JERUSALEM -- There is always room for another prophet in this holy city, always a longing, always a dream. And this week, when Bob Dylan, rock's aging poet of the apocalypse, came to play here for the first time, many in the audience hoped for fulfilment of an ancient promise.
Truth be told, he fell short. Beset by a muddy sound system, by a 46-year-old voice that has lost much of its already limited range and, ultimately, by a simple twist of electronic fate, Dylan walked away at the end in sad-eyed defeat from a concert that took its listeners to the brink of ecstasy but couldn't quite produce deliverance.
There were moments that came close. Backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, one of rock's tightest and hardest garage bands, Dylan lit a fire with "Like a Rolling Stone," an anthem of alienation, and kept it smoldering with an unrecorded song about a young soldier coming home disfigured.
But the song that seemed about to lift the concert off the ground, the gospel "Slow Train Coming," was cut off two-thirds of the way through when the sound system failed. Dylan stood strumming in disbelief for a moment, then dropped his guitar to the stage floor and stormed away. End of levitation, end of concert.
It was if the Almighty had suddenly caught a glimpse of what this occasional disciple was brewing in His city and decided to call a halt to the proceedings before things got out of hand. The scruffy messiah retreated to his hotel suite with his gold jacket, his gospel choir and a small army of retainers; the multitudes went unfed.
It should have been better. For one thing, the outdoor setting for Monday's concert was classic. The Sultan's Pool, built originally by Pontius Pilate at the foot of the ancient Hinnom Valley, lies just below the Old City's brooding stone walls. The acoustics were designed by God, not man, and they are splendid. To add to the ethereal effect, a full moon climbed effortlessly over the valley.
For another, Dylan had something to prove. This was his first-ever concert tour in Israel, a place with which he has conducted a complicated love affair since the late '60s. On Saturday night he played Tel Aviv -- Jerusalem's more secular and raucous cousin -- and by most accounts he bombed. This was his chance to take revenge on his critics and conquer an audience ripe for the taking.
"I always thought that one man, the lone balladeer with the guitar could blow an entire army off the stage if he knew what he was doing," Dylan told an interviewer two years ago. "To draw a crowd with my guitar, that's about the most heroic thing that I can do."
He tried in Jerusalem, and the heroism was there, but the magic failed.
Israel had been waiting for Bob Dylan for two decades. "When I came here in '67, almost the first thing I heard was that Dylan was coming to give a concert, and every year since then I've heard the same thing," says Zeev Chafets, an Israeli author and songwriter, who, like many other young American Jews, emigrated here following Israel's triumph in the Six-Day War. "It's the longest awaited cultural event in the history of the country."
He was born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 25, 1941, to a middle-class Jewish family in the small midwestern town of Hibbing, Minn., bar mitzvahed at 13, and it seems as if the rest of the first half of his life was a feverish attempt to escape his roots as a son of the bourgeoisie, and the second half a coming to terms with them.
But even during the years when he seemed to deny his Jewishness, his songs often gave him away. Biblical themes of vengeance and redemption and jagged Old Testament metaphors were his stock in trade. The mournful harmonica and the image he struck on stage -- one man, defiantly alone, rootless and angry, a conscience for an unconscionable world -- all had a Jewish component.
Gradually a bond with Israel formed. According to biographer Robert Shelton in "No Direction Home," Dylan visited here in the summers of 1969 and 1970 and in May 1971, donning yarmulke and prayer shawl at the Western Wall. He even toyed briefly with the idea of moving to a kibbutz, Shelton says.
He shied away from a public declaration of his faith but in unguarded moments conceded its power. "There is no problem, I'm a Jew," he told one interviewer. "It touches my poetry, my life, in ways I can't describe. Why should I declare something that should be so obvious?"
Dylan's life, artistic and personal, has careened through phases and faiths and writhed like a soul on fire. His increasing obsession with religion climaxed in the late 1970s when he declared himself a born-again Christian and released three overtly fundamentalist albums, none of which threatened sales records. Worse, their messages alienated an entire generation of fans and supporters.
By 1983, he was back in the cradle of Judaism with an album called "Infidels," a collection whose back cover photo shows Dylan touching soil on a hill overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. His son Jesse was bar mitzvahed at the Wall that year, and Dylan was reported to have spent time at a Brooklyn center of Chabad Lubavitch, an ultraorthodox Hasidic sect that uses music centrally in its rituals.
He declared his love for Israel in a hawkish song, "Neighborhood Bully," that embarrassed more than a few of his liberal admirers because of its full-throated endorsement of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. But there was no question that Dylan was back and his connection to Zion was stronger than ever.
He arrived here last week amid great expectation and proceeded to disappoint nearly everyone unfamiliar with his famous public reticence. While a crowd of unruly photographers waited for him to arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport on a flight from Cairo, he sneaked into the country on a tour bus.
His Israeli promoter scheduled the usual courtesy appointments with the mayors of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Dylan canceled them all. No meetings, no interviews, no autographs and, above all, no explanations. His promoter told reporters he was staying at the luxury Daniel Hotel in Herzliya, just north of Tel Aviv. "He's not here," the front desk manager swore.
The Tel Aviv concert didn't work. Dylan sounded thin, bored and listless. The audience, 40,000 strong, yawned. The Israelis, who think of themselves as one big, unruly family, wanted to smother Dylan in an ethnic embrace, make him feel the warmth and make him respond. Either he did not notice or he could not break through. He said not a word between songs except once to mumble "shalom, shalom."
The Israeli press, as usual clear-eyed and brutal, lashed out the next day with a vengeance. "You mocked the best audience you have ever had," wrote Amos Oren in Yediot Ahronot, Israel's biggest daily. "For an hour you sang the same monotonous song ... It is only because of your name, your past and your origin that you didn't get catcalls for your haughtiness and your aloofness."
"Robert Zimmerman," another writer concluded, "your time has passed."
And so Monday was an opportunity to get even, to rekindle the past and silence the jackals. Dylan clearly was itching for it. He told friends that he planned to sing more of his old standards.
He had a smaller, more intimate place to work. The Sultan's Pool holds about 9,000 and it was full to capacity. Most of the crowd appeared to be Americans and other English speakers. There were lots of yarmulkes and a sprinkling of uniformed soldiers on leave bearing automatic weapons.
He started off with "The Times They Are A-Changin'," an appropriate anthem for Jerusalem, angry and self-righteous and filled with biblical imagery. This is, after all, a city of jangled nerves, a place where Moslems, Christians and Jews square off against one another and among themselves as well. "The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast," wailed Dylan and the walls reverberated.
There was little patter, no attempt to connect except through the power of the sung word. At one point he remarked sardonically that he was "taking requests," doing some of the songs he didn't do in Tel Aviv. All told, he completed an hour-long set of 12 numbers and was working his way through the first encore when the sound system quit. Israel, famous for its high-tech wizardry, suddenly seemed like Mozambique.
The crowd was stunned, but began drifting off only after a hired hand took the microphone to blame the sudden end on "a technical problem that we cannot fix."
Did he win or did he lose? Was he good or bad? In the end, there was only a large question mark.
Dylan writes few memorable songs these days. The cupboard is not quite bare, just a bit sparse. Instead he delivers eulogies, for the '60s, for the music that was and, sometimes, for himself.
Two years ago he complained to interviewer Cameron Crowe that rock music in the 1980s had "all been neutralized ... nothing threatening, nothing magical, nothing challenging. For me I hate to see it because it set me free, set the whole world on fire, there's a lot of us who still can remember, who've been there ... The great folk music and the great rock 'n' roll, you might not hear it again. Like the horse and buggy ..."
Here in the Promised Land Bob Dylan wanted to take his audience back to those days and to that great fire. He didn't quite get us there, but he tried.