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Dylan Rocks The Holy Land

September 20, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN

TEL AVIV — 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.

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.

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