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
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