By Michael Mentzer
John Bucklen hunkers down in a booth at Bublitz’s Family Restaurant in Lomira, shivers off the effects of a brutal February afternoon and eyes up yet another interviewer.
He has been interviewed countless times over the years and twice before in that very booth — once for a book-length biography and another time for a local newspaper story — about a boyhood friend from nearly 60 years ago by the name of Robert Allen Zimmerman.
The rest of the world knows Bucklen’s old friend as the legendary folk rock singer and composer Bob Dylan, or as a biographer once noted — “one of the most famous people of the Western world.”
“I understand why people want to know about him…I get it,” said Bucklen, a long-time resident of Lomira, as he awaited a litany of questions about Dylan.
With the perspective of more than five decades in the rear view mirror, Bucklen points out that it’s the long-ago friendship with Bobby Zimmerman and the friends they shared that matters far more than the fact he grew up with a person who achieved super star status.
They will reach the age of 73 this year—Dylan in May, Bucklen in December.
Bucklen concedes that age and perhaps a recent bout with poor health have a bearing on how he views life, and people in general these days.
There’s a line in the movie “Stand By Me,” set in 1959, the same time frame of the Bucklen-Dylan friendship, that speaks to Bucklen’s point of view.
“I’ve never had friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?” the narrator says in the movie inspired by a Stephen King novel. It would be easy for Bucklen to substitute his high school ages instead of 12 and preserve the meaning.
“I’d just like to sit down again someday and talk with Bob, one on one, just for the heck of it…just two old friends talking about old times,” Bucklen said.
Fame would have nothing much to do with it, maybe nothing at all.
In fact, Bucklen would welcome the same opportunity with other close friends from their high school years — Echo Star Helstrom, Dylan’s first love and Bucklen’s as well; and Leroy Hoikkala, the friend with the “chick magnet” 1950 pink and white Ford convertible they tore around town in.
The memory of tough kid Hoikkala and his slicked back look of the ’50s puts a smile on Bucklen’s face.
“Echo called me a year and a half ago to see if I was still around,” Bucklen said. “We hadn’t talked in 50 years.”
“I see Leroy once a year…at Dylan Days in May, up in Hibbing. He’s still going strong.”
When Bucklen makes his annual pilgrimage to Hibbing and Zimmie’s Bar and Grill, where a number of Dylan Days events are held, he stays with his sister, Ruth. It was Ruth who tried to help Bucklen understand why girls, especially the good-looking ones like Echo Star, were so attracted to Bob Zimmerman.
“Well, he’s got the prettiest blue eyes,” Ruth said to her brother in a passage from a Dylan biography by Howard Sounes, “and a charismatic personality that set him apart.”
Roots in Hibbing
Bucklen, Dylan, Echo, Leroy and their circle of friends came of age in the 1950s in Hibbing, Minn., a vibrant mining town at the time on the Mesabi Range of northern Minnesota, north of Duluth and west of Lake Superior.
With a population of about 17,000, Hibbing was the largest of the mining towns situated on the Iron Range, the chief deposit of iron ore in the United States.
As iron ore mining went, so went Hibbing.
When the mine was humming, everyone had a job and the whole town thrived.
Dylan’s family owned a household appliance business that specialized in wiring and electrical repair.
“I’d say Bob was well to do,” Bucklen said.
On the other hand, day-to-day life became more difficult for Bucklen after his father was injured in a mining accident. The family struggled to make ends meet on his mother’s earnings from sewing.
He has a special place in his heart for Dylan’s mother, Beatty (short for Beatrice), who convinced her family and friends in the Jewish community to take their sewing needs to Mrs. Bucklen.
Bucklen recalls that “Bob” was the first one to offer condolences when his father died in 1957.
By then the friendship had grown strong and would grow even stronger despite a shaky start.
“I didn’t really like him much when we first met (in junior high),” Bucklen said. “He got me to sing while we were walking along with some friends and I realized he was just making fun of me.”
Passion for music
As time passed, though, it became clear they shared a passion for music and the new sounds they could pick up on late-night radio from Shreveport, Little Rock and Chicago. They especially admired the performances of African-American artists they were hearing for the first time.
They discovered music most of their friends had not heard before. They bought guitars together and learned how to play.
Without really knowing it, they were immersing themselves in a musical culture that would sweep around the world.
They became devoted fans of James Dean (they called him Jimmy) and his character James Stark in the movie “Rebel Without a Cause.” Dean’s death in a car crash just days before the film was released magnified his appeal as a tragic figure in the eyes of the Fifties Generation.
Dylan, who adopted the iconic name in 1958 from the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, Hoikkala and Bucklen viewed themselves as outsiders in their Hibbing hometown, according to the Dylan biography “Down the Highway.” Their shared point of view cemented their friendship.
They formed rock bands and performed together or with other groups.
Among them were the Golden Chords, featuring Monte Edwardson, Leroy Hoikkala and Bobby Zimmerman. One of the last bands among them was in Dylan’s senior year when he put together a group dubbed Elston Gunn and the Rock Bopsters, including Bucklen on guitar, Bill Marina on double bass, and three girls singing doo-wop.
Dylan graduated in June of 1959 and enrolled at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities.
Bucklen said goodbye to his friend and turned his attention toward senior year at Hibbing High School.
However, his mother took a job in St. Paul that school year, and Bucklen left Hibbing to finish his senior year in St. Paul.
St. Paul Reunion
It didn’t take long for the two friends to reunite. Dylan longed for the coffee house venues and the interests of the Beat Generation, bohemian Dinkytown and the Purple Onion.
“I used to go to a lot of those places with him,” Bucklen said. “He showed me poetry he had written. He was serious about it. Woody Guthrie was his icon.”
Dylan vowed to go to New York, to meet Guthrie, to do his own music.
“I don’t care about rock and roll anymore he told me,” Bucklen recalled. “Folk music is where it’s at, he said.”
Dylan didn’t care about his academic career either. In January of 1961 at the age of 19 with three semesters behind him, he was determined to find a way to New York.
He urged Bucklen once again to go with him.
“I couldn’t just up and go,” Bucklen said. “I wanted to…”
And he concedes there was a time he had serious regrets. There were a lot of “might have beens,” he said.
He has no regrets today.
“I have a wonderful family, four great kids…I’m happy with the way things turned out. It might have been a whole lot different if I’d gone.”
Dylan headed out in January but made visits to the University of Chicago and then to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he met nationally acclaimed folksinger Pete Seeger.
Dylan hooked up with two UW-Madison students who were heading to New York. They needed another person to share the driving and Dylan was on his way. He arrived in the city of his dreams on January 24th.
While Dylan was enjoying his first year in New York, Bucklen joined the Air Force after high school.
Together in London
Three years later, the two friends met by chance at Royal Festival Hall in London.
“I had some time off and I was walking along and saw this poster advertising a Bob Dylan concert,” Bucklen recalled. “I went early hoping to see Bob, and I got in.”
He met with Dylan backstage and saw him in concert. Bucklen was stunned by the emotional crowd reaction and the electrifying performance by his old friend.
“It was amazing. There were people crying they were so moved,” Bucklen said. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘That’s little Bobby Zimmerman…I’ve known him forever.’ “
In a little over three years from the day he left Minnesota behind, Dylan stood on the threshold of fame and fortune. The rise was literally meteoric.
Bucklen and Dylan celebrated late into the night until a blow-up by Dylan at a London hotel resulted in harsh words and the two went their separate ways.
A quarter century passed before they spoke again.
In the summer of 1989 Dylan was scheduled to appear in concert at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison. Bucklen was aware of it and called a few days prior to see if he could get a backstage pass.
He and his wife Graci and their family were eating supper at their home in Lomira when the phone rang to let him know that passes were waiting for him.
“It was only a couple hours before the concert. They must have thought we lived nearby,” Bucklen said. “We just dropped everything and went.”
Bucklen’s daughters Jenny, 14, and Amy, 15, went along.
Looking back almost 25 years, Jenny said, “It was awesome to see my Dad and Dylan together…two old friends. It was like they hadn’t missed a beat. I was thinking, ‘How cool for my Dad to meet up with his old friend.’ ”
Dylan welcomed Bucklen with open arms and apologized for the way he had acted when he became angry with Bucklen for trying to calm him down during an argument with a London hotel official 25 years earlier.
Jenny (now Jenny Gilgenbach) was impressed by the backstage spread of food, drinks and fruit and the presence of Bob Dylan but she was “blown away” when she saw Saturday Night Live guitarist G.E. Smith among the backstage artists and guests.
A hard rain fallin’
Bucklen and Jenny remember that the concert was interrupted by a “huge thunderstorm” and a power outage that lasted at least a half hour.
“Bob sang on stage in the dark,” Bucklen said. “I wasn’t surprised. That’s him.”
He also recalls a harrowing ride home to Lomira in a pounding storm.
Another 25 years have passed since that night in Madison.
It doesn’t seem possible, Bucklen says.
In the rearview mirror he sees the dusty red iron-stained snow of his Hibbing boyhood, the pink and white Ford convertibles owned by Leroy Hoikkala and Bobby Zimmerman, the bands he played in, service in the Air Force, a radio career that spanned 30 years and included stints in Duluth, Minneapolis and Fond du Lac, a litany of Bob Dylan music and lyrics, a marriage of 42 years, a family, a stable life and recent retirement from Mayville Engineering.
Now he has grandchildren and time on his side.
And like a lot of people with years in their memory banks, he thinks about what it was like when he was growing up and the people who played a role in who he is and how he thinks.
And he marvels at the mysteries of fame and the blessings and curses that go hand in hand with it.
Michael Mentzer, now retired after a 40-year newspaper career, writes a monthly column for Scene.