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Bob Dylan in Beijing: No Sellout

Sing out!

Thank goodness for Mr. Wiener’s essay! Maureen Dowd is an intelligent, insightful person with a heart in the right place. She missed, badly, on this one. In addition, I agree with Sean Wilentz; there is no claim on artists to be social activists. This is an idea that Mr. Dylan has fought throughout his public career.

Here is something I wrote to a friend after being forwarded Ms. Dowd’s piece:

Dylan never, ever said he was a troubadour for peace, justice or anything else—in fact, he’s denied it all. His song “My Back Pages,” says it all—“I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” He says that when he was young he let himself get snookered into doing the work of the left whether he’d thought about it or not. He was both ambitious and avaricious—he wanted fame and money and the whole deal. He got it because of his genius. In Robert Shelton's biography, No Direction Home, Joan Baez recounts how, at rallies, people asked her if Bobby was coming. “No you idiot,” she replied, “he never comes!” Can we not, finally, take him at his word and believe him?

Dylan has always responded to individual events and events that, locally, cause pain and suffering. He’s not a generalist. I read that, these days, when he’s traveling around the country and has a few free moments, he walks around neighborhoods (remember when he was arrested on a beach?)—and if he sees a need, he builds a hospital or a school. Why isn’t that enough? He is who he is and responds in a way that speaks of his private self.

In China he may have felt, better to be there and lend a hand than to not go and create a stir. He also, as always, wants to make money. And maybe he thought he broke ground by simply being there; the world and the Chinese government know the history of his songs. Perhaps that’s enough. A few days ago I posted on Facebook the story of Dylan’s pre-approved China set-list (NY Times; 4/6/11); I was commenting on the continued control of the Chinese government over the arts, not on the artist.

The public struggles of Google and other US companies are not Dylan’s style, although there’s no denying the public impact he’s had.

Dr. Ann R. Bleefeld

New York, NY

Apr 14 2011 - 5:18pm