Bob Dylan's Pal
Published March 31, 1985
Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, radio announcer and production manager John Bucklen recalls February, 1961, St. Paul, Minnesota. His best friend from high school, a year older than Bucklen, announces plans to hitchhike to New York City.
"So you wanna come with me"? asks the friend.
The adventure is tempting. He almost gives in, but talks himself out of it.
The friend's name is Robert Zimmerman. Bob Dylan.
"No, I have no regrets about it," says Bucklen, between takes of a commercial he's putting together. "But I've always been kind of curious to know how things would have turned out if I'd gone out there with him."
Young John and young Bob met in a grade school of the northern Minnesota town of Hibbing, pop. 17,000. They had become close pals as teenagers, drawn together by a mutual interest: rhythm and blues music beamed from clear-channel station KTHS, Little Rock, Arkansas. James Brown, Chuck Berry, Little Richard.
Their favorite deejay was a mean, black-sounding dude by the name of Gatemouth Page. John once sent in for a record catalog that Page was hawking. The brochure featured a photo of brother Gatemouth, who, Bucklen was startled to discover, "turned out to be this wimpy, Swedish-looking white guy!"
Bob would harangue John with every new R&B record he'd bought or tune he'd taught himself to play. "He knew a few basic guitar chords then," Bucklen notes, "but his real instrument was the piano . . . In about eighth or ninth grade, there was an assembly, a talent show. Bob piled his hair up on top of his head and played standing at the piano like Little Richard.
"Half the people there thought he was good and to the other half he was the funniest thing they'd ever seen in their life. I admired him because he had the guts to do what he felt like. Can you imagine trying to get across black soul music to white teenagers in Hibbing, Minnesota, in 1955?
"He'd call me up on the phone and say, 'Hey, I want you to hear this song I just wrote, It's really good.' So, I'd listen and (grin) -- he didn't write it. The point is, on some of them he was full of bull, but some of them he did write. I couldn't always tell the difference."
Blue Cap Fever
John and the budding international icon then entered their "Gene Vincent phase," lip-synching "Be-Bop-a-Lula" and wearing Vincent's trademark blue caps, much to the amusement of poppa Abe Zimmerman. (The visored cap was to reappear during Dylan's early folk career.)
Bucklen continues. "Soon after, we started a couple rock groups; used to play the Armory and other places. We were the Rockets and then the Satintones. 'The Satintones' were a rock group! Oh man . . .
"Bob was the go-getter. He just dragged us along, as far as getting things done. He even got us on TV, a Duluth station. He just went down there, knew the right people, called them up; he didn't care. I think that was largely responsible for the success he eventually achieved in the music business."
Folk Around the Clock
So the popular Dylan image of meek Midwestern artist discovered in the Big City, having to be dragged onstage is hooey. He went after it. "Yeah," Bucklen agrees, "he went after it. He knew what he was doing. He knew just where to go. When the folk music thing came along, he knew well enough to go out and see Woody Guthrie. He knew exactly what kind of publicity that would have. This all didn't come about by accident." Look at the way he steals the third verse of the USA for Africa hit, "We are the World."
The folk interest itself wasn't feigned, though. Bucklen remembers Bob showing up after a few months of college at the University of Minnesota with a harmonica on a neck attachment. "He got into that by listening to people like Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, Josh White, and Odetta, the Queen of Folk -- I still like Odetta's music, by the way.
"But that harmonica! I thought he was the lousiest harmonica played I ever heard. He just blow into the thing, 'hahh-hoo, hahh-hoo.' But he said, 'Wow!' and it really intrigued me watching him. He told me he'd been the new philosophy he'd been learning in coffee houses and the crowd he was traveling with."
Shortly afterward, John's family moved to the Twin Cities, and the partnership was revitalized, this time with acoustic, rather than electric, guitars. Zimmerman's performances became quite popular among students, at least on campus." (A long-ago barracksmate of your columnist once saw the scrawny singer ejected in mid-tune from a Minneapolis burger joint by "three husky college men in crewcuts.")
Bob then hit the road for New York and John ("on impulse") enlisted in the Air Force, serving as a medic. Four years later, another whim lured him into the Brown School of Broadcasting and his subsequent career in radio and television: St. Cloud and Duluth in Minnesota, WFON and KFIZ in Wisconsin.
Aside from six pages in Anthony Scaduto's 1971 Bob Dylan biography, this is only the second interview John Bucklen has done on his famous friend. So at least some of the tidbits below are seeing their first light of print.
- "Dylan" was not Bob's first stage name. John can't remember the early pseudonym, but "it was something like [country stars] Narvel Felts or Conway Twitty." Said Bob to John in Minneapolis one day, "Oh, by the way, my name is 'Bob Die-lon' now, after the this guy [poet] 'Die-lon Thomas.'" So, in 1959, Dylan didn't know how to pronounce "Dylan!"
- A few years ago, both Bucklen the Gentile and Dylan the Jew converted to Christianity. Despite public cynicism, John believes Bob's conversion is sincere. One would have thought Dylan should have gotten religion in 1966, on the day he came three feet short of sliding his motorcycle into a moving freight train.
- Bob's younger brother Dave is a relatively straitlaced school teacher in New Brighton, Minnesota.
- Bucklen still has a junior English class essay of Bob's. Young Zimmerman got an A minus from the teacher. Following year, same teacher, same assignment. John hand-copied Bob's essay and got a B minus.
- And John has one other little memento of his "Zimmerman years." A tape. Seven songs. From Hibbing. From 1958. Go to the Bucklen Tape tab for that story.
John Bucklen left broadcasting and worked at a metal engineering company in Mayville, Wisconsin. He and his wife live in a small nearby town. He reunited with Bob Dylan at least once, after a 1989 concert in Madison. Dylan hasn't done too badly either.