Don Quixote and Sancho Panza
At 16, Bob used to tell John Bucklen, “You are my main man”—high praise in 1950s patois. Bucklen’s family was working-class, mainstream American, probably of English descent. John also had that sense of being “bad, man, bad.” Even with those nice, middle-class boys from the Twin Cities whom Bob met at the Theodor Herzl summer camp near Webster, Wisconsin, he could find some “bad” guys to befriend.
Beginning in 1954, Bob attended the Zionist camp run by a Hadassah Club for a few weeks each of four summers. He loved the swimming and didn’t seem to mind speaking Hebrew. But by his sixteenth birthday, things were getting too tame. He had begun some singing around campfires there. To perk things up, Bob and a half-dozen other campers climbed to the roof of the shower house, pulling their ladders up after them. They sang, yelled, and taunted their counselors until the rabbi read them a sermon below the mount that got them back on the ground. “Bobby just about took over the whole camp that year,” Abe recalled. “I thought they were going to send him home.”
The more relaxed atmosphere around Bucklen’s home appealed. Beatty insisted on a 9.30 p.m. curfew on school nights. John’s family seemed grittier. John and his mother, a seamstress, had known privation. His father, a railway man, had lost a leg in a rail accident, and was a semi-invalid until he died when John was 15. Bucklen told me that he was a born follower, while Bob was increasingly brash and aggressive. Music bound their friendship together with guitar strings and spools of tape. John often taped Bob at the piano: “Those tapes don’t have any esthetic value at all,” Bucklen told me in 1969, “but they do have nostalgic value.” They loved to ad-lib on tape. “We’d get a guitar and sing verses we made up as we went along. It came out strange and weird. We thought we’d send them in somewhere, but we never did.” John loved Bob’s fanciful tales. On a trip to Highland Park, a suburb of St Paul, Bob told, his main man: “We’re going to tell everyone here that we came to cut a record. I will tell everybody that you are my bass man.”
They had some fine times with John’s sister Ruth at her house out on Highway 165. John hears echoes in Dylan’s “115th Dream” of their happy times of music, jokes, and games. Once, near a lover’s lane, Bob donned a Frankenstein monster mask and scared several couples. Bob’s put-ons extended to his music as well. “Come on over, I want you to hear something I just wrote.” John: “I would say: ‘No, you didn’t write that!’ Because it seemed too great. I could never quite understand why he did it. He had the talent, and didn’t have to fake it one bit. There really wasn’t anything else like music for Bob to express in Hibbing what he felt. When he did express himself, even in music, people didn’t really understand him.” Another passion of Bob’s, from his sophomore year on, was girls. He ran through a lot, reportedly plump and large-breasted. One of the first was Barbara Hewitt, a voluptuous girl he met in 1957. Bob was quite infatuated. But her family drifted off to Minneapolis, and the first of several student flirtations cooled.
Everyone talked of getting out of Hibbing, but Bob’s hungers were insatiable. A restless quest for new people and ideas led Bob and John to Jim Dandy, a black disc jockey in his mid-twenties who lived in Virginia, a neighboring town. With so much cheap European immigrant labor, there were few blacks along the Iron Range. Bucklen: “We visited Jim Dandy so often because he was a refreshing change. He was a Negro, involved with the blues. He had a lot of records we liked.” Jim Dandy and his wife and kids were the only blacks among Virginia’s 12,000 residents. Bob heard him broadcast on station WHLB in the summer of 1957, and searched for the man behind the voice. He and John were startled, but pleased, to discover that the DJ was black. Seeing he was with simpatico lads, Jim dropped his radio “white voice” for hip black slang. They spent hours playing old blues and R&B disks. The meetings went on sporadically for months. Through Dandy, Bob discovered a new Iron Range that his family scarcely knew.