Dylan's Birthday Present
Free Bob from the Bobolator cult.
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I kind of like the way he sends up the Chinese authorities by sending them three months' of song lists, but it still evades the real issue; not what he sang but whether he should be singing at the sufferance of torturers at all.
Still, in all likelihood nobody would have paid much attention to Dylan's Chinese adventure, except for a scathing column by Maureen Dowd in the Sunday New York Times calling Dylan a "sell out" for kowtowing to the Chinese Stasi in the wake of Ai Weiwei's arrest.
Suddenly, as if answering a bugle call, the Bobolators rose and rallied as one to defend the besieged artist. No, I don't mean Ai Weiwei; he's just a disappeared Chinese guy to them, out of sight out of mind; he was no Bob Dylan. Must defend Bob. Whatever Bob does has a Higher Meaning.
And guess what the focus of the fierce attacks on Maureen Dowd was. Her unfamiliarity with Dylan's recent set list. She had jabbed at Dylan for not doing his most strident protest songs like "Masters of War" and "Hurricane" when—the Bobolators sneered—they rarely appeared on his set lists anymore. He hadn't sung "Hurricane" since 1976! Oh the humanity! (The humanity they had lost touch with in their Bobolatry.)
I'm not kidding: The Bobolators turned Dylan in China from an argument about repression, torture, and "disappearances" of dissidents, and how an artist, how any human should react to it, into an inside-baseball Dylanological contretemps designed to show off their superior knowledge of Dylan's set lists in his recent concerts. Talk about missing the point! Could they be this obtuse or just shamelessly eager to show Bob their undiminished fealty?
The "historian in residence" was the first to weigh in with a weak-tea defense of Dylan, a defense that raised a number of questions. Was there any line he'd draw? Would it be OK with him if, back in the day, Generalissimo Augusto Pinochet of Chile wanted to hear the soothing strains of "Lay Lady Lay" over the screams of his prisoners? Or how about today, Assad in Damascus must have some time off from piling up his dead citizens to enjoy a little live (non-protest) music. They just do these things out of sight in the People's Republic. The impression one got from the historian-in-residence was that human rights had to take a backseat to Dylan's whims.
One doesn't expect Dylan to be keeping close track of Chinese crackdowns but why wouldn't the historian-in-residence have not tipped him off that it was not a good moment to comfort the afflicters? Perhaps that was behind his hasty rush to justify the misguided deal—he hadn't spoken up before the deal went down and thereby hadn't protected Dylan from the scandal.
Have I made myself clear?: It should not have been an argument about what Dylan sang, but whether he should have sung anything at all. He could have cancelled the appearance without making a statement when he realized what was going on (people could have drawn their own conclusions as to whether the cancellation was political) or faked a motorcycle accident.
(By the way, re: motorcycle accidents. All good Bobolators know that Dylan's mysterious 1966 motorcycle accident changed the course of his life and his art, but the details, the seriousness, the after effects, have been obscured by mystery and unfounded theories. I now think I know the truth: the words of The Second Doctor, as I've come to call this shadowy now-dead figure. Something I learned about, curiously enough, while attending the J. Anthony Lukas Prize award ceremony at Columbia J-school earlier this month, something confided to me by one of the many ace investigative reporters there, so I tend to trust it.)
But, to return to the China contretemps, the Bobolators second line of defense was—seriously—that if his Chinese government hosts paid close attention and felt the true existentially subversive power of the songs Dylan actually sung, it would have rocked their world. Why the Great Wall of China would probably have crumbled into dust. Just from the force of his Truth, dudes. Gee, maybe it has! Has anyone checked the Wall lately? Is it still there?
And then they twisted themselves into pretzel-like contradictions: Dylan was never really a protest singer anyway; he only faked being one early in his career to get a leg up the ladder of fame from the folkies then fashionable when he arrived in New York at the beginning of the '60s. So he shouldn't have been expected to do anything confrontational in China; he was, like, above mundane political considerations.
Great defense! They're saying—his defenders!—that he was a scheming careerist liar. (Do they really believe the emotion in that beautiful ballad "Song to Woody" was all faked?) But he's Dylan so it's OK.
What's amusing is that they're willing to accept his explanation that he was never sincere in the first place politically so he shouldn't be bothered by it now. Don't they realize that this itself could be insincere. That he might be insincere in his protestations of insincerity about his protest songs? They're just such suckers for anything that issues from Bob's mouth they don't know when or whether they've been conned by one of the great put-on artists.
Still you have to love Dylan for creating all the mystery—and for that immortal line from the disclaimer-of-sincerity period when the folkies were on his case: "Folk music is a bunch of fat people."
But if Dylan was never really a protest singer, how can you claim at the same time that his songs, whatever he played, had the effect of a powerful protest on the Chinese torturers? Oh, and one of the most peculiar Bobolator defenses was that he really didn't, as Maureen Dowd implied, inspire anti-Vietnam War protesters with his music because, despite all the anti-war songs Maureen Dowd wanted him to play, like "Masters of War," he wasn't really against the Vietnam War! It may be true: The entire Vietnam protest movement was mistaken if they took any inspiration from him. They had the wrong exegesis!
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Photograph of Bob Dylan by Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images.