Dylan in China? Lighten up, already. You can’t blame a guy for trying to make a living, right?
I mean, Dylan’s been a sellout for a decade. No, wait. Longer. He licensed The Times They Are A-Changin’ to the Bank of Montreal for a commercial in 1996. He released a Christmas album. He made a limited-edition Victoria’s Secret CD to help the company hock its lingerie.
So where’s the surprise in Dylan playing a show at the Beijing Workers’ Stadium on Wednesday, fingering his guitar like a rotary phone while dialing through a song list selected by the Chinese government?
It’s sad we keep remembering Dylan as the man he was, as a songwriter who changed music and culture and the western world itself.
The surest thing is that people change. So I’ve never held it against Dylan that he didn’t forever want to be the voice of ’60s counterculture. (He didn’t like the title to begin with. He found it a burden, as he wrote in the first volume of his memoir Chronicles.) I won’t upbraid the guy for just wanting to make a ton of cash.
But I condemn him for playing China.
Chinese avant-garde artist Ai Weiwei was apprehended at the Beijing airport Sunday, his exact whereabouts and the reason for his detainment unknown until the day after Dylan played his government-approved set in the city.
Even if you don’t know Ai, you may know his work. He’s the man behind the much-adored Sunflower Seeds installation, on at London’s Tate Modern through May 2, and he collaborated on Beijing’s Olympic “bird’s nest” stadium.
Ai is also a vocal opponent of the Chinese government. His detainment was only the latest in a series of threatening gestures, including beatings and the razing of his art studio.
Chinese authorities say Ai is being investigated for unspecified “economic crimes,” and that his being taken into custody has nothing to do with political dissention. An editorial on Ai’s arrest in the Global Times, a Communist Party daily, assures the world that China’s “era of judicial cases involving severely unjust, false or wrong charges has gone.” Hmm. Comforting.
That Dylan stood spread-eagle and allowed Chinese authorities to frisk and confiscate what’s left of his cultural legacy by playing a culture ministry-approved set is a par-for-the-course disappointment. But that he did it three days into Ai’s questionable detainment is a travesty.
Dylan could have made a fuss and pulled the plug on the show. Better yet, he could have gone on, gone off-script and had scrambling bureaucrats pull the plug on him.
Instead, he shuffled to the stage and warbled through Love Sick and Forever Young for $50 to $300 a head. Missing from the list? Hurricane, for one, and The Times They Are A-Changin’. The CBC’s Anthony Germain, who reported on the concert from Beijing, delivered this beautiful, biting jab: “Even aging rebels remain tight-lipped when they know the authorities are watching . . . and listening.”
Dylan and Ai Weiwei are both renowned cultural creators, and neither can fully speak his mind in China. The crucial difference? Dylan is letting China walk all over him. Ai is plain old getting trampled.
I admit, it’s a lot of pressure to put on Dylan to speak up. Maybe you can’t blame him for just trying to make a living. But concede this: You can’t blame Ai, either, for just trying to make a life.
Now ask yourself: which one — the living or the life — is more important to defend? ~~
(Chronicle Herald, April 9, 2011.)