Saturday, August 15, 2009

Like a Complete Unknown, Indeed

Of all the memorable songs Bob Dylan has penned over the years, the most indelible may be “Like a Rolling Stone.”

“How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?”

The song went to number two on the charts in 1965, a pre-digital era when Top 40 was almost synonymous with name recognition

Bob Dylan is 68 now, and he’s still one of the most famous people in the world.

On July 23, however, he was stopped by police and asked for identification in Long Branch, a town on the Jersey Shore about a two-hour drive south of New York City. On tour with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp, Dylan was scheduled to play a baseball stadium in nearby Lakewood, and − as he later told police − had gone out to look at houses to pass some time before that night’s show.

Someone called police with a report of suspicious activity. Two officers in their twenties responded and asked Dylan for his ID. When he did not have it on him, they accompanied him back to the resort where the musicians were staying, and tour staff vouched for him.

The press accounts from AP and CNN quite naturally reached back for Dylan’s own lyrics to emphasize the irony of the event. The famous Dylan, whose garbage was ransacked at one point by one fan looking for interpretive clues to Dylan’s often-cryptic lyrics, had been treated like a complete unknown, just as it says in his song.

The eerie thing to me is that this occurred less than a month after someone in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called the police on the noted African American scholar Henry Louis Gates, who had been trying to get into his own house without his keys. When Gates became combative with the responding officers, he was charged with disorderly conduct − a charge that was later dropped. This incident led to the high-profile “beer summit” between Gates, the arresting officer, and President Obama to discuss the problem of racial profiling.

Fortunately, no beer summit was necessarily to resolve the Dylan matter. One wonders, though, whether the episode will find itself reflected in a song

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