Saturday, January 31, 2015

Bob Dylan in China - Ballad of a Thin Man Serenading The Oppressors

[This article was originally published April 13, 2011 on the ezine site NewsFlavor.]

Did the Chinese government censure Dylan’s set list? -- "something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, Do you, Hu Jintao?”
The Chinese government has been called many different things but “stupid” has not been used in any sort of frequency that I remember. Why would China invite and allow a firebrand to enter their carefully controlled country, whip a populous they are trying to keep under their political thumb into a revolutionary frenzy, and pay an enormous sum for the privilege?

Nobody is saying anything-- not Dylan, not his handlers, not the Chinese government—about what, if anything was censured or cancelled off his set list. Part of the presumed agreement would be that Chinese censors would review a set list prior to the performance. This would not be like a Bill Veeck, let’s sneak a contract hiring a midget for a publicity stunt onto the baseball commissioner’s desk late on a Friday afternoon, knowing it would not be looked at until it was too late. No, this would be a highly publicized visit. A visit by one of the most explosive protestors ever cut in the traditional troubadour’s role of calling out a king, or a Caribbean calypsonian calling out a corrupt island government.

This was Bob Dylan coming to Beijing. China is not exactly on every performer’s short list of dream destinations. In fact, the number of Western performers to play in China is a short list in itself. Prior performers included such political heavyweights as Wham, with such phrases like “something ain’t right,” and “you make the sun shine brighter than Doris Day” from their hit,  “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go," are not going to throw any fright into the Chinese government. That was in ancient 1984. Did we even dream that the next act would be the equally politically inflammatory act of Jan and Dean? Nothing three degrees calmer than the Spice Girls would have been considered as more un-radical. Sorry for the “couldn’t resist” portion of this article. I think that urge has passed and freed me to discuss the two Dylan performances given last week in China.

We will eventually find out if any songs that Dylan wanted to play were cut out by Chinese authorities. I can’t imagine that secretly Hu Jintao plays “Blowing in the Wind” or cuts from the John Wesley Harding album in quiet moments when he’s not plotting which Chinese lawyers or architects to abduct and abuse.
People who follow set lists from other Dylan concerts, knowing the present form that chameleon Bobby Zimmerman is taking these days, discount the notion that Dylan had this list of flame-throwing tunes red lined into submission by the Chinese censors, leaving only unrequited love tunes from “Love and Theft.” Someone at the New York Times, though, thinks he’s still working on Maggie’s farm.

Briefly I’ll throw in here a few of the lunatic notions advanced by the sometimes embarrassing loose cannon, Maureen Dowd, who penned a slanted column chastising Dylan for not walking out if the Chinese government had refused to allow him to sing “Blowin’ In the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin.” The funny part is that Dylan hasn’t played those nuggets live in years.

I have to admit that ever since I found out that Dylan was playing in repressive China, my curiosity of his set list was piqued. I think eventually Dylan will be asked about his original set list and I’m going to venture a guess at his answer, something that Maureen Dowd would be utterly incapable of guessing on her own, given the evidence of her knowledge of Dylan exposed in her Op-Ed piece. I am willing to guarantee that Bobby just sang a few songs for no particular reason. Shocker! Dowd always projects deep fathomed reasons why people do things. I am not going out on any far limb to also guess that Dylan also threw in several songs specifically as digs at the Chinese government. Apparently no censor red lined “’All Along The Watchtower” or "Ballad of A Thin Man."

And borrowing on the theme that the Chinese government is not stupid, they were allowing the digs, a way of implying to the world that they are not the little children of 1984, using a band like Wham to showcase Chinese benevolence. Allowing Dylan was China saying they are able to play with the Big Boys of the world and let the Big Boy’s in to sing.

One thing you must know about Dylan, and this is obvious to me after many years of observing him: He doesn’t like being analyzed and he hates when he’s labeled or asked a direct question about any of his work. He will talk about his process in a vague way. He’ll talk about some of what influences him. But getting a genuine or straight from the heart answer out of him is like we used to say, attaching a jellyfish to a bulletin board with a thumbtack.  Remember that when he was in his protest heyday, events around him were going horribly wrong. The assassinations really scared him, John and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X,  and internationally Ngo Dinh Diem, Patrice Lumumba, and Rene Schneider, and as if to confirm all his fears, years later, John Lennon. He did not want to be any sort of spokesman because he feared that someone would get him.

Elizabeth Lynch in her article “In Defense of Dylan in China” got it right when she said he never sold out because “he never bought in.” Dylan was among that number of folk singers in Greenwich Village who caught the first wave of commercial success and was criticized for not remaining among the starving, noble folkies. When I walk the streets in the Village and try to imagine as it was then I find conjuring up the sense of a wide open industry extremely difficult in the face of today’s commercialism. I imagine now that whole set would be twittering away, have RSS feeds and websites. Dylan would have been a champion blogger. Dylan was always out for himself; fighting for a cause was a pretty foreign ideal for him even though he eagerly wore the mantle, temporarily. In an excellent chiding of Dowd for not understanding that Dylan never bought in, Lynch uses Dylan’s own words “you could have done better, but I don’t mind, you just kinda wasted my precious time.”

Making an issue out of whether China censored Dylan is just that, a waste of our precious time, especially when you read the rest of Dylan’s set list. When has Zimmie ever written or said anything without multiple meanings? Where has Dylan gone soft in singing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in that China concert? Read between the lines of “Desolation Row.”  There may be some people disappointed that he didn’t set off a revolution with that concert, but there’s enough smack to go around in the lyrics of the songs he did sing. If nothing else, he added to the conversation that we must continue, to force the curtain of oppression in China to be risen for everyone to see, to talk about, and to sing about. Yes, there was a small part of me that wished that he would have deviated from his set list, obviously previewed by the authorities, and launched into a searing rendition of Cui Jian's "I have Nothing/Nothing To My Name." Dylan was probably afraid that they would have taken him out to the Chinese version of Highway 61, (Tiananmen Square no longer fits that bill) and he'd be left to figure someway out of there if he could find any beggers or thieves.

In another wonderful counterpoint to Dowd, Jason Linkins writes about how Dylan sang “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Dylan bathed in a single yellow spotlight, stared out at the crowd and “snarled” not “sang” “something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, Do you, Mister Jones?” That had to be a magic moment for all those oppressed people. Dylan was calling out the Chinese government and unlike Mr. Jones, they understood him
Not to completely kill Maureen Dowd, because she really has to move on to write about other serious matters, Chinese human rights violations have only occupied a nanosecond of her editorial time. This review of hers was only a half thought out rant at Bob Dylan, pleasing (as writer Sean Curnyn put it) mainly her audience and the people who foot her paychecks. If you still want to read Maureen Dowd’s mishandling of the event, you can just Google it. Unless, of course, you’re living in China.

Bob Dylan's set list on April 6, 2011, Beijing
Gonna Change My Way of Thinking
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
Tangled Up In Blue
Honest With Me
Simple Twist of Fate
Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
Love Sick
Rollin’ And Tumblin’
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Highway 61 Revisited
Spirit On The Water
Thunder On The Mountain
Ballad of A Thin Man
Like A Rolling Stone
All Along The Watchtower
Forever Young

Links to articles referred to in my Dylan post:
Jason Linkin article:
Sean Curnyn
Elizabeth Lynch article
Maureen Dowd article (Ok, I relented; here is her article):

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