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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Monday, April 11, 2011


I realise I'm putting my spoke in rather belatedly here, but I'm travelling in Ireland without my aged, heavy laptop so I can only grab computer time fleetingly and seldom. But  -  I have rarely read so much nonsense in the daily press, and the broadsheets have been worse than the tabloids, if anything, than on the subject of Dylan in China "deliberately leaving out" his usual protest songs (ie 'Blowin' in the Wind' and 'The Times They Are A-Changin'), and "charging through his set without any banter with the crowd" and "only introducing his band after 90 minutes". Trashiest report of all, I thought, was from some idiot in the Independent On Sunday.

Have these people ever been to a Dylan concert? Do they have no idea how many songs he's written, or how many he necessarily leaves out of each concert?

Besides which, he sang 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall', including "And the executioner's face is always well hidden". Not exactly 'I Want To Hold Your Hand'. 

Further, here's a paragraph taken from John Baldwin's Desolation Row Newsletter of the other day:

Just to put a lie to the suggestion that “Blowin’ In The Wind” is a banned song in China, listen and watch this Chinese TV newscast about the arrival of Bob Dylan – it lasts about 10 minutes and is followed by a totally unintelligible discussion (unless you speak Chinese), but it’s well worth viewing to take in a different side. Dylan coming to China had very clearly touched the public imagination. See:

Of course, I'm not saying, either, that Dylan doesn't know where he is when he's choosing songs. Hence for example his brave and most appropriately serious performance of 'Masters Of War' a few years ago in one of the Japanese cities atom-bombed in World War II.

It makes you wonder what level of attention his 70th birthday will receive from these papers next month.


Blogger Pope Leo said...

In my younger days (several aeons ago), I used to collect newspaper cuttings about Dylan. Even then, when Dylan was in or not long out of his heyday – and journalists really should have known better – 90% of what was written was garbage.

It is extraordinary that people who regard themselves as serious journalists can do so little research on the subjects they write about. The default position seems to be that Dylan is a ‘protest singer’ (a position he so eloquently eschewed in ‘My Back Pages’ in 1964); and the expectation is that Dylan should perform only his early sixties songs (and in the style of way back then); and , of course, it is assumed that he should chatter to the audience between what the journos would no doubt call ‘numbers’.

How nice it would be to assemble these uninformed people, play them the original version of ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, and then have Dylan come in and perform the song for them as he does it now. One would conclude the event by inviting little introspection, before allowing these lazy scribblers to hurry off to meet their deadlines.

12:34 pm  
Anonymous Jake said...

I couldn't agree more with you both - some of the coverage over the last few days has been ludicrous. On a happier note, however, I picked up a beautiful mono LP of 'Elvis is Back' at a record fair this w/end. I got it after seeing it advertised on the column on this page Michael, so cheers for the recommendation! It's a good 'un. Actually, what chance of some more writing about Elvis from you?

10:37 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even worse than the old days now as even the laziest journalist has the China-preceding set lists a few mouse clicks away.

The standard of journalism in Britain is truly shocking. For any subject you know something about you are horrified at their incompetence at best and, lets be blunt, all too often downright lies.

It makes you extremely wary of believing any articles on subjects you are not particularly au fait with and are seeking information on.

I collected Dylan articles all my adult life (and reprinted hundreds in Homer, the slut )and would not have thought it possible that with basic information plentiful and freely (and quickly) available they could actually have got worse...

ooops sorry, Grumpy Old Man mode, I know.....

Homer, the grumbler

10:41 pm  
Anonymous Phil Teece said...

The person you quite rightly describe as the idiot in the Independent is one Joan Smith. I sent this note to her blog but I notice she hasn't published it yet.

April 12th, 2011 at 10:50
It grieves me to see writers traducing people they clearly know little about. How do you know Dylan accepted censorship, Joan? Who says so? Surely you’re not relying on Chinese propaganda? If the Chinese Government really had been censoring his set list, why on earth would they not have noticed the very first number – Gonna Change My Way of Thinking – a be-warned Christian rant, in anybody’s language? Surely that would have been highly objectionable to them. He did play Hard Rain - did the authorities just miss its lyrics? As for the really silly argument that he was prevented from playing The Times They Are A-changing, well, Dylan played exactly 100 concerts in 2010. And how many times did he play ‘Times’? Well, actually he didn’t. Not once in all those shows. And Blowin’ in the Wind appeared just 10 times. So it would have been a surprise if he had played either and a massive surprise if he’d played both of these very old songs. Dylan is a working musician who continues to write and play new songs. He’s not a nostalgia act. Nor has he ever really been a political figure, whatever the ill-informed believe. And, surely you must know that people have been moaning for decades because Dylan never says anything about anything in any of his shows. The idea of him suddenly making speeches from the stage is ludicrous. For 50 years people have been creating their own fantasies about who Dylan is. It has always been mostly nonsense…just like your column.

Phil Teece
Sunshine Bay NSW

8:13 am  
Anonymous Stephen said...

Yes, it's been painful to witness the rubbish written about Dylan in China. Charles Shaar Murray claimed Desolation Row had been banned in Beijing, but then Dylan played it in Shanghai. Does anyone have any proof that Dylan's setlist was vetted by the authorities? This claim is made in most of the articles, but on what evidence?

If Dylan did adapt his setlist to placate the authorities, it is not a proud moment in his career. But China is kind of a big and powerful country; is a barked and grizzled version of Blowin' In The Wind really going to threaten its political stability?

The main thrust of the press coverage is to charge Dylan with hypocrisy. The assumption is that he really is, or rather once was, a campaigning, protest singer. If he doesn't speak out then he has been exposed as a hypocrite. Nothing to stop all these journalists and bloggers speaking out, though, if they feel so strongly about human rights abuses in China. But it's easier and less risky to write about the failings of a rock singer than to provide a sustained and coherent critique of the Chinese regime. Not to mention the western companies who use China as a source of cheap labour. Why are those smart phones so affordable, I wonder?

However, I don't think Dylan should have played there. Nor should Google have accepted a firewall. Nor should the Olympics have taken place there. Freedom for all, right?

And, to top it all, Bob's voice was sounding decidely rough for the beginning of a tour. This does not bode well for the touring year ahead.

10:27 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do not agree with all of your views, but this is spot-on, Michael. The lowest of the low (IMO) was one "Maureen Dowd's" piece in the New York Times. Here are some excerpts of what I wrote in reply:


"Dear people at The New York Times,

a few remarks about "Blowin In The Idiot Wind" (by "Maureen Dowd", 9 April 2011):

Bob Dylan's concert repertoire currently includes about 80 different songs. He usually plays about 16–17 songs from that pool at any given show. The songs that were supposedly "censored" by Chinese authorities have rarely been included in Dylan's setlists for quite some time now. There is no offical confirmation of any kind that Dylan's sets in China were censored. It was just an online rumour that has now been picked up by the mainstream media as if it was fact.
The opposite has occured in that the original studio version of one of the songs you mention as having been axed by the Chinese authorities – "Blowin' In The Wind" – was included in a report about Dylan on Chinese state television CCTV on April 6:
Now, if the Chinese government did not want Dylan to play this oh-so-dangerous number, they would hardly include it in their official TV coverage of Dylan's visit to China!
The other song you mention – "The Times They Are A-Changin'" – was not played at any of Dylan's regular shows last year (he only played it at a White House event for and by special request of the US president early in 2010). In 2009 Dylan played "Times" at only one of his approximately 100 concerts that year. [Btw the cover of the album "The Times They Are A-Changin'" was prominently featured in the Chinese TV report mentioned above. Doesn't look like the Chinese authorities are all that afraid of the "protest" stuff.]

If there was censorship (again, there is no proof of that) I find it very surprising indeed that Dylan was "allowed" to start both his Beijing and his Shanghai show with the rarely played "Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking" (with partially re-written lyrics) which included lines like "Gonna change my way of thinking, gonna make myself a different set of rules/Gonna put my best foot forward, stop being influenced by fools". Perhaps the fools in this case are the people who see something (or want to see something) in Dylan that he never was. Do those people own any records released after 1968 (or before 1963)? Do those people know anything about MUSIC? Or the PERFORMING ARTS?

As to the Ai Weiwei situation – Dylan has never taken sides or made comments from the stage in similar situations. Why would or should he behave any differently now? He has seen many Weiweis (and Chinese heads of state ... and US presidents ... and journalists) come and go. He has even played COUNTRIES on his "Never-Ending Tour" (which started in 1988) that NO LONGER EXIST. His artistry towers above all that.

Dylan's artistic endeavours (and I am not talking about his '60s work, I am talking about his recent run of albums – "'Love & Theft'", "Modern Times", "Tell Tale Signs" and "Together Through Life" – and his current in-concert work) are so much more daring and far out than any sloganeering could ever be. Or as the man himself put it "I am nobody's puppet, nobody pulls my strings" (certainly not the Chinese opposition or delusional western leftists or clueless journalists).

Your piece about Dylan is an ill-informed, badly researched piece of trash."

end of quote

1:48 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I agree, the reporting has generally been extremely poor.There is a slightly better article from the Irish Times yesterday (Monday) if you can track it down. The good news is from having actually listened to the first two shows of the new tour that Bob's voice is improved on the last year or two. It remains to be seen if that is simply a temporary phenomenon due to the rest it has had- time will tell if it deteriorate as the tour goes on but there is a distinct improvement on many tracks and he was out of the traps very early in Taiwan with a rousing Serve Somebody. Simple Twist of Fate is being sung much better than last year and there is a version of Sugar Baby from that Taiwan show that is truly sublime. The finest perofrmance of that song I've ever heard (ironically without necessarily reflecting what I've just said generally about the voice-it is very fragile here but somehow it still works a treat). In that performance, it has finally become the song I always wanted it to be. Do check it out if you get a chance.

Good luck with the shows in Ireland, sorry I can't catch them this time round.


Garret (JudasPriest)

3:46 pm  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

I listened to the Tarpei concert boot after the recommendationn by Anonymous, and was pleased I downloaded it. Dylan is still managing to make something of the little that remain of his vocal chords. However, I've never been that convinced by his current band, even with Charlie Sexton on board. I'm sure he could re-invigorate himself with a different kind of line-up, and he could probably find better ways of using those (limited) vocal chords for a little while longer.

8:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The most important thing for me was that Dylan's voice sounded great in Taiwan ( after the croaky Grammys performance )and he performed a very good version of 'Blowin' in the Wind'. I have only heard this performance and 'Like A Rolling Stone'.

Someone recently made the very good point on this blog that Dylan performs in towns and cities (and countries) that other so called big performers-Rolling Stones,U2Springsteen,etc- would never play. Dylan plays so many shows in so many places because he is a performer.

As a performer he has dedicated songs at times to other performers such as 'Moon River' for Stevie Ray Vaughan and 'Something' for George Harrison' ( which I had the great privelege of being at the performance). Sometimes he does this openly ( "this is for Leonard, if he's here...") other times he does this secretly.

I am pleased to see that B.B.King is the support act in Adelaide...would be nice to hear them perform 'Fur Slippers' together.


12:37 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Hey, Pope: I completely agree about the band. Though of course the most thrilling thing of all - apart from seeing his once-mooted frying an egg on stage come to pass (see my new audiobook Bob Dylan Encyclopedia Greatest Hits - would be for him to perform acoustic solo again.

Ah, Paul, yes: a duet with B.B. on 'Fur Slippers' - that's about as likely as, well, those live performances of 'If Dogs Run Free'. So, er . . .

3:19 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Homer has written a very good article (that I understand and appreciate to an extent but ultimately disagree with) in the current issue of Isis regarding his perceived failings of the NET circa 2005-2009. I really hopes he gets a chance to listen to Taiwan 2011 or even a select few (Serve Somebody,Sugar Baby, Cold Irons, Simple Twist, Honest With Me, Forgetful Heart). If you are reading Andrew, do have a listen and see what you think. Don't expect miracles but at the same time, I'd be surprised if you didn't enjoy it.

All the best,


1:39 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i agree with you despair about journalism. just surprised you expect anything different. these journos feel that they should comment on evrything, no matter how little they know. it's a reminder to ignore all the other stuff they say too. when you read what they say about something you know a little about, you realise how wrong they probably are about things you are less expert in yourself. i wonder what you think of anything you've heard of the performances in the east. his voice is obviously in a very bad way, but that does seem to have led the him/his band to quieten down the arrangements making the overall sound rather better than it has been over the last few years. and he does seem to be trying to make something of what he's singing/talking. even the end of line of gravel seems to be relatively under control. you can certainly hear what he's saying, which has not always been the case over the last 20 years. i heard a trying to get to heaven earlier - from taiwan - which sounded sorrowful and thoughtful.

11:04 am  

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