For a moment, Dylan played in our shadow
With my partner Dan Kossoff, I enjoyed a brief but heady run as a folk singer during the early 1960s. We played throughout the Midwest, appeared on numerous college campuses, and marqueed at the old Padded Cell in Minneapolis and The Crooked Ear, a coffee house in Omaha.
But while I was earning up to $75 per night in those early days, another native of my Duluth, Minn., hometown, Bob Dylan, was picking up mere pocket change. Using his family name, Zimmerman, he played in coffee houses in a neighborhood called Dinkytown, near the University of Minnesota.
At the time, we didn't pay much attention. We had our own ambitions.
In July 1963 Dan and I had played for a standing-room-only crowd at a top supper club in Duluth. Giddy with our success there, and warmed by solid reviews, we pondered our future success. We didn't know it then, but our show business careers would last only through November.
The ascent of rock 'n' roll was signaling the demise of the folk music bistros and coffee houses. Dan and I had gone about as far as we could without a hit record - or even a recording contract for that matter.
Meanwhile, Bob Dylan was on a rapid rise to icon status.
Shortly after Dylan took New York by storm, all of us back at the local folk scene were abuzz about the Minnesota kid who hadn't seemed all that impressive to us.
I remember meeting a fellow who was a member of the fraternity Bob Zimmerman was pledging in 1960 at the University of Minnesota. He reported that the fraternity brothers were perplexed because Zimmerman didn't participate in mixers and other social events.
Instead, he sat alone in a corner plunking tunes on his guitar that didn't lend themselves to group singalongs.
"I thought I'd help him out," the man recalled. "So one day I took him aside and I said, 'Look, you have to be sociable, joke around, look like you want to belong to this fraternity. Put the guitar away, or if you're going to play, at least do songs everyone knows. Otherwise you'll never get voted in.' "
The fellow paused. "What if [Dylan] had listened to me? He might have gone into real estate or become a stock broker."
Meanwhile, for Dan and me, the final months on the folk circuit proved a mixed bag. We certainly didn't please everyone who heard us.
One night, the owner of a St. Paul coffee house called us over between sets.
"I can't stand this," he said, grabbing our guitars. He cranked the tuning pegs on both instruments (not subtle adjustments, either), handed them back. "That oughta do it," he said. (Chagrined, I bought a pitch pipe.)
Later, we returned to Duluth to headline a concert at the University of Minnesota's homecoming celebration.
Unlike the St. Paul coffeehouse gig, this performance had gone well. Afterward, Dan and I went to a party at his in-laws' home.
I recall chatting with a pleasant middle-aged woman who seemed intrigued that we had just completed a show at the college.
She mentioned that her son was also a musician. I merely acknowledged her comment and moved on. Later, I asked Dan who she was.
"That's Bob Dylan's mother," he said.
In one of our last performances, we were scheduled to play at the Padded Cell the week of John F. Kennedy's assassination in November 1963.
The night after his death we agonized over which songs to play and whether we should use humor. The place was packed but the crowd seemed reluctant to enjoy themselves.
One of the most memorable moments that night was joining Denver musician Walt Conley and native American singer-actor Floyd Red Crow Westerman on stage for a lengthy rendition of "This Land Is Your Land."
It may seem maudlin now, but at the time it was profoundly moving for us - and the audience.
A short time later, Dan and I stopped performing to enroll in graduate school, ending my short-lived show-business career.
It was just as well. I was never much of a musician, and in an increasingly sophisticated music environment, my fingers couldn't manage fretting the guitar on complex chords like flatted fifths.
My singing was mediocre at best. These days it's mostly limited to songs like "When You Wish Upon a Star," shopworn lullabies, or Sesame Street novelty tunes to help my young grandchildren go to sleep.
Despite Bob Dylan's decades-long artistic success, I sometimes wonder if he sings to his grandkids, too, sending them off to dreamland with choruses of "Desolation Row" or "Subterranean Homesick Blues."