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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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Friday, May 13, 2011


Bizarrely, the official Dylan website issued this statement today, purporting to come from Bob himself:

"Allow me to clarify a couple of things about this so-called China controversy which has been going on for over a year. First of all, we were never denied permission to play in China. This was all drummed up by a Chinese promoter who was trying to get me to come there after playing Japan and Korea. My guess is that the guy printed up tickets and made promises to certain groups without any agreements being made. We had no intention of playing China at that time, and when it didn't happen most likely the promoter had to save face by issuing statements that the Chinese Ministry had refused permission for me to play there to get himself off the hook. If anybody had bothered to check with the Chinese authorities, it would have been clear that the Chinese authorities were unaware of the whole thing.

We did go there this year under a different promoter. According to Mojo magazine the concerts were attended mostly by ex-pats and there were a lot of empty seats. Not true. If anybody wants to check with any of the concert-goers they will see that it was mostly Chinese young people that came. Very few ex-pats if any. The ex-pats were mostly in Hong Kong not Beijing. Out of 13,000 seats we sold about 12,000 of them, and the rest of the tickets were given away to orphanages. The Chinese press did tout me as a sixties icon, however, and posted my picture all over the place with Joan Baez, Che Guevara, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The concert attendees probably wouldn't have known about any of those people. Regardless, they responded enthusiastically to the songs on my last 4 or 5 records. Ask anyone who was there. They were young and my feeling was that they wouldn't have known my early songs anyway.

As far as censorship goes, the Chinese government had asked for the names of the songs that I would be playing. There's no logical answer to that, so we sent them the set lists from the previous 3 months. If there were any songs, verses or lines censored, nobody ever told me about it and we played all the songs that we intended to play.

Everybody knows by now that there's a gazillion books on me either out or coming out in the near future. So I'm encouraging anybody who's ever met me, heard me or even seen me, to get in on the action and scribble their own book. You never know, somebody might have a great book in them."

This was announced on Twitter as "To my followers and fans..."


Anonymous Kieran said...

Well, I dunno if he explicitly confesses to being a leader, but this announcement confused me. I mean, first off, am I a "fan" or a "follower"?

Secondly, it's soooo un-Dylan, despite the obvious Dylan-speak of so much of it. Why would he bother to explain himself NOW, after 50 years of people trying to figure out what he's doing and why he's doing it?

Third, the way the press reports this still annoys me. On the NYT site, they're still mentioning that he never sang "Times they are..." despite the fact that he never sings it - and why do the press-boys mention that he never spoke to the audience? I saw him in Dublin a couple years back and he never even introduced the BAND!

It was a non-story to begin with, and now he did this. You think he's getting contrary in his old age?!

11:14 pm  
Anonymous Rainer said...

Well, it obviously confuses us - so that would be very Dylanlike ;-)

9:52 am  
Blogger joe butler said...

As a "follower" I think this statement is revealing

"As far as censorship goes, the Chinese government had asked for the names of the songs that I would be playing. There's no logical answer to that, so we sent them the set lists from the previous 3 months. If there were any songs, verses or lines censored, nobody ever told me about it and we played all the songs that we intended to play."

Why would the Chinese government want to see the intended setlist? Dylan is a highly intelligent man he must have understood that the government was nervous about the possibility of some sort of gesture from Dylan, of course you can hear subversion in any lyric if you are minded to.

What also intriuges me is the completely "savvy tone of the whole piece" it shows Dylan has a very keen eye for his aura and place in the world.

10:49 am  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

I agree it is pretty weird for Dylan to come up with a statement like this after all these years.
I wonder if the stuff on the China tour is just pretext for the last paragraph, which is typically impish Dylan humour and very funny. His suggestion that “You never know, somebody might have a great book in them” implies that none of the gazillion scribbled books on him has been great! It’s a brilliant paragraph, perfect in every word! (Though of course he’s wrong, Michael, there is at least one great book on Dylan out there…)

7:28 pm  
Anonymous Wee Tommy said...

Joe asks: "Why would the Chinese government want to see the intended setlist?" I don't know for sure, but it seems quite likely that it's a standard requirement for public performances in the country. Totalitarian regimes have a tendency to do that kind of thing - one of the reasons why they usually require such vast bureaucracy.

5:39 pm  
Blogger joe butler said...

Wee Tommy implies one shouldn't question Dylan on this issue. Dylan was brave enough to refuse an amercan TV network in the 60's when they told him not to sing the overtly political John Birch Blues.

By submitting the set list Dylan agrees that the Chinese have a right to know what he intends to sing.

Why didn't he ask "Why do want to know"?

12:53 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Perhaps because he "used to care / But things have changed"?

2:27 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

I meant to add that Kieran's Comment contains a very good question: "Why would he bother to explain himself NOW, after 50 years...?"

2:28 pm  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

Michael, I don’t suppose your comment ‘Perhaps because he "used to care / But things have changed"?’ is intended to sound either snide or naïve, but it does seem to me that your default position with Dylan these days is a negative rather than an open-minded one. I remember the puritanical disdain you poured on him when you heard he was coming up with a Christmas album, only to have to backtrack when you learnt he was giving all the proceeds away to charity.

Am I missing something here? Dylan is asked, like all touring artists in China, to give advance notice of his set lists. Because he likes a degree of flexibility in his choice of songs, he can’t give precise set lists for each concert but, trying no doubt to be courteous and helpful, offers the set lists of the previous three months, which seems fair enough. And suddenly, we have charges of yet another sell-out by Dylan (who turned his back on social comment with ‘Another Side” and then committed sacrilege by going electric and then produced a county album and then produced an album of covers and then went born-again, etc, etc, yawn, yawn, etc…)

People are crazy and times are strange: small wonder that Dylan, approaching his eightieth decade, should cease to care or, perhaps, simply to care differently and about different things.

5:14 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Dear Pope
It surprises me that you can read such a lot into, and write such a lot about, so small an amount of comment from me.

You include this: "it does seem to me that your default position with Dylan these days is a negative rather than an open-minded one."

That is not my "default position". Today I've been proof-reading the 2600-word article I've written for the Japan Times on "Dylan At 70", which is hardly less than a rhapsody about how wonderful he is.

Nor did I criticise him for providing three months' worth of setlists when asked what he was going to sing. I don't know how you can read that into my tiny comment. Indeed I think providing that plethora of setlists was a good solution.

Nor, by the way, did I "backtrack" about the Christmas album because I found that proceeds were going to charity - though charity can cover up a multitude of sins, if you recall - but because I was delighted to find how much care and sincerity shone from the album. I said so at the time. If that's backtracking, well, so is writing 'My Back Pages'. That doesn't make it bad.

My scepticism is not "negative": it's healthy. And no-one in public life has been more creditably sceptical than Bob Dylan.

7:17 pm  
Blogger joe butler said...

re reading Dylan's coment he says

"As far as censorship goes, the Chinese government had asked for the names of the songs that I would be playing. There's no logical answer to that"

The logical answer is -these are the songs I intend to play. Perhaps Dylan was playing games with the Chinese after all by sending set list of previous concerts instead. Maybe I was wrong to suggest Dylan agreed to let the chinese have his set list, or am I letting him off the hook?

Maybe Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez and Jane Fonda brainwashed our intrepid hero and he's been a Maoist sleeper for the past 40 years. Bring on the little red book album, featuring the long march blues, a red rains a gonna fall, gotta serve somebody with a personality cult and positively politburo.

to Pope Leo I'd say just because he disavowed politics in My Back Pages dosn't absolve him of taking responsibility for his actions

10:57 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

And Pope - I meanto to add that he may be old but "approaching his eightieth decade"? He's hundreds of years younger than that now...

11:08 pm  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

Michael, I do not want to turn this into a full-blown spat and in any case I agree with you that I made a lot out of your tiny comment; and I certainly have no difficulty with healthy scepticism.

However, with regard to the backtracking, I was not thinking of the (over-) generous review you eventually offered of Christmas in the Heart, but of the negative comments you had made earlier - the first in which you ignorantly tut-tutted, and the second in which, having listened to the Amazon samples, you wrote about a Dylan who ‘couldn’t care less how he sings’. To quote from your two entries:

“So. I owe Bob Dylan an apology for going along with various commentators to this blog in assuming that Christmas In The Heart was going to be another commercial move on his part. I still think the title is gooey, and that Together Through Life is a specious, soppy title too - but the fact that this blog was tut-tutting about motives we knew nothing about shows me that maybe I should just shut up about Bob Dylan for a while.” (26.8.09)

“I've listened. So will you. I think it's horrid. You may not. You may think that because it's Bob it's wonderful, despite it sounding like a 1950s Ray Connif Singers pastiche fitfully overlaid with a Dylan who couldn't care less how he sings. As if instead of lifting other people's words, as with Chronicles, he's now found a singalong double-album from fifty years ago and thrown a vocal track on top of it. I didn't want to feel this way, but really: he could have sung better than this.” (17.9.09)

I am glad to hear that you have written a glowing piece for the Japan Times. And I am genuinely looking forward to your keynote speech at Zimmy’s birthday bash in Bristol next week.

12:10 am  
Anonymous Kieran said...

I don't see any problem with him submitting his setlists for scrutiny. If you go to join a club, you must obey the rules. If he wants to perform in China and they have conditions for this, then he accedes or he doesn't perform. It's very simple.

If they had wanted to censor him - and presumably they didn't, given that he sang "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking" - then he either allows it or he leaves. Standing on his principles is fine, but who says music-making is a point of principle for Dylan?

11:55 am  
Anonymous John Carvill said...

Whatever the realities of the issue (or should that be non-issue) of Dylan's supposed censorship by the Chinese 'authorities', this statement most certainly does not read like something I can imagine Dylan writing. I could be wrong, but it seems to me screamingly obvious that Dylan did not write this.

2:33 pm  

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