A few years ago, I was visiting my daughter in Lakewood, New Jersey, home of the renowned Lakewood Yeshiva, when I noticed a peculiar item in the local newspaper. Bob Dylan, scheduled to appear at a baseball stadium in Lakewood as part of a tour with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp, was accosted by a 24-year old policeman who arrested him for vagrancy. It seems that a resident had called the police and stated that a man was wandering around a low-income neighborhood looking at houses. When asked for his identification, he said “Bob Dylan,” but the police officer at the scene did not recognize the name. Dylan was apparently walking around looking at houses passing away the time before that evening’s show. The officers then asked Dylan, 68, to return with them to the hotel where the performers were staying, and there the tour staff vouched for him.
As a teenager, I grew up in the shadow of the great Elvis Presley, so Bob Dylan was never one of my musical icons. But as I grew older and my musical tastes became more eclectic, I began to pay attention to his music, especially his early material, which is why I was drawn to No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, a fascinating documentary about Dylan’s genesis as a musical icon in America. As I watched the narrative develop with early footage of his career interspersed with a present-day interview, I made several observations. Dylan was a very curious and bright young man, totally disconnected from his home town mid-western environment. It was when he came to New York City that he flowered musically, for here he met other poetic and musical originals who shared his quest for artistic growth. He was awed by their talent and integrity. Over time, however, he truly saw himself as a “one-of-a-kind” artist, who didn’t need to answer to anyone. Other people’s opinions did not matter to him. What was important was to be honest with himself. He confesses that his early lyrics made him a hero to the civil rights and anti-war movement, but these political movements did not drive his art. His art was driven by his musical instincts. In fact, the movie includes footage of him being booed by the audience for performing electric rather than acoustic material. But he didn’t care what the audience thought. He listened to the sound of his own drummer. Moreover, he finds it absurd that celebrities are even asked their political opinions since they know nothing about such matters. For him, silence makes more sense than dangling political conversations that go nowhere.
Which brings me to a Torah perspective that is embedded in this movie. Our Sages tell us that one of the pillars upon which the world is based is emet, truth or honesty. Whether one agrees with Dylan or not, one certainly will admit that this film portrays him as an honest person in an industry full of pomposity and posturing. Moreover, his story reminds us that fame is illusive the more one pursues it. Dylan did not pursue fame in a conscious way; he pursued music and its varied expressions and fame came to him. This is what our Sages clearly tell us in the Ethics of the Fathers: “he who seeks fame loses it (Avot 1:13).The implicit message is to focus on being the best you can be and rewards will eventually come.
As I reflected on the movie, I began to appreciate more and more Dylan’s musical genius and his uncompromising integrity. At the end of the day, I understand why the police officer probably did not recognize him. The policeman was born many years after Dylan dominated the musical landscape and Dylan himself did nothing to promote his artistry other than write and sing songs. He did not rely on a publicist; rather it was his music that spoke for him. In this sense, we can learn from this musical master. Perhaps if we are true to ourselves and do not look for recognition, we can make our best contribution to the world and notoriety will come to us. Furthermore, by rejoicing in our own uniqueness, we can celebrate the special gifts of others who collectively enrich the artistic environment.