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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Unless you’re involved in the world of journalism, you might not have paid much attention to the recent fall of the writer Jonah Lehrer.
Lehrer was a wunderkind who wrote books and also contributed to The New Yorker and Wired magazines.
Lehrer’s latest book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” explored the neuroscience behind creative genius and he quoted the singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. The quotes caught the eye of a magazine editor and self-described “Dylan obsessive” who thought it was odd that he had never come across them before. He researched the quotes, still couldn’t track them down and asked Lehrer for his sources.
Lehrer admitted to fabricating the quotes, his publisher pulled his books, he lost his gigs at Wired and The New Yorker and his promising career came tumbling down.
The invented quote attributed to Dylan about writing “Like a Rolling Stone,” was, “It’s a hard thing to describe. It’s just this sense that you got something to say.”
It’s a wonderful quote, perfectly capturing the impossible-to-capture nature of the creative process and the original mind. If you’re making up a quote, I guess it makes sense to make up a good one.
There is more than a little irony in Lehrer’s professional suicide on the sword of made-up Bob Dylan quotes. That’s because Dylan was a confabulist well before he became a folk legend.
This brings us to Gallup.
It is a legend there — repeated, debated, scoffed at and wondered at — that Dylan lived as a child in the railroad town on Route 66 on New Mexico’s western flank. People of a certain age can tell you about spotting him here or there in the 1950s when Gallup was a bustling little border town. There’s been talk of his photo appearing in the Gallup High School yearbook, although the singer, whose real last name was Zimmerman, graduated from high school in Hibbing, Minn.
The legend, almost certainly false, comes straight from the singer himself.
Let’s look at the record:
In October 1961, in a taped interview with Billy James of Columbia Records, Dylan, not yet 21, was asked about his background and he talked about spending “about three-quarters of my life around the Midwest and one-quarter around the Southwest — New Mexico” and running away a lot.
Dylan: “I took off when I was in New Mexico. I lived in Gallup, New Mexico.”
James: “How old were you then?”
Dylan: “Uh, about 7. Seven, 8 — something like that. For the most part, my base has been in upper — way upper — Minnesota. Almost to the border. Can I mention the town? Hibbing, Minnesota — that’s a mining town — lumber town. I was there off and on ever since I was about 7 to 17.”
James: “You were in Gallup when you were 7 and you took off? Were you alone?”
Dylan: “Yeah, well I was in the carnival when I was about 13 — all kinds of shows.”
James: “Where’d you go?”
Dylan: “All around the Midwest, uh, Gallup, New Mexico, Aptos, Texas, and then … lived in, Gallup, New Mexico, and …”
James: “How old were you?”
Dylan: “Uh, about 7, 8, something like that.”
If that’s about as clear to you as, uh, a puddle of Gallup mud, try this interview, taped a short time later with Oscar Brand.
“Bob was born in Duluth, Minnesota,” Brand told the radio audience. “But Bob, you weren’t raised in Duluth, were you?”
Dylan: “No I was raised in, uh, Gallup, New Mexico.”
Brand: “Did you get many songs there?”
Dylan: “I got a lot of cowboy songs there, Indian songs, carnival songs, vaudeville kind of stuff.”
When Dylan played a concert at Riverside Church in Manhattan in August 1961, the newspaper reviewer gave him a one-sentence mention : “Bob Dylan, of Gallup, N.M., played the guitar and harmonica simultaneously, and with rural gusto.” In the liner notes for “Bob Dylan” he is identified as “living briefly” in Sioux Falls, S.D., and Gallup.
Newsweek, in 1963, researched the folk phenom’s origins and published a profile that debunked Dylan’s own colorful origination story as a myth.
“The ironic thing is that Bob Dylan, too, grew up in a conventional home, and went to conventional schools,” Newsweek said. “He shrouds his past in contradictions, but he is the elder son of a Hibbing, Minn., appliance dealer named Abe Zimmerman, and, as Bobby Zimmerman, he attended Hibbing High School, then briefly the University of Minnesota.”
I suppose if you’re new on the music scene, like Dylan was when he arrived in New York City early in 1961, and you’ve had a humdrum childhood in northern Minnesota, it makes sense to gin up a biography — and a last name — that’s more interesting.
My friend Bob Rosebrough, a lawyer and the former mayor of Gallup, has been fascinated by the Gallup-Dylan legend and he went so far as to try to talk to the singer himself.
“I never got close to getting an interview,” Rosebrough told me. “My calls and emails to his manager and publicist were completely ignored.”
Still, Rosebrough is convinced Dylan’s Gallup ties are entirely fictional, and that leads to the question: Why make Gallup, of all places, a centerpiece of your invented childhood?
The Gallup Journey magazine mused on the Dylan myth several years ago and surmised that Dylan and his family must have made a childhood trip through Gallup along Route 66 and seen the Western-wear store owned by another Zimmerman family.
“Well, what did he see as he drove through town? A huge sign stuck smack-dab in the middle of a town filled with Indians and cowboys that said ‘Zimmerman’s.’ And when it came time to invent a persona to match ‘the freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ he thought back to that sign and the town where he saw it.”
In 2004, at a reflective age of 62, Dylan summed up his approach to his name change in an actual quote that might also apply to his creative approach to his biography.
“Some people — you’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens,” Dylan said. “You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or email@example.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal