Maureen Dowd: Today's Bob Dylan lets Chinese vandals take the handle
Bob Dylan may have done the impossible: broken creative ground in selling out. The idea that the raspy troubadour of 1960s freedom anthems would go to a dictatorship and not sing those anthems is a whole new kind of sell-out - even worse than Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Usher collecting millions to croon to Muammar Gaddafi's family, or Elton John raking in a fortune to serenade gay-bashers at Rush Limbaugh's fourth wedding.
Before Dylan was allowed to have his first concert in China last Wednesday at the Worker's Gymnasium in Beijing, he ignored his own warning in Subterranean Homesick Blues - "Better stay away from those that carry around a fire hose" - and let the government approve his set.
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 "harmonising," as it euphemises) the internet and dispatching the secret police to arrest willy-nilly, including Ai Weiwei, the famous artist and artistic adviser of the Bird's Nest, Beijing's Olympic stadium.
Dylan said nothing about Ai'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.
"Imagine if the Tea Party in Idaho said to him: 'You're not allowed to play whatever.' You'd get a very different response," said an outraged Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch.
A 22-year-old Dylan did walk off The Ed Sullivan Show when CBS censors told him he couldn't sing Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues.
But he's the first to admit he cashes in.
David Hajdu, the New Republic music critic, says the singer has always shown a tension between "not wanting to be a leader and wanting to be a celebrity".
In Hajdu's book, Positively 4th Street, Dylan is quoted as saying that critics who charged that he'd sold out to rock'n'roll had it backward. "I never saw myself as a folk singer," he said. "They called me that if they wanted to. I didn't care. I latched on, when I got to New York City, because I saw (what] a huge audience there was.
"Folk music," he said, "is a bunch of fat people."
He can't really betray the spirit of the 1960s because he never had it.In his memoir, Chronicles, he stressed that he had no interest in being an anti-establishment Pied Piper.
"I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of," he said.
He wrote that he wanted to have a house with a white picket fence and pink roses in back, live in East Hampton with his wife and pack of kids, eat Cheerios and go to the Rainbow Room and see Frank Sinatra Jr perform.
"Whatever the counter-culture was, I'd seen enough of it," he wrote. He complained of being "anointed as the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent".
Performing his message songs came to feel "like carrying a package of heavy rotting meat", he wrote.
Hajdu says that Dylan has distanced himself from his protest songs because "he's probably aware of the kind of careerism that's apparent in that work."
Dylan employed propaganda to become successful, but knows that those songs are "too rigidly polemical" to be his best work.
Sean Wilentz, the Princeton professor who wrote Bob Dylan in America, said that the Chinese were "trying to guard the audience from some figure who hasn't existed in 40 years. He has been frozen in aspic in 1963, but he's not the guy in the work shirt and blue jeans singing Masters of War."
Wilentz and Hajdu say you can't really censor Dylan because his songs are infused with subversion against all kinds of authority, except God.
He has been hard on bosses, courts, politicians and anyone corrupted by money and power.
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."
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