I didn’t get an invitation to the Nobel Prize award ceremony for Bob Dylan in Sweden today. Instead, I visited a memorial to the most important people in his life: His parents.
Abram and Beatrice Zimmerman are both buried in Duluth, Minnesota; the same place they brought Bob Dylan into this world more than 75 years ago.
The same place where I live.
So on a bright blue, wonderfully cold day, I stepped into my pick-up truck, dropped a Duane Eddy CD into the player and drove 15 minutes to Tifereth Israel Cemetery. The road winds through a wooded neighborhood and passes modest houses on large lots. Some homes have junk cars in the backyard, others have big boats wrapped in plastic and trailered for the winter. The drive passes a modern, brick elementary school and a pole barn housing a brake shop — colorful flags flap near the parking lot. Across the street lie three cemeteries: The Polish cemetery, the Catholic cemetery and the smaller Jewish cemetery called Tifereth Israel.
I’ve lived in Minnesota most of my life and always had an interest in Bob Dylan’s music, but I only recently learned his parents were buried in Duluth. Frankly, I never gave his parents any thought. Why would I? But my mother gave me a Dylan biography she found recently at a library used book sale and the first few chapters were stunning.
Dylan biographer Robert Shelton recounts the 1968 heart attack and unexpected death of Abe Zimmerman in Hibbing, Minnesota. It documents Dylan’s return to the city for the funeral – at the height of his counter-culture popularity – and raises questions about the relationship he had with his loving but traditional parents.
According to the book, Beatty dressed a four-year-old Bobby in a snazzy suit and had him sing at her sister’s wedding reception. His first paid gig. Abe forced his son to work cleaning the family appliance store, teaching the values of hard work and responsibility. But teenage Bob rebelled. Abe and Beatty said he listened to the wrong music, dated the wrong girls and was headed for a life as a penniless artist. Bob even told his early fans he was an orphan. That hurt back home.
Like many, Bob had a complicated relationship with his parents. But it’s clear that they loved him from an early age, created a solid home life and were committed to his education. Abe and Beatty supplied the foundation. They supported their son, challenged him, and let him go off into the world. In a tough place like the 1950s Minnesota iron range, with a son so decidedly different, things could have gone in a more unfortunate direction.
Shelton writes Abe and Beatty never understood their son’s work but, in the end, they were proud of what he accomplished with his life.
That’s what really matters.
After reading the early chapters of “No Direction Home,” I learned Abe and Beatty Zimmerman were an important part of Bob’s life. Visiting their cemetery and finding their grave site somehow seemed significant.
I stopped the truck at the cemetery entrance. Fresh snow dotted with deer tracks blanketed the grounds. Birch trees trembled leafless in the background. The Zimmerman grave is easy to find, just a couple of rows off the road. Maybe 25 stones lie atop the polished monument — documenting more visitors than any other site in Tifereth Israel. Unseen squirrels chattered as if they were lost and looking for each other. An occasional vehicle roared over the road, loud like a lion, then disappearing into the woods.
It’s a humble monument. About as big as a flat-screen television, the kind Abe might sell if he were alive today. It’s decorated with the Star of David and Hebrew script.
There isn’t much else to it.
I climbed back in the truck. Made a u-turn and headed back to my home.
The Duane Eddy album – one of my dad’s favorite guitarists – twangs out the speakers. The Dylan book my mom gave me sits in the passenger seat.
Somewhere half a world away, a crowd cheers a Nobel Prize.