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Sunday, September 28, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Times They Are A Changin': Bob Dylan Plays For Pope

AP

BOLOGNA, Italy - It's the stuff of which legends are made: The rebel who's been knock, knock, knocking on heaven's door meeting the man with the keys to the kingdom.

Last night's concert is likely to go down as one of the more unlikely encounters of modern times: Bob Dylan playing for Pope John Paul II.

The evening, the highlight of a weeklong religious congress in Bologna, was billed as a chance for the 77-year-old pope to spend time with young people "and their music."

Sitting on a raised dais on one side of the open-air stage, he saluted the performers, who included the Harlem Gospel Singers belting out a rousing version of "Amen."

And when he spoke to the crowd of 200,000, John Paul used a classic Dylan song, "Blowing in the Wind" to make his point.

The answer, he said, is indeed blowing in the wind, "the wind that is the breath and life of the Holy Spirit, the voice that calls and says `Come!' "

"You've asked me: `How many roads must a man walk down before he becomes a man?' " he continued, still quoting from the song.

"I answer you: One! There is only one road for man and it is Christ, who said `I am the life.' "

A few seconds later, Dylan, who survived a potentially fatal illness this summer, swung into "Knocking on Heaven's Door." The crowd went wild.

One more number, "Hard Rain," and Dylan suddenly swept off his white cowboy hat and ascended the stairs of the dais. The pope rose to meet him and, as Dylan bowed his head slightly, they clasped each others' hands.

With that, the pope, tired from a long day of travel and public appearances, left, thanking the crowd.

They seemed an unlikely pairing, the pope and the rock-n-roll troubadour. But they share a preoccupation with mortality and morality. And both played pivotal roles in the profound social changes of the 1960s.

Karol Wojtyla, the future pope, was a key member of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which brought about sweeping reforms in the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time, Robert Zimmerman, the future musical legend, was writing songs that defined, for many, the times.

In 1964, Dylan released his seminal album, "The Times They Are A-Changing." It became the anthem of a generation. The same year, Wojtyla was elevated to archbishop of Krakow in a Poland still lashed firmly to the Soviet orbit.

They would both go on to popular adulation. They would both go on to travel the world, one with a message forged by the clarity of his Catholic faith, the other with a message of far more ambiguous spiritually.

Wojtyla in 1978 became Pope John Paul II, a pontiff destined to help break the Soviet stranglehold. Meanwhile, the Jewish-born rock rebel stunned fans by embracing a Bible-thumping, born-again Christianity. Dylan proclaimed his new faith in the 1979 gospel album "Slow Train Coming," which won him a Grammy award. Two more stridently Christian albums followed: "Saved" and "Shot of Love."

They left no doubt about his new religious convictions. But the evangelical tone faded after "Shot of Love." Whether Dylan is still a Christian is a topic of intense debate in some circles; the ever-cryptic singer/songwriter refuses to discuss it.

Spiritual themes have always resonated in Dylan's music. His early influences were country, folk and gospel, which all have strong Christian elements. On his 1967 album "John Wesley Harding," for example, Dylan sang "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine."

Yesterday's concert was broadcast live on Italian state television.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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