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."
Bob Dylan China Concert
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.
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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.