflect his own marriage. In the last years of his short life he was one of the stars of the Grand Ole Opry, a variety show broadcast each Saturday night from Nashville, Tennessee. Bob heard Hank Williams on the Opry, introduced as “the ol’ Lovesick Blues boy,” and the sad songs sank into his heart. To Bob, Hank Williams would always be the greatest American songwriter.

Late at night Bob picked up radio stations from Little Rock, Arkansas, Chicago, Illinois, and way down south in Shreveport, Louisiana. What these stations played was mostly the blues, particularly on disc jockey Frank “Brother Gatemouth” Page’s show, No-Name Jive. “Late at night I used to listen to Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, and Howlin’ Wolf blastin’ in from Shreveport,” Bob has said. “I used to stay up till two, three o’clock in the morning. Listened to all those songs, then tried to figure them out. I started playing myself.” Bob had stumbled upon the basic forms of American popular music, before the explosion of rock ‘n’ roll, before Chuck Berry, Little Richard, or Elvis Presley. The hillbilly songs and heartbreak lyrics of Hank Williams made him think. The libidinous riffs of Jimmy Reed and Howlin’ Wolf inspired him to play. The combination of words and sounds was intoxicating. Indeed, it was a life-changing experience. “The reason I can stay so single-minded about my music is because it affected me at an early age in a very, very powerful way and it’s all that affected me. It’s all that ever remained true for me,” Bob has said. “And I’m very glad this particular music reached me when it did because frankly, if it hadn’t, I don’t know what would have become of me.”

Gripped with a passion for music–particularly the blues—Bob wrote off for records he heard advertised on the radio. “Brother Gatemouth” Page sold records for Stan’s Rockin’ Record Shop in Shreveport, huckstering special $3.49 deals for six recordings. There was no way to buy this so-called race music in Hibbing as the assistant in Crippa’s music store downtown had never heard of the artists Bob liked.

Bob practiced piano and acoustic guitar constantly and talked about music all the time. He sought out the company of the few children in town who shared his interest. One of these was John Bucklen, a boy Bob had known from around Hibbing but had not spoken to much before now. One day they were walking along the road with some friends when the subject of music came up. Bucklen revealed he knew and liked the same songs Bob did. “Do you sing?” Bob asked.


“Okay, sing something.”

Finding himself on the spot, Bucklen began a tune. “Oh, that’s really great, man,” said Bob, who was beginning to affect hipster expressions he had heard on the radio. Bucklen continued singing, even though he was shy. “Oh gee! Did you hear that guy?” asked Bob, turning to their friends. “That guy’s really good. Sing some more.” All of a sudden it dawned on Bucklen that Bob was putting him on.

John Bucklen soon became the closest friend Bob had in Hibbing. He was six months younger than Bob, and a year below him in high school. His father, a disabled mine worker, was an accomplished musician who enjoyed a wide variety of music. His sister, Ruth, had a record player. The boys began to spend a lot of time at each other’s houses, although Bucklen got the impression Abe may not have approved of the friendship as he seemed to frown upon most of Bob’s friends.

During jam sessions with Bucklen, Bob mixed up snatches of pop tunes with song ideas of his own. The first song Bob invented was about actress Brigitte Bardot. Bob played his parents’ white baby grand, and Bucklen accompanied him on guitar. Bucklen had a tape recorder and they recorded the sessions, interjecting juvenile humor and bits of hipster slang, as if making their own radio show. When they got tired of the game, they headed over to Crippa’s where they could listen to records in the sound booths. On visits to see his relatives in Duluth and the Twin Cities Bob was able to visit bigger stores that stocked the race records he liked.

Bucklen noticed that when he visited the Zimmerman house there was little interaction between Bob and his brother, David. “I don’t recall him having a very warm, friendly discussion with David. David was just his little brother,” says Bucklen. “And David was so radically different to Bob in his personality. He was probably the type of kid that any parent would like to raise–he was studious, and [he] wasn’t wild at all.” Although from the outside Bob did not seem to be particularly wild himself, he was a strong-minded, independent boy who, as his teenage years progressed, would become more revolved in a rebellious teen culture of raucous music, motorcycles, and girlfriends his father considered unsuitable. He always kept a surprisingly eclectic circle of acquaintances. In Hibbing, he was an active member of a bowling team, called the Gutter Boys, who won the 1955-56 Teen-Age Bowling League. Conversely, he also knew tough kids, like LeRoy Hoikkala, whose hair was slicked back DA-style, and who wore a leather jacket, jeans, and engineer boots like Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Bob also made friends at a coeducational Jewish summer camp, Camp Herzl, in Webster, Wisconsin. He did not want to go to camp at first, but his mother was set on the idea. “She wanted to send him there so he could meet Jewish kids and maybe meet some Jewish girls,” says Howard Rutman, one of the friends Bob made at camp, which he began to attend for three weeks each August. Bob slept in a cabin along with seven other boys, and went swimming and canoeing. Often he could be found pounding the piano in the lodge building.

In August 1954, the second year he was at summer camp, Bob was playing piano when twelve-year-old Larry Kegan walked into the lodge. “How do you know this song?” asked Kegan, recognizing a bluesy tune from the radio.

“Well, late at night up north where I live you get this [radio] station,” said Bob.

“Well, I’ve been listenin’ to the same stuff.”

Although Kegan was a year younger than Bob, they formed a close friendship based on their mutual love of music. Kegan was an accomplished singer, and home in St. Paul he had a high school doo-wop group, including three African-American boys whom he introduced to Bob when Bob visited St. Paul. This was something new. There were virtually no black people on the Iron Range. (Bob and John Bucklen later sought out one of the few African Americans, disc jockey Jim Dandy, who broadcast a show from nearby Virginia, Minnesota.) Bob respected African-American people from the start, partly because they were the originators of much of the music he loved, and was no doubt impressed that Larry Kegan was connected to this community.

Bob knew every song Kegan named, and what was on the flip side. They formed a double act at camp, Bob playing the piano and both boys singing. Girls soon came around and Bob struck up a friendship with Judy Rubin, a girl he saw on and off for several years. He was also keen on Harriet Zisson. But it was the buddies he made at camp that were most important to him. Apart from Larry Kegan and Howard Rutman, Louis Kemp also became a lifelong friend.

When Bob traveled down to St. Paul he stayed with the parents of his new friends. Howard Rutman’s family had a piano in their basement. “He would bang the shit out of the piano,” says Rutman. “He would get up there and dance on the damn thing…. Ah God, he just ruined it.” They went driving and parked in front of the house to talk late into the night, whiling away time until their favorite radio program, Lucretia the Werewolf, came on. “We were a real close-knit group,” says Rutman, who recalls discussing big subjects like war and man’s inhumanity to man. Still, Bob stayed very much to himself. “A great deal he kept to himself because he was a very, very inward type,” says Rutman. “He’s always been that way.” Music was Bob’s preferred form of expression. In everyday life he was a quiet kid. When he sang and played music he became somebody else altogether, a complete extrovert. He also lost himself in films.

Bob spent many hours in the Hibbing movie houses, including the Lybba Theater, owned by his relatives and named after his maternal great-grandmother, Lybba Edelstein. His favorites included The Blackboard Jungle, which featured Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.” Bob also loved any movie with Brigitte Bardot or Marlon Brando. But one star overshadowed all others in his eyes.

Before he died in a car crash, on September 30, 1955, the only James Dean film that had been released was East of Eden. It was the tragic death of James Dean that made him special to Bob and other teenagers. Rebel Without a Cause opened four days after the fatal accident and reached the Lybba Theater that winter. Bob and John identified strongly with Jimmy Dean, as they called him, and with Jim Stark, the character Dean played in the film. Jim Stark was a teenager torn apart by battling parents and the need to prove himself. Like Bob, Stark was not very articulate, but he was goodhearted. “He doesn’t say much, but when he does you know he means it,” said Sal Mineo’s character. “He’s sincere.” Bob could see himself described in the same way, and the similarity went further. Bob’s family was comfortable, middle class, like Stark’s. “Don’t I buy you everything you want?” asked Stark’s father. Abe might have asked the same. When Stark was challenged to take part in a test of courage, a “chickie run” in which he would race another boy toward a cliff, leaping free of his car at the last minute, Stark tried to ask his father for advice. In reply, he received a waffled admonition that in ten years he would see things differently. “Ten years?” asked Stark in anguish. “I want an answer now. I need one.” Bob and John Bucklen memorized many lines from Rebel Without a Cause, but this was a favorite. “I don’t want an answer in ten years,” they would tell each other, as they went about town. “I want an answer now.” Bob and his Hibbing friends went into Steven’s Confectionery store almost daily to look through the movie magazines for anything about Dean. Bob bought a red biker jacket like the one his idol wore. Although James Dean was an actor playing a character, Jimmy Dean was Jim Stark in their minds.