In a strange way, it feels almost like a victory, albeit an exceptionally perverse one. After all the writing Yours Truly has done — over the course of a sad, wasted youth — lambasting the dang libbril meedeeya for their persistent misportrayal of Bob Dylan as a left wing protest singer type, now we have this. In that great iconic Mother of All Liberal Media Outlets that is the New York Times, the poisonous princess of the Op-Ed page herself, Maureen Dowd, rips Bob Dylan in 2011 as a sellout (Blowin’ in the Idiot Wind). Further, she attaches herself to the notion that Bob Dylan never really was that lefty utopian true-believer he’s so often been sketched as being, but merely an opportunist who saw the folk scene of the early 1960s as providing his quickest entré to fame and fortune.
There’s a rough pit of truth hiding somewhere in Maureen Dowd’s column, but it is buried beneath the bitter fruit of distortion, inaccuracy and false premise. However, since most of her columns only possess the latter quality rather than the former, this is actually a pretty good day for Dowd. She is one of those writers who continually proves that she knows very little about much of anything, but for that one thing which she knows very well indeed; namely, her audience, and in particular those in her audience who sign her paycheck. She knows how and where they like to be tickled.
One of the false premises in her column — which in days gone by might have been caught by a “fact-checker,” if such ever really existed or are only legend — is that Bob Dylan was prohibited by the Chinese authorities from singing Blowin’ in the Wind and The Times They Are A-Changin’. This is false as a premise, because (as previously mentioned in this space) no one has yet cited an authoritative source for its being true, but have merely repeated the speculations of others, based on Bob’s set lists. However, it’s nothing unusual for Dylan to play a gig without including those songs. He’s got a whole lot to choose from, and more than just a few familiar classics with which to rouse a crowd. Put it this way: If Bob Dylan had played these two gigs in, say, Philadlephia, no one today would be accusing the Governor of Pennsylvania of censoring his act. The set lists would be utterly unremarkable (except to the degree that obsessive fans are always interested in what he chooses to play). A couple of days ago, seeing all these articles which strongly implied that Dylan had been censored, I emailed the writer of one of them (the one which was in the LA Times). In fairness, his article had not asserted that Dylan had been censored, but the headline and subheadlines, presumably added by an editor, had pretty much done so. I asked him — and he is actually based in Beijing, so he knows something about what’s going on there — if he knew as a matter of record which songs the Chinese regime may have ordered Dylan not to sing, and he replied that he did not. He only knew, like most everyone else, that Dylan had been “invited” to play in China with the proviso that the content of his gig be “approved.” What that has meant in practice is still unconfirmed. For all we know now, the commies in Beijing may have ordered Dylan not to play Highway 61 Revisited and Like A Rolling Stone, and he gleefully disobeyed them.
It will be no great surprise if we find out that the Chinese Ministry of Culture “banned” certain songs for their own foolish or arbitrary reasons, but at this point we don’t know anything of the kind. Perhaps all the hoopla will nudge the generally reticent Dylan and his camp into setting the record straight. [Update: Wow, he actually did it! Statement of 5/13/2011 at this link. NO censorship took place.]
In any case, however, we do know that he performed songs far more tough-minded than Blowin’ in the Wind and The Times They Are A-Changin’ (which as everyone surely should know by now are not “protest songs” at all, but really songs about human nature and eternity). He kicked off both Chinese gigs and the gig in Vietnam with Gonna Change My Way of Thinking, from his “gospel era.” He’s rewritten it a little since then, but it remains a no-holds-barred manifesto that, in terms of aggression, eats The Times They Are A-Changin’ for lunch. It’s a blasting blues stomper, and includes these verses:
Gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
Gonna put my best foot forward
Stop being influenced by fools
Jesus is coming
Coming back to gather his jewels
We live by the golden rule
Whoever’s got the gold rules
In China, Bob Dylan has also performed A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Desolation Row, Beyond Here Lies Nothin’, The Levee’s Gonna Break, and Ballad of a Thin Man. These are songs that don’t so much blow in the wind as blow your mind — if you’re paying attention to the world which they reflect and portray.
Among the most absurd things in Maureen Dowd’s column is her knock at Bob Dylan for not playing Hurricane. It’s a song he hasn’t sung live since 1976! And what urgent relevance could this almost journalistic litany of the facts of a New Jersey murder trial from forty years ago possibly have for his Chinese audience anyway? The detained artist Ai Weiwei hasn’t been accused of murder, isn’t black, and won’t be freed because of some perceived miscarriage of justice. Totalitarianism doesn’t work that way.
Dowd quotes lines from Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles, indicating that he was unhappy with being falsely labeled (for instance, by the kind of people who write for the New York Times) as being a leader of protest movements. This apparently irks Maureen, and perhaps inspires the effort to brand Dylan a hypocrite and an opportunist. Bob Dylan should just be satisfied being what other people tell him he’s supposed to be.
Maureen Dowd may have begun writing this column with a fixed idea of what she wanted to say, but she did apparently at least reach out to others who know a little about Dylan’s career. That explains this paragraph:
[Sean] Wilentz and [David] 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.
I don’t know who said what in that paragraph, or if both writers really said the very same thing, but of-course this composite statement is exactly right. Bob Dylan’s songs have always shone a light on the unreliability of human beings, by our very nature. However, as alluded to, his work has avoided nihilism by always retaining a consciousness at some level of something higher, holier and incorruptible. Often that has been implicit, but sometimes it has been explicit, by naming in one way or another the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — and, indeed, of Jesus. (If you like poetry, the Many Named Beloved.) His body of work remains radical and subversive, just not necessarily in the ways in which lazy journalists would have had people believe.
The correctness of the above observation by Wilentz/Hadju blows the theme of Maureen Dowd’s column to pieces. Yet, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she has just shot herself in the head, she keeps going and closes with these bon mots:
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.”
Does Bob Dylan really need to fly to China, and put up with whatever aggravation he had to put up with, to make money? The guy’s last two albums of original material entered the charts at number one. He’s now also a bestselling author and a highly successful painter. Everything he touches in his senior years seems to turn to gold. Which is more likely: that he needs the money from these two gigs in China, or that he’s simply continuing to pursue the calling which has taken him so far and brought both entertainment and consolation to so many people across the globe?
Bob Dylan hardly needs defending, by me or anyone else, from Maureen Dowd and the other critics of the moment. It’s deja-vu all over again, and the compelling strength of his music is the trump card that for him has always overcome the sniping and the detractors. But some things you just don’t want to let lie.
Addendum 4/14/2011: It’s worth noting that, since writing the above, Bob Dylan has now played two shows in Hong Kong — where any restrictions by the Ministry of Culture in mainland China do not apply. The first show’s set list is at this link, and the second night’s is at this link. At neither show were Blowin’ in the Wind or Times They Are A-Changin’ or other alleged 1960s “protest” songs sung.