Well, one post isn’t going to be sufficient on this story of Bob Dylan’s encounter with the Long Branch police department on July 23rd, 2009. If you think that it caused controversy when Bob Dylan went electric, it’s seems to be nothing compared to the roiling set in motion by his getting picked up while out taking a gander at some houses in New Jersey. Chris Francescani’s story at ABC remains the best I’ve seen on the whole incident, and taking a look at the readers’ comments which are attached to it is guaranteed to make your head spin right off.
What was he doing, anyway? I’m still far more fascinated by the events themselves, rather than what Dylan’s purpose was in being there, but there is speculation including by Mary at BabyBlueOnline that he may have been searching out the roots of another musical friend (as in his recent visits to Neil Young’s and John Lennon’s childhood homes). Could be.
On the other hand, the whole point is that he doesn’t need an excuse or justification to just take a walk, in the United States of America. He doesn’t need to carry identification while out perambulating either. Dylan knows these things very well (in the last post I quoted lines from his film Masked and Anonymous that highlight questions of freedom such as these, and it’s quite ironic that in the end here Dylan’s identity was demonstrated by his actual “stinkin’ passport”!). Yet, 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).
Just say it wasn’t a trip intended to search out anyone’s childhood home. Say he just wanted to walk away from the concert tour hubbub and clear his head (even if it was in the rain). He walked around and looked at houses, in what happened to be a “low-income, predominantly minority neighborhood,” as the AP described it. Such a thing might have appeared bizarre in a place where people likely drive everywhere they need to go, and where the appearance of houses does not seem worthy of any focused attention. But take a look at Dylan’s “Drawn Blank” series of sketches and paintings, and it’s easy enough to see that he can take an artist’s interest in things that appear quite ordinary to the average person’s eye. Indeed, that’s a lot of what being an artist is all about, isn’t it? So, maybe what happened on July 23rd amounts to a guy being “picked up for walking while being an artist.”
Lest this sound like I’m joining those who are condemning Officer Kristie Buble for being some kind of constitution-shredding storm-trooper: I am not. The comparisons to the Gates/Crowley case (which I wrote about at this link) are many and are valid. In this case too, a police officer was responding to a complaint telephoned in by someone in the neighborhood, who saw a strange old man walking around in the rain peering at houses and for whatever reason felt concerned or threatened. Should the police ignore such a call? Buble was nearby, drove up, and asked the guy who he was and what he was doing. She asked. No law against asking a question, even if you are a cop. The man was entitled to refuse to answer and to challenge her to make a case out of it. Or, he could have answered but done so with loud anger and recrimination, yelling about his rights etc. He chose a different approach.
One thing that surprised me (and perhaps some others out there) most of all when I first read the story was the mere fact that Dylan admitted to being Bob Dylan right off the bat. That sounds funny, but I would have thought that he might be tempted to say, “Uh, I’m Frank Smith, and I’m just out taking a walk.” Try to avoid a lot of razzmatazz. But obviously Bob is smarter than me. He didn’t hesitate to just tell the plain truth of who he was. And when the truth wasn’t accepted, he just agreed to the request to get into the back of the police car and (as reported in Francescani’s story) told the cop that he understood why she had to take him to the hotel and verify his identity. He merely asked, amiably, if she might afterwards drive him back to where he had been picked up! (This, apparently, did not happen. Too bad, but it was probably too late for more house-gandering by then anyway.)
Some people commenting on the story seem to be assuming that Dylan was on his way to some kind of terrible unjustified punishment, had he not been proven to be Dylan (or if the man picked up in this way wasn’t Dylan to begin with). (If you get my drift.) That displays a failure to understand how police do their work on a daily basis, and the kinds of things they have to handle. 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. What do police do in such a situation? Wave bye-bye and good luck, and wait for the next call to come when said individual is perhaps found lying face down in a ditch? No. A responsible police officer does what a police officer is trained to do: ascertain the facts of the situation, provide assistance to someone who is in need and protect the public safety.
If the rain-soaked old guy had turned out in fact not to have tour buses at the hotel, and not to have a harmonica to his name, then the police officer would have wanted to find out who he might actually be, if he had a place to stay, or if he in fact required shelter or indeed psychiatric attention. These kinds of things happen every day; indeed, many times a day in urban environments. There’s no reason to think he would have been tossed in jail on trumped-up charges with the key tossed in the garbage. But some people prefer to conjure false outrage rather than to take a moment to empathize with the police.
Bob Dylan, on July 23rd last, was not one of those people.
By the way, you’ve got to wonder if that drive to the hotel in the back of the police cruiser looked and sounded anything like this: