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Zimmy’s is the lively Hibbing hub of annual Dylan Days

The celebration is “going to be crazy,” said the co-owner of the pub that hosts the annual birthday celebration of the Hibbing native, who turns 71 on Thursday.

Dylan memorabilia makes Zimmy’s feel less like Applebee’s and more like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or Experience Music Project.

HIBBING — “You’re lucky you’re talking to me today; next week at this time my voice will be shot,” said Linda Stroback-Hocking Friday afternoon, standing in the doorway of Zimmy’s, the Bob Dylan-themed bar and restaurant she’s co-owned here since 2000 and worked at since 1985.

“It’s going to be crazy,” she said, of Dylan Days, the pub’s annual birthday celebration of Hibbing native Bobby Zimmerman, who turns 71 years forever young on Thursday.

“We get a nice grass-roots celebration, and they come from all over the world. That’s the astounding thing. You think it’s only going to be from [Minnesota], and then you start talking to people and it’s England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, China. The worldview of him is what is totally amazing.”

Dylan fans have a reputation for being obsessive and one-note in their musical tastes, but Stroback-Hocking has found the exact opposite to be true.

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“People who come here and want to talk about Bob Dylan are the nicest people in the world,” she gushed. “What happens here is stories. People tell their stories. They either grew up with him or are related to him. It’s very intimate, and so is Dylan Days. I would never want to get commercial because we would lose the connections we have. If I ever met Bob, if he ever showed up, I’d say, ‘Thank you for being who you are, because the people who come here are the most amazing people on earth. We’re lucky.’ ”

Friday afternoon, two blue-haired ladies around Dylan’s age were the only ones in the joint, munching on salads and drinking iced tea amidst Dylan memorabilia that makes Zimmy’s feel less like Applebee’s and more like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or Experience Music Project.

But come Thursday and Friday, the bar will be packed with songwriters and cover bands paying tribute to Dylan, who was born in Duluth and, when he was 6, moved with his family to the Hibbing house that sits a few blocks up the street from Zimmy’s on the renamed Bob Dylan Drive.

“The name Zimmy’s came to us in 1990,” said Stroback-Hocking, who grew up in Philadelphia. “We were actually The Atrium restaurant, and in 1990 we did a sports bar theme in the restaurant, and they needed a name for it. Being from Philadelphia, I was sitting at a roundtable with 10 people, and I said, ‘I don’t think you people realize how big Bob Dylan is everywhere in the world except in Hibbing.’ So that started the discussion that maybe it should be something related to Bob.

“We went really gently into it because the locals weren’t sure if it was the right thing to do to name a venue for Bob. At first we had no memorabilia inside, we just had history of Hibbing images, and then Bob’s mother, ‘Beatty,’ came to visit with her brother from Virginia and relatives and friends.

“I was a manager at the time, and I went over and I was a little nervous because I didn’t know what she’d think. I said, ‘We named this place for your son. I hope you like what you’re seeing.’

“She said, ‘It’s wonderful. It’s about time somebody did something nice for my son here in Hibbing. I was born and raised in Hibbing, and I raised my two sons here and I could never figure out why nobody recognized Bob and his career.’

“So with that blessing, we went crazy and picked up sheet music and posters and Dylan icon images.”

Friday night, Duluth kicked off its own weeklong Dylanfest (PDF) with “Desire in Duluth,” a concert featuring a Dylan cover band and violinist Scarlet Rivera, who recorded and toured with Dylan in the ’70s. A benefit show for the Duluth Armory and performed at the University Of Minnesota Duluth’s Weber Music Hall, the sold-out show was reverential and musically solid, but it also stank of artistic necrophilia — the polar opposite of Dylan’s career and something concert co-organizer and Dylan acquaintance Gene LaFond alluded to before the show.

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“I spent many weeks with him, and when I’d tell him about a video I saw of him, he used to say to me, ‘You guys like to sit around and watch old videos. I can’t be doing that. I need to be moving forward. I can’t get stuck in the past.’ ”

Likewise, any shrine to Dylan is to be met with skepticism, the same way that many in his hometown treat the iconoclast himself. Still, Zimmy’s (try the Gotta Save Somebody munchies or Time Out of Mind combo) explodes with an array of impressive images and artifacts — from the kid’s first gig with The Golden Chords in 1958 to a photo of Dylan, Frank Sinatra and Bruce Springsteen at Ol’ Blue Eyes 80th birthday party, and myriad autographed items, all of which serve as inspiration to any creative types walking through the door, as well as a poignant reminder of the decidedly American fable of a small-town kid who got out and changed the world.

“People follow him like they would maybe the Grateful Dead, and it gives them a chance to travel, and they come in droves here during Dylan Days,” said Stroback-Hocking. “When he turned 50, it was crazy. We would have one birthday celebration called ‘Bob Dylan’s birthday bash’ with just local musicians, and now that’s become the big part of our Dylan Days celebration: to celebrate songwriters and musicians.”

And storytellers. One of the sweeter ones is Stroback-Hocking herself, whose voice gives out around this time of year from playing memorabilia tour guide and telling stories. Such as …

“They had an all-class reunion for Hibbing High School about 20 years ago,” she said. “I was a manager at the time and a woman said to me, ‘My husband is Bob’s older cousin and we live in Arizona, and he has a really great Bob Zimmerman story, but I don’t know if he’ll tell you because he doesn’t like me to do this.’ Finally, he did.

“He said, ‘I was five years older than Bob, and he was getting ready to graduate from high school, and he was signed up to go to school down at the University of Minnesota. My uncle [Dylan’s father Abram] called me up and asked me to come over and he was just distraught. He said, ‘I just know Bob’s not going to go to college. I can just tell he’s not gonna go. Will you talk to him? I don’t know what to do. Will you talk some sense into him? I’m his dad. He won’t listen to me — I’m too old.’

“ ‘I felt so bad for my uncle, so a few weeks later, I sat with Bob at a table and I told him, “Look, Bob. I just finished my degree a year ago and I’ve got a great job and I’m doing really well and in this day and age if you don’t get a college education, you are never going to make anything of yourself. You’ll never get a good job. It’s really critical that you go to school, so really take it seriously when you get down there.” ‘

“With a straight face, he said, ‘Well, you can see how well that went. About a month later, he was in New York.’ ”

The rest is history. Later this spring, President Obama will present Dylan with the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

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Not bad for a boy from the north country, whose music will forever be linked with his former stamping grounds and its salt-of-the-earth people, breathtaking natural scenery, tall timber, rolling hills, lakes, rivers, ore and the omnipresent wildlife and roadkill that peppers Highway 61.