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.
Old Tape Can't Distort Young Dylan's Genius
Published April 7, 1985
At the end of last week's column on KFIZ's John Bucklen and his boyhood pal Bob Dylan/Zimmerman, was mention of a tape the two had made in 1958.
The summer session was suitably low-tech for a couple of teenagers. The microphone of a Sears Silvertone reel-to-reel mono recorder was placed on the Zimmerman family piano. Bob on keyboard and vocals, John on haromonies and, later, lead. Switch on. Go.
The 20-minute treasure does not display wonderful sound quality, even considering the technique and equipment. What survives is a true "basement tape," stored throughout the years in Bucklen's cellars, attics, closets, and garages. But distortion and hiss cannot disguise young Bob's genius or young John's role as foil to that genius.
So after 27 years, a review of that early, early Dylan . . .
Song 1 is a shoo-wopping, "Great Pretender"-like romancer with mostly unintelligible lyrics. Occasional phrases in the famous nasal tone do pop out from the piano chords: "Yay, yaya, yah-oh I'd get down on my knees . . . It's you I love," etc. Really a nice melody.
With one exception, the Diamonds' cover below, Bucklen isn't sure whether Zimmerman composed these or learned them from his large collection of obscure 78 RPM records. None of the seven tunes seems to have shown up on subsequent Dylan albums, although some of the images prove familiar.
B.B. Zimm and Bo Dylan
Song 2 is Mississippi Delta Blues, Minnesota style. It has the best sample of lyrics, because the words alternate, rather than compete with, the piano pounding. Anyone acquainted with Dylan's pre-"Lay Lady Lay" vocal style will recognize the syllabication and offbeat inflections, indicated here with hyphens and capital lettering:
Back in ju-LY of nineteen fifty-THREE,
I as doin' time for armed ROB-ber-y.
'Bout three o'clock in the MOR-nin'
I was sleepin' in my CELL,
so the warden said,
"Come out with your hands in the AIR.
You don't come out now,
I'll give your heart a SCARE."
Scarface Jones said,
"It's too late to QUIT.
I got a dynamite FUSE
and the FUSE is LIT!"
Hey-a-hey, I'm goin' off
The rambler [see Footnote 1] is cut off by a mock discussion of copyright infringement and lawsuits. The babble refers to "our big company" and "selling 12 million copies."
The third fragment might be called "I Wanna Rock, I Wanna Cry," judging by the number of repetitions of the phrase. Another bluesy jail tune:
A cop asked me 'f my name was Henry.
I said, "Why, sure."
They said, "You're the man we been a-LOOKIN' for."
They put me in the clink
and now I have to sleep in the CAN."
This one is interrupted by a Stan Feberg-sounding Bucklen yelling, "Wait a minute! Whatsa matter with you, doing that a [bleep-bleeped] record like that, puttin' in a 'can?'"
Next is one of John's favorites, a complete song of Bob's, of which only a piece appears here. It's in the old gospel call-and-response format: "Early one mornin' / you're gonna wake up and cry . . ." The boys immediately scrap it, though, jumping into a raucous, rocking R&B rollick [Footnote 2]:
Well, before you 'cuse me,
you better look at yo' self.
Before you accuse me,
take a look at yourself.
Well, I don't spend all my money on [other?] women,
for you to run around with somebody else.
A cult classic, the Diamonds' non-hit "Daddy Cool" [Footnote 3] features the back-and-forth harmony of Bucklen and Zimmerman. Then, a great moment in raw recorded history. A sudden stop, followed by that unmistakable North Country twang, "Uhh, a-[bleep] you." The F-word.
The tape's finale carries on that lewd mood. Yes, friends, it's an obscene version of Buddy Holly's hit, then still on the charts, "Peggy Sue." John Bucklen on lead vocal with Bob Zimmerman competing with him, trying to drown him out with piano chords and crude comments. A spirited teenaged attack on motherhood, womanhood, and Peggy Sue's anatomy. Four minutes with a fadeout ending.
In this columnist's opinion, Mr. Dylan owes Mr. Bucklen a retake. Dylan's next studio album is overdue. I'd like to hear a high-tech recorded rendition of "Daddy Cool," for example.
Done in dual Minnesota harmony, of course.
- Later discovered to be the 1954 song by the Robins, "Riot in Cell Block #9," written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller ("Hound Dog," "Stand By Me," "Kansas City," "On Broadway," "Poison Ivy," etc., etc., etc.). At 43 million in certified sales, Dylan has almost quadrupled the boys' youthful prediction of "selling 12 million copies."
- It's a modification of the Bo Diddley 1957 B-side, "Before You Accuse Me," later recorded by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Eric Clapton, and others.
- "Daddy Cool," incorrectly identified as "Cool Daddy Cool" in my published column, was the flip side of the Diamonds' 1957 million-seller, "Silhouettes."
Excerpts from the so-called "Bucklen Tape" were featured on the BBC radio series, "Tales of Rock and Roll," and now appear on various bootleg web sites.