|Image by Toby Thompson.|
|Image by Echo Helstrom.|
BY TOBY THOMPSON
Echo Star Helmstrom, widely thought to have been the inspiration for Bob Dylan’s song “Girl from the North Country,” died on January 15th. She was 75 and had been my friend for nearly 50 years. She had a combination of vulnerability and toughness that was both innate and hard earned. We stayed in touch, spoke every spring, and always traded Christmas cards. When I did not receive hers in December I sensed something was wrong. Friends in Hibbing gave me the news.
Echo had health problems—chronic fatigue syndrome, primarily—but always had a witticism or bon mot. She and Dylan stayed in touch, and initially he’d told her, of Positively Main Street, “You came off pretty good in thee book.” We had had a romance in Hibbing, and in one letter years after its publication she wrote, “Bob just phoned. The first words out of his mouth were, ‘Did you have an affair with Toby Thompson?’ I told him it was none of his business. But he was real cranky about it.” I phoned her when Dylan won the Nobel, and her response to the award was, “It’s about time!”
I owe an enormous debt to her. The time she spent with me in Hibbing, and the stories she told made my book about Dylan. Her generosity jumpstarted my career. I’ve always felt that her support of Dylan in the netherland of Hibbing, and their shared experience as, at the least, cultural outsiders, helped him enormously. Hibbing hasn’t been the same since.
The passage below takes place at the beginning of our drive to Hibbing for the weekend–a weekend during which she shows me every spot where she and Dylan had hung out, I meet her family for a Sunday cookout, Echo and I sing on the Hibbing radio station, and we dance at Hibbing miners’ bar and instigate our romance.
I miss her sweetness terribly.
AN EXCERPT FROM POSITIVELY MAIN STREET BY TOBY THOMPSON.
FROM THE CHAPTER ‘GUSHICON FIVE: LOOKIN’ TO GET SILLY’:
“Turn that part up!” she squealed, as I eased off the Highway 65 into the parking lot beside Dibbo’s Diner. “I love it when they break into that heavy rhythm. I wrote a junior high school term paper on music like that. Colored jazz with a big beat. They wouldn’t let me write on rock and roll. That wasn’t a fit subject, my music teacher said. Hibbing is so hokey; to this day, I get the funniest feeling whenever I go back.”
Echo was dressed in knee-high white boots, black minidress, and Austrian cape, and she was sitting beside me in the front seat of my Volkswagen, with her blue eyes, baggage—dresses and slacks and things, just tossed in the back—huge funky sunglasses and ashblond hair, right there, in my car, and here we were in Mora, Minnesota, a halfway stop on the road to Hibbing, at a trucker’s café near the Snake River, where I would get out on my side of the car, walk around to open her door, help her out, lock it up—all that wonderful stuff—and we would have coffee.
No, hot chocolate; and Echo couldn’t stop. “Bob was a lot luckier with his teachers. He had that nice Mrs. Peterson in music, for one thing, and that made all the difference in the world. The woman I had practically ruined my life. That whole eleventh-grade year when Bob and I went steady, he had the music teachers snowed. Hardly anybody else could stand how he sung or what he played— especially the electric stuff—but people like Mrs. Peterson and Bob’s English teacher, Mr. Rolfzen, they had a feeling. Bob would play for anyone, anytime, and I guess that made a difference, too. He was such a sweet convincer. But me . . . ooh, that music teacher!”
People were staring. People, not just truck drivers, were staring at Echo and me in our funny clothes and funky manner, but Echo didn’t seem to care, even though they were looking at her the most, ’cause she looked pretty lookable. I was getting those stares I always got in places like this.
Echo tossed her head and met a few eyeballs. “Yes, we’re back in the sticks again. Home Sweet Home, for a north country weekend. They’ll talk behind your back, but they can’t look you in the eye. Just a little different, that’s all you have to be. They make me so mad, it’s the same as when I was a kid in Hibbing, they’d never leave me alone. Oh, I was a sexy little thing; you should have seen me in my first pair of leopard-skin pants, if you don’t think that shook ’em up on Howard Street!”
“You’d better be able to get your camera fixed in Hibbing ’cause I brought some great things to wear.” She laughed. We had tried to have my camera repaired at several stores in Minneapolis, but none could do the job right away. No. They couldn’t. I’d buy a camera, a goddamned Nikon on credit if I had to.
“I guess the main reason Bob and I got along so well was ’cause we were both so wild. But I was a lot wilder than him at first; I suppose I sort of changed him some. But not much, his craziness had always been there; it just needed somebody to bring it out. I sure was that somebody. Even after we broke up, I did nutty things, and I was older then! Like right after graduation, my girlfriend and I hit the road—literally. We hitchhiked all over the place, and you know girls weren’t doing that the way they are now. We had some adventures! We camped out and slept in parks. Met other crazies like us and traveled together. It was a lot like what Bob always wanted to do, and like the fibs he told on the back of his first album . . . that stuff about traveling with a circus. Bob never did anything like that, at least not that I ever heard of. His weird imagination! But I sure did all that stuff, spent most of my graduation summer doing it. And in Minneapolis, too; that was really scary. But we got through it somehow, my girlfriend and me.” Echo drained the last of her cocoa, and folded up her purse. “What do you say we get out of here, this place gives me the creeps.”
Outside of Dibbo’s the wind had kicked up, and one of those north-country sunsets I’d been thinking about for ten months was slinking sensuously across the horizon. And that chill, a stiff, northern Minnesota reminder that the sun was going down . . .I pulled the heater lever on my VW up full, and labored the engine in third gear for three-quarters of a mile. Echo was reading about herself in the Village Voice. “How did you remember all this stuff, Toby? When I told it to you I never dreamed I’d be so big a part of your story. A whole section!”
I turned toward her smiling, and a semi almost blew us off the road. Stupid Highway 65 was only two lanes wide, and everybody hauled.
“Oh, I never said this. . . this is funny, I can’t believe you wrote it. I guess your memory isn’t as good as I thought, huh?”
“This story about Bob coming over to my house with his guitar, and singing ‘Do You Want to Dance,’ that’s not right. He called me up one time and played it over the telephone, the actual record, but he didn’t sing it for my parents or anything.”
“I must have dreamt it that way, I suppose. It’s a good story though, I’m glad I have it in there. Sounds like something Bob might have done.”
“You’re worse than he was, I swear. But . . . you know what actually did happen that time? He called me like I said, but told me it was him singing. He was always making tapes with his band, so naturally I believed him. I even complimented him on how much they’d improved. Was a long time afterward that I realized it wasn’t Bob and the band, but Bobby Freeman. Spooky stuff.”
Sounded pretty straight to me. Dylan could be Bobby Freeman for all I knew, but my theory was that Bob and Smokey Robinson were the same. If you’ve ever seen Smokey and the Miracles, I’m certain you’ll agree without a moment’s hesitation. And if you haven’t, just think about it: Up there on that stage before a fivepiece soul band, with the essence of black vocal accompaniment at his side—plus, I grant you, a little makeup, his hair slicked back, some Man Tan, and a puff or two of cotton in the nostrils—is Bobby Zimmerman, luxuriating in the apotheosis of his ’57 Jacket Jamboree Talent Festival performance. There was no doubt in my mind, Bob Dylan was Smokey Robinson. And I had evidence to support my belief: Smokey uses a quote from Bob in his program notes that says, “Smokey Robinson is today’s greatest living American poet.” Without reservation. And all one really has to do, if still unconvinced, is listen to the Miracles’ songs. . . numbers like “The Tracks of My Tears,” “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage,” or “More Love.” Nobody but Bob could have written the lines:
This is no fiction, this is no fact,
This is real,
It’s a pact . . .
Imagine how much fun Bob has being Smokey Robinson. No stupid reporters questioning the literacy of his work, no phony image of Pop Seer to live up to. Nothing but soul—and those slick clothes and that big beat. Bob didn’t really spend two years and a half brooding in Woodstock, he was on the road with the Miracles!
“Toby. . .”
“Huh? Oh, I’m sorry, I must have been dreaming.” Too little sleep, too many hours on the road, and too much happening. “What was it you were saying?”
Echo waved a letter under my nose. “This. I thought you might be interested in seeing it; it’s from Robert Shelton.”
“Wow, yes, what does he say? Read it to me.”
“Oh, not much. Except that if he can consider his interview with me exclusive, there will be more than the enclosed one hundred dollar check coming, when and if his book starts to make money.”
“He sent you a hundred dollars?” I asked.
“Yeah, and I guess I really blew it by talking to you, didn’t I?” Echo laughed.
“Gosh . . .”
“I’m only kidding, what do I care? It’s more fun having you write about Bob, anyhow.”
“Well, that’s good, because I’m sure not going to be able to give you a hundred bucks. That’s amazing. He must be getting a lot of bread from somebody to be throwing it around like that. Some publisher, I mean.” Oh, empty-pocketed gloom.
“Cheer up, he’s a nice fellow. He won’t be mad. And besides, it was all my fault. I never actually thought you’d get your story published. I just figured you were one of Bob’s fans who was interested enough in his music to come all the way to Minnesota. That’s why I talked to you; I never even thought about you being any competition for Robert Shelton.”
“I sure can’t say I blame you for that.” Echo flashed me a grin and turned back to her Voice. We drove along in silence for five or ten miles, her reading and me watching the road, all pale pink and Christmas-tree green in the dusk. It was really getting cold now, and I shivered with the heat up full, in my chamois-cloth lumberjack shirt and heavy wool socks. Echo huddled in her Austrian cape under the overhead light. I thought seriously of breaking out the Scotch that was bouncing around in my glove compartment.
“Ooh, Toby. . .I bet Bob’s wife didn’t like all this.”
“What’s that?” I said, my teeth chattering.
“This stuff about us wanting to get married—I bet that just made her furious.”
“Come on, you were two kids in love, of course you talked about getting married. Everybody does. Don’t you think Bob Dylan’s wife would understand something as normal as that?” Echo looked up hurt.
“Well, all I know is that we seemed pretty serious at the time. He even made me cook pizzas for him to prove I’d be a good wife, and once I had to sew a pair of blue slacks—best sewing job I ever did!”
I started laughing; I couldn’t help it, but I did. Echo just stared. “That’s funny, pizzas. . .” I gulped. Echo sort of smiled and then giggled. “And blue slacks,” she whispered, “royal blue slacks, I’ll never forget them.” She looked up at me and laughed.
“That’s better, oh god, I need a drink.” I uncorked the pint of Cutty Sark and offered Echo a snort.
“No thanks!” she said, looking mildly shocked. I took a long pull and stuck the bottle in my coat pocket.
“You are crazy.” She laughed again.
“I’m a in-sane,” the Cutty Sark roared. “And, ‘Sometimes, I might get drunk . . . walk like a duck, and smell like a skunk . . .’”
“Oh, hush. And keep your eyes on the road!” Another semi blasted by and almost launched us into a very large body of water. The bottle of Scotch quickly found its way to my mouth. “Pull off here for a minute,” Echo said. “There, that side road.”
I did as ordered and eased off Highway 65 into a small unpaved parking lot. “This is Big Sandy Lake.” Echo sighed. “See now? Isn’t that neat?”
I pulled up the hand brake, wiped off the windshield with a sleeve of my shirt, and gazed out onto the most beautifully moonscaped water I had ever seen. The lake flapped and flopped out for a mile or so, to tremendous northern pines of exactly the right height— their shaggy tops extending to tickle the breast of a moon so angry and red that it hissed across the black-green water like some carelessly ignited railroad flare. The radio was playing something appropriate, from someplace like Fort Wayne, Indiana, and we were less than an hour from Hibbing. Echo and I sat in our seats, just staring. It was, well . . .
“I always did like to stop here,” Echo finally said.
Toby Thompson is author of Positively Main Street: Bob Dylan’s Minnesota (UMP), Saloon, and The ’60s Report. He is associate professor of creative writing at Penn State University. He has also written for numerous magazines including Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Playboy, and Esquire.