Dylan, up close and impersonal
I’ve always had a knack for spotting celebrities. This might sound vacuous, but for me, running into a celebrity just makes a day feel somewhat special. Whether it’s someone I don’t particularly care about (Hugh Grant at a bookstore in Los Angeles) or someone I do (novelist Lawrence Durrell alone in an empty café in Paris), there’s always a mild sense of visitation. Celebrities are, after all, as close as most of us come to having gods. And occasionally you see one who really is kind of a god.
That happened to me at the junction of Bleecker Street and Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village. It was a cold January afternoon in 1983, one day after a snowfall, and the streets were turning syrupy with slush. As I crossed at the light, an unmistakable profile grazed the corner of my left eye: Bob Dylan had just walked past me.
He was wearing a fur hat, a black leather jacket, and brown corduroy pants tucked inside knee-high motorcycle boots. Head down against the cold, hands jammed into jacket pockets, he walked away with a slow, rolling stride. It was like watching him walk into one of his own album covers.
Four months later, I saw him again. I was crossing the street at Columbus Circle uptown, and once more the familiar profile grazed my left eye. This time, Dylan was with two children—his own, presumably—and though it was a warm spring evening, he was dressed in the same pants, boots, jacket, and voluminous fur hat. Emboldened by the fact that I had now seen him twice, I turned around and followed him.
I watched from a distance as he said goodbye to his children at the subway entrance. Then, as he walked toward me, I jumped from the shadows. Not sure how to address him (“Bob” seemed too hippie-ish and familiar; “Mr. Dylan” ridiculously formal), I just started talking. I explained, as if it could be of any conceivable interest to him, how I had passed him in the Village four months earlier. You know: the street intersection, the profile, the left eye—it was, like, fate, man.
Amazingly, Dylan stopped and actually listened. Leaning against a wall, he took a pack of Benson & Hedges from his leather jacket and offered me one. He lit my cigarette, then held the flame of his brass lighter up to his own, which gave me a moment to study his face. I found it compellingly strange. Under the fur hat, Dylan looked about as metropolitan as a Cossack. He might have just come back from the “wild unknown country” he sings about in “Isis.”
We spoke for a few minutes. I remember almost nothing Dylan said, perhaps because he didn’t actually say anything. He simply listened to me babble (“I saw your show at Earl’s Court,” “I love your records,” etcetera, etcetera). When our cigarettes had burned down, he politely put an end to the one-sided conversation, mumbling something like, “It was good talking to you,” and backed away slowly, hands in front of his chest, palms out.
It was a gesture of conciliation, of fear, and suddenly I realized that Dylan was scared of being shot, just as John Lennon had been shot a mere 14 blocks north of where we were standing. He continued backing off from me like that for a yard or two, and then he abruptly turned and walked away, heading west into the darkness of 58th Street.
I was reminded of our encounter a few years ago, while reading a USA Today interview in which Dylan spoke on the subject of celebrity. “It mortifies me to even think that I am a celebrity,” Dylan told the interviewer. Then he explained why:
“By being a celebrity you lose your anonymity. It short-circuits your creative powers when people come up and interrupt your train of thought. They consider you completely approachable. And you can’t be rude to people, so basically you shut yourself down. I know I do. I shut myself down when people come up and want to shake my hand or want to talk. That’s just dead time.”
Reprinted from L.A. Weekly (May 18, 2001). Subscriptions: $70/yr. (52 issues) from Box 4315, Los Angeles, CA 90078.