Just last month, Bob Dylan played his first concert in China at the Worker’s Gymnasium in Beijing. It wasn’t exactly a big show. Roughly 2,000 people attended, but it became a big affair at home when NYTimes columnist Maureen Dowd wrote a caustic op-ed, accusing Dylan of playing a censored set stripped of his revolutionary anthems. In short, she declared, Dylan went to China and sold out his 60s soul:
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.
Now, in a note to fans, Dylan took the rare step of responding to these (and other) accusations in a short letter published yesterday. He writes:
As far as censorship goes, the Chinese government had asked for the names of the songs that I would be playing. There’s no logical answer to that, so we sent them the set lists from the previous 3 months. If there were any songs, verses or lines censored, nobody ever told me about it and we played all the songs that we intended to play.
I’m guessing this response will only partly satisfy Dowd. Perhaps Dylan didn’t change his set to please the apparatchiks. But did he miss an opportunity to make the right statement? Just maybe. But no matter, we’re putting this behind us and getting ready for Dylan’s 70th birthday on May 24. We still love him, warts and all…