Dylan Stirs Controversy In Israel

Israeli fans left feeling disappointed, dignitaries offended

Bob Dylan performs in Paris, France.
Rob Verhorst/Redferns
October 22, 1987

It was three in the morning, and Bob Dylan was sitting on the great stone balcony of his hotel suite, sipping a screwdriver and picking out ragtime riffs on a guitar. Spread out before him was the panorama of Jerusalem, with the nearby Jaffa Gate and the ancient walls of the Old City glowing under a luminous full moon. Dylan put down his guitar to savor the silence.

''This is hip,'' he said. ''I don't know what else is going on in the world right now. They may be fighting up the coast; I heard they are. But right here, this is pretty hip. This is heavy. Holy, almost. Yeah — the Holy City.''

Dylan was in high spirits. A few hours earlier he had completed the second concert of his first-ever Israeli tour — a ninety-minute set at the Sulatan's Pool, inside the Old City walls, backed by opening act Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — and had brought cheers from the 9000-strong crowd at the sold-out show. Even the press had been moderately pleased.

So Dylan was happy — but not for long: the singer's Israeli sojourn, which had opened to universal press pans in Tel Aviv two nights earlier, would collapse in a welter of diplomatic recriminations, as he flew out of the country the following day to begin a fifteen-city European tour.

Dylan's initial problems in Israel could probably be attributed, at least partially, to jet lag. He flew from Los Angeles to Egypt to hook up with Petty and his band and then made the trip to Tel Aviv by bus. So by the night of his opening show, in that balmy Mediterranean city, on September 5th, he was still feeling fairly travel ravaged.

The set that night was rather perfunctory — the rhythms flat and the song selection puzzling to many fans who'd come to hear nothing but hits. Dylan and the band kicked of with ''Maggie's Farm'' and later connected with such classics as ''Knockin' on Heaven's Door'' and ''Blowin' in the Wind.'' But a number of the set's seventeen songs were more obscure, and some observers were puzzled by the concluding tune, the folk staple ''Go Down Moses.'' None of this sat too well with Israeli critics. Hanoch Guthmann, writing in the Jerusalem Post, said that many fans had been ''disappointed'' and that ''a large number of spectators were seen leaving during his set.''

The Jerusalem show two nights later seemed to more than make up for that opening catastrophe, but then politics entered the picture. Back in the States, newspapers were filled with reports from Israel that Dylan had offended his hosts by showing up in the country one day later than he'd been expected. He was accused of, among other offenses, canceling an audience with the Israeli foreign minister, Shimon Peres, as well as an official visit to the Wailing Wall. He was charged with failing to appear at a Sabbath dinner in his honor and on a national TV talk show for which he'd been scheduled. Since Dylan has never been much of a hobnobber, these accusations sounded faintly dubious — and as it turned out, they were. From Zurich, a Dylan press rep explained that the singer had ''never agreed to any of these appearances.''

''I don't do these kind of things anyway — meeting dignitaries and stuff,'' said Bob himself. ''Television's not my thing, so I wouldn't do that, either. I can't see why everybody gets so mad over something that never would have happened.''

This story is from the October 22nd, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone.

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