Bob Dylan played his first gig in communist China today, having played first a few nights ago in Taiwan. By Beijing time, the gig took place last night, the night of April 6th, in a venue called the Workers’ Gymnasium. Already, some media outlets are engaged in trying to interpret Bob’s setlist; a hobby usually limited to obsessive fans with too much time on their (or our) hands. From Reuters (Bob Dylan gets rapturous reception at China concert):
Famous for his songs against injustice and for civil liberties and pacifism, Dylan struck a cautious line in Beijing and did not sing anything that might have overtly offended China’s Communist rulers, like “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
There’s been many references to the fact that Bob Dylan’s songs had to be “approved” by the Chinese regime in advance — and there’s no question that they do employ those tactics with foreign entertainers — but I don’t know that anyone has concrete evidence of any songs he was ordered not to sing. So the above kind of thing is speculative.
Reuters does also point out this amusingly snide statement in advance of Dylan’s gig from a state-run Chinese newspaper, the “Global Times”:
The subject of Dylan’s songs, from drugs to racial equality to human dignity to war, are not on the radar of the average Chinese person, who is more interested in taking care of his or her family.
The one that most strikes me there in that list is “human dignity.” Is the average Chinese person really not interested in even human dignity? What an extraordinarily telling remark from the communist party mouthpieces.
TIME magazine gets in on the act today too:
In front of a 5,000-person crowd at the Worker’s Gymnasium, the 69-year old singer-songwriter croaked out a 17-song set list that mixed modern and vintage pieces, ranging from the hugely popular to the virtually unknown. Highlighting the performance were famous hits “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Tangled Up In Blue” and “All Along the Watchtower.” Missing from the set list, as many critics noticed, were his trademark protest songs, especially “Times They Are A-Changing.”
While many quickly criticized him for not playing protest songs and thus surrendering his ideals to the will of the Chinese government, which has attracted press coverage recently for cracking down on activism, it’s unclear how much meaning to extract from that decision.
Who are these “many critics” who jumped all over Dylan for not playing The Times They Are A-Changin’, I wonder? (And one day, I’d surely love it if someone could tell me what that song is protesting against.)
The Culture Ministry accepted his song “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” perhaps because it’s often examined in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But lyrics like “I heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin'” may reflect a call for government reform. Not convinced? In the same song, he speaks of a land “Where the people are many and their hands are all empty/Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters/Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,” bringing to mind poverty and pollution prevalent in modern China.
I don’t know whether Jenny Wilson of TIME magazine really knows as a matter of record what songs the Culture Ministry accepted or rejected, but I’ll give her kudos nonetheless for the topical breakdown of A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. Of-course Dylan fans have played these games since about, well, sometime around 1961, I suppose.
So what was his actual set list in Beijing?
1. Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking
2. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
3. Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
4. Tangled Up In Blue
5. Honest With Me
6. Simple Twist Of Fate
7. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
8. Love Sick
9. Rollin’ And Tumblin’
10. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
11. Highway 61 Revisited
12. Spirit On The Water
13. Thunder On The Mountain
14. Ballad Of A Thin Man
15. Like A Rolling Stone
16. All Along The Watchtower
17. Forever Young
It’s a strong set list, a good mix. In character, it’s not way off the set lists of his shows of the last several tours. It doesn’t seem to me that there’s anything jarring or obviously inserted as a statement. Bob Dylan doesn’t have to try to make commentary on things with his set lists, because his songs in general constitute a deep commentary in and of themselves, not merely on passing things but on human nature and on questions that never go away.
I note that he kicked off the gig with a song from his “gospel era,” as he did in Taipei a few nights ago (then it was Gotta Serve Somebody). However, even this is not unusual as compared to what he’s been doing at gigs in the U.S. and elsewhere the last couple of years.
The main extra thing he gave the crowd in Beijing was a rare second encore, in which he performed Forever Young. He usually saves that kind of thing for the last night of a tour.
The day after tomorrow, Dylan will play in Shanghai.
Addendum: Also see my response to Maureen Dowd’s slam of “sellout” Bob Dylan.