Lecturing Dylan on China views all too rich
For the singer to perform in Beijing is an existential event, not a political one, writes JOHN WATERS
‘HUMAN RIGHTS activists” have pronounced as “shocking” the refusal of Bob Dylan, during his recent concerts in China, to speak out on behalf of detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who was arrested in a renewed crackdown on political and artistic dissidents.
Maureen Dowd, writing in the New York Times, denounced Dylan as a “sellout” for agreeing to negotiate his set-list with the Chinese authorities and to drop some of his most famous “protest” songs, such as The Times They Are a-Changin’and Blowin’ in the Wind.
We in the West are happy to save money by buying goods stamped Made in China, indifferent to the probability that they have been made by prisoners in some labour camp, whose “crimes” most likely relate to their origins among the “bourgeoisie” or in loose statements delivered in the wrong company.
We wear T-shirts bearing the image of Mao, eat in restaurants named after him, and chuckle when politicians or celebrities tell Marian or Jay that they used to be Maoists.
But we demand that artists such as Bob Dylan make us feel better about all this by delivering slogans from the stage behind which we may claim cultural asylum from our own consciences.
There was no necessity for Dylan to utter literal political statements in order to proffer freedom to the people of China. Rock’n’roll operates at the higher levels of reason, provoking the heart, gut and privates as much as it engages the mind. Those rendered free by encountering it are not liberated by anything they are told to think, but by what they experience when they hear the possibilities between and beyond the notes.
Music is not a platform, but an alternative way of hearing life’s promises. It delivers not messages of hope, but hope itself.
In his wonderful 2004 memoir, Chronicles, Dylan wrote that he never had any ambition to “stir things up”, but was merely working to feed his family when the press made him into the conscience of a generation.
“All I’d ever done,” he wrote, “was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed
powerful new realities. I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of.”
His songs, even the most ostensibly “political” of them, are not about society, but existence. Listen to an early version of The Times They Are A Changin’,and then to the way Dylan sings it these days. Without making anything of it, he has attached an irony that directs the song back into the faces of those who used it as an anthem half a century ago: Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall.
Our age is preoccupied with literal, crude gesturing and sloganeering, concepts anathema to Dylan’s music, which exists at the level of irony and ambiguity. The songs’ very titles make it impossible for Dylan even to introduce one of his songs without going far beyond political statement.
In Beijing, he sang Gonna Change My Way of Thinkingand A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.“I’m here” he sang, in Honest With Me, “to create the new imperial empire/ I’m gonna do whatever circumstances require”.
One of the more dubious contributions of British culture to rock’n’roll was the idea that the point was social and political revolution.
Interestingly, the only time it’s come close to this was in communist Czechoslovakia of the 1970s, when a Prague-based rock band, the Plastic People of the Universe, was jailed for “coarse indecencies” and “creating a public nuisance”.
The disquiet this generated in the artistic community led to the establishment of Charter 77, which paved the way for the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
But the Plastics never set out to be symbols of resistance. Their music, free-form jazz and chaotic interpretations of western pop songs, expressed not social rebellion but existential curiosity. What communism found provocative was the way they looked and dressed, their indifference to the social and political order. And this, the regime intuited, was more to be feared than someone seeking to argue with communism.
Vaclav Havel, in explaining the influence the Plastics’ music had on him and his contemporaries, spoke about its magic, sadness and longing for salvation, and said that the band’s trial and imprisonment represented “an attack on life itself”. Leaving the trial, he said: “From now on, being careful seems so petty.”
Art is gratuitousness, beauty for beauty’s sake, a sign of Something Beyond. The point is not to “say” something, but to create something that exists as a witness to life.
What matters is the artist’s existence, gaze and repose, not his attitude, which is merely the grain of grit on which the pearl forms.
Political freedom amounts, simply, to the right to be let alone with life’s mysteriousness, which is not a political gift but an existential event.
This is the “statement” Bob Dylan makes whenever he opens his mouth to sing. By his very presence in China, he was saying something that could only have been reduced by a speech: that a song is not a placard or a pamphlet, but the fullest enrichment of the human breath.