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Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown

Every day is the same thing out the door

Feel further away then ever before

Some things in life, it gets too late to learn

Well, I'm lost somewhere

I must have made a few bad turns

I see people in the park forgetting their troubles and woes

They're drinking and dancing, wearing bright colored clothes

All the young men with their young women looking so good

Well, I'd trade places with any of them

In a minute, if I could

Bob Dylan, “Highlands”

Well, undoubtedly you’ve heard the story. Wandering around  Long Branch, NJ on July 23rd, while taking a walk before his concert tour, police apprehended the nation’s most prolific and gifted singer-songwriter after homeowners called to report a strange man standing in their lawn.

The owners called Bob Dylan an “eccentric-looking old man,” and one of them followed him as he left the yard and continued to walk down the street. The phone call to 911 led a 24 year-old police officer, Kristie Buble, to respond. “We got a call for a suspicious person,” she told the press. “It was pouring rain outside, and I was right around the corner….I asked him what he was doing in the neighborhood and he said he was looking at a house for sale.” Buble asked his name, and he responded promptly, “Bob Dylan.”

First reports that she had never heard of him and didn’t know what he looked like were incorrect. Buble did know of him, but had only seen photos from decades earlier, and hence, she said, “he didn’t look like Bob Dylan to me at all.”  Besides, he was “wearing black sweatpants tucked into black rain boots, and two raincoats with the hood pulled down over his head.” Anyone who knows about Dylan’s desire for privacy knows, in fact, that even on nice warm sunny days, he often wears a sweatshirt with a hood, so his distinctive give-away hair is hidden and he can go unnoticed in major cities, like “a complete unknown.”

Of course, when Dylan told the officer, and another cop who had arrived, that he was giving a concert with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp, they didn’t believe it. “We see a lot of people on our beat,” she said, “and I wasn’t sure if he came from one of our hospitals or something. He was acting very suspicious,” and couldn’t produce an ID when asked for one. Dylan might have said, as he did in song:

Ain't talkin', just walkin'

Walkin' ever since the other night

Heart burnin', still yearnin'

Walkin' ‘til I'm clean out of sight

As I walked out in the mystic garden

On a hot summer day, hot summer lawn

Excuse me, ma'am I beg your pardon

There's no one here, the gardener is gone

Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’”

But, the police officer noted, Dylan was extremely nice and polite, so she drove him to the hotel parking lot where the tour buses were parked, and finally after knocking on the door of one of the buses, was handed Dylan’s passport with his photo. She sheepishly apologized, telling Dylan to “have a nice day.”

Dylan had been through this drill before . A few years ago, when he was recording one of his recent albums at a Miami Beach studio, he was staying in a 5 star South Beach resort hotel. As he came back in during a daytime outing, the doorman refused him entry, saying that only guests could stay there. When he responded that he was a guest, the doorman still wouldn’t admit him.  Only when the manager was called and a staff person from the recording session was found, did they let him in. At another time in October of 2001, he was not allowed backstage to one of his own concerts in Oregon because the security people refused to believe he was Bob Dylan.  Obviously, anonymity has its price.

Not only does Dylan roam through communities “masked and anonymous,” he often acts as their benefactor. As Sean Curnyn points out on his wonderful Dylan website, where he links to a report by Ronnie Keohane, Dylan has recently gone out of his way to give back to communities in which he has appeared, particularly poor communities. He evidently researches the needs of places where he plays, and following Deuteronomy 24.21, (the grapes gathered from your vineyard “shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow,” ) leaves a good deal of his tour profits behind for the local community.  As Curnyn adds, when Dylan played in  Belfast in 2004, he visited sick children in the local hospital, singing for them and giving out harmonicas. The kids had no idea who he was, although one of them evidently said that they thought he was someone famous, because “he was wearing a cowboy hat.”

So what is the lesson, if any, of this now famous incident? Some have said that had Dylan been black,  he would have suffered the fate of “Skip” Gates at his arrest by Officer Crowley. But Dylan was walking in a predominantly African-American community, and the call probably came from a black homeowner who was worried when he saw the strange looking man on his lawn. He did not say- as some Hollywood types might have- “What? You don’t know who I am? I can’t believe it. Fuck you! My people will sue the ass off you when this is over!” As Curnyn writes, “instead of making some kind of angry stand, he simply cooperated to the fullest extent possible with the police, and allowed himself to be detained in a de facto way (of-course he was never arrested as such and there was no crime in question).”  The cops did the right thing. Again, Curnyn says, “This was not a case of someone being arrested for committing a crime, but rather it was a case of police responding to a citizen’s complaint, finding what appeared to be an oddly behaving character on the scene, and having the character then claim to be a world-famous individual.”

So, will President Barack Obama now convene a get-together for a beer, with Kristie Buble and Bob Dylan?  At least this time, we’ll be spared, largely because Bob Dylan acted responsibly, and did not turn it into a cause célèbre; it took days for the story to get out-almost two weeks after the incident occurred.

Well, as Bobby says in his most recent album in part of a stanza:

Cop cars blinking, something bad going down

Buildings are crumbling in the neighborhood

But there's nothing to worry about, 'cause it's all good

It's all good

They say it's all good

Bob Dylan, “It’s All Good”

This time, on July 23rd, it was all good.