Is there anyone in American popular culture who intrigues and frustrates journalists of a certain age -- the Baby Boomer elites -- than Bob Dylan? The man is a walking history book, when you combine the landmark events in his life with the confusing but gripping map that is his canon of songwriting. That's why it was big news when he agreed to take his road tour that never ends to Beijing, where the Communist authorities insisted that he play by their rules when picking songs for his set list. Now there's a tug of war that could have been an amazing subject for musical, cultural, political and, yes, theological commentary, since this man's songs many-layered songs are packed with subtle themes as well as baseball-bat-to-the-head commentary.
This is what the Washington Post served up at the top of its report from the front lines:
BEIJING -- Rock music icon Bob Dylan avoided controversy on Wednesday in his first-ever appearance in Communist-led China, eschewing the 1960s protest anthems that defined a generation and sticking to a song list that government censors say they preapproved, before a crowd of about 5,000 people in a Soviet-era stadium.
Keeping with his custom, Dylan never spoke to the crowd other than to introduce his five-member band in his raspy voice. And his set list -- which mixed some of his newer songs alongside classics made unrecognizable by altered tempos -- was devoid of any numbers that might carry even the whiff of anti-government overtones.
In Taiwan on Sunday, opening this spring Asian tour, Dylan played "Desolation Row" as the eighth song in his set and ended with an encore performance of "Blowin' in the Wind," whose lyrics became synonymous with the antiwar and civil rights protest movements. But in China, where the censors from the government's Culture Ministry carefully vet every line of a song before determining whether a foreign act can play here, those two songs disappeared from the repertoire. In Beijing, Dylan sang "Love Sick" in the place of "Desolation Row," and he ended his nearly two-hour set with the innocent-sounding "Forever Young."
There was no "Times They Are a-Changin' " in China. And definitely no "Chimes of Freedom."
OK, let me confess that I am a minor-league Dylan fan. I'm not a fanatic who named his children after the guy, but I have been paying close attention for several decades. Anyway, the first question that popped into my head after reading the top of this story was, methinks, rather logical: So what was the opening song of this rather symbolic show? I mean, Dylan has a history of sending signals with the first words out of his mouth (think about that HBO special with Tom Petty years ago, when Dylan opened with "In the Garden").
I mean, I assume that the Post reporter was there, right?
Luckily, there are websites out there that sweat the details on this type of question. The following set list looks short, for a Dylan show, but the opening number seems like a logical choice -- that is, if one assumes that Dylan may have framed his thoughts about politics, faith and freedom in a less obvious way.
In other words, he opened with "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking." Thus, it appears that the first words out of his mouth were these:
Gonna change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules Gonna change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules Gonna put my good foot forward, and stop being influenced by fools.
So much oppression, can't keep track of it no more So much oppression, can't keep track of it no more Sons becoming husbands to their mothers, and old men turning young daughters into whores.
Stripes on your shoulders, stripes on your back and on your hands Stripes on your shoulders, stripes on your back and on your hands Swords piercing your side, blood and water flowing through the land.
There's quite a bit going on there in this song from his gospel classic "Slow Train Coming," not the least of which is that "stripes" reference to torture and religious oppression. Perhaps a message for the millions of believers in the underground church in China, including the saints in prisons? And who would the "fools" be, in this case?
Then, if he sang the song straight (always a question with Dylan), he later would have added:
You can mislead a man, you can take ahold of his heart with your eyes You can mislead a man, you can take ahold of his heart with your eyes But there's only one authority, and that's the authority on high.
Did the principalities and powers in the Chinese government parse that one carefully?
Then again, there is a chance that Dylan used some of the new lyrics from the version of this song that appeared on the tremendous 2003 "Gotta Serve Somebody" disc in which gospel music greats performed many of his classics. In that version, Dylan joins up with the great Mavis Staples and, in part, belts out this message. This would not comfort the business lords of the new China.
Jesus is coming, he's coming back to gather his jewels Jesus is coming, he's coming back to gather his jewels We live by the golden rule, whoever's got the gold rules.
Anyway, it does not appear that Dylan went silent in China. It appears that he did not perform some of the obvious political songs that the Post team would have recognized and, thus, considered important. However, it seems that Ron Gluckman and the team at the Wall Street Journal was paying attention, with that final reference to the opening declaration in "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking." Kudos, for not missing the obvious!