Dylan: “Allow Me to Clarify This So-called China Controversy…”

In an unusual blog post, Bob Dylan has dismissed accusations of self-censorship at concerts in China earlier this year. He also denied that audiences had been sparse and consisted mainly of ex-pats, saying that most attendees had been young Chinese, and that “my feeling was that they wouldn’t have known my early songs anyway.”

Allow me to clarify a couple of things about this so-called China controversy which has been going on for over a year. First of all, we were never denied permission to play in China. This was all drummed up by a Chinese promoter who was trying to get me to come there after playing Japan and Korea. My guess is that the guy printed up tickets and made promises to certain groups without any agreements being made. We had no intention of playing China at that time, and when it didn’t happen most likely the promoter had to save face by issuing statements that the Chinese Ministry had refused permission for me to play there to get himself off the hook. If anybody had bothered to check with the Chinese authorities, it would have been clear that the Chinese authorities were unaware of the whole thing ….

As far as censorship goes, the Chinese government had asked for the names of the songs that I would be playing. There’s no logical answer to that, so we sent them the set lists from the previous 3 months. If there were any songs, verses or lines censored, nobody ever told me about it and we played all the songs that we intended to play.

Everybody knows by now that there’s a gazillion books on me either out or coming out in the near future. So I’m encouraging anybody who’s ever met me, heard me or even seen me, to get in on the action and scribble their own book. You never know, somebody might have a great book in them.

Dylan’s China concerts sparked fierce criticism from several quarters, including Human Rights Watch, Joan Smith in The Independent and, most prominently, Maureen Dowd in the New York Times:

The idea that the raspy troubadour of ’60s freedom anthems would go to a dictatorship and not sing those anthems is a whole new kind of sellout — even worse than Beyoncé, Mariah and Usher collecting millions to croon to Qaddafi’s family, or Elton John raking in a fortune to serenade gay-bashers at Rush Limbaugh’s fourth wedding …

Dylan said nothing about Weiwei’s detention, didn’t offer a reprise of “Hurricane,” his song about “the man the authorities came to blame for something that he never done.” He sang his censored set, took his pile of Communist cash and left.

Rolling Stone notes, though, that Dylan hasn’t played “Hurricane” live since 1976, while Adam Minter pointed out that Dylan had opened the shows in Beijing and Shanghai with an overtly Christian song, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking”, which included the line “So much oppression/Can’t keep track of it no more.”

I think it’s fair to say that revolutionary anthems [like “The Times They Are A-Changing”] which address “senators and congressmen” are best addressed to people who have them. And, last I checked, the people of Beijing and Shanghai don’t.

Which brings me back to the striking apocalyptic Christian imagery and message with which Dylan started his Beijing and Shanghai shows. I don’t know why he chose to do that number (aside from the fact that it’s great), and what it says about him. But the fact that Maureen Down and other critics of the performance fail to pick up on the fact that Dylan sang an overtly Christian song to (using Dowd’s words) “2,000 Chinese apparatchiks in the audience taking a relaxing break from repression” seems to me a much more pointed criticism of Dowd’s (and her likeminded critics) biases and blind-spots than anything that’s been written about the bard’s workmanlike Chinese performances.

But whatever. Anyone under the impression that a Beijing rendition of a protest song like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” – even one translated into Chinese and broadcast nationwide – would result in anything more than polite applause, has a) the kind of naive idealism that the world sorely lacks at this point in time, and b) a bad case of Western cultural narcissism. For the record: I don’t think Dylan playing “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” in Beijing will change much of anything, either, including – I’m sorry to say – the narrow, jaundiced definition of “protest” embraced by Dylan’s, and China’s, critics.

See also: Jeremiah Jenne’s “final thoughts and a bit of a rant” on the matter from his Granite Studio, and Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s tangential post at The China Beat, both posted after the concerts themselves, and Minter’s follow-up post written after Dylan’s own rebuttal.

May 13, 2011 2:09 PM
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