Magazine article The New Yorker

ANOTHER SIDE OF BOB DYLAN Series: 2/6

Magazine article The New Yorker

ANOTHER SIDE OF BOB DYLAN Series: 2/6

Article excerpt

Among the empty-handed painters and seasick sailors who will be going to see Bob Dylan perform this week at Madison Square Garden is a fifty-six-year-old New York Law School professor named Michael Perlin, who has written a dozen books and more than a hundred and fifty articles on mental-disability law. For the past six years, he has named almost all of his articles after Dylan lyrics--see " 'What's Good Is Bad, What's Bad Is Good, You'll Find Out When You Reach the Top, You're on the Bottom': Are the Americans with Disabilities Act (and Olmstead v. L.C.) Anything More than 'Idiot Wind'?" (University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, Fall 2001-Winter 2002). Perlin believes that Dylanhas had a lot to say about the law over the years, and that Dylan's songs lay out an entire system of legal philosophy--a jurisprudence of Bob Dylan, if you will--which Perlin has set out to decipher and, of course, publish one day in a reputable journal.

Other academics have taken on similar projects over the years: there is a jurisprudence of William Shakespeare, of "Billy Budd," and of Yogi Berra. Such exercises tend to depend on sophistry and showmanship, but Perlin is serious. "It's not a goof," he said the other day, in his office on Worth Street. "It's scholarship I enjoy doing." Perlin has gray hair and a neat gray beard and a very messy office, the door to which is covered with printouts of memorable Dylan set lists. In conversation, he regularly cites Dylan lyrics as if they were case law. While discussing Atkins v. Virginia and the question of whether a mentally retarded person can be executed, Perlin might suddenly declare, "Life is in mirrors, death disappears up the steps into the nearest bank" (see "Political World").

Professor Perlin's story is a familiar one: he first saw Dylan at Gerde's Folk City, in the Village, in 1963--Dylan passed the hat around, Perlin tossed in a quarter, and Dylan said, "Thanks, man." ("That is the extent of my dialogue with Bob.") He stopped listening during the born-again era, then started again in 1989, with the release of "Oh Mercy." His kids, who are in college, like Dylan, too.

Perlin began applying the law to Dylan (or vice versa) in 1996, a year after the trial of the Long Island Rail Road murderer Colin Ferguson, who represented himself in court. "I watched the whole trial on tape," Perlin said. …

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