Passin’ Through: Bob Dylan’s Denver

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Hard to know which way the wind was blowing when Bob Dylan crossed the Colorado border on a summer day in 1960, heading west to Denver to stake his claim in the vibrant folk scene growing in the city. But like towns before and towns that followed, Denver turned out to be just another place Dylan was passin’ through.

Much has been written about Bob Dylan, perhaps a disproportionate amount for someone who refers to himself as “just a song and dance man.” Of course, that may just be the most convenient way to describe him. Venturing beyond the description finds one trying to tell the simple story of a man who chose a different path, and then struggling to explain the complexities of the life that followed. And although many have tried, few have elaborated on Dylan’s pre-New York adventure in Denver during the summer of 1960, an influential time spent honing his skill of watching, listening, learning, interpreting, reworking, and absorbing like a sponge. A skill Dylan developed back in Hibbing. Minnesota, his home town.

ROBERT ZIMMERMAN and ELSTON GUNN

“I was never gonna be anything else, never. I was playing when I was twelve years old, and that’s all I wanted to do.” 

The piano was the first instrument Robert Zimmerman “mastered.” He was less interested in formal training and more interested in learning just enough to emulate his favorite performers, particularly Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard.

Robert played in various bands but it was The Golden Chords that is most remembered. The group played local festivals, talent shows, and school assemblies, just about any place that would have them. Bob would rework popular tunes into a style that worked for him, sometimes even adding lyrics to songs and taking some away, making the songs his own. The Golden Chords were known for two things, playing loud and for Robert’s onstage presence. Those in attendance remember the otherwise quiet and introverted Robert standing at the piano, Little Richard style, singing wildly and pounding away on the keys.

Robert had also learned how to play guitar with help from bandmate Monte Edwardson who claims to have taught Robert how to translate piano chords to guitar chords. Robert found himself playing guitar more and more and piano less and less. His musical horizons were also being broadened primarily by two sources: staying up late at night listening to music being broadcast from Shreveport, LA, and time spent visiting Jim Dandy, a regional disc jockey in Virginia, MN, who expanded his understanding of the roots of rock & roll, the blues.

Robert graduated from Hibbing High School in 1959. He decided to have one last go as a piano player, talking his way into a gig with Bobby Vee’s band “Bobby Vee and the Shadows” in Fargo, ND. Robert requested that his stage name be Elston Gunn. Elston only played a few shows and only at venues where a piano was available. The band soon decided to drop the piano from the act, particularly because they didn’t want to spend the money to buy one nor did they want to move one from show to show. The professional gig was short lived but it didn’t thwart Robert’s ambitions.

After returning to Hibbing, Robert soon left behind the music of Little Richard and Buddy Holly, among others, though not necessarily their influence. Throughout the remainder of the summer Robert continued exploring new music and improvising and personalizing songs on his Supro Ozark electric guitar.  

UNIVERSITY OF MINNEAPOLIS and DINKYTOWN

“I left where I’m from because there’s nothing there…when I left there, I knew one thing. I had to get out of there and not come back.”

In the Fall of 1959, Robert left Hibbing for the University of Minneapolis on what he later called “a phony scholarship.” He arrived in Minneapolis unnoticed, “I rode the Greyhound bus. Nobody was there to greet me and nobody knew me and I liked it that way.”

Soon after arriving, Robert traded his electric guitar and amp for a used 1949 Martin “double-o” 17 acoustic (now at the Experience Music Project in Seattle) and declared that he wanted to be a folksinger. For Robert, folk music offered something more meaningful than the modern world had to give. He later noted, “A folk song has over a thousand faces and you must meet them all if you want to play this stuff. A folk song might vary in meaning and it might not appear the same from one moment to the next. It depends on who’s playing and who’s listening.”

Robert also gave fraternity life a try during his first semester saying later that he was “kept around for kicks.” He spent most of his time among the local artistic community looking for Kerouac’s “great city,” what Allen Ginsberg called the “hydrogen jukebox world.” According to Robert, “I fell into that atmosphere of everything Kerouac was saying about the world being completely mad. And the only people for him that were interesting were the mad people, the mad ones, the ones who were, you know, mad to live and mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn, all those mad ones. And I felt like I fit right into that bunch.”

Robert spent time seeking places to play, immersing himself in new music, and acquiring new guitar styles and techniques from other musicians. He later recalled that “if somebody played the guitar, that’s who you went to see. You didn’t necessarily go to meet them, you just went…to watch them, listen to them, and , if possible, learn how to do something…I certainly spent a lot of hours just trying to do what other people had been doing.” The community that provided those opportunities was called Dinkytown, a “Minneapolis bohemia,” located in a small business district not far from the Mississippi River. It was in Dinkytown that the 18 year old Robert wandered into one of the local coffeehouses, the Ten O’Clock Scholar and asked owner David Lee, “do you mind if I play?” Lee agreed to let him play and asked, “what’s your name?” The determined young man replied, “Bob Dylan.”

Dylan became a regular in and around the Scholar known for “his pleasing singing voice, his worn out corduroy pants, and his acoustic guitar always in hand.” Lee noted that Dylan’s repertoire included “Sinner Man,” “St. James Infirmary,” Golden Vanity,” and the occasional Carter Family song.” Dylan eventually rented a room above Gray’s Drugstore, which, was according to Dylan, an “empty storage room with a sink and window looking into the alley. Toilet down the hall. Mattress on the floor, a used dresser, and  a hot plate.”

Dylan continued soaking up influences while in Dinkytown, with additional help from his then girlfriend Bonnie Beecher, who would “go off and find a record” then bring it back where they would play it through and Dylan would work out the chords and lyrics. He passionately imitated, strategically reworked, and creatively transformed songs, ultimately making them all his own and performing them as such. Dylan was obsessed with seeking the original versions of folksongs, tracking them back to the original Library of Congress recordings, however his earlier rock and roll background found him crossing the two styles when performing them. Dylan said, ”This made me different from your regular folksingers, who were either folk song purists or concert-hall singers, who just happened to be singing folk songs.”

But Dylan was a bit of a purist as well. He wasn’t satisfied with just knowing the songs, he wanted to know what they were about, where they came from, and what inspired them.

His playlist continued to expand while his style and technique continued to evolve. He sought out every opportunity in Dinkytown and played anywhere and everywhere that would have him. His tenacity did not go unnoticed, however, for Dylan it was time for a change. He had gone about as far as he was gonna go in Dinkytown.

“A wasted world and totally mechanized. A lot of hustle and bustle. A lot of shelves to clean and boxes to stack. I wasn’t going to pin my hopes on that.” 

DENVER TOWN/CONLEY

As Spring came to a close and the summer of 1960 got going it appears Dylan was ready to get going as well, to Denver, Colorado.

Only Dylan can say for certain what it was that motivated him to head out West or how it was that he got there. Denver certainly had a vibrant folk scene taking shape and the ambitious Dylan would likely have heard or read about it, and therefore want to be a part of it.

Soon after arriving in Denver Dylan made his way to the Satire Lounge located on E.Colfax. Advertised as “a pleasant place to spend an evening,” the Satire was owned by Sam Sugarman, who in 1960, renamed and revamped the former sports bar “Sugie’s Lounge” into a folk venue to cash in on the growing folk music scene in Denver.

Dylan walked into the Satire and approached Walt Conley, the bar’s manager and booking agent. Conley, born in Denver in 1929, was a folksinger and actor who was and remains a respected musician in the city. Conley was introduced to folk music while working a summer job on a dude ranch outside of Taos, while on break from college. It was there that he met Pete Seeger and rest of The Weavers. According to his obituary in the Denver Post, Conley received his first guitar from Seeger, “who liked Conley’s rich baritone and taught him to use it to his advantage in folk songs.” Conley quickly became a fixture in Denver’s folk music scene, playing bars around town and providing opportunities for others to do so as well, particularly at the Satire.

Conley described the young Dylan as “looking like a character out of the Grapes of Wrath.”  Wearing worn out clothes and singing hillbilly ballads, Conley noted Dylan as being from the branch of folk music that was “rolling in the dust,” with a style and look that contrasted the more polished branch of folk music that most in the Denver area were striving for or wanting to hear, such as the Kingston Trio and The Smothers Brothers, the latter who in 1960 were also a Denver-based favorite Conley had befriended while playing a gig in Aspen and then booked at the Satire.

Dylan asked Conley if he could play some songs and Conley agreed to let Dylan do some short afternoon sets before The Smother’s Brothers went on. Conley had also agreed to let Dylan stay at his house on E.17th Avenue near Williams Street., a short distance from the Satire. Unfortunately for Dylan, all of Conley’s rooms were occupied by other musicians also in need of a place to stay so a space on the floor was the only place available. “I think he slept on the floor one night” Conley said, “and then he started jumping around town finding places to stay.” 

Dylan ended up in a rented room next door to the Raylane Hotel which was located on the southwest corner of 20th Avenue and Lincoln Street (1999 Lincoln-now a parking lot).

Originally named the Toovey Hotel, The Raylane was a four-story, 62-room hotel built in 1901 by German businessman William Toovey that in 1960 catered to Denver’s low-income residents. The summer before Dylan arrived in Denver, Hal Neustaedter, an area real estate broker, opened Denver’s first “Bohemian nightclub,” the Exodus Gallery Bar on Raylane’s garden level. In the spring of 1960, Neustaedter opened the Exodus Catacombs, a private club for teenagers, in the basement beneath the Gallery Bar. Neustaedter was not only a businessman he was a champion of the cause of folk music, giving musicians and wanna be musicians a place to perform for an audience.The Exodus and the Catacombs were the place to go in Denver to hear folk music and were a favored booking for folk musicians touring between Chicago and the West Coast.

At the Exodus, patrons drank 3.2 beer served out of buckets; enjoyed the atmosphere, particularly the walls, which were plastered with “high-camp” posters and impressionistic paintings; and, of course, listened to the music. The Exodus was known as the place where Denver’s most interesting characters hung out. In a September 6, 1959 article in the Rocky Mountain News, Bob Whearley writes about the girl in the black eye patch sitting in the “smoky half-lit room” enjoying the music of Walt Conley.

Dylan was certainly an interesting character and no doubt would have loved to have played there. However, Neustaedter was known for being very picky about who graced the stages at The Exodus. Having never heard of Dylan and likely not being impressed with his songs or style, he likely would have passed on any audition that took place. That didn’t keep Dylan from checking out other musicians playing at The Exodus that summer, particularly Jesse Fuller.

JESSE FULLER

It was not unusual for two different folk acts to be performing in both clubs at The Exodus . While visiting the downstairs club, the Catacombs, Dylan met Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller, a blues guitar player often referred to as a “one-man band.” Fuller was born in Jonesboro, GA, in 1896 and during his childhood built a mouth bow and his first guitar. He taught himself how to play by sneaking into shows. Throughout his adolescence he worked odd jobs and learned traditional folk and blues songs on both the harmonica and guitar.

As an adult, Fuller hopped a freight train to California working odd jobs and busking for money, ultimately appearing in films in bit parts. He landed a job icing cars for the railroad and went back to Georgia to get a wife. After he returned to California, specifically the San Francisco Bay Area, he continued to hone his musical ability and invented the “fotdella,” a six string bass viol that he worked with his foot via of system of levers and pedals, which earned him the moniker “one-man band.”

Fuller’s folk career took off and he played in folk venues throughout the state of California. He caught his big break at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1959 and toured Europe. After the tour he played in Denver where he met Dylan during a show at the Exodus Catacombs. Always the quick study, Dylan watched the way Fuller held his harmonica in front of his mouth in a metal neck brace that allowed him to alternate between singing and running riffs on the harmonica, eventually incorporating the device into his act and some of Fuller’s songs into his set list.

Dylan would later record Fuller’s “You’re No Good” on his debut album in 1961 and on April 20-22 of 1962, Dylan shared the bill with Fuller at the University of Michigan Folk Festival in Ann Arbor. Marie Kimmey, prior president of the Folklore Society in Ann Arbor who arranged the appearance recollected that the unknown “Bob Dillon,” as his name appeared in the ad, was paid fifty dollars for the gig. Kimmey said, “we were thrilled to be pulling this off, and for only 50 bucks. We knew he was going to go places.” By the close of April in 1962 Dylan was in the studio recording his second album, The Freewheelin” Bob Dylan.

KEVIN KROWN

Dylan also met eighteen-year-old Kevin Krown who was hitchhiking around the country, but at that time staying in a Salvation Army hostel in Denver and hanging around the Exodus. He befriended Dylan and borrowed some money from him. Krown was soon heading to Chicago and told Dylan to look him up if he was ever passing through. Dylan eventually would take Krown up on his offer while travellin’ through Chicago on his way to fame in NYC. Krown would go on to briefly manage Dylan during his early days in Greenwich Village.

The Smothers Brothers soon let Conley know that they did not like Bob’s music or his style so Conley was forced to remove Dylan from his afternoon sets at the Satire. A call from Sophia St. John in Central City was just what Conley, and Dylan, needed. It would certainly please the Smothers Brothers and provide Dylan with another opportunity.

CENTRAL CITY/GILDED GARTER

Sophia St. John ran the Gilded Garter (now the closed Doc Holliday Casino), located in the Harris Block on Main Street in Central City, a former Gold Rush town established in 1859 in the mountains west of Denver. Built in 1890 by Ed Harris, the Harris Block building first contained a mortuary in 1891 and a second floor was added in 1897. The building later functioned as The Adler Hotel. After World War II, a board and batten false front was installed and the Gilded Garter was born. St. John told Conley she was “looking for a singer up here.” Conley suggested Dylan because he was “underfoot” and in the way. Dylan took up the offer and like so many prospectors before him, headed into the mountains along Clear Creek toward Central City by thumb and by bus.

Described by Dylan as a strip joint, a description possibly influenced by the paintings of nude women on the walls, the Gilded Garter was actually a noisy tourist bar in a tourist town. Dylan performed between the “strip acts” describing the situation thusly, “As the night got longer, the air got heavier, the audience got drunker and nastier and then I got sicker and finally I got fired.”

In Robert Shelton’s book No Direction Home Dylan elaborated on his time in Central City while visiting the town during a concert stop in 1966. “When I first went up here, Central City seemed so far from anything I’d ever seen or done before, it was sort of magic for me.” Shelton and Dylan walked down the streets while Bob reminisced about his time there. “Oh, it only lasted a few weeks, but I suppose I’ll never forget it,” Shelton quotes Dylan as saying. He continued, “They paid me very little, but they threw in sandwiches and drinks, and all the strippers I could watch. All the noisy drunks were thrown in free, too. The time has gone so fast. It almost seems like it happened to someone else.”

BACK IN DENVER TOWN

After the brief Gilded Garter gig, Dylan returned to Denver. No longer welcome at the Satire and unable to land a gig at the Exodus it was clear that Denver was not going to give Dylan a place in its burgeoning folk scene. As suggested by Conley, Denver “wasn’t buying Bob Dylan.” Dylan was a traditionalist Guthrie type of folksinger in a clean cut Kingston Trio kind of town. For Dylan it was time to ramble on.

THE STOLEN RECORD “INCIDENT” AND DYLAN LEAVES DENVER

After finding some records missing from Conley’s collection, Dave Hamil, another musician who found refuge at Conley’s house, immediately accused Dylan of stealing them. Suggesting that the missing records were not of Dylan’s musical taste, Hamil concluded that Dylan must have stolen the records to sell. Hamil took it upon himself to go confront Dylan at the room he was staying in next to the Exodus and accused him of stealing the records. Dylan denied stealing the records and locked Hamil out of his room. Hamil then called the police. Dylan who actually did have the records threw them out the third floor window down into the alley below. Hamil retrieved the records from the alley and urged Conley, who finally made his way to the hotel, to press charges. Conley declined Hamil’s insistence. Whatever the reason for Dylan having the records it was already clear that he wasn’t welcome among the Conley crowd. Perhaps Hamil and Conley used the opportunity to rid the scene of Dylan once and for all.

As noted by Kevin Krown some years later, Dylan had money and had loaned some to Krown. Dylan biographies also suggest his parents supported Dylan during this time, regardless of his endeavors. So it’s doubtful that Dylan needed to steal records to get money and more likely that the musical sponge was doing what he does, absorbing new sounds. Perhaps he was made to feel comfortable enough to borrow albums by Conley whose residence was used as a flophouse and his belongings likely considered accessible to those passing through.

Regardless of the circumstances, Dylan later summed up the incident as follows,“I was run out of Denver for robbing a cat’s house.” Perhaps an admission of guilt or a very Dylan way of making the absurd more interesting or worth repeating.  

“Get me a freight train head down the track. You’ll have to put out a load of money boys for to get me back.” – Colorado Blues

Dylan’s Denver experience was just that, experience. The natural course of things, as Dylan describes his experiences. And it certainly took him a little further down his road. Denver provided Dylan with anonymity and a chance to romanticize his background, as Sheldon points out. To friends and family back east Dylan talked of being well received in Denver. Perhaps not reality, but a necessary perception similar to his Gorgeous George recollection.

Dylan saw Gorgeous George back in Hibbing while performing with the Golden Chords at the National Guard Armory. Dylan wrote that George winked at him and seemed to mouth the phrase “you’re making it come alive.” Dylan wrote that, “Whether he really said it or not, it didn’t matter. It’s what I thought I heard him say that mattered, and I never forgot it. It was all the recognition and encouragement I would need for years to come. Sometimes that’s all it takes, the kind of recognition that comes when you’re doing the thing for the things sake and you’re on to something, it’s just that nobody recognizes it yet.”

Meeting Jesse Fuller was certainly fortuitous when you consider Dylan’s sound on later albums and his image post-Denver. The image of the singer-songwriter with his acoustic guitar and racked harmonica is synonymous with Bob Dylan. And Fuller’s music clearly had an influence on Dylan who recorded Fuller’s song “You’re no Good” on his debut album. Conley also gave Dylan a new topical anti-kkk song, “The Klan,” to add to his playlist, which Dylan was known to have played post-Denver. Not the typical folk song, it’s no surprise that the guy who would eventually write “Only a Pawn in their Game” would find this Conley song so appealing.

Hard to know which way the wind was blowing the day Bob Dylan crossed the Colorado border that mid-summer day in 1960 heading east back to a Minnesota town and then on to stardom. Thumb out, Martin double-o in hand, worn out look, and a song in mind. That song? Perhaps Colorado Blues.

Got Colorado blues I feel so bad,

Got Colorado blues I feel so bad,

Thinking about the times I, once had

Central City ain’t no friend of mine,

Central City ain’t no friend of mine.

Denver towns a sad kind of place to stay,

I wish I was back in the good ol’ USA.

Get me a freight train head down the track,

You’ll have to put out a load of money boys for to get me back.

POST DENVER/1964 CONCERT

On February 15, 1964 the 22-year-old Bob Dylan made his first return trip to Denver since the summer of 1960 for an 8:30 p.m. concert at Denver Civic Auditorium Theatre. The ad for the upcoming show appeared under an Exodus ad in the Rocky Mountain News. The concert was to promote the January ‘64 release of his album “The Time’s They Are A-Changin’.” Tickets were available at Denver’s Folklore Center for $2 and $3. None of the local papers noted Dylan’s previous time in Denver. A Rocky Mountain News article announcing the concert noted that Dylan,“a legend,” seemed to have came out of nowhere, another unknown in Greenwich Village but now “sits at the peak of the folk music movement.” In the same article Alan Lomax is quoted as saying Bob Dylan “worked long and hard, like a demon, to learn the folk tradition.” It’s suggested that the song “Chimes of Freedom,” which would appear on his album “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” released later in 1964, was also debuted at this concert.

A review of the concert by Dennis Riley in the Rocky Mountain News on February 16 noted that “Denver’s younger generation flocked to the Auditorium Theater Saturday night to hear singer Bob Dylan present an informal concert of folk music.” Riley went on to critique Dylan as lacking musical talent and imagination. A man of “routine cliches” that lacks “real feeling.” Riley, who very well could have been standing at the rear of the Satire with the Smothers Brothers hating on Dylan’s style almost four years earlier, continued to write, “Instead of the distinctive folk element contained in songs polished by generations of roving singers, there was to be heard the less refined doggerel of country and western style.”

ANNUAL BOB DYLAN FEST IN DENVER

Since 1964 Bob Dylan continues to pack the houses in Denver and inspires others to celebrate his life and work when he’s not here. Stop in at any coffeehouse for live music or a local dive’s open mic night and you’ll find at least one person with a harmonica rack around their neck performing, whether they want to or not, Dylan style. In May 2015 the 10th Annual Bob Dylan Birthday Tribute Music & Art Show was held at the Oriental Theater on West 44th Ave. On May 17th the 9th Annual All Star Tribute to Bob Dylan took place, with various musician performing, including folksinger Harry Tuft who is often referred to as Denver’s godfather of folk music. Tuft opened the Denver Folklore Center in 1962, now located on South Pearl Street.

Bob Dylan continues to find inspiration as is clear by his work to date. He continues to make it his own. There seems to be no end game and it wouldn’t be wise to expect one. As Dylan noted. “An artist has got to be careful never really to arrive at a place where he thinks he’s “at” somewhere. You always have to realize that you’re constantly in the state of becoming, you know? And, as long as you can stay in that realm, you’ll sort of be all right. I can’t self-analyze my own work, and I wasn’t going to cater to the crowd, because I knew certain people would like it, and certain people didn’t like it. I had gotten in the door when no one was looking. I was in there now, and there was nothing anybody from then on, could ever do about it.”

People everywhere, including in Denver, will for generations to come be inspired by the work of Dylan and the story of Dylan. This article hopefully fills a gap that seemed to be missing from the Dylan story, that being the Denver story, in any detail. Dylan himself has dismissed this gap as hardly memorable, but I beg to differ. I hope you do too. You can find Dylan in Hibbing and Minneapolis and you can find him Greenwich Village. And though it’s only my opinion and I could be right or wrong. You’ll also find him in Denver, 1960.

-Tim Fritz

An edited version of this article appeared in Westword at:  http://www.westword.com/music/passin-through-bob-dylans-ill-fated-summer-in-denver-8007398