I read this morning that the artist who arguably defined the Sixties and its progression from the conservative safety of Eisenhower, Menzies and Macmillan into the radical, free-love, Ban The Bomb, Make Love Not War, Yasgur’s farm counterculture has bowed to the Chinese government and performed a censored list of songs at his recent Beijing concert. Yep…Bob Dylan, the man who sang ‘The Times Are a Changing’, who mused on how ‘With God On Our Side’ and told us that the ‘…answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind’ did the right thing by the regime that brought you such freedom loving activities as the invasion and occupation of Tibet and the repression of Tienanmen Square and didn’t sing classics that would have offended the local political sensibilities.
It could be said that in the spirit of openness having Dylan and his somewhat lifeless concert performance occurring at all is a start. You can’t expect a Jasmine Revolution to start with one riff from ‘Chimes of Freedom’. Also considering Dylan is Dylan, and the crotchetty old man has every right in the spirit of personal wealth accrual to swoop down on Beijing, grab the loot from a gig then exploit a few more wealthy locals and foreigners in Shanghai before making back for home, then who are we to complain. Other performers of a similar age have been to Beijing and kow-towed to local sensitivities (yes, I’m looking at you The Rolling Stones). Hell untold thousands of hugely successful international companies as well as foreign governments and autonomous world bodies have made sure that they’re on their best political behaviour when in the Middle Kingdom. Is it fair to have a dig at a veteran folkie who is after all just a singer/songwriter changing his tune when picking up the acoustic guitar and warbling into a microphone in front of a mainly Chinese live audience?
Of course it is…this is Bob fucking Dylan after all!
This is the same man who sat at Woody Guthrie’s bedside as the musical voice for the downtrodden of America’s Great Depression slowly slipped away? This is the same man who walked out on an Ed Sullivan Show complaining of censorship? How can one not feel disappointed that in Taiwan he could perform ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, however when he reaches the mainland the same classic gets left out?
Let’s look at it from another angle; in 1987 Billy Joel went to the USSR. This was in the era of Perestroika, and whilst the then Leningrad concerts may have had a goodly proportion of foreigners in the audience there were thousands of Soviet youths exposed to Joel’s Western pop music. In what we now know to be the declining years of the Communist regime of Soviet Russia Billy Joel was arguably brave enough, and his political minders relaxed enough to allow the American to perform a Dylan song. It was ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’; and as recorded Joel was explicit in associating the political context of Dylan’s masterpiece from the 60’s era US to the Gorbachev era USSR.
It would be fatuous to say that Dylan is a less noble troubadour for human rights than Billy Joel. It would be stupid to say that the USSR in 1987 is the same as the People’s Republic of China in 2011. These are two different countries with two different political systems at two different times with two different performers. Perhaps the Soviet minders felt that Billy Joel was far less threatening than the likes of a Bob Dylan could ever be, no matter the material. Perhaps Bob Dylan’s presence in Beijing is more politically charged than his actual music.
Then again if a glorified piano man with a successful but hardly legendary presence can sing a song that is redolent with themes of change, or revolution, of people doing something about their lack of individual rights and exerting their free will, why the fuck doesn’t the man who wrote the bloody song have the same conviction? What happened to the same man who went electric and then ignored the hard core folk fans who called him Judas? Why doesn’t he want to thumb his nose at the same regime that has just recently jailed the man partly responsible for the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium, artist and dissident Ai Weiwei? Is the wad of money the Chinese promoters giving Dylan that large he can’t but use it to metaphorically gag himself? Has Dylan really sold himself out that much?
I guess Bob himself doesn’t give a damn about it all; in his seventieth year like all grumpy old men he can tell anyone younger than him to shut up and stop trying to tell him what to do. The problem is when you create your own identity as a man willing to use music and art to inspire people to think about what is right and wrong, how to live a better life and do what you should do and not what the government enforces you to do, you sometimes have to actually live to that standard. Otherwise your work is negated and all the hyperbole from critics and fans alike becomes nought but empty rhetoric. Frankly I’d rather see an honest Billy Joel sing ‘Just The Way You Are’ or ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ knowing full well the guy is entertainer pure and simple, than a Bob Dylan undercut his own gravitas by playing into the censoring hands of the ruthlessly corrupt dictatorial bastards who keep about a quarter of the world’s population under tight controls.