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In an act of rebellion, Bob Dylan lets the Chinese censor his concert

Even for Bob Dylan's taste, America has always put a little too much faith in Bob Dylan. A generational spokesman? A civil-rights leader? A prophet? Those are some high expectations of fucking Mahatma Gandhi, let alone an old folksinger.

So it's no surprise that people have been freaking out about his first-ever concert in China last week, where he stuck to a set vetted by Chinese officials and never said a single word about the rampant censorship and Orwellian suppression happening in that country right now. Given his reputation, it would seem contrary to everything Dylan stands for. But that would be what Bob Dylan is reputed to stand for; what he stands for in actuality is pretty much a mystery. Here's the question nobody seems to be asking: Why — and he's remained characteristically mum on this one — did Bob Dylan want to play China so badly in the first place?

For an answer to that question, set the wayback machine to 2003 and the release of Masked and Anonymous, a thinly veiled fiction about himself that was hated by almost everybody. Roger Ebert gave it one-half star out of four, calling it a "vanity project beyond all reason."

It totally was, but it's also my favorite of all the Bob Dylan movies, and here's why: Masked is the truest. There were better ones — Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home was a great director's fascinating but largely unsuccessful attempt to crack the Dylan enigma; Todd Haynes's I'm Not There, a reflection on Dylan's cultural meaning — but Masked was the only one that Dylan himself had a hand in writing, and that makes all the difference. For all its vanity and considerable flaws — and no one ever doubted that Dylan was vain — Masked is the closest anything is likely to get to how Bob Dylan sees Bob Dylan.

There are some uncanny similarities between Masked and Dylan's trip to China. In the movie, Dylan stars as Jack Fate, a folksinger let out of jail into a war-torn, Orwellian landscape to perform one benefit concert. But what's more important than the storyline is Dylan/Fate's reaction to the totalitarian regime and the political chaos he sees around him — namely, resigned bemusement. Fate/Dylan just plays the concert and utters a few cryptic remarks, but he has no solution for any of it. "I was always a singer and maybe no more than that," he reflects. "I stopped trying to figure things out a long time ago."

Cultural impact aside, Bob Dylan is fundamentally just a guy who's done whatever he damn well pleased his whole life — whether it was to the chagrin of his fans or not — and he was just damn well going to go to China. In a way, letting Chinese officials censor him is almost the most rebellious thing he could do.

Interestingly, although several old protest classics were expressly banned, he inexplicably managed to slip in "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," a more caustic political statement than "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'" ever were, a song that concludes, given the context, with a contradiction Dylanesque enough to explode the mind:

"I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it, and reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it."

For what it's worth, maybe he did.

 
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Jef Otte
Jef Otte

Whatever he managed to slip past the censors, the certainly did censor him -- the setlist was vetted by Chinese officials. That's a fact, gentlemen.

Alecko
Alecko

Like many older generation artists Dylan is just doing what most folk aspire to and that is make some money.He has been round the blocks in so many cities so many times and his management are cracking new markets.Sales of music have dipped dramatically for him and others.He is in his own words a song and dance man,nothing else.I love Dylans music but take it for what it is.

Alex,Glasgow,Scotland

Chetjunior
Chetjunior

Bob Dylan is a blessing to no end. I'm glad some people in China got a chance to see him.

David
David

Dylan opened with 'Change My Way of Thinking'. "So much oppression, can't keep track of it no more." I don't know that he was necessarily censored just because he didn't play the most obvious possible songs.

Nice article, though.

Stevehughes
Stevehughes

he used to care but things have changed

Michael
Michael

Dylan did NOT allow any censorship of his set list in China, or anywhere else for that matter. Don't be lazy by passing on unsubstantiated information. Stop it!

Bgo7
Bgo7

I agree. If they were censoring him why did they allow his singing of Gonna Change My Way of Thinking. He talks of Jesus Christ coming back for His children. China is one of the worst persecutors of Christians and all religious groups. He did a favor and was balls-out doing that number.

Stan Denski
Stan Denski

Google :Masked & Anonymous David Vest" for the best review of that film I've ever found. But seriously.... SO Dylan was actually submitting to censorship when he refused to appear on Ed Sullivan after he was told he couldn't perform "Talking John Birch Society Paranoid Blues"??? I am assuming you would also agree that left is right, up is actually down and the NET doesn't suck the chrome off kitchen appliances?

Huck
Huck

Dylan isn t masked. Its quiet clear from the Isle of White concert back 40 years ago thatDylan loves money. The Chinees market is a potential for selling a lot of CD's and why would he mess up that opertunity. His concert tickets were had to be sold at such an outragous price because Mr Dylan wanted his normal fee that half the stadiums in China and Vietnam where he performed were empty. They say the ticket price was the equivalent of 1 monthes wages. Only the love of money on Mr Dylan's part can explain that.

Tucbrinton
Tucbrinton

When Jeff Otte stops fantasising and making up stories for which he offers no evidence, he might reflect on this. When Dylan tours the USA he doesn't speak out about the American government's track record in murdering innocent citizens in numerous other countries (from Japan and Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan) so why would Otte be so eager for him to comment on internal Chinese issues?

Glen
Glen

There is absolutely no indication anywhere that any of dylan's songs were prohibited by the Chinese. Please check your facts.

DUNCAN
DUNCAN

Ain't Talkin, Just Walkin?

Last Stop Auckland

when what time is it?

4:30;)

MZ
MZ

Do you know that Dylan's songs were banned or are you repeating hearsay? Since Chinese TV stations played Blowin' in the Wind and displayed the cover of Times They Are A-Changin' in their pre-concert broadcasts, it is highly unlikely that these songs were prohibited. And since Dylan played the former in only 10% of his shows last year and the latter in 1%, it is also unlikely that their absence means anything at all.

Anna
Anna

I totally agree with the author.

guest
guest

Its funny but Dylan never said that he stood for anything, he wrote and writes songs about topics that he either experienced himself or that made an impression on him. I think the expectations put upon him by others who seemed to project their visions of themselves and their views onto him led to unrealistic expectations, hence disappointment. Put someone on a high enough pedestal and they are bound to fall in your eyes eventually.

Cocoinfinity1
Cocoinfinity1

I am staying on the Dylan ride and what is great about it is the fact that it is still happening and i am hooked. hes doing it in spite of his critics and opening doors to inspire communications and ideas that have been supressed. Great job in Vietnam and I am glad he did it. His poetry and art needs to be shared.

 

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