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How Does It Feel? For Now, Dylan's Religion Is a Complete Unknown

March 06, 2000|ROY RIVENBURG

Knockin' on Heaven's Door: As an avid fan of Bob Dylan (a phrase that probably caused 82% of you to immediately stop reading today's column), we are fascinated by the eternal Dylan question, namely: Why did the Skipper always refer to him as Little Buddy?

No, wait, that's a question about Bob Denver, a.k.a. Gilligan. We always get those two mixed up. The mystery about Dylan--aside from why a record company would ever hire someone whose voice sounds like a goat being electrocuted--involves his religious beliefs.

Is he Christian, Jewish, Hare Krishna or what?

The debate started in 1979, when Dylan released "Slow Train Coming," and distressed rock critics did back flips trying to explain how songs about Jesus were actually parables about social injustice and/or former baseball star Jesus Alou.

The next two albums were so gospel-heavy that Sen. John McCain linked Dylan to Pat Robertson as an "agent of intolerance" who was leading the Republican Party astray. OK, not really. Then, in 1984, Dylan issued the Jesus-free "Infidels." Relieved critics declared that Dylan's born-again phase was officially over. Or was it?

In 1985, author Don Williams argued that the singer merely went underground with his faith, cloaking it in metaphorical language. For example, Williams showed how the song "Jokerman" was actually about Christ, and the song "Lenny Bruce" was really about, um, well, Lenny Bruce. OK, so the theory wasn't airtight.

Ever since, fans and critics have squabbled over the meaning of Dylan's cryptic lyrics and interview statements. There's even a Web site that tries to prove Dylan returned to Judaism by analyzing his 1995 concert dates ("Dylan began the tour the day after Rosh Hashanah, then broke for Yom Kippur, Sukkot and the night of Simhat Torah").

The latest attempt to decipher Dylan's faith occurs in "The Rock & Roll Rebellion" by Mark Joseph (Broadman & Holman), a book that also discusses the Christian conversions of Alice Cooper, Lenny Kravitz and other musicians.

After presenting considerable evidence that Dylan has indeed returned to Judaism, Joseph then counters with material indicating that he remains Christian. Among the clues: a 1997 Newsweek interview in which Dylan said he finds his religious philosophy in songs such as Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light," which contains overt Christian imagery. And during his 1999 tour with Paul Simon, Dylan opened with a bluegrass tune, "Hallelujah I'm Ready to Go." Sample lyric: "Jesus came in, and he saved my soul from sin."

Then again, when we last saw Dylan two years ago, he was singing "everybody must get stoned," and no one seemed to think he meant getting pelted by rocks.

Analyze This Bureau: A New York psychotherapist claims that the way you use toilet paper reveals your personality.

Quotes Inc.: Attributed to Robert Wilensky and making the rounds on e-mail: "We've heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true."

Best Supermarket Tabloid Headline: "First-Ever Dog Sex Change! Woman Has Female Jack Russell Terrier Turned Into a Male--to Make a Better Guard Dog!" (Weekly World News)

Unpaid Informants: Wireless Flash News Service, Melissa Balmain, Dan Markovitz. E-mail Off-Kilter at roy.rivenburg@latimes.com. Off-Kilter runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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