Knocking on Heaven's Door (but the Pope didn't seem to be listening)

An improbable double act got together for a gig in Bologna. But, writes Andrew Gumbel, the stars of the stage show, the Pontiff and Bob Dylan, found the clash of cultures less than 'fantastico'.

Bob Dylan has lived long enough to see all manner of abominations visited upon his songs - quite a few of them self-inflicted - but surely nothing ever prepared him for this. There he was, waiting in the wings of a large agricultural fairground in Bologna, gearing up to play for the Pope, no less, and the strangest of spectacles unfurled before him.

First there was the group of over-earnest young Catholics in squeaky- clean white shirts and bouffant hair-dos who came forward to recite one line each of "Blowin' in the Wind" as though they were saying verses of the Bible, accompanied by a "kum-bay-yar" guitarist.

Then the Pope himself chose to focus his keynote address on the very same song. A simple if much-abused anthem of rebellion from 1963 was suddenly elevated to the Gospel According to St Bob. "How many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man?" asked that insistent nasal voice from so long ago. "I'll tell you," countered the Pope. "Just one! Man has just one road to travel and that is Christ, who said, 'I am the way'!"

So that was that. Thirty-four years on, one of the most famous rhetorical questions in popular music had been given an answer, and by the supreme head of the Universal Church at that. Not bad going for a poor Jewish boy (briefly a born-again Christian) from Duluth, Minnesota.

What can poor old Bobby have been thinking? "Get me out of here," perhaps. Certainly, when he finally came on stage in his cowboy hat and rhinestone- spangled Nashville zoot suit, he fell far short of the half-hour he had promised, giving himself time just to drool through country-flavoured versions of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door", "It's a Hard Rain" and "Forever Young" before dashing back out into the Bologna night.

Such were the wonders to be beheld on Saturday as the Catholic Church chose to embrace the rock music world. Actually, embrace is the wrong word. It was more of a wet handshake. Dylan headed a line-up of mostly Italian stars playing to a 300,000-strong audience brought to Bologna to celebrate the 23rd Italian National Eucharistic Congress. Out they came one by one, accompanied by electric guitars, full symphony orchestra and - to add to the incongruity - a gospel backing band imported all the way from Harlem.

Only the first performer, the veteran Italian entertainer Adriano Celentano, got into the spirit of the event, reviving some of his tongue-in-cheek pop-soul numbers from the 1960s and breaking into a spirited song-and- dance routine. He alone dared to allude to the strange culture clash of sacred and profane, singing a love ballad based on the Ten Commandments - a daring venture under the circumstances - and breaking into an off- the-cuff discourse in which he caused a few nervous titters by maintaining God was not "a terrible old ogre" after all.

It was downhill all the way from there. The Bolognese crooner Gianni Morandi led a carefully censored duet version of John Lennon's "Imagine", in which all references to "no heaven" and "no religion" were dutifully removed. The blind tenor Andrea Bocelli gave an inevitable rendering of "Nessun Dorma", and any attempt at serious artistry - such as the duet between jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani and Italian rocker Lucio Dalla - was ruthlessly undermined by the presenter of the show, the ageing television starlet Milly Carlucci, who shouted "fantastico!" and "straordinario!" like she was moderating a spangly prime-time talent contest.

The Pope, who sat on a raised platform at the back of the stage throughout, looked utterly nonplussed by the whole thing. Actually, he looked thoroughly sick and exhausted, barely able to raise his clutched hands at the end of each song, much less applaud.

After five minutes of Dylan, the Supreme Pontiff decided he'd had enough and announced that he was off. "Let us thank God for all this musical talent," he concluded, although to judge by his pained expression through the last part of the concert he clearly thought some talents deserved more thanks than others.