Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Dylan in China

In The New York Times this week Maureen Dowd accuses Bob Dylan of selling out in order to tour in China by letting the government pre-approve his play list. “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,” the columnist laments.
Since I have a blog which is named for one of Bob Dylan’s songs, I feel a certain obligation to respond.
The thing about Dylan is that he is a poet who has routinely and consistently upset his fans. When he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, he upset his folk music fans (these were the ones who wanted him to keep writing “Blowin’ in the Wind” for the rest of his life). Then he upset his rock fans during his Nashville Skyline phase (Dylan made rare use of a clear singing voice as he went country for a brief time). His “Jesus years” upset many more of his fans. There was outrage from the cadres of the music industry as Dylan gained a whole new set of fans on the evangelical Christian circuit. Then when he returned to some of his folk/rock roots (and even his Jewish roots) he upset his newfound Christian fans who wanted him to stay in some narrow mold of their own.

Words That Span a Lifetime
Dylan has written so much, that just about anyone can find something he said that can highlight whatever point they want to make (he’s kind of like Augustine in that regard – all stripes end up quoting Augustine). In those early days, it was not just "Blowin' in the Wind." There was "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," and "The Ballad of Emmet Till," which told stories of injustice in our time. Of course, "The Times They Are a-Changin'" spoke of sweeping social changes and it gave the young folk artist the status of a prophet. Then there was the 1966 double album, Blonde on Blonde which has been heralded as one of the best rock albums of all time. 

In my opinion, Infidels, Empire Burlesque, and O Mercy represent the height of Dylan’s creative work (I know others will disagree, but everyone has their favorite Dylan). Yet in Infidels he has songs that range from the energetic celebration of “Jokerman” and the beautifully reflective (and enigmatic) “Sweetheart Like You” to the hauntingly mythic “I and I” to the outright Zionistic and polemical “Neighborhood Bully.” I see Dylan as primarily a poet with a body of work which will not let you pin him down.

A National Treasure?
Now the artist is doing more blues, but his Modern Times recording demonstrated that he has become more of a national treasure than a voice for a generation. It is a nice recording, good music, but nothing profound. If he had done something like it in the 1970s people would have howled, “What is he doing?” Had he done it in the 1980s, they would have talked about how over-produced it was. But in 2006, Modern Times met to generally great reviews, some claiming  it to be some of his best work (Rolling Stone magazine named it Album of the Year) – that’s when I realized that Dylan had gone the full gamut from being the voice of a generation to national treasure.

Which Dylan Do You Want?
 All in all, it is no surprise that Ms. Dowd wants to see “her” Dylan on stage rather than some “other” Dylan.  Before you jump to conclusions about his selling out, look at what he is performing. I haven’t seen the full play list, but I heard that the songs performed in China include a couple from Slow Train (Dylan’s Christian testament): “Gonna Change My Way of Thinkin” has such lines as:
Gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
I’m gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
Gonna put my good foot forward
Stop bein’ influenced by fools.

         *  *  *
So much oppression
Can't keep track of it no more...
        *  *  *
… You remember only about the brass ring,
You forget all about the Golden Rule.

 And “Serve Somebody” is on the playlist as well:

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

So my question is, Is Bob Dylan smiling behind his stage persona at those Chinese officials, considering what they approved for him to perform? How many innocuous Dylan songs are there, anyway? Is he being the trickster poet or is he being the prudent entrepreneur?

 The fact is, he is both a poet and a performer. I doubt that he will ever be pinned down by his fans.

Oh Jokerman, you know what he wants.
Oh Jokerman, you don't show any response.

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