Bob Dylan’s First Israel Concert A Hits Missed Affair
By Robert Hilburn
The Los Angeles Times — September 7, 1987
TEL AVIV — “I’ll be your baby tonight,” Bob Dylan crooned sweetly near the start Saturday night of what observers here described as the most significant rock concert in this young country’s existence.
Anyone, however, who expected Dylan to live up to the obliging sentiments of that teasingly romantic song simply didn’t know the acclaimed songwriter’s long history of independent action.
The result was another dramatic chapter in Dylan’s colorful record of heading one way when his audience was looking for him in the opposite direction.
Rather than tailor the show to songs that resolved the questions here about his politics and religion (a concern of part of the audience), or put all his “hits” into a tidy nostalgia package (the hope of a much larger segment), Dylan stuck pretty much to the assortment of interesting but less familiar numbers that he used on several of his recent U.S. dates with the Grateful Dead.
This meant fans eager for “Like a Rolling Stone” “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” or other Dylan anthems of the ’60s had to listen instead–after waiting up to 20 years to see him in person–for songs like “Joey,” “Senor” and “I and I.”
The result was like two trains passing in the night: Dylan on one track singing many of the songs that were generally well-received on the Dead tour (but with considerably less bite at times), and the audience on the other, waiting to celebrate the music that had meant so much to them for so long.
The forces finally got together during the encore. Dylan–backed by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers plus three female vocalists–offered “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and the evening’s big surprise: “Go Down, Moses,” a traditional spiritual built around the line, “Let My People Go,” one of the most emotional phrases in the Jewish culture.
One song noticeably absent was “Neighborhood Bully.” The controversial 1983 song about standing up for one’s rights, even with force if necessary, was widely interpreted as a defense of Israel. “I hadn’t even thought of that song,” Dylan said Sunday, sitting in his hotel room on the Mediterranean. “I probably should have but I didn’t. It would seem to be an appropriate song. Maybe I’ll play it in Germany,” he added, laughing.
Though many in the audience said they were touched by the inclusion of “Go Down, Moses,” it wasn’t enough to those interviewed after the concert to erase the disappointment of the evening. Some also felt the inclusion of “In the Garden,” one of the songs associated with Dylan’s born-again Christian period, sent a mixed signal about his current religious stance.
“People I know have been waiting 10 years for the night Bob Dylan would perform in Israel,” said a 24-year-old engineer, standing in the rear of the nearly deserted Hayarkon Park after the concert. “And he doesn’t do his hits, the songs that we want to hear. What if this is the only time he plays here?”
Still, most of the three dozen fans questioned before and after the concert saw the night as a historic moment and expressed appreciation that Dylan was one of the first major rock artists to perform here.
The show was the opening date in a six-week Dylan-Petty European tour that also includes a Jerusalem concert tonight. (A second Hayarkon Park show Sunday was canceled because of what the promoter said were technical difficulties in getting the equipment from here to Jerusalem.)
Reviewers for Tel Aviv’s four largest newspapers, however, weren’t interested in the sociology of Dylan’s visit. They looked at the evening in the narrowest of entertainment terms, using such words as boring , monotonous , flat and withdrawn to describe his song selection and/or manner. They also said his voice sounded tired.
Before seeing the reviews, Dylan acknowledged Sunday that his performance had been sluggish. “I just couldn’t get things rolling on stage,” said the bearded singer, who had traveled here for 12 hours by private bus from Egypt so he could see the country.
“Maybe it was just that I was tired . . . jet lag or something. But it happens some nights when you just feel like you are on a sinking boat.”
Dylan wasn’t so willing to concede a problem in the area of song selection. “I don’t understand this hits business,” he said forcefully.
“I never think about whether a song is a hit. I don’t even know what has been a hit some places. . . .
“Besides, you can’t just stand there and guess what the audience wants to hear. I went to see Frank Sinatra at the Greek Theatre and he didn’t do any of the records from the Capitol days. But I still liked seeing him.”
On paper, Dylan’s first concert ever in Israel promised to be as one-sided as a fixed prizefight.
Here was the most acclaimed songwriter of the rock era playing in Israel’s largest city, for an audience that strongly identified not only with his socially-conscious music, but with his Jewish roots. Many of those interviewed in the crowd saw the concert as a public gesture of his support for the country.
And, sure enough, the mood of the nearly 35,000 people was eager and adoring before the concert at the outdoor Hayarkon Park–a sprawling park on the outskirts of the city, with temporary fences erected in the concert area. With a nearly full moon and perfect temperature, it could have been an ideal California night.
Much of the audience, according to a local observer, consisted of Americans who moved here in the early ’70s with old Dylan albums in hand as they searched for the idealism outlined in his songs, and young Israelis who now share many of those ideals.
“The thing about the ’60s that is so in with young people here is that Israel right now is like the States in the ’60s in some ways,” said Matan Hermony, 18, as he waited on the park grass Saturday with friends for the concert gates to open.
A recent high school graduate who enters the compulsory Israeli Army soon, Hermony was one of the several young people questioned who drew parallels between Israel’s controversial 1982 Lebanon War and the Vietnam War.
“To tell the truth, I am afraid of war. . . . I don’t want to die. My friends and I turn to songs like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ because they are very meaningful to us.” When Dylan walked on stage, hundreds of fans lit candles in salute, while a few shot off flares that lit the sky.
Younger members of the crowd pressed toward the stage while older ones stood to the sides and rear, a few hugging loved ones. There were lots of misty eyes during ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ Even if the show didn’t live up to all the audience’s long-held dreams, it was a night that few here will forget.
On Sunday, Dylan, who avoids explaining his actions or reflecting on others’ interpretations of him, shifted uneasily on his chair when asked if people should interpret his visit here in Big Statement terms. Though he expressed warmth for Israel, he said simply that he is willing to play anywhere people want him.
“I’d like to play Egypt,” he said. “You know the Jews and Arabs have the same father. They’re brothers. Basically, there shouldn’t be a problem between them. They’re both Semitic people. If someone is anti-Semitic, they’re anti-Arab as much as anti-Jew. The problem is politics.
“I felt right at home in Egypt. I wasn’t surprised because Egypt-land is in all our blood. I didn’t go to see the Pyramids. I wanted to see the prison where Joseph was in and the place Abraham took Sarah.”