Another Side of Dylan, China, and the nature of “Protest.”

A little Shanghai Scrap pop quiz for the weekend.

The following two verses were sung in Beijing on April 6, 2011:

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

There’s a kingdom called Heaven
A place where there is no pain of birth
There’s a kingdom called Heaven
A place where there is no pain of birth
Well the Lord created it, mister
About the same time He made the earth

Q. Where, in Beijing, were these verses sung?

A. an underground church in downtown; B. a Mormon house church in an expatriate compound in the suburbs; C. a Bob Dylan concert at Worker’s Stadium.

The correct answer, as the title of this post surely suggests, is the last one. That is to say, those verses are the last two of “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” the song with which Dylan opened his concerts in Beijing, and Shanghai. They are preceded by verses that include an apocalyptic vision of hell, and this rather key passage: “So much oppression/Can’t keep track of it no more.” Bluntly: this is an undeniably Christian protest against earthly materialism and oppression, from 1979’s Slow Train Coming album (the last first of Dylan’s oft-dismissed Christian period).

And yet, if you were to take even a passing glance at the criticism and opprobrium that Dylan has received for not playing “protest” songs in Beijing and Shanghai, much less speaking out in favor of artistic freedom (something that he’s never done in the past), you might – like the ever-lame Maureen Dowd of the New York Times – conclude 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.

Curiously, 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. 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.

Three final notes.

1. Am I the only person who remembers the days when it was considered a cultural triumph for an American artist “to perform behind the iron curtain?” Entire albums and career resuscitations are based upon this conceit. Surely, those days haven’t come to an end, have they?

2. It has been widely reported that Dylan’s Beijing and Shanghai setlists were submitted for approval by the Chinese authorities. Alas, I have yet to see any report that provides a source for that information. Dylan’s camp? The promoter? The government? I suspect that I’ve missed a citation somewhere. If so, could someone please provide it in a comment or email?

[UPDATE 4/11: In comment #9, below, Will provides an answer to this question:

"The Ministry of Culture’s approval notice for Dylan’s mainland tour stated that the performance needed to stick strictly to the approved content and reminded the performers of their responsibility to monitor/supervise to make sure that happened. I don’t know if there was any other source for claims that the set list had been vetted by Chinese authorities."]

3. If, in fact, Dylan’s set was pre-approved, is it not curious that the censoring authorities would approve of Dylan playing an unabashedly Christian song at the front of his two Chinese sets? By my way of thinking, the authorities, a) didn’t notice, or b) didn’t care. Interesting, either way.

[UPDATED: Jeremiah Jenne of the Granite Studio blog has also published a Dylan-oriented rant today, and it is very much worth reading, here.]

16 thoughts on “Another Side of Dylan, China, and the nature of “Protest.”

  1. Informative and thought-provoking. Slow Train Coming has always been one of my favorite albums period, and always will be. Will be giving your post some more thought…

  2. Slow Train Coming was the first album of Uncle Bob’s Christian period, not the last.

  3. Pingback: Dylan in Beijing: final Thoughts and a bit of a rant | Jottings from the Granite Studio

  4. Pedant – You’re absolutely right. It was the first, not the last. My mistake, and a correction on the way …

  5. I’ll never forget Slow Train Coming. I bought it, played it once and hated it so much I didn’t play it again for years. But then, strange thing, I found that I actually liked it and by then Bob had moved on from his short-lived Jesus period.

    I saw Dylan in concert this summer at a minor league ballpark in Yakima, Washington, along with around 1400 people. The concert was amazing. Dylan played for maybe 1.5 hours and I don’t think he spoke one word. I also don’t think I understood one word of what he sang either.

  6. Pingback: Sunday Reading « zunguzungu

  7. The Ministry of Culture’s approval notice for Dylan’s mainland tour stated that the performance needed to stick strictly to the approved content and reminded the performers of their responsibility to monitor/supervise to make sure that happened. I don’t know if there was any other source for claims that the set list had been vetted by Chinese authorities.

  8. Pingback: Maureen Dowd slams “sellout” Bob Dylan in New York Times | The Cinch Review

  9. Is it possible — Re: Christian song sung at the beginning — that censors and “apparatchiks” consider the Christian nature of the song to be “other” enough that it wold not phase an audience of well-off Chinese enjoying this mental treat from the West? I don’t know. I think Fergie and Gwen Stefani have gotten more flack in the press and even had measures brought against their concerts for things like sex and stuff, which maybe the Chinese consider as universal affronts to Chinese sensibilities.

  10. “The Ministry of Culture’s approval notice for Dylan’s mainland tour stated that the performance needed to stick strictly to the approved content and reminded the performers of their responsibility to monitor/supervise to make sure that happened. I don’t know if there was any other source for claims that the set list had been vetted by Chinese authorities.”

    That’s pretty pro forma for all performances in China. It’s part of the contract. It doesn’t mean that the set list was vetted, that they demanded changes, or if he had changed it somewhat that there would have been consequences…if they had realized it.

  11. “But something is happening here
    But you don’t know what it is
    Do you, Mister Jones ?”
    Do you Ms Dowd?

  12. Good post, Adam. I had similar thoughts immediately after seeing the set list from the BJ concert and then attending the SH concert (I tweeted a link to the lyrics after reading too many journalists slam Dylan). Here are a few other lines from that song that, I think, are pretty subversive, given the context of where he was singing the song:

    You can mislead a man
    You can take ahold of his heart with your eyes
    You can mislead a man
    You can take ahold of his heart with your eyes
    But there’s only one authority
    And that’s the authority on high

    I think another interesting point is that Dylan sang ‘Blowin’ in the wind’ in Taipei, the concert right before the mainland China dates. He hasn’t played the song since.

    Dowd’s commentary was obviously shallow and she exhibited little knowledge of how Dylan operates. He has never been the type to take the spotlight and publicly criticize any authority in an obvious way (outside the lyrics to his songs), even in his home country. He’s spent his career trying to avoid that type of thing. He delivers his message through his music, and I’m glad you’re focusing on that.

  13. I hope there’s no connection between use of the P word and the 3 weeks of silence since this post.

  14. Is it possible — Re: Christian song sung at the beginning — that censors and “apparatchiks” consider the Christian nature of the song to be “other” enough that it wold not phase an audience of well-off Chinese enjoying this mental treat from the West? I don’t know. I think Fergie and Gwen Stefani have gotten more flack in the press and even had measures brought against their concerts for things like sex and stuff, which maybe the Chinese consider as universal affronts to Chinese sensibilities.
    +1

  15. Pingback: Dylan: “Allow me to clarify this so-called China controversy…” | China Digital Times (CDT)

Comments are closed.