Wednesday, November 25, 2015

On Bob Dylan's early folk years and the flourishing Minnesota music scene in the 1960s

Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan) on stage with the Golden Chords.
Image courtesy Monte Edwardson and Leroy Hoikkala.


BY RICK SHEFCHIK



When discussing the history of Minnesota rock music, Bob Dylan tends to rate barely more than a footnote because he was living in New York and playing folk music when such seminal groups as The Trashmen, Accents, Avanties, Gestures, Castaways, Chancellors and Underbeats were emerging as the state’s most popular bands. If any of those musicians were listening to Dylan’s early folk albums on Columbia, it did not show in their set lists.

Perhaps only guitarist David Rivkin of the Chancellors even remembers that Dylan had briefly attended the University of Minnesota during the 1959–60 school year. Rivkin had occasionally gone to the Ten O’Clock Scholar at Five Corners to see Dylan perform, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica. Rivkin had begun his own performing career as a folk singer, too, but traded in his acoustic guitar when he became jealous of the electric guitar owned by his cousin.

But Dylan’s pre-folk years were an exact parallel to the formative musical experiences of the Minnesota rockers he left behind when he moved to New York in 1961. Like them, he had grown up listening to Elvis Presley (“Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail,” he once said), Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly. Holly’s performance at the Duluth Armory in January 1959 left an indelible impression on the 17-year-old Dylan – then known by his real name, Bob Zimmerman – so much so that 25 years later, he told Rolling Stone, “He was great. He was incredible. I mean, I'll never forget the image of seeing Buddy Holly up on the bandstand.”

Poster for the Winter Dance Party on January 25, 1959,
at the Kato Ballroom in Mankato, Minnesota. 


Dylan had played with two rock bands while in high school at Hibbing: the Satintones and the Golden Chords. During the summer after his senior year, he briefly played piano in Bobby Vee’s band in Fargo, North Dakota. But by the time he enrolled at the University of Minnesota that fall, he had traded his electric guitar for a Gibson acoustic and began learning traditional folk songs by Odetta and Woody Guthrie.

His gradual ascent to the pinnacle of the folk world occurred as The Trashmen were attaining national prominence with their novelty hit “Surfin’ Bird.” That single ultimately reached #4 on the Billboard charts, and was recorded almost simultaneously with the release of Dylan’s second album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” in late September 1963. “Freewheelin’” peaked at No. 22 nationally, but was outsold back home in Minnesota by The Trashmen’s only l.p. release, “Surfin’ Bird.”

Promotional photo of The Trashmen.
Image courtesy Denny Johnson of minniepaulmusic.com.


From there, the two Minnesota-bred acts headed in opposite directions. Stymied by the chart dominance of the freshly arrived Beatles, and by a lack of direction on the part of their management, The Trashmen were unable to sustain the momentum of “Surfin’ Bird.” Dylan was also impacted by the Beatles, but in a significantly different way. Scarcely a year after the Beatles arrived on U.S. shores, Dylan had returned to playing electric guitar and rock ‘n’ roll – albeit a very different style of rock ‘n’ roll than the rockabilly tunes he’d played in high school.

In 1964 he’d begun writing highly impressionist lyrics, loaded with symbolism and free-association cultural references, exemplified by songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Chimes of Freedom,” and “My Back Pages.” Though these songs were recorded on acoustic guitar, they proved to be sturdy and rhythmic enough to later be re-cast as rock songs by the Byrds, a Los Angeles group whose signature sound was Roger McGuinn’s electric 12-string guitar.

Other folkies were turning to electric instruments in this post-Beatles environment – including Simon & Garfunkel, John Sebastian, and John Phillips – but when Dylan plugged in his Fender Stratocaster at the Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 1965, it sent shock waves through the pop music world. Now, you not only listened to Dylan’s songs for their deep lyrical meaning, but you could dance to them, too.

A crowd of 20,000 at WDGY's 1964 Winter Carnival Spectacular.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.


The folk establishment was outraged. Pete Seeger, the father figure of folk singers everywhere, allegedly threatened to chop Dylan’s power cord with an ax at Newport. Yet his summer 1965 single “Like a Rolling Stone” reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts, making him a bona fide rock star, and he followed that with the No. 7 hit “Positively 4th Street,” a nasty attack on an unnamed former friend.

Folk purists booed Dylan at every stop of his subsequent tour – including his first official return to Minneapolis on November 5, 1965. His concert at the Minneapolis Auditorium attracted 9,000 people and received the expected mixed reviews. As was his custom at the time, Dylan pleased the folk lovers by playing the first half of the show on acoustic guitar, and infuriated them by playing the second half on electric guitar, backed by future members of The Band, guitarist Robbie Robertson and drummer Levon Helm.

Dylan’s next two singles were flops: “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” did not make the Top 40, and “Sooner Or Later One of Us Must Know” did not chart at all. He recovered with “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” which went to No. 2 in the spring of 1966. By then he had released a stunning run of three albums that changed the way rock musicians approached their art: “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and “Blonde On Blonde.”

The Minnesota rock bands that had been oblivious to Dylan’s early career struggles were now scrambling to adapt to the changes he had made to the musical landscape. Novelty songs wouldn’t cut it anymore. Kids were more interested in listening to music than dancing. Styles of hair, dress, speech, and thought were undergoing rapid transformations. The Bird had once been the word; now many words – often poetically inscrutable – were necessary to gain attention. The new bands emerging from Minnesota had names like the Bedlam Four, the Nickel Revolution, and Seraphic Street Sounds. The Stillroven recorded the cryptic “Little Picture Playhouse”; T.C. Atlantic had a hit with the moody “Faces”; even The Castaways released the psychedelic “Lavender Popcorn.” Meanwhile, Minnesota’s original rock ‘n’ roll standard bearers, The Trashmen, grew weary of the hipper-than-thou scene and retired in 1967.

Image courtesy Mike Jann.


Typical for Dylan, he soon veered away from the stylistic changes he’d wrought, secluding himself for two years at his home in Woodstock, New York, before finally emerging with a new batch of stripped-down, acoustic-based songs replete with biblical allegories. From there, he’d go to Nashville to make a country album. By then, however, his influence on the pop music of the 1960s – both in his home state and around the globe – was firmly established. His fellow Minnesotans were forced to follow his lead throughout the second half of the decade, even as he seemed to pay his boyhood home little or no attention.

Dylan performed publicly in Minnesota for the first time in 13 years on Oct. 31, 1978, at the St. Paul Civic Center. He has played in the Twin Cities and Duluth many times since then. He also attempted to re-connect with his fellow Minnesota rockers.

Tony Andreason of The Trashmen at the Whiskey A Go Go in St. Paul,
Minnesota, 1966.
Image courtesy Mike Jann.


“He came out and watched us play in the '80s,” said Tony Andreason, lead guitarist for The Trashmen. “We were doing a benefit in Minnetonka, and Dylan came and was there all night long. He sent a woman over to talk to us and wanted to know if we were available to go out on tour with him for any length of time, and we said we really weren't. We weren't interested, regardless of who it was. It wasn't going to work.”

The Trashmen rhythm guitarist Dal Winslow recalled that, a month or so later, Dylan was asked by Rolling Stone what he did in his spare time. “He said, 'Well, I go out and watch The Trashmen perform at Minnetonka, Minnesota.' And I thought, 'Well, thank you, Bob. I take back everything I said about you.' ”

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Rick Shefchik spent almost thirty years in daily journalism, mostly as a critic, reporter, and columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He is the author of Everybody's Heard about the Bird: The True Story of 1960s Rock 'n' Roll in Minnesota and From Fields to Fairways: Classic Golf Clubs of Minnesota. He’s a novelist and author of three works of nonfiction and has been in several working bands as a guitarist and singer.

"Engrossing and exhaustive, Everybody’s Heard about the Bird is an invaluable pop history document that chronicles the nascent Minneapolis recording and music industry and early rock-and-roll stew. All in all, a labor of love that feels both fresh and long overdue."
—Jim Walsh, journalist, songwriter, and author of The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting: An Oral History

"Shefchik offers a brisk, light, and lively overview of the arrival of rock in the Upper Midwest and the local bands that brought it to life. Incredibly researched. Totally cool! Awesome!"
—Bill Diehl, Rajah of the Records, WDGY

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