Bob Dylan’s Close Encounters with New Jersey

Bob Dylan, who turns 70 on Tuesday, hails from Minnesota and rose to fame playing clubs in Greenwich Village, but he has had several interesting encounters in New Jersey during his seven decades on the planet.

When Dylan came to New York in 1961 at the age of 19, he was determined to meet his musical idol, Woody Guthrie. Since Guthrie had Huntington’s Disease and was hospitalized in Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris County, young Bob found himself traveling to New Jersey to visit his hero. In addition to Greystone, Dylan spent time at the East Orange home of Bob and Sid Gleason, where Guthrie sometimes stayed on weekends.

Among the many Dylan bootleg recordings is a tape recorded at the Gleasons’ house in 1961. Known as “The East Orange Tape,” it includes a song titled “The Story of East Orange, New Jersey,” which Dylan wrote after he had a dream about the city. He also referenced East Orange on his self-titled debut album, ending the song “Talkin’ New York” with the lines: “So long New York. Howdy, East Orange.”

By 1963, Dylan’s career was taking off, and New Jersey once again entered the picture when a rumor began circulating that “Blowin’ In The Wind” had actually been written by a Millburn High School student named Lorre Wyatt. The rumor, which even made it into the pages of Newsweek magazine, apparently stemmed from the fact that Broadside magazine – in a practice that was not unusual for the time – printed the words and music to the song a year before Dylan recorded it.

Wyatt, who was in a local band called the Millburnaires, then played it for his fellow band members, and in attempt to impress them, falsely claimed to have authored the song. The falsehood spread when the group performed the number at high school assembly and one of the band members introduced “Blowin’ In The Wind” as a song written by one of the Millburnaires. Wyatt eventually set the record straight in a 1974 article in New Times magazine.

In 1970, when Dylan was well established as a songwriter and performer, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Princeton University. While it is not unusual for entertainers to receive honorary degrees today, Princeton’s decision to honor Dylan at its 1970 graduation ceremony was somewhat unconventional at the time. Not only did it raise eyebrows among the Ivy League crowd; it also made Dylan uncomfortable.

According to news reports about the ceremony, Dylan initially refused to wear a cap and gown and did not speak directly with any staff or students at the school. Instead, he relayed information through his wife and through singer David Crosby, who had accompanied him on the trip to Princeton. In fact, Dylan found the experience so unsettling that he wrote about it in a song on his next album. “Day of the Locusts” on Dylan’s New Morning album describes the experience of stepping onstage to receive the degree and ends with Dylan expressing relief that the event is behind him as he declares: “Sure was glad to get out of there alive.”

Five years later in 1975, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer from Paterson became the subject of a popular Dylan song. “Hurricane” chronicled Carter’s arrest and conviction on murder charges and helped fuel efforts to have the case retried. Dylan and his entourage performed the song frequently during their Rolling Thunder Revue tour, including a December 7, 1975, show at a state prison in Clinton, N.J., and a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden the following day.

Dylan’s most recent brush with Garden State, however, may be the singer/songwriter’s most unusual experience with the state.

Nearly two years ago, while he was in New Jersey while he was touring with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp, Dylan decided to take a walk in a Long Branch neighborhood. A local homeowner apparently did not recognize him and reported to police that an “eccentric-looking old man” was in the area. The police officer who responded also failed to recognize the singer and refused to believe his claim that he was in fact Bob Dylan – and Dylan had no identification with him to verify his identity. Even after Dylan was put into a police car and driven to the hotel where his tour was headquartered, law enforcement authorities remained incredulous until they were shown his passport.

As details of the escapade came out in the days that followed the incident, the police officer’s reaction proved to be very understandable under the circumstances. In the end, no one was hurt, no one was arrested, and the events that transpired made for an entertaining and amusing story.

Who knows? Perhaps as Dylan celebrates his 70th birthday, he will have a chuckle or two over the incident – or over one of his many other adventures in the always entertaining state of New Jersey.

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