Bob Dylan is only a few years younger than my Grandpa Brown. In fact, Robert Zimmerman grew up just down the street from Pops in Hibbing, Minnesota. Pops would have been one of the tough kids revving engines past the Zimmerman place on 25th Street, perhaps prompting young Bobby to look down from his bedroom window on the second floor.
Pops tells a lot of stories about crazy things he did with cars back than. He’d drive ’em fast. He’d play chicken with people out on the highways. He’d drive ’em over to Nashwauk to fight with people. The accounts are usually short because they didn’t always turn out so well.
My family always punctuates its narratives with machines, metal, and scrap. A new motorcycle leads to an elaborate tale of hubris. We remember the dead for each of their 26 dirt bikes. We used to have a truck and we used to have a wife; here’s why both slipped through our fingers. Forty-five percent of male conversation in my family is creative interpretation of a parts catalogue.
Perhaps that’s not so unusual when you grow up on the Mesabi Iron Range.
So perhaps we should not be surprised that Dylan, the region’s most famous son, achieves accolades for his ironworking art.
In coming weeks, the MGM National Harbor Resort and Casino will open on the Potomac River in Maryland. Visitors will see the first permanent installation of a Bob Dylan artwork, an elaborate iron gate. Dylan revealed his intricate artistic gates at an exhibit in London in 2013, and continues to work with the designs. MGM liked his work and commissioned him to produce the gate at their new casino.
Dylan’s gate features gears, metal tools, sawblades, springs and rods, each delicately welded together to create an imposing industrial archway. He personally selects the items from his large collection of old parts, tractors, machinery and scrapyard discoveries. It’s entirely likely that Bob Dylan spent hours at junkyards like the one my grandpa and dad ran back in the 1980s.
“Gates appeal to me because of the negative space they allow,” said Dylan in the press release. “They can be closed, but at the same time they allow the seasons and breezes to enter and flow. They can shut you out or shut you in. And in some ways, there is no difference.”
Through the press release, Dylan’s representatives cited his work “Portal” as his tribute to the industrial heart of America and also his Iron Range upbringing.
Back in high school I worked as an overnight disk jockey at WEVE, the Top 40/Easy Listening station out in Eveleth. We played a lot of Michael Bolton and very little Dylan, if any. People forget, however, that Bob Dylan wrote one of Bolton’s biggest hits, “Steel Bars,” even though he never performed it.
Here’s the chorus. Try to imagine Dylan singing:
“Steel bars, wrapped all around me. I’ve been your prisoner since the day you found me. I’m bound forever, ‘til the end of time. Steel bars wrapped around this heart of mine.”
Is he talking about a lover, or being from the Iron Range? Is there a difference?
In the language of metal, words last longer than flesh. In the language of machines, our labor bears both fruits and ruination. In the language of the Iron Range, what goes up must come down.
“The first one now will later be last.”
And yet, we can never separate the iron from our blood.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.