Archive for the ‘Toby Thompson’ Category

Positively Main Street: delightful new edition of an early classic

September 22, 2008
You wait for ten years: nothing at all. Then, suddenly, three turn up at the same time. Dylan books, that is.

Bobby had been around for a decade, a global superstar for a big part of it. But, in London at least, you couldn’t buy a single book on the man or his art.

Then, in 1972, along came the first English paperback editions of Gray’s Song & Dance Man, Scaduto’s biography and Toby Thompson’s Positively Main Street. Three very different Dylan books, each one manna from Heaven for the info-starved Zimfan.

The trio encouraged the coming idea that Dylan was even bigger than had been thought, that he was far more important than his 1960s rockpop contemporaries. That here was a musician you might be listening to, carefully, for the rest of your life.

Toby Thompson, an early Dylan fan, had a simple idea: go up to Hibbing and explore Dylan’s background – the place, the people, the culture.

So he did, reporting his findings in a series of articles for New York’s Hipster Bible, Village Voice, in 1969; the pieces were then stitched together to form the original US edition of Positively Main Street in 1971, reaching the UK a year later.

Thompson ended up interviewing Dylan’s mother, Beatty; his brother, David; his uncle Maurice; his first girlfriend, Echo; plus several teachers from Hibbing High, and various other acquaintances.

The whole while, he’s probing, searching for the essence of Dylan. And emoting, excitedly. This from his very first paragraph:

“I just finished speaking with ‘Girl From The North Country’. Right, the very same chick Bob wrote the song about… ”

First time round, I was thrilled by Positively Main Street, because of its myriad insights into Dylan’s background, and because it’s such an impressive piece of writing – part travelogue, part Beat-soaked memoir, part page-turner. It’s a sheer delight to read. And all the while, you sense that, in addition to finding Dylan’s roots, the youthful author is really finding himself.

Thompson has an engaging style, and if you share his passion for his subject, you know exactly what’s driving him. He was a fine writer at a tender age (appropriate, that!).

Just like the first time, I raced through the new edition of Positively Main Street in a single sitting. Thirty-five years after the first read, I found it utterly absorbing.

The new edition, from the University Of Minnesota Press, has several “bonus tracks”, which enrich the original text:

* a new preface by Thompson

* Thompson’s Hibbing photographs, notably of Echo Helstrom posing among heavy-duty industrial machinery in the mining zone: it’s not hard to see why both writer and subject were smitten!

* a revealing 36 page interview with Toby Thompson carried out in 2005 by Terry Kelly for publication in UK fanzine The Bridge

* a different sub-title: the original edition was Positively Main Street: An Unorthodox View Of Bob Dylan.

The new Positively Main Street is a lovely little book, even better than the original, a cherished addition to the Dylan bookshelf. Thompson and the University of Minnesota Press have enhanced what was already a classic and made it available to a whole new audience. Dylan fans owe them a debt of gratitude.

Positively Main Street: Bob Dylan’s Minnesota by Toby Thompson, University Of Minnesota Press, 2008, 215pp, pbk, ISBN 978-0-8166-5445-1, $15.95/£10 (from amazon).

Gerry Smith