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DYLAN ROCKS THE HOLY LAND

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The tourists in the lobby of the plush beachfront hotel were the only ones who seemed to notice the muffled sound. It seemed like the rumble of a distant vacuum cleaner.

Even as the noise grew louder, the hotel staff showed little concern. The sound, however, eventually became so ominous that the guests turned anxiously to a large picture window to see what was going on.

An elderly German woman, just back from a day of sightseeing in Jerusalem, gasped as a huge military helicopter roared into view. The Israeli chopper briefly hovered 100 yards from the hotel, violating the gorgeous, late-evening view of the Mediterranean, then sped away.

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Back home, the tourists--including some of the Bob Dylan troupe--wouldn’t have paid any more attention to the helicopter than the hotel staff.

But this was the volatile Middle East, and Israeli warplanes the day before had bombed Palestinian guerrilla bases in southern Lebanon, barely 50 miles away.

More than 40 people were killed in what was described as the deadliest Israeli raid since 1982. For much of the day, guests nervously traded information about the incident--"Did you know a jet fighter can pass over the whole of Israel in a single minute?”

In the days to come, the helicopter fright would turn into a private joke as politicians, fans and photographers chased after Dylan with their secret agendas.

After years of admiring the independence of rock’s most acclaimed songwriter, who was making his first appearances here, they all wanted Bob Dylan to jump through a hoop for them. Photographers wanted photos and politicians wanted to wine and dine him. By refusing all overtures, Dylan turned what was supposed to be a warm, nostalgic celebration of his music into a tempest.

Before leaving, a member of the touring party would recall the hovering helicopter and wisecrack about the local politicians and photographers, “I didn’t think they’d go that far to get Bob.”

Despite the nation’s frenzied fascination with his arrival (some saw it as the performer’s stamp of approval on Israel), Dylan downplayed the significance of his visit.

“I wish people here well, but it’s not like this show is my biggest goal of the year or anything. My biggest goal of the year is getting back home alive.” He laughed.

ANGRY CHARGES OF ‘SNUBS, TRICKS’

Like the hotel staff, Avi Valdman, 24, an Israeli news photographer who was in the lobby, showed little emotion when the massive chopper buzzed the hotel.

Valdman remembers hiding for days in makeshift bomb shelters in an Israeli village when he was 4. He also recalls his mother taping the windows of his house during the Yom Kippur war in 1973 to help prevent the glass being shattered by bomb blasts.

“Those are memories that stay with you,” says Valdman, who served in the Israeli army during the controversial 1982 Lebanese invasion. Yet he speaks about the memories matter of factly, an accepted part of life in this embattled Jewish homeland.

Valdman wasn’t as stoic when talking about Bob Dylan. He and a colleague had been staking out the hotel for three days trying to get a photo of Dylan.

By all accounts, Dylan’s two shows in Israel were the most eagerly anticipated pop concerts in the young nation’s history--doubly emotional because of the unusually strong effect the songwriter’s socially conscious music has had on residents here and the Jewish roots he shares with them. (Dylan, who was born Robert Zimmerman in 1941 and raised in a middle-class Jewish family in Minnesota, startled his followers in the late ‘70s by professing to be a “born-again” Christian.)

“As a misplaced American, I see Dylan’s visit like the American Jew-boy coming home,” said TV documentarian David Ehrlich, a yarmulke under his blue N.Y. Mets baseball cap.

Yet the elusive rock icon had slipped into the hotel undetected and had holed up in his room, contrary to reports from local promoters that he--like other visiting rock stars--would go to the sound check, do a television interview and pose for photographers.

“Why is he playing these games?” Valdman asked, impatiently. “Why does he keep everybody guessing? Why doesn’t he just let us take his picture and be over with it? Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) was just here and he was a gentleman. He told us that he would let us take his picture for 10 minutes if we promised to give him some peace after that and everybody was happy. But Dylan tricks everybody.”

The photographers weren’t the only ones upset. There would also be complaints in the press following Dylan’s five-day stay that he “snubbed” the Israeli foreign minister, canceled a visit to the sacred Western Wall, failed to show up for a Sabbath meal in his honor, did not turn up for a guided tour of Tel Aviv and the Dead Sea area with Mayor Shlomo Lahat and missed an appearance on a national TV talk show.

Though accustomed to controversy, Dylan seemed sufficiently disturbed by the lingering press hostility that he asked media consultant Elliot Mintz to clarify the situation.

In a statement issued after Dylan’s visit, Mintz declared: “The fact of the matter is that Bob Dylan never agreed to any of these appearances. His management firm in Los Angeles notified the local promoter in Israel that Bob would be coming to the country to do his shows and then continue with his European concert dates. At no time did he express any willingness to participate in any other events.”

Dylan himself added, “I don’t do these kinds of things, meeting dignitaries and stuff. Television’s not my thing, so I wouldn’t do that either. I can’t see why everybody’d get so mad over somethin’ that never would have happened.”

SIGNS OF HOME AT EVERYTURN

It took 19 hours to fly from Los Angeles to Cairo to hook up with the Dylan/Tom Petty tour, but only an hour to fly “home.”

Though nearly midnight when the El Al flight carrying the group arrived at Ben Gurion Airport here (minus Dylan, who traveled from Egypt by bus), the differences between this modern, highly westernized city and the primitive, weather-beaten Cairo were immediately apparent.

Familiar sights and sounds--from clean, palm-tree-lined boulevards to the fact that almost everyone spoke English--made it seem so much like home that it was easy to forget the danger associated with this war-torn region. The only question, band members joked during their five-day stay here, was whether Tel Aviv--with its row of beachfront hotels--was more like Miami Beach or Atlantic City.

How bad can things be when you are staying at a hotel where you can order a hamburger 24 hours a day, buy a $9,000 woman’s coat in the lobby fur shop or step across the street for a cocktail at a trendy, California-styled open-air bistro called Sunset Boulevard?

If the hotel wasn’t enough sign of home, you could go out for burgers and fries at the local version of McDonald’s--MacDavid’s.

This weekend, however, wasn’t just a “homecoming” for the traveling rock stars. Fans, too, spoke about Dylan’s appearances as a homecoming of sorts.

Dylan’s visit was an especially warm, nostalgic moment for the thousands of American expatriates who came here in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, frequently with Dylan albums in hand, in search of the idealism outlined in his music.

Hundreds of Israeli youth welcomed the sold-out concerts as the chance for a symbolic embrace with the spirit of the American ‘60s, a time with which they identify strongly. Frustrated by government policies and the hawk-like tendencies of the 1982 Lebanese invasion--widely equated here with America’s involvement in Vietnam--these Israelis echo the discontentment of American youth two decades ago.

Often a reporter, when covering a concert, has to talk to a dozen people before finding one with deeply emotional connection to the performer. Everyone approached at the two Dylan concerts, however, had a story to tell.

Ask them about Dylan and they spoke about their hopes and ideals, their views of America and the state of the American Dream, and about the pride and frustrations they feel about their own country. They spoke about how Dylan songs have been a comfort and inspiration to them.

Even Avi Valdman, the irate photographer at the hotel, mentioned that he had was so moved, following his own Army experience, by Dylan’s “Masters of War,” that he had the lyrics translated into Hebrew and hung on his wall.

Summarized magazine editor Ron Maiberg: “Dylan is something we grew up with. I hate to put it in mythical terms, because he is just a guy who writes good music and lyrics, but most of the songs seem to be telling me a lot. For me, he was my own personal sound track for many things happening in my life, including the army and the ’73 war and when we were living in the kibbutz and dreaming of the future. He was always on the record player . . . always being played in the background.”

This testimony, typical of the intense feelings associated with Dylan over the years, is especially revealing at a time when rock music continues to be under attack from so many fronts: fundamentalist pastors, parental watchdog groups and, now, a best-selling professor (University of Chicago Prof. Allen Bloom, author of “The Closing of the American Mind”).

Unable to distinguish between the crass, exploitative side of rock and the artful, inspiring edges of the music’s most substantial writers and performers, they brand all rock as destructive and berate teen-agers for listening to it.

Dylan’s influence underscores the powerful and profound way rock music can touch people. It also serves to counter the great malaise of our times: the idea of the helplessness of the individual. Listening to these fans halfway around the world, you see just how much difference one artist can still make in our lives.

‘THE NEW YORK OF THE MIDDLE EAST’

The morning sky the day before the Dylan/Petty concert at Hayarkon Park was as picture-perfect as a Kodak ad. Standing outside the Daniel Hotel, where Dylan and Petty were headquartered, David Ehrlich’s mood was equally glowing.

Ehrlich, who works for New York-owned Jerusalem Video Services, was standing by with a crew to follow Petty for an MTV documentary. But Ehrlich, 32, was already thinking ahead three days when he was due in Jerusalem to film Dylan.

“This is going to be (Jerusalem mayor) Teddy Kollek’s pride and glory, having Dylan play in Jerusalem,” he said, “because Dylan is probably the most well-known Jewish musician in the world, probably one of the most well-known Jews for that matter.” (Erhlich said Kollek had hoped to give Dylan a tour of Jerusalem, accompanied by Erhlich whose footage could then be used, among other things, to promote tourism here. But the tour never materialized.)

Ehrlich counts himself among the roughly 60,000 Americans who relocated here in the last 20 years, drawn by the prospect of life in a less hectic and, they imagined, less materialistic society.

“For me, it was strickly a matter of idealism,” he said, standing in front of the hotel in Herzliya-on-Sea, a fashionable resort area just north of Tel Aviv. “There’s no other reason to leave New York to come to Israel. You’ve got to have something inside that makes you want to come here. I feel as a Jewish person that this is where I belong. This is ours . . . our country.”

Ironically, Ehrlich found Tel Aviv a city that wanted nothing more than to be New York. “Look at the signs in town,” he grumbled. “You’ll find pizzeria in Hebrew. That’s why I hate it here. I didn’t leave New York to live in New York of the Middle East. I much prefer Jerusalem. It is much calmer. People are happy with less.”

Like many who have moved to Israel, however, Ehrlich feels ties to America, including a desire each year to celebrate the Fourth of July. But that attachment isn’t shared by his children, who were born here.

“When I told my daughter last July 4 that it was Independence Day, she looked at me funny and said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘America’s Independence Day’ and she said, ‘But I am Israeli'--and it’s true.”

UNPRECEDENTED MEDIA INTEREST

Like New York, Tel Aviv prides itself in being a city that never sleeps. Dizengoff Street, the main commercial street, is the equivalent of a well-scrubbed Times Square, all aglow with neon signs that advertise hundreds of shops and restaurants--including, invariably, the New York Delicatessen, whose meals are supervised by the Tel Aviv Chief Rabbinate.

Western pop is extremely popular, with predictable stars like Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince the current raves--though Dylan’s albums sell well.

Because there was no suitable concert facility until the recently opened Hayarkon Park, major pop acts rarely played here. The opening of the park--a large, sprawling grounds with temporary fences erected to designate the concert area--has led to a series of shows, including Tina Turner, Dire Straits, the Pretenders and Eurythmics. Dylan’s appearance caused by far the most media interest.

Ron Maiberg, editor of a flashy, highly opinionated monthly magazine called Montin, is a huge Dylan fan, but even he was “grossed out” by the endless media splash.

Sitting in his comfortable apartment in a modest residential area, the bearded Maiberg said: “The press reaction has been unprecedented: memoirs of so-called friends from the past; kibbutz members where Dylan supposedly applied in the ‘70s; someone saying he donated money to the JDL (Jewish Defense League) and someone else denying it. It has been like a huge tennis match in which everybody tossed the ball back and forth saying, ‘Here’s my piece of Dylan.’ ”

Though Israeli-born, Maiberg spent several years in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s in San Francisco as a film major at the Art Institute. He was also accepted by the American Film Institute, but his education was interrupted by his father’s illness, which forced him to come back home. The success of his magazine fails to dampen his longing for the States.

“You have to go there,” he said, “if you are interested in doing something on a large scale.”

Like most people interviewed, the bearded editor didn’t think the question of Dylan’s current religion was an issue. (Since his much-publicized “born-again” Christian phase, Dylan has not commented on his beliefs. Asked during a Tel Aviv interview about his religion, Dylan said simply, “I don’t want to talk about that.”).

What does concern Maiberg--whose record collection contains many ragged copies of Dylan albums that he has carried with him to San Francisco and back--is Dylan’s politics, at least the sentiments Maiberg sees in the song “Neighborhood Bully.” The 1983 composition has been widely interpreted as support for Israel’s military actions.

Though not a widely known Dylan song, “Neighborhood Bully” is a point of controversy among some long-time Dylan observers here. Maiberg sees it as right-wing. “It portrays Israel as a helpless neighbor in a neighborhood full of bullies, which is a very right-wing political view here and it depresses me that Dylan is speaking for them.”

Another prominent journalist here, however, thinks Maiberg is overreacting. Robert Rosenberg, an American who has lived here more than a dozen years, has written for numerous U.S. publications, including Playboy and Esquire.

About “Neighborhood Bully,” he said: “I have a good friend who has written a couple of books about Israel and he said one of the problems is that Israel is a good kid in a bad neighborhood. And what happens in that situation is that you have to learn to be a little tough.

“Maiberg is right. It’s a right-wing song in strictly Israeli jargon, but I can understand completely how Dylan, visiting here, takes a look around at the region . . . at the vulnerability of the country and says, ‘Yeah, you’ve got to be a neighborhood bully to survive.’ It is not an unnatural reaction.”

Dylan didn’t fuel the argument, omitting the song in both Israeli shows. Asked about it, he later said: “I don’t know if that song even comes close to the problems pertaining to this country. I don’t know if it was about any one certain thing. You could use Israel, I guess, as a place to start from, but I’m sure there was more intended than that, including the atmosphere in the States.

“I find very unrealistic . . . in terms of the rights of a person to defend his own self. More and more, you see it is the victim who seems to be getting punished, and that’s wrong.”

Rosenberg, 35, was one of the early arrivals at Dylan’s Hayarkon Park concert. Accompanied by his wife and young daughter, he sat on the grass outside the fence with hundreds of other fans who were eager for choice locations near the front of the stage.

Nearby, a group of fans sat listening to Joel Gilbert, an American who has lived here two years, strum an acoustic guitar and sing Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” When he finished, he handed to guitar to the man next to him, who also played a Dylan tune. Gilbert moved here to be part of “an exciting, developing nation,” a spirit he equated with the America of 50 to 60 years ago.

Mostly, the crowd’s casual dress and upbeat manner seemed little different from the audience that would attend a Dylan show in the States. But there were exceptions: a few dozen of the fans lounging on the grass carried automatic rifles. They weren’t security guards. They were members of the Israeli Army, who take their weapons home with them at the end of each day.

Noted a Tel Aviv taxi driver as he passed a soldier hitchhiking home, his gun slung over his arm: “This is the only country in the world where you go out of your way to stop to pick up a hitch-hiker with a gun.”

DISAPPOINTMENT AT HAYARKON PARK

Everything was in place for a celebration at Hayarkon Park. Ushers handed out candles as the 40,000 fans filed into the concert area, so that the the audience could light them in the manner of U.S. fans. The problem was the ushers didn’t supply matches, so only a few of the candles were actually lit.

When Dylan walked on stage after well-received sets by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and former Byrds leader Roger McGuinn, the crowd pressed forward eagerly.

But Dylan--tired from the 12-hour sightseeing bus trip from Egypt--was listless. He only said a couple of words to the crowd and his choice of songs--which leaned toward obscure tunes like “Joey” and “Senor” rather than familiar anthems like “Like a Rolling Stone"--left the crowd visibly disappointed. The lighting on stage was also dark, making him seem distant and indifferent.

It wasn’t until the encore that the show caught fire, as Dylan delivered two of his best-known tunes--"Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door"--and then surprised everyone with “Go Down Moses,” a traditional song that was cheered as a salute to Israeli independence.

But the encore was too little and too late. Reviews of the show the next day were brutal. Declared one writer, “Robert Zimmerman, your time has passed.”

Afterwards, Tom Petty described the pressure he felt on stage at Hayarkon Park as his band backed Dylan.

“The crowd seemed weird to me,” he said. “The audience wasn’t really helping anybody. They were enthusiastic on one hand, but not on the other. It was as if Bob didn’t do exactly what they wanted him to do, they weren’t going to get behind him. It was like they weren’t going to be satisfied unless he parted the Red Sea for them.”

End Round 1.

DYLAN DIDN’T SAY ‘I MUST PLAY HERE’

Begin Round 2.

In his hotel room the next day, Dylan was curious about the reaction to the show. He played an unidentifiable tune on an acoustic guitar as he nodded knowingly about reports that many fans were disappointed with the song selection--a familiar story for him. He was looking forward to Jerusalem, where he would include a few more of the better-known songs.

“But you don’t want to just get up there and start guessing with the people what they want,” he cautioned. “For one thing, no one agrees on that. The songs a few people want to hear may not mean anything to a whole lot of others, and you can’t let the audience start controlling the show or you’re going to end up on a sinking ship.

“You’ve got to stay in control, or you might as well go hole up in Las Vegas somewhere because you’re not being true to the music anymore . . . you’re being true to something else that doesn’t really mean anything except some applause.”

Dylan doesn’t enjoy interviews, and he is good at deflecting questions with simple one-word answers. He prefers listening. He acknowledged the expectations surrounding his visit here and said he wished Israel well, but didn’t mean the appearance here to be viewed in Big Statement terms.

“I didn’t sit down and say, ‘I definitely must play here,’ ” he said. “I’ve never done that on any tour. I just play where they book me. The truth is I would probably prefer to just come here as a normal person, which I have done--although that is hard, too. I was here once on a sort of honeymoon and it was miserable for us. Photographers would come up with the room service and they would catch us on the beach, and all we wanted was to relax a bit. The same thing happened when I came here for my son’s bar mitzvah. I really am kind of a private person.”

Asked how he feels about the massive expectations that people bright to a Dylan show, he replied, “To be perfectly blunt, it doesn’t really effect me. If you let it, you get into doing all the extravagant things that go along with that . . . like going to break bottles on boats.

“It turns into one great big ceremonial trip. . . . I could easily spend all of my time doing that sort of thing . . . dedicating this school or getting the keys to the city. That’s fine for some people, but it doesn’t mean anything to me. You sometimes wonder if these people have even heard my songs.”

The mood for Dylan’s show the next night in Jerusalem, only 45 minutes by car from Tel Aviv, was more upbeat. While he stayed at the hotel, members of the Petty band toured the Old City, an area of 200 acres that includes some of both Judaism and Christianity’s most sacred land. The grounds include the Western (or Wailing) Wall, where Jews from around the world come to pray, and the Holy Sepulcher, believed by most Christians to be the place where Christ died and was resurrected.

The band members who took the tour were surprised to find that the Old City is not some holy shrine, but an actual city with apartments and small shops. Imagine the surprise of tourist pausing outside the church at the start of the Via Dolorosa--the route believed to have been taken by Christ carrying the cross--when a merchant grabbed his arm and advised him that his souvenir shop (hot item: a plastic replica of the Crown of Thorns) had the best prices in the area.

The scenic Sultan’s Pool site, built originally by Pontius Pilate and located at the base of the stone wall that surrounds the Old City, was filled that night with 9,000 fans less concerned with history than with simply enjoying a concert. As soon as Petty left the stage, some girls down front began yelling, “We want Bob. We want Bob.”

Unlike the haphazard concert at Hayarkon Park, Dylan seemed like a man on a mission. He opened with a song, “The Times They Are a'Changin’,” that is among his most famous early ‘60s works--a tune perfectly geared to the nostalgic undercurrents in the audience. Yet he did it in such an offhand way that he seemed to be parodying himself as he delivered a stinging slap at predictable audience demands.

He followed with a blistering version of “Man of Peace,” a recent song that carries all the fire and bite associated with his most socially conscious tunes from two decades again. Sample lyric:

Look out your window, baby, there’s a scene you’d like to catch/The band is playing “Dixie,” a man got his hand outstretched/Could be the Fuhrer/ Could be the local priest/ You know sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.

Dylan then delivered “Like a Rolling Stone,” his biggest rock hit from the ‘60s. He sang it with more conviction than “Times,” but he sent out a signal by putting it early in the program, indicating he in no way meant the song to be the highlight of his evening.

Back and forth it went, rotating a hit for the audience (“Rainy Day Women,” “Ballad of a Thin Man”) with more recent tunes he enjoys playing (“License to Kill,” “Shot of Love”), ending the set with “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

As poised and electric as a prizefighter, Dylan left the stage to much cheering, but he wasn’t through. He and the Heartbreakers returned to encore--not with the expected “Blowin’ in the Wind"--but a hypnotic version of “Slow Train Coming,” the title tune from the first Christian-period album.

Eliciting the strongest response of the evening, the song continued to build until a power failure, which ended the concert on an unceremonious note. Still, the ever-mercurial Dylan, for most people present, regained the crown that had been snatched from him two nights earlier.

The next day’s edition of the English-language Jerusalem Post featured a stock shot of Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres--one of the dignitaries who had requested an audience with Dylan--greeting a visiting author. Dylan’s photo was also in the Post, but it was a shot of him on stage--not shaking someone’s hand.

Back at the hotel, Dylan reaffirmed his priorities: “I’m just a singer on a stage and that’s all I want to do. I have to keep that in front of me. We all go through ups and downs, but I don’t feel part of what’s going on at any one moment.

“To me, the performer is here and gone. The songs are the star of the show, not me. I don’t get strength thinking about what I have done. If anything, that will weaken me. It’s like a nail in your coffin. I’d rather write a new song than pick up a key somewhere.”

After the incidents here, Dylan was in no mood for futher misunderstandments with fans, photographers or public officials. Before Dylan arrived last week for another historic show in East Berlin, media consultant Elliot Mintz laid these ground rules. About song selection, he warned fans, “Bob varies his show from night to night so there is no telling what may be performed there.”

More pointedly, Mintz added, “We are too aware of the historical nature of the East Berlin engagement, however Bob will play the show as he would any other. His statement is his music. We will leave the cultural, historical and political implications of the event to others for analysis. Bob has no intentions of meeting with any officials. He will simply sing his songs as he always has and move on to Rotterdamn, where he is scheduled to appear the following night.”


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