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Bob Dylan, Recovering Christian

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There was, of course, much to talk about. The man who had transformed the folk world with his raw, exciting acoustic debut LP in 1962, and who later alienated many folkies altogether when he appeared at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival backed by an electric rock band, was still, in 1984, as capable as ever of stirring controversy. Thirteen years ago, to the surprise of virtually everyone, he turned up in Jerusalem at the Wailing Wall, wearing a yarmulke and reportedly searching for his "Jewish identity." Subsequently, he studied at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, a Bible school in California, and shocked many fans by releasing three albums of fundamentalist, gospel-swathed rock. (The first, 1979's Slow Train Coming, went platinum, but the next two, Saved and Shot of Love, didn't even go gold.) Next, he became associated with an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect, the Lubavitcher Hasidim, and last year returned to Jerusalem to celebrate his son Jesse's bar mitzvah. Then came Infidels. Although it continued the Biblical bent of Dylan's three previous albums (with an added overlay of what some critics took to be cranky political conservatism), Infidels was also one of his best-produced records ever — thanks to Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler's ministrations at the recording console. With precious little promotional push from Dylan himself, the LP had already sold nearly three-quarters of a million copies, and now he had not only wrapped up an excellent video, but had also made a rare TV appearance on the Late Night With David Letterman show — a rickety but riveting event in which Dylan, backed by a barely prepared, young three-piece band, whomped his way through two Infidels tracks and the old Sonny Boy Williamson tune "Don't Start Me to Talking." (It could have been even more curious. At rehearsals, he'd tried out a version of the Roy Head rock nugget "Treat Her Right.") Bob Dylan was once again on the scene. And with concert promoter Bill Graham already booking dates, he was preparing to embark on a major European tour with Santana on May 28th, four days after his forty-third birthday.

Bob Dylan and More Iconic Rock Shots From 'Trust: Photographs of Jim Marshall'

So here he is once more — but who is he? A divorced father of five (one is his ex-wife Sara's daughter, whom he adopted), Dylan divides his time among California, where he owns a sprawling, eccentric heap of a house; Minnesota, where he maintains a farm; and the Caribbean, where he island-hops on a quarter-million-dollar boat. While in New York — a city to which he soon hopes to relocate again — he caught a gig by his former keyboardist, Al Kooper, dropped in on a recording session for ex-J. Geils Band singer Peter Wolf and hung out with old pals Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones. Despite his spiritual preoccupations, he insists that he's no prude ("I think I had a beer recently") and that his religious odyssey has been misrepresented in the press. Although he contends he doesn't own any of his song-publishing rights prior to 1974's Blood on the Tracks ("That's Keith's favorite"), he is probably quite well-off — "Some years are better than others" is all he'll say on the subject — and is known to be extraordinarily generous to good friends in need. He apparently does not envision any future retirement from music. When I asked if he thought he'd painted his masterpiece yet, he said, "I hope I never do." His love life — he's been linked in the past with singer Clydie King, among others — remains a closed book.

As we spoke, a drunken youth approached our table for an autograph, which Dylan provided. A few minutes later, a toothless old woman wearing hot pants appeared at our side, accompanied by a black wino. "You're Bob Dylan!" she croaked. "And you're Barbra Streisand, right?" said Dylan, not unpleasantly. "I only wondered," said the crone, "because there's a guy out front selling your autograph." "Yeah?" said Dylan. "Well, how much is he askin'?"

A good question, I thought. How much might such a souvenir still command in these waning End Days?

Photos: Bob Dylan Hanging With Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg and More

People have put various labels on you over the past several years: "He's a born-again Christian"; "he's an ultra-Orthodox Jew." Are any of those labels accurate?
Not really. People call you this or they call you that. But I can't respond to that, because then it seems like I'm defensive, and, you know, what does it matter, really?

But weren't three of your albums — Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love — inspired by some sort of born-again religious experience?
I would never call it that, I've never said I'm born again. That's just a media term. I don't think I've ever been an agnostic. I've always thought there's a superior power, that this is not the real world and that there's a world to come. That no soul has died, every soul is alive, either in holiness or in flames. And there's probably a lot of middle ground.

Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bob Dylan

What is your spiritual stance, then?
Well, I don't think that this is it, you know — this life ain't nothin'. There's no way you're gonna convince me this is all there is to it. I never, ever believed that. I believe in the Book of Revelation. The leaders of this world are eventually going to play God, if they're not already playing God, and eventually a man will come that everybody will think is God. He'll do things, and they'll say, "Well, only God can do those things. It must be him."

You're a literal believer of the Bible?
Yeah. Sure, yeah. I am.

Are the Old and New Testaments equally valid?
To me.

Do you belong to any church or synagogue?
Not really. Uh, the Church of the Poison Mind [laughs].

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