Pope Benedict XVI is about to release a book entitled My Beloved Predecessor. In it — according to English newspapers — he discloses an earth-shattering secret. Relying on anonymous sources, the journalists paint a dramatic picture of a rift between two of the greatest Catholic intellects in the past century. Over what? Not over liberation theology, not over the Iraq War, not over Third World poverty, not over Hans Küng, not over Islam. Yes, you guessed it. It was over Bob Dylan.
Remember back in 1997 when his Bobness played for his Holiness in a concert at the end of a Eucharistic Congress? Newspapers around the world ran photos of this electric moment. But, say the journalists, Pope Benedict "doubts to this day whether it was right to let this kind of so-called prophet take the stage".
The present Pope has a crowded agenda, so it is easy to excuse him for not following Dylan’s music. Joseph Ratzinger, in his 40s when Dylan was hailed as "prophet of a generation", was disturbed by some of the offshoots of the revolution of the 60s. One cannot blame him for protesting if he thought that Dylan came singing for John Paul II dressed in that mantle.
It is not so easy to forgive the journalists for sticking to notions of Dylan’s place or self-identity which are hopelessly out of date. In the latest documentary on Dylan, No Direction Home, and in his autobiography, Chronicles, Dylan himself flatly eschews the tag of spokesperson for the 60s generation. Cynics may jibe that there was little sign of his reluctance at the time. But there is no question now that he has left all that behind. You might say it’s part of his back pages. As he sang in the song of that name (My Back Pages), he was so much older then. He’s younger than that now.
These days he does not regard himself as a spokesperson for anyone but himself. In fact, he rarely or never speaks. He writes songs and sings them. And this is, he says, just what he always has done.
Dylan has always been an iconoclastic critic — first of The Establishment and then of The Anti-Establishment. In No Direction Home, the cries of "Traitor" can clearly be heard when he cranked up the electric volume on a tour to England in the late 60s. Disregarding the bitterness of teary fans who felt betrayed when he abandoned the acoustic guitar, he refused to be pigeonholed.
When he converted to Christianity in the late 70s, some fans treated him as if he had died. But he responded that anyone unfamiliar with gospel did not understand American music. In any case, Christian themes had already appeared in his best album, Blood on the Tracks. In Idiot Wind he sings of a "lone soldier on the cross… who in the final end… won the war, after losing every battle". He sings about finding out "when you reach the top, you’re on the bottom". In Shelter from the Storm, he sings of a lady figure who approaches him and takes his crown of thorns.
In the songs of his conversion period, he shows an almost Chestertonian delight in Christian paradoxes. In You Gotta Serve Somebody he tells a freedom-worshipping society that we all end up as slaves – either to Christ or to Satan. And in a later song, Jokerman, he asks what good is freedom uncoupled from truth. In Ring Them Bells he asks St Peter to sound a prophetic warning so "the people will know". I've always thought that this might be an acknowledgement of the role of the Pope.
As a musician Dylan would be reluctant to separate the music from the lyrics. He has written some beautiful tunes: Mr Tambourine Man, I Threw It all Away, I Want You, If Not for You (made famous in a very saccharine version by the Australian pop singer Olivia Newton John), to name just a couple. Nevertheless, what his fans love most are his lyrics and what his detractors hate most is his nasal, almost whining, voice. It's not exactly Mozart. Perhaps the best word to describe His Bobness is not poet, nor singer, but minstrel.
So let's take a look at what he sang for John Paul II, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall. I think that they show Dylan's enormous esteem for the Pope and a deep religious sensitivity.
Hard Rain was misinterpreted by journalists last week as an "anti-war classic". It is not. It is a classic of idealism. This is the message of John Paul II to young people throughout his pontificate, with crowds that left Woodstock looking like a rain-out picnic. In any case, in one of John Paul's most memorable speeches, he cried out "Mai piu la guerra! Mai piu la guerra!" ("No more war! No more war!"). That, too, has become an anti-war classic.
Knockin on Heaven’s Door was part of the sound track for the movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. One of Pat Garrett’s deputies is shot and walks to a log, sits down and then the song starts. That is why the song makes references to removing a badge, burying guns and a descending black cloud. It is not a protest, but a description of a man who has done his guardian’s job well, is now dying and beginning to look heavenwards.
I'm sure that Dylan played this song as a tribute to the old man before him. Dylan, probably feels that mortality is creeping up on him too. (He wrote another wonderfully wistful song whose verses end with the line "I’m just tryin' to get to heaven before they close the door".) Knockin' on Heaven’s Door is a beautiful song which united the ageing minstrel and the ageing Pope in that which unites us all – the mortality which awaits us.
Dylan’s encore in Bologna, Forever Young, continues the tribute. It is like a blessing and farewell from the Jewish Patriarch of Pop to the aged, but youthful Pontiff.
May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do to others
And let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the skies
And climb on every rung
And may you stay,
I wish journalists would refrain from manufacturing divisions between Benedict and his beloved predecessor. Instead of wasting their time on beat-ups like this, they should listen again to Ballad of a Thin Man, Dylan’s scathing commentary on obtuse, sensationalising panjandrums of the Fourth Estate:
You try so hard
But you don't understand
Just what you'll say
When you get home
Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
Martin Fitzgerald is Head of Philosophy at Redfield College in Sydney.