I’m pasting and posting here the full texts of Maureen Dowd’s April 9 commentary on Bob Dylan’s China appearances, and Sean Wilentz’s speed-of-light rebuttal. I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing to thank Prof. Wilentz for taking time that could have been far better spent in productive non-rebuttalesque pursuits to address the carelessness and ignorance distributed through Dowd’s essay.
Some of her carelessness is easily dismissed, even risible: I don’t see any evidence here that she read the set lists of Dylan’s China shows, nor that her knowledge of his work extends beyond superficial readings of sound bite lyrics.
Some of her carelessness is professional: I don’t see that Dowd offers her readers documentary evidence that Chinese officials of any kind reviewed and restricted set lists, and evidence that Dylan agreed to the restrictions. Nor does she provide her readers with evidence that she had any contact with Chinese citizens to determine if some of them may have already had a familiarity with Dylan’s work, rather than being oppressed automatons susceptible to dangerous consciousness-raising upon hearing Blowin’ in the Wind, and similarly susceptible to being further narcotized by oppression upon not hearing Blowin’ in the Wind.
Some of her carelessness is rhetorical: Somehow she takes the words of David Hajdu, Sean Wilentz, and Bob Dylan, who all speak to Dylan’s explicit unwillingness to serve as a political mascot or agent, to defend an argument that Dylan is a hypocrite who has failed an obligation to serve as a political mascot or agent.
For me, her worst carelessness is the flabby devil (hat-tipping here to Joseph Conrad) of armchair moral righteousness. Bob Dylan is a sell-out because he ostensibly did not serve Maureen Dowd’s pious vision of speaking truth to power in China. The answer we can offer her comes conveniently in the form of a sound-bite: You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you. Ask Bob Dylan to do what he does, and kick your own kicks. Read on, and thanks again to Prof. Wilentz for taking the time to rebut with patience.
Blowin’ in the Idiot Wind
By MAUREEN DOWD
Published: April 9, 2011
Bob Dylan may have done the impossible: broken creative new ground in selling out. 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 — 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.
Before Dylan was allowed to have his first concert in China on Wednesday at the Worker’s Gymnasium in Beijing, he ignored his own warning in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” — “Better stay away from those that carry around a fire hose” — and let the government pre-approve his set.
Iconic songs of revolution like “The Times They Are a-Changin,’ ” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” wouldn’t have been an appropriate soundtrack for the 2,000 Chinese apparatchiks in the audience taking a relaxing break from repression.
Spooked by the surge of democracy sweeping the Middle East, China is conducting the harshest crackdown on artists, lawyers, writers and dissidents in a decade. It is censoring (or “harmonizing,” as it euphemizes) the Internet and dispatching the secret police to arrest willy-nilly, including Ai Weiwei, the famous artist and architect of the Bird’s Nest, Beijing’s Olympic stadium.
Dylan said nothing about Weiwei’s detention, didn’t offer a reprise of “Hurricane,” his song about “the man the authorities came to blame for something that he never done.” He sang his censored set, took his pile of Communist cash and left.
“The Times They Are Not a-Changin’,” noted The Financial Times under a picture of the grizzled 69-year-old on stage in a Panama hat.
“Imagine if the Tea Party in Idaho said to him, ‘You’re not allowed to play whatever,’ you’d get a very different response,” said an outraged Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch.
A 22-year-old Dylan did walk off “The Ed Sullivan Show” when CBS censors told him he couldn’t sing “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.”
But he’s the first to admit he cashes in.
David Hajdu, the New Republic music critic, says the singer has always shown a tension between “not wanting to be a leader and wanting to be a celebrity.”
In Hajdu’s book, “Positively 4th Street,” Dylan is quoted saying that critics who charged that he’d sold out to rock ’n’ roll had it backward.
“I never saw myself as a folksinger,” he said. “They called me that if they wanted to. I didn’t care. I latched on, when I got to New York City, because I saw (what) a huge audience there was. I knew I wasn’t going to stay there. I knew it wasn’t my thing. … I became interested in folk music because I had to make it somehow.”
“Folk music,” he concluded, “is a bunch of fat people.”
He can’t really betray the spirit of the ’60s because he never had it. In his memoir, “Chronicles,” he stressed that he had no interest in being an anti-establishment Pied Piper and that all the “cultural mumbo jumbo” imprisoned his soul and made him nauseated.
“I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of,” he said.
He wrote that he wanted to have a house with a white picket fence and pink roses in back, live in East Hampton with his wife and pack of kids, eat Cheerios and go to the Rainbow Room and see Frank Sinatra Jr. perform.
“Whatever the counterculture was, I’d seen enough of it,” he wrote. He complained of being “anointed as the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent.”
Performing his message songs came to feel “like carrying a package of heavy rotting meat,” he wrote.
Hajdu told me that Dylan has distanced himself from his protest songs because “he’s probably aware of the kind of careerism that’s apparent in that work.” Dylan employed propaganda to get successful but knows those songs are “too rigidly polemical” to be his best work.
“Maybe the Chinese bureaucrats are better music critics than we give them credit for,” Hajdu said, adding that Dylan was now “an old-school touring pro” like Frank Sinatra Sr.
Sean Wilentz, the Princeton professor who wrote “Bob Dylan in America,” said that the Chinese were “trying to guard the audience from some figure who hasn’t existed in 40 years. He’s been frozen in aspic in 1963 but he’s not the guy in the work shirt and blue jeans singing ‘Masters of War.’ ”
Wilentz and Hajdu say you can’t really censor Dylan because his songs are infused with subversion against all kinds of authority, except God. He’s been hard on bosses, courts, pols and anyone corrupted by money and power.
Maybe the songwriter should reread some of his own lyrics: “I think you will find/When your death takes its toll/All the money you made/Will never buy back your soul.”
The Real Dylan in China
When it comes to denouncing Bob Dylan as a sell-out, the times they haven’t changed that much in fifty years.
In 1964, Irwin Silber, the editor of the lefty folk music magazine Sing Out!, notoriously blasted Dylan for daring to lay aside his protest material. A product of the Popular Front Communist Left, Silber was offended that Dylan had ceased writing and performing narrowly political songs. Now Maureen Dowd, of the august liberal New York Times, is offended that Dylan failed to perform these same songs during his recent shows in Beijing and Shanghai. Apparently, unless Dylan performs according to a politically-correct line, he is corrupt, even immoral. He is not allowed to be an artist, he must be an agitator. And he can only be an agitator if he sings particular songs.
Dowd isn’t angry that Dylan performed in China. She is angry that he apparently agreed to do so under certain conditions, that he didn’t sing “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and that he didn’t take the opportunity to denounce Chinese human rights policies.
I don’t know exactly what Dylan did or did not agree to. (I don’t think Dowd does, either.) But whatever the facts are, Dylan knows very well—as I tried to tell Dowd when she interviewed me for her column—that his music long ago became uncensorable. Subversive thoughts aren’t limited to his blatant protest songs of long ago. Nor would his political songs from the early nineteen-sixties have made much sense in China in 2011. Dowd, like Mr. Jones in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” is as clueless about all of this as she is smug.
Dowd fumes that Dylan should have sung verses like:
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
That would have really riled the Chinese—once they’d figured out what a senator or a congressman was.
Instead, Dylan opened his concerts in Beijing and Shanghai with a scalding song from his so-called gospel period, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.”
I’m gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
Gonna put my best foot forward
Stop bein’ influenced by fools
Presumably, he sang some of the revised lyrics in the version that he released with Mavis Staples in 2003:
Jesus is coming
He’s coming back to gather His jewels
Well, we live by the Golden Rule
Whoever got the gold, rules
Or maybe he sang the original lyrics:
So much oppression
Can’t keep track of it no more
So much oppression
Can’t keep track of it no more
How much more subversive could Dylan have been in Communist China? Especially when he went on to sing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and, most unnerving of all, “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Depending on whatever agreement he made with them, I’d argue Dylan made a fool of the Chinese authorities, while getting paid in the bargain. He certainly made a fool of Maureen Dowd—or she has made a fool of herself.
Should Dylan have berated the Chinese government for cracking down on dissidents? For Dowd, only an explicit statement of denunciation would have sufficed, apparently. But Dylan learned long ago that he is not a particularly good conventional political spokesman. His gifts lie elsewhere, in composing and singing songs of love and loss and the rest of human experience, above and beyond politics, although politics is always there as well. His art has changed the world mightily, and not just in righting political wrongs. Imagine how much he would have changed had he heeded the pinched demands of Irwin Silber—and now Maureen Dowd.