Dylan, Dowd, and China: Did Bob Really Sell Out?

By James Fallows

Maureen Dowd, writing from Washington DC, is wroth about Bob Dylan's failure to stand up to The Man in his concert in Beijing this week. "Bob Dylan may have done the impossible: broken creative new ground in selling out," and so on. I see from the world of Twitter that this outraged/ disappointed interpretation is sweeping through the U.S. commentariat.

Bob-Dylan-performs-in-Jun-001.jpgMany of my Chinese and Western friends, writing from Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, and Nanjing, are wroth about Dowd and what they call her misunderstanding of Dylan, China, and the current alarming wave of crackdowns there. (Getty photo, left, from last year's tour.) Eg:

- Jeremiah Jenne, a Chinese-speaker and long-time resident of Beijing who covered the actual "Jasmine Protests" in Beijing in a stint as Guest Blogger here, says in his Jottings from the Granite Studio that "there has been a rash of increasingly unrealistic drivel [about Dylan] from the foreign press, culminating yesterday in a truly moronic piece by Maureen Dowd." Jenne pointed out that one of the numbers Dylan sang in Beijing, "a corrosive version of All Along the Watchtower, ain't exactly bubble gum pop. Coming on the heels of an epic Ballad of a Thin Man (in which Bob stood in a yellow spotlight at center stage, staring down the crowd like a carnival barker at the gates of Hell, literally snarling lyrics like "But something is happening here/But you don't know what it is/Do you, Mister Jones?") it's hard to complain that Bob was toning it down."

- Adam Minter, also former Guest Blogger here and long-term resident of Shanghai, points out  at his Shanghai Scrap site that Dylan began his China shows with the strongly Christian Gonna Change My Way of Thinking, eg:

Jesus said, "Be ready
For you know not the hour in which I come"
Jesus said, "Be ready
For you know not the hour in which I come"
He said, "He who is not for Me is against Me"
Just so you know where He's coming from

Minter says:

>>those few Chinese who attended, much less cared about, Dylan's concert, have not - best as I can tell - joined the chorus of mostly affluent foreigners claiming that a failure to sing "The Times They Are A-Changin'" in Beijing is tantamount to performing for Qadaffi's family. My suspicion is that they (and Dylan), probably sense that, in Beijing, there just isn't much revolutionary currency in song verses such as:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside and it is ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'

Indeed, I think it's fair to say that revolutionary anthems which address "senators and congressmen" are best addressed to people who have them....

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 Dowd 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.<<

And this note from a long time Dylan fan in America:

>>Check out the Beijing set list - he played A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall and Ballad of a Thin Man - those tunes are as "subversive" as anything he has written, and frankly, better tunes than his "protest" songs (The Times They Are A Changing).  http://www.boblinks.com/040611s.html 

What does Maureen Dowd want from Dylan exactly, and what evidence does she have that he altered his set list?  He doesn't speak at concerts, the set list changes daily, and again, Gonna Change My Way of Thinking which opened both China shows, and Desolation Row from Shanghai are more thumb-in-your eye than Blowin in the Windhttp://www.boblinks.com/040811s.html 

Dylan closed both China shows with Like A Rolling Stone (as he does all his shows). If the Chinese were really intent on shutting Dylan down, wouldn't they have crossed out that tune from the set list?

Gonna Change My Way of Thinking, from Slow Train Coming, opens with this lyric:

Gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
Gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
Gonna put my good foot forward
And stop being influenced by fools

So much oppression
Can't keep track of it no more
So much oppression
Can't keep track of it no more


It's from Dylan's so called "born again" phase, but do you think the Chinese were hip to that lyric?  Something is happening here, and you don't know what it is, do you Maureen Dowd?<<

For another on-scene review of the Shanghai concert, see this. I have heard to similar effect from a few Chinese friends in brief messages too. Main points of this based-in-China pushback:
    - The Chinese following for Dylan is not that enormous anyway -- in contrast, say, to the Eagles, whom my wife and I saw perform before a packed, enraptured crowd in Beijing last month and who are truly Big in China;
    - The songs that U.S. critics of Dylan were yearning to hear weren't ones that would have resonated in China; and
    - The songs he did sing were plenty boat-rocking themselves. "So much oppression / can't keep track of it no more."

Based on what I know about China and the role of pop culture there, and what I saw of the crackdown until a week ago when I left Beijing, Jenne, Minter, et al ring true to me. At a minimum, the situation is not as clear cut as "Dylan sells out." But read it all and judge for yourself.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/04/dylan-dowd-and-china-did-bob-really-sell-out/237055/