Bob Dylan and Echo Helstrom

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a young Echo Helstrom

Echo and Pan: The Girl on the Swing

“One thing that always surprised me was that Bobby ever had anything to do with me, because I was from the other side of the tracks. He was a nice Hibbing boy and I was from out of town. He was rich folk and we were poor folk. He was Jewish and we were German, Swedish, Russian, and Irish, all mixed together.”

Echo Helstrom Shivers smoothed down a cascade of whitish blond hair with one well-manicured hand, took a long, calming puff of her cigarette, and settled into the sofa of her Minneapolis apartment. It was spring of 1968, eleven years after she had met Dylan, but to her it remained a vibrant reality from the most exciting, most tortured year of her life. “What harm will it do to get my name in a book?” she asked, rhetorically. “Perhaps I can help you understand what he was like then.”

The day before, in a shack near Hibbing, Echo’s mother, Martha Helstrom, a genial, matronly woman who resembled Ma Joad, had said to me: “Well, it’s about time someone gave my Echo a little credit for what she did for Bob. She was hurt by the whole thing, but she loved Bob well enough to let him go. We always gave Bob the feeling he was welcome here and that Echo and I believed in him. He was restless and impatient. He didn’t have enough time to get everything done. He was like a man in a hurry.” When Echo and Bob were high-school juniors, Echo was sure that they would marry one day. Their plan was that whoever made it to the top first would help the other up the ladder. Bob was to be a pop hero and Echo a movie star.

David referred to Echo as a nameless girl with whom Bob had been quite involved, but whom his parents did their best to persuade Bob to drop. “She was not Jewish and she wasn’t from the right side of the tracks,” he said, adding: “Bobby always went with the daughters of miners, farmers, and workers in Hibbing. He just found them a lot more interesting.” In 1961, Bob said: “I dedicated my first song to Brigitte Bardot.” Echo looked like a Minnesota Bardot, with a touch of Pat Neal. She had full lips, pouting round cheeks. The Helstroms named her Echo because she was born exactly 14 years after her brother. Echo and her mother and older sister were all interested in mythology. But they were not aware that the nymph Echo had been one of the more celebrated conquests of the Greco-Roman wood-spirit, Pan, the musical, mischievous trickster god with a gift of prophecy.

Echo_Helstrom.jpg

Echo Helstrom

She had thought about acting but, in 1968, Echo was working in Minneapolis as a film company secretary. She needed it to support a child from her brief marriage. The more she talked about the year when she was close to Bob, the more I thought that, although she had left Hibbing, Hibbing had never quite left her.11 “It was really funny how we met. I was in the L&B Café on Howard Street. Bob had been playing upstairs at the Moose Lodge and he and John Bucklen came downstairs. Bob started to talk to me. Right there in the street, he began to play his guitar and sing for me.” In late winter of 1957, she was 16, he 17. Bob wanted to show her what he could do on piano, but the lodge was locked. “Bob slid a knife in the door and broke right in to play the piano.

I was probably the only girl in Hibbing who could have known what Bob was talking about. I had always been very interested in music. I took some accordion lessons and sang in the school choir. We had a harmonium in the parlor. I had a record player at home, but my father wouldn’t let me play it. I always listened to radio. I will never forget the first time I heard Chuck Berry’s ‘Maybellene’ on the car radio. I got all excited, but my father turned the radio off. I had to go into one of the other little shacks behind our house to listen to the radio. Sometimes I stayed up to five o’clock in the morning listening to announcers like Gatemouth Page from Shreveport. In 1957, who had ever heard of rhythm ‘n’ blues in Hibbing? They were still playing waltzes! So when Bob started talking about rhythm ‘n’ blues, I knew what he was talking about. I was very happy when Bob said to me: ‘Why don’t you come over to my house and listen to some records?’”

The friendship blossomed. “I thought at first maybe he just liked me as a friend. This was the way it was always—even if we were sweethearts, we were still friends. The first time I met him I asked if he was Jewish. He just changed the subject.” The Zimmermans were courteous to Echo, but kept telling Bob she wasn’t good enough for him. Bob’s romanticism led him to dramatize their liaison: after a few open, after-school visits, he always sneaked Echo in and out of his home. “He didn’t want me talking with his mother very much. The few times I met his father, he was nice to me, but my mother sensed she was disliked in his store, and stopped going there.” Once, when Bob thought the house was empty, his grandmother came in suddenly. He hid Echo in a closet and rushed to greet his granny, telling her he was going to the library. Echo followed his instructions by crawling through an upstairs door to a porch over the garage. “With my skirt up to my neck, I hung from the railing until Bobby ran round the back of the garage to help me down. He really loved playing those little games.”

Echo’s mother was warm toward Bob, but her father, Matt Helstrom, an ailing, embittered painter and welder, a keen hunter and woodsman, didn’t approve. One evening, Echo was tending her nephew while John and Bob put on a cowboy and Indian show. “All of a sudden, my father’s car drove up. John and Bob leapt out of the front door just as my dad walked in the back. You could hear them crunching on the gravel, and my father went chasing after the sound. ‘Someone was here!’ my father shouted. I said no one had been there. Bob could never be over when my father was around. Long after Bob had made a million dollars, my dad felt maybe he’d been a nice guy after all. My father had three guitars, one of them with an amplifier. Sometimes Bob would sneak over to play that one. One time, Bob told me that he had a test to prove if I would make a good wife. I had to bake something, so I made him a pizza. And I sewed a tear in a pair of his slacks. I don’t remember if there were any other requirements.”

The Helstrom house was a box-like, tar-paper shanty on Highway 73, three miles southwest of Hibbing. Often, Bob hitchhiked out there from school. When he had his little blue Ford, they could ride south to the top of Maple Hill. There they looked out for thirty miles across the Iron Range. They drove or hiked along Fire Tower Road, a rutted lane, to the summit, dotted with white birch. At night, the air was crisp and heady, and stars lighted the sky. Mrs Helstrom said later: “They had their dreams to get married and live on Maple Hill. They planned to call their child Bob, whether it was a boy or a girl. You know how teenagers are. They were so young, though. Girls are always ready to marry younger than boys are.”

In the afternoon, if Matt Helstrom was away, Echo and Bob would laze in front of the shack. Bob crouched on the wooden stairs with a guitar in his lap, while his golden-haired girl sat in a little wooden swing, gently keeping time with a pendulum motion. Bob improvised verses. “The songs he sang to me,” recalled Echo, “were mostly rhythm ‘n’ blues or talking blues. He didn’t repeat the lyrics the way most singers did. His phrases were always different and they almost always told a story.” By 1968, the swing was heavily rusted and weather-beaten, but it still swayed in the breeze from Maple Hill. I felt the swing was “Rosebud,” the reporter’s long-sought clue to lost childhood in Citizen Kane.

“John and Bob used to do a lot of talking blues. Sometimes they did a hillbilly take-off of a song like ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ They were always trying to teach and learn from each other. I believed in him when nobody else did. When he was singing to me alone, you could see the talent, but whenever he would go out to perform, the amplifiers would be up so high that you couldn’t hear him.” Echo followed him from one performance to another. The Sunday jams at Van Feldt’s moved to Collier’s Barbecue. Other audiences were less enthusiastic. “One time they really booed Bob was at the St Louis County Fair in Hibbing in the summer of 1958. There was a combination of laughing and booing.” Did he tell her that he would spend his life in music? “That was the whole plan. He didn’t tell that to anybody else because he didn’t have anyone but John and me to talk to. He had casual friends, but he was always secretive like that. I remember when he decided what his name was going to be. It was 1958, and he was just a junior. He came over with John Bucklen one day and said: ‘I know what I’m going to call myself. I’ve got this great name—Bob Dillon.’”

He didn’t change his name legally until 1962, and didn’t even begin to use it regularly until 1959. Ethel Merman, also saddled with the rather ungainly luggage of “Zimmerman,” simply lopped off the first syllable, remarking: “Can you imagine the name Zimmerman in bright lights? It would burn you to death!” Bob’s new name probably had two sources. Although Matt Dillon is thought to be a real frontier hero, he was the fictional invention of television writer John Meaton and producer Norman Macdonnel for the adventure series Gunsmoke. The show began in 1952 on Columbia Broadcasting System radio, and premiered as a CBS-TV series on September 10, 1955. Closer to Dylan’s home frontier was a pioneer Hibbing family named Dillion. A James Dillion was the town’s first drayman. Four families named Dillon were listed in the 1968 Hibbing phone book. Bob parried about the Dillions with a reporter from the Chicago Daily News in November 1965:

CDN: What about the story that you changed your name from Bob Zimmerman to Bob Dylan because you admired the poetry of Dylan Thomas?

Dylan: No, God, no. I took Dylan because I have an uncle named Dillion. I changed the spelling, but only because it looked better. I’ve read some of Dylan Thomas’s stuff, and it’s not the same as mine.

Dylan reiterated this popular misconception to me: “Straighten out in your book that I did not take my name from Dylan Thomas. Dylan Thomas’s poetry is for people that aren’t really satisfied in their bed, for people who dig masculine romance.” Although he registered at the University of Minnesota as Robert Zimmerman, students and friends there knew him as Dillon. He told a few friends that Dillon was his mother’s maiden name. Others heard that Dillon was a town in Oklahoma. Only after he had achieved some early recognition in New York did Minneapolis friends learn that Bob was spelling his name Dylan. In the interim, he had become acquainted with the life and work of Dylan Thomas.

Echo saw why Bob distanced himself from his family: “His family was trying too hard to form him and he wasn’t about to be formed in any manner. I remember how much Bob hated having to sweep up in his dad’s shop. I know Bob was afraid of his father, although he never said he hit him. His parents couldn’t understand his making a pile of dough with his poetry. I don’t think his father gave him all that much money. I think I had more money than he had. Sure, he had all the necessities, but no spending money. That is why I had to buy him all those hot dogs.”

Echo and John doted on Bob’s humor, on his sense of the ludicrous. Echo: “He was always thinking of something to laugh about.” John: “He had a fantastic ability to put people on. You never knew exactly when to believe him.” One of the boys’ favorite games was hitchhiking. They parked Bob’s car near Echo’s place and hitchhiked along Highway 73 to see how far they could get. Echo patiently waited for them to return by a car or truck coming from the opposite direction. Bob played a word game he christened Glissendorf. They played it for Echo’s cousin, a simple country girl, who nearly cried because she couldn’t understand it. Another game was “telephone mental telepathy.” Bob would call Echo, tell her he had his mind fixed on some object in his house. If she guessed correctly what it was, he would say this confirmed his belief in telepathy and his ability to put ideas into others’ minds.

Bob often pretended to be musically precocious. “He called me and told me he was going to play something he had recorded. He played Bobby Freeman’s ‘Do You Want to Dance.’ He said: ‘That was us.’ I know now that it couldn’t have been one of Bob’s bands. He was always making up fantasies and telling little fibs.” One of Bob’s games always ended seriously. He’d joke with some itinerant musician, then start firing questions about work, life on the road, arrangements, band discipline, pop trends, and get the musician to tell him all he knew.

Echo had no more affection for Hibbing than Bob did: “I couldn’t wait to get away. There is a terrible unfriendliness in Hibbing you don’t find in other small towns. I think other Iron Range towns are like that because of similar economic problems. After we graduated, the mines almost closed down. So we nearly all got out of town.”

The three friends sympathized with working-class people. Mrs Helstrom remembered: “Bob seemed much more humble than his family. Both Echo and Bob seemed so sorry for the working people.” She and Echo recalled how interested Bob was in John Steinbeck. In 1968, Echo kept his books on a shelf. “We used to talk a lot about Steinbeck. Bob was always reading something by him—Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row. Grapes of Wrath gave him his strong feelings for the Depression Okies.

“I was also surprised that Bob had anything to do with me because I had originally thought that Jewish people had nothing to do with other people. Bob never talked about being Jewish. I really sensed that the Jewish people in Hibbing felt they were different from others, but I know that Bob didn’t want to be separated from anyone. He really loved Negro people like Jim Dandy, even though there were so few around. Bob always used to come back from Minneapolis impressed by the way the colored people danced and made music.”

For the junior prom at Hibbing High, Echo bought a pale-blue floor length gown. She kept the corsage Bob brought her until the flowers turned dry and crumbling. In the 1958 Hibbing High yearbook, Bob declared: “Let me tell you that your beauty is second to none, but I think I told you that before. Love to the most beautiful girl in school.” They went to the prom, outsiders passing through the mainstream. Echo: “We were so different, we shouldn’t have even been there. We really couldn’t dance. Bob was a poor leader, and I am a poor follower. He would take little teeny steps and kept saying to me: ‘What’s wrong with you? What’s the matter?’ And I said: ‘I can’t dance with you.’ It was just horrible. But we were just there together, with each other. Bob wasn’t skinny then. He was more cheeky and had a little bit of a tummy. I thought he was really cute. He was really the clean-cut kid, well scrubbed with rosy cheeks. After the prom we didn’t go to any of the parties. We just sat in Bob’s car and fell asleep. We weren’t like the other people at school in any way. I just couldn’t stand being like other girls. I had to be different.”

By summer 1958, they had moved in opposite directions emotionally. Echo wanted to marry; Bob wanted to travel and pursue his music, to date other girls. Echo became increasingly possessive; Bob was restless. When he wanted to go to the movies, he entered first, insisting Echo join him inside later. He spent as much time as he could in Duluth or the Twin Cities. By the time he inscribed her 1958 school yearbook, he was already alluding to “St Paul girls.”

John, a secret admirer of Echo, suffered divided loyalties. Echo pressed John to tell her if Bob was seeing other girls. John: “I told her it was probably true.” Echo decided the situation was too painful and returned Bob’s bracelet in a school corridor. “I can still see his eyes—they got so big. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked. I said: ‘Goodbye.’ He said: ‘Don’t do this here in the hall.’” Later, at her house, she demanded to know if Bob was dating others. He said no, but Echo chose to believe John. “Bob needs an awful lot of attention from females.”

She spent the summer of 1958 reliving their moments together. She walked up to Maple Hill, but the view didn’t look the same alone. She sat on that swing, remembering his voice, singing. “He always said later that he couldn’t marry because he had his career to think of. If he hadn’t had that determination to make something big of himself, he probably would have married me. He would have ended up doing what his father wanted—working in the furniture store.” A decade later, Mrs Helstrom said: “When Echo plays Bob’s records, she feels she is still talking with him.” John Sebastian, formerly of the Lovin’ Spoonful, once told me: “You can’t get too close to Dylan. He burns with such a bright flame you can get burned.” Echo Helstrom was the first of many people who got too close.

She saw Bob briefly in Minneapolis in autumn 1959, hoping they might revive their romance. When the Hibbing High School class of 1959 held its tenth reunion, two unexpected classmates appeared separately—Echo, and Dylan, who was there with his wife. Five years earlier, Bob had told Chris Welles of Life: “The teachers in school taught me everything was fine. That was the accepted thing to think. It was in all the books. But it ain’t fine, man. There are so many lies that have been told, so many things that are kept back. Kids have a feeling like me, but they ain’t hearing it no place. They’re scared to step out. But I ain’t scared to do it, man.”

So Dylan returned for a moment of quiet triumph, the school’s most notable graduate since Francis Bellamy, who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag. Bob was besieged by old friends demanding autographs. He signed one for Echo, too.

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