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Bob Dylan's Asia Tour: Has Freedom Lost Its Voice?

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AI WEIWEI
AP

"Money doesn't talk, it swears." -- Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan's not an easy man to pin down. He confounds the public, at one moment a sage and a prophet decrying materialism and war, and the next an eccentric aging musician doing gigs for Victoria's Secret. His music is equally unpredictable, at times so insightful it resonates on the deepest level of your being, and the next barely tolerable--especially when, as John Jurgensen describes it in a piece for the Wall Street Journal, it is couched in his "always-raspy voice, now deteriorated to a laryngitic croak."

Yet despite the vagaries of his musical career, his often mundane live performances and his own eccentricities, Dylan has remained a potent reminder of all that the '60s generation once stood for (peace, love, hope) and all they fought against (war, materialism, human rights abuses). Thus, the news that Dylan would embark on a concert tour of Asia -- including stops in Beijing and Shanghai, notable for their being Dylan's first appearance in Communist China, as well as Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, the target of many of Dylan's anti-war protest songs -- had many waiting to see what, if anything, the man once hailed as the voice of freedom would say to audiences long oppressed by their governments. So far, the so-called voice of freedom has remained mute.

Indeed, not only did Dylan not speak other than to introduce his band, but during his performances in China and Vietnam, he also left out many of his most famous protest songs -- allegedly at the bidding of the Vietnamese and Chinese governments. As reported by Asia-Pacific News:

Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, criticized Dylan for allegedly letting the Chinese and Vietnamese governments 'tell him what to sing.' 'He has a historic chance to communicate a message of freedom and hope, but instead he is allowing censors to choose his playlist,' Adams said. 'This sends a strong message to his Vietnamese fans that the Communist Party's reach even extends to the heroes of America's civil rights era,' the rights campaigner said. 'Dylan should be ashamed of himself.'

Dylan's decision to not only perform a series of concerts in Vietnam and China, which has unapologetically escalated its human rights abuses over the past few years, most recently with the arrest of dissident Ai WeiWei, but to play only a government-approved song list notably lacking in any of his trademark protest songs is significant on many levels -- morally, spiritually and politically -- not only for what it says about him but for what it says about the rest of us.

For those who came of age in the '60s, Dylan was the voice crying in the wilderness -- the conscience of our generation. He set to music what many of us were struggling to put into words and in so doing, he gave the civil rights movement some of its greatest anthems. Classic protest songs such as "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Desolation Row," "Chimes of Freedom" and "Masters of War" -- none of which were performed during Dylan's recent trip to China -- set the mood for a youth-driven cultural revolution that was all about peace and love and fighting oppression.

Powered by idealism, the '60s generation rejected materialism, helped put an end to racial segregation, opposed the military establishment and its never-ending wars, brought down a president (Nixon) and essentially put a halt to the Vietnam War. And Dylan provided the soundtrack for all of it. As Judy Collins observed:

We wanted so much to change the world; we all wanted to stop the war; we wanted to stop social injustice. They were good causes because they had an innocence about them. But there was something about what Dylan was doing, a certain sophistication, that deepened our understanding of what's really going on here. Bob dragged us from literary immaturity and made us grow up emotionally. He dragged us into the world of alliteration and metaphor in a way that nobody else could do. He was our higher education.

From the beginning, Dylan's songs taught that there is an incestuous relationship between authoritarianism, social evils, militarism and materialism and that the solutions to corruption are spiritual. Dylan proclaimed the existence of a God who brings judgment, a "hard rain" as one of his songs puts it, on those who perpetrate evil. Dylan's topical songs mixed the power of Beat poetry with the folk style of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger -- all with prophetic overtones. Although his songs often incorporated real events, they went beyond mere journalism to the moral underpinnings.

Bob Dylan was one of the few pop singers of any real influence who clearly articulated political ideas in his music. But, as if in midstream, Dylan abandoned politics. Perceptive enough to realize that politics is never a real answer, Dylan knew the times were not changing as he had expected.

The initial sign that Dylan was becoming disillusioned with the left and the political movements of the '60s came late in 1963. Only days after the country had been traumatized by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Dylan was invited to the grand ballroom of the Hotel Americana in New York to accept an award for his work in the civil rights movement. The result was a disaster. An intoxicated Dylan felt alienated from his adoring audience, which included many aging activists from the left-wing movement. He first appeared to insult them, saying, "It's not an old people's world." He then simply baffled them with his speech, in which he spoke about race, class and the establishment.

I look down to see the people that are governing me and making my rules -- and they haven't got any hair on their head -- I get very uptight about it... And they talk about Negroes, and they talk about black and white.... There's no black and white, left and right to me anymore; there's only up and down and down is very close to the ground. And I'm trying to go up without thinking of anything trivial such as politics.... I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, I don't know exactly where -- what he thought he was doing, but I got to admit honestly that I, too -- I saw some of myself in him... I saw things that he felt in me -- not to go that far and shoot. [Boos and hisses] You can boo, but booing's got nothing to do with it. It's a -- I just, ah -- I've got to tell you, man, it's Bill of Rights is free speech...

Dylan's drunken rant reflected his growing view that all people are victims of those who control the system and that even the black hierarchy had compromised to gain political power. The speech caused an uproar, and Dylan left the hall amid a mixture of boos and applause.

"I don't want to write for people anymore. You know -- be a spokesman," Dylan told Nat Hentoff in 1964. "From now on, I want to write from inside me." Thus, by 1965, Dylan had abandoned the civil rights campaign and moved beyond political activism. Indeed, although he had participated in key civil rights events, Dylan was not present for the final and most grand civil rights event where black and white protesters and musicians came together -- the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965 -- where over 5,000 people sang Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

On the musical front, he abandoned the acoustic folk sound and became a rocker. By the time he went electric with his breakthrough album Highway 61 Revisited, it was clear that Dylan had assumed a new role. He had abandoned the shabby rambling-man look and assumed the countenance of a pained and scrawny ascetic.

While most of the '60s generation would soon choose flower power, love and the fallacy that drugs were going to create a new society, Dylan saw the apocalypse approaching. A pivotal song is his 1966 masterpiece "Desolation Row," which cries for humanity to renounce materialism or face destruction and alienation. As he sings:

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row.

Dylan biographer Robert Shelton writes that "Desolation Row" brought Dylan to the level of the great apocalyptic poets such as T. S. Eliot. Moreover, Dylan became a prophet whose main concerns are moral, not political. And he condemns virtually all he sees. "All along the way, we encounter Dylan's condemnation of the modern assembly line: mad human robots out of Chaplin's Modern Times," writes Shelton. "Then, almost as an aside, Dylan makes a shambles of simpleminded political commitment. What difference which side you're on if you're sailing on the Titanic? Irony and sarcasm are streetlamps along 'Desolation Row,' keeping away total, despairing darkness, gallows humor for a mass hanging."

Dylan's conversion to Christianity in the late '70s didn't soften his views on the nature of the world. As late as 1991, when asked about the apocalypse, Dylan replied: "It will not be by water, but by fire the next time. It's what is written."

Unfortunately, in recent years, we've seen less and less of Dylan the prophet and more of Dylan the self-promoter and entertainer. Yet not even his appearance in a Victoria's Secret commercial, surrounded by scantily clad, winged lingerie models, or reports of his being picked up by police after being mistaken for a wandering vagrant managed to diminish his impact on those who have taken his music to heart. In a tribute piece for AARP in honor of Dylan's 70th birthday on May 24, 2011, Bono shares:

When I was 13, Bob Dylan started whispering in my ear... it was a hoarse whisper, jagged around the edges, not-too-plain truths... ideas blowing in the wind about how the world could be a better place if we could just get it out of the hands of the hypocrites. When I was 16, Bob Dylan whispered in my ear about how the real enemy was not flesh and blood, but of a spiritual nature. At 21, with the slow train of faith having picked up a little too much speed, I stood at a religious crossroads and heard "Every Grain of Sand" stop time. When I got married at 22, Bob Dylan was whispering in my ear about love and infidelity. When I had my first child at 29, Bob Dylan wrote "Ring Them Bells" and "What Good Am I?" When I ran out of gas in the late '90s, I had Time Out of Mind to hold on to. When the world crumbled around two shining towers, and New York had its two front teeth knocked out, I had Love and Theft to hang on to. Now, having faced 50, I'm realizing I knew much more then than I do now. I'm returning to the brutal truth that "The Times They Are A-Changin'" -- but you don't have to let them change you. In short, all my life, Bob Dylan has been there for me.

Still, despite the glowing tributes, Dylan's also getting his fair share of criticism for "playing it safe" during his concerts in China and Vietnam. "Bob Dylan, whose rasping songs of protest were once the definitive clarion-call for activism and dissent, belted out an unmistakably neutered version of his world-famous repertoire last night as he made his concert debut in Beijing," reported Leo Lewis for The Times. "Although ground-breaking and heartily welcomed by fans, the long-awaited concert bore the hallmarks of compromise with authority -- precisely the sort of accommodation the 69-year old singer railed against with such venom in his earlier days."

Groundbreaking while they may be for Dylan on a personal level, the China concerts especially, staged during the height of China's clampdown on activists and Dylan's own reticence to speak out about the abuses, have caused some to question whether Dylan still believes what he used to sing about--namely, justice, equality and human rights.

According to Jessica Beaton writing for CNN, Dylan, like all artists performing in China, had to submit a set list beforehand for approval by the Chinese Ministry of Culture (a similar protocol was followed in Vietnam), which in its formal invitation reminded Dylan that he would have to "conduct the performance strictly according to the approved program." In other words, if Dylan wanted to perform in China (and Vietnam), he had to avoid any songs about human rights issues.

Remaining silent and falling in line with censors in Vietnam is one thing, but to agree to do so in China is to become complicit in China's ongoing human rights abuses, which range from outright censorship and religious persecution to forced abortions and sterilizations for those women who violate the government-mandated One Child policy and unlawful arrests of peace activists, with the most recent being Ai Weiwei. Sadly, Dylan not only performed in China but was so well-behaved as to cause Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch to remark, "It's shocking to see him collude in this kind of censorship. Back in the day, if he had been in Ai's shoes, he would have expected someone to speak up for him. What does he have to lose?"

Mind you, this is the same man who walked off the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963 rather than submit to a censored song list. This is also the same man who, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette points out, "in previous years refused to sign a pledge drawn up by the Chinese Ministry of Culture that obligated him 'not to hurt the feelings of the Chinese people' by performing counterrevolutionary songs." So how could Dylan the prophet, Dylan the protester, Dylan the castigator of materialism and war, the same man who was praised in 1985 as being "one of America's great voices of freedom," agree to perform a censored song list in China and not say something about its long history of abuses?

Or as commentator Tony Norman asks, "How could the man who walked out on a gig on 'The Ed Sullivan Show' not stand up for a similar principle when singing his songs nearly a half century later? It could be because Bob Dylan stood on that stage in Beijing knowing that everyone in the room had access to every song he's ever recorded, including bootlegs he hasn't officially released."

Then again, perhaps Dylan the activist who once claimed that a hero was "someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom" has simply given up the fight and wants only to be Dylan the musician. As he once remarked, "Songs can't save the world. I've gone through all that." After all, why should Dylan be any different from the rest of his once idealistic generation, many of whom have now become part of the very establishment they once opposed?

For that matter, perhaps too much is being said about Dylan's silence and too little is being said about the rest of the world's kowtowing to China, including the American government, which is financially indebted to China. As Daniel Blackburn points out in the Spectator, "Western governments have largely ignored Beijing's clampdown, which began in February as democratic activism spread from Cairo to Chinese websites. No trade sanctions or UN Resolutions are being issued here, just stern communiqués." Blackburn continues:

Given that it's nearly 50 years since Dylan purposefully stopped being the 'voice of conscience', his reticence does not come as a shock... Why should Dylan do what we are too timid and politic to do? Besides, what could he achieve? Dylan's words might be welcome to some Western ears, but he's just one man selling records. He does not command divisions, even in the metaphorical sense. Human rights violations in China are for governments to challenge. Perhaps Dylan's silence expresses that.

Then again, perhaps not.