HIBBING, Minn. - The woman rumored to be the subject of Bob Dylan's song "Girl from the North Country" died last week in California, according to friends and Dylanophiles.
Echo Star Casey, nee Helstrom, was in her late 70s and had lived in California for years, though she stayed in touch with her Hibbing roots. It was as a teenager in the Iron Range city when Casey - described as "striking" with white-blonde hair and dark eye makeup, the Brigitte Bardot of Hibbing - dated the eccentric folk singer, then a classmate at Hibbing High School.
Linda Stroback Hocking, former owner of the Dylan-centric restaurant Zimmy's, said she heard about her friend Casey's death from a close relative. She did not have details, but said the maybe-muse had been unable to travel to Minnesota in recent years. John Bushey, local Dylan-head and 20-plus-year host of the Dylan-centric radio show "Highway 61 Revisited," also confirmed the death. Her Wikipedia page has been updated to indicate that she died in 2018.
Helstrom and Dylan were more than boyfriend and girlfriend, according to classmate Susan Beasy Latto. The two were like-minded and different from others in the 300-plus class of 1959. Dylan had a motorcycle; Helstrom was the beauty, dramatic with Scandinavian features.
"I think they were girlfriend-boyfriend, plus really good friends," Latto said. "They saw themselves, I think, as having a special understanding. They were far from the madding crowd. They were different from other folks. ... They were soul mates, I really think they were."
Hocking met Casey during one of her return trips to Hibbing. The restaurant, which was filled with Dylan memorabilia, featured an image of Casey opposite of Dylan on the marquee.
"We loved her," Hocking said. "She was a beautiful and artistic human. We had some real special memories with her and we considered her a good friend. It's sad news, really."
Hocking said Casey summoned her and her husband, Bob, to Zimmy's during a visit home to see her older sister Martha in the early 2000s.
"She called my staff and said, 'I want to talk to Linda and Bob,' " Hocking recalled. Tell them it's Echo, Casey had added.
Casey moved to California when she was in her 20s, Hocking said. She worked as a secretary at the movie studios. She had one daughter, who declined an interview.
It's long been rumored that Casey was the subject of Dylan's song "Girl from the North Country," chatter that also includes Bonnie Beecher, a woman he knew while briefly living in Minneapolis, or ex-girlfriend Suze Rotolo.
Bushey, known widely for his Dylan knowledge, said: "I'd say it's probably (about) Echo."
Hocking agrees. She said the line "Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline" have to refer to Hibbing - or maybe Duluth.
Casey also thought she was the "Girl from the North Country," according to Latto, who remembered talking about the song with her at their 10-year class reunion.
"I said, 'You know, Echo - 'Girl from the North Country,' I think he wrote that song about you.' She said, 'I think he did, too,' " she recalled Casey responding. "I remember that very clearly."
Robert Shelton's book "No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan," includes an interview with Casey from 1968 where she talks about her time with Dylan. Shelton describes her as sitting on the sofa of her Minneapolis apartment, smoking a cigarette with a well-manicured hand.
"One thing that always surprised me was that Bobby ever had anything to do with me, because I was from the other side of the tracks," she told Shelton. "He was a nice Hibbing boy and I was from out of town. He was rich folk and we were poor folk. He was Jewish and we were German, Swedish, Russian and Irish all mixed together."
Her mother, Martha Helstrom, also spoke with Shelton. "Well, it's about time someone gave my Echo a little credit for what she did for Bob," she reportedly said. "She was hurt by the whole thing, but she loved Bob enough to let him go."
In a 1986 interview with the Duluth News Tribune, Dylan mentioned his former girlfriend. Asked by the News Tribune's Bob Ashenmacher whether he still heard from her, Dylan smiled and replied: "I see her occasionally."
According to Hocking, Casey maintained a special relationship with Hibbing. She had grown up on the outskirts of town, with a single wood stove.
"We said to her, 'How do you feel when you come back to Hibbing?' " Hocking said. "We were fully expecting her to say, 'I don't miss it.' Instead she said, 'You know when you hear about people who will travel to Mecca and they go there looking for something spiritual, something that touches them in their soul and that they can connect with? I feel that way every time I come home to Hibbing. There's something here that's magical. I can't explain it. I have a spiritual connection (with it).'
"I get chills telling you that," Hocking added.