Gorgeous George & Bob Dylan: Hope Comes to Hibbing
After he became a main-event wrestler and then a TV star, George traveled in long Packard and Cadillac limousines, all painted a light purple color that he called “orchid’’—his favorite shade. His valets, the seconds or manservants who tended to him in the arenas, drove. One day in the mid-1950s, The Gorgeous One pulled into a small town called Hibbing, Minnesota. There a struggling teenage musician would feel the full power of the wrestling showman’s charismatic charge.
Robert Zimmerman was scuffling around his hometown, trying to find an audience, along with a working identity. Not yet a folkie, he played Little Richard covers—rock and roll. His bands, the Shadow Blasters and the Golden Chords, could perform at Collier’s BBQ jam sessions, park pavilions and store openings, “but those gigs didn’t pay except maybe for expenses and sometimes not even that,” he writes in his memoir, “Chronicles Volume One.” It was a bleak time, filled with “a lot of waiting, little acknowledgment, little affirmation.” He was at such a loss, that the young man who would become a great war protester talked to his father about , going to West Point, joining the military.
Then Gorgeous George came to town. “I was playing on a makeshift platform in the lobby of the National Guard Armory,” he recounted. He and his band played as loudly as they could. Yet, typically, “no one was paying much attention.” Suddenly, the doors burst open and in came “the great wrestler,” as Dylan calls him. “He roared in like the storm, didn’t go through the backstage area, he came through the lobby of the building and he seemed like forty men. It was Gorgeous George, in all his magnificent glory.
Then The Gorgeous One aimed his “lightning and vitality” directly at the unformed artist in the corner. “He didn’t break stride, but he looked at me, eyes flashing with moonshine. He winked and seemed to mouth the phrase ‘You’re making it come alive.’”
To young, unformed Zimmerman, that look and wink said, “I’m someone special. I’m not like everybody else. And I don’t just accept that, I revel in it. I’ve got it, kid. And you’ve got it, too.” That, Dylan writes, “was all the recognition and encouragement I would need for years to come.” Soon thereafter, Bobby Zimmerman got behind the wheel of a four-door ’57 Chevy and drove to New York City. There he would tell the press entertaining lies worthy of Gorgeous George’s about his upbringing—and he became someone new. He wanted to be a poet, like Dylan Thomas, so he took that name, re-inventing himself—just like George Wagner, the “mighty spirit,’’ as Dylan calls him, who became Gorgeous George.