Sunday, April 10, 2011

OT: Bob Dylan's China Tour

In 2008 when I was interviewed by local independent music magazine So Rock! – I worked as label manager for an indie folk label by then - I said that musically I had two regrets: “I have never seen Bob Dylan, and never met anyone that love him more than I do.”

Three years later, Dylan toured China for the first time, April 6th in Beijing at the Workers’ Gymnasium and 8th in Shanghai at the Grand Stage. I went to both gigs, saw the Bob and met lots of good people who were radiating Bobby lovingness like burning coal. Now my heart is full of joy and thankfulness, to Bob and who were there for him.

I have a theory that, after 200 years, most pop music from the past century will be forgotten, just like 99% of the composers on this list, casual baroque fans have probably never heard of them. In my opinion only The Beatles, and Dylan will go down in history as the Handel and Bach of our age. Why? Just like Bach, Dylan perfected a style that had been deemed “outdated” in his time, and single-handed took the style to an artistic level never reached before. That’s the sheer power of genius.

If there’s not Elvis, someone would almost certainly “invent” rock, but such things cannot be said to Bach or Dylan. Geniuses don’t have to influence the time they happen to inhabit. Handel and The Beatles enjoyed the grandest success during their career, and rightfully so. On the other hand, Bach published little of his works during his lifetime, and Dylan, though being honored by Time as one of the100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century, remains the most misunderstood figure in pop history. Numerous people cited him as major influence, but he has no real peers or inheritors. Mojo once published a list of 100 Greatest Dylan Songs, and the 100th is Oh, Sister. Andrew Bird covered this song a lot during his tour. I regard Bird as one of the finest singer-songwriters of today, but honestly I don’t think he ever wrote a song in the same league of the 100th greatest Dylan song.

I listened to him relatively little in the past two years prior to the news that he’s coming, stopped following the bootlegs after the 2009 European tour and had not revisited the albums often. Not because I lost any interest in him, on the contrary, my eager to know him better was ever growing. I was just waiting for me, and working my way out, to be better prepared for his music. When I first heard “Love & Theft” I thought it’s odd fish’s drool, five or six years later it became my all time favorite album. It’s not because the songs had grown on me, it’s me that had grown and matured, become old enough to appreciate the wisdom of old. In 2009 I felt that I had more work to do before I can dig him more, so I stopped.

For the last couple of weeks I listened to him intensely again, and I kept on thinking that, I would surely cry when I saw him doing these songs live. The air was getting more intense as the Beijing gig was drawing near. In the afternoon of the performance day, I was as anxious as if I was going to see Mozart improvising his c minor fantasy before he wrote it down. On the long bus ride to the venue, I looked out of the window and still couldn’t believe that he’s in this city. The time finally came. As the lights went out, and the voice intro started, we stormed to the rail with a friend in her wheelchair, another friend waved back to other people in the stalls, and they responded enthusiastically. Securities tried to push us back but they didn’t dare to touch the wheelchair. After some go-arounds, Bob’s men came and asked the securities to let us be. We stayed at the rail for the whole gig.

The lights went on again and he was there. He opened with Gonna Change My Way of Thinking, the second ever performance of this gem outside the US. With the totally re-written lyrics, this song could easily be on "Love & Theft". He must get a kick out of singing“we live by the Golden Rule/whoever got the gold, rules”in China of all places, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. All my anxieties were gone the second I saw him immersed in his music, and smiled on stage. From that moment on I knew that I didn’t need anything for myself. He was happy, and I? What good am I to ask for more? I was more than happy. It felt so good to realize that besides my wife and relatives, I am also able to love another person with all my heart. It felt so good to be in the rare moment that love and music was one.

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue followed next, a decidedly upbeat version that sounded like a cheerful invite to a last dance. Love is pleasing, love is teasing - he is always the master of flipping the two sides – and I know what he always meant: love is not an evil thing.

Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ came as a surprise, and it relieved me that he’s not going to do Jolene tonight. He delivered a decent Tangled Up In Blue, though I still couldn’t understand why he continued to cut off a lot verses (he didn’t miss a line in Rollin’ And Tumblin’ and The Levee’s Gonna Break!). Charlie finally started to actually play the guitar in Honest With Me and the new arrangement rocked hard. Simple Twist Of Fate is the same as last year, with the third person narrator switched to “her”. Watching him performing the Blood On The Tracks songs at this stage of his life transcended affection and anger, it reminded me of his comment on Hank Williams:

[T]hey're not love songs. You're degrading them calling them love songs. Those are songs from the Tree of Life. There's no love on the Tree of Life. Love is on the Tree of Knowledge, the Tree of Good and Evil.

The first highlight is A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, and the crowd went wild after the first verse. His delivery was clear and powerful, and charged with playful accent variations. Those apocalyptic images were pouring like a flood, and when he sang “I’ll know my song well before I start singin’”, he sounded as determined as a prophet should be. Only this time, he is determined that even the Book won’t be fulfilled, the power of songs lives on.

The second day I took the overnight train to Shanghai, and got to the Grand Stage at the middle of the performance day. I hung around at the staff entry, talked to a roadie when he came out for a cigarette, asked him had he enjoyed his stay in China, he said it’s all good except for the air. “How does Bob feel?” “Well, you know, he doesn’t actually talk to us.” Around 4:30pm the van came and I saw him in his hoodie and I shouted “You are younger than that now!” He disappeared into the venue in a split second. A French fan later asked me if he’s wearing jogging shoes “so he walked that fast.”

I haven’t get my mind wrapped around the fact that the Shanghai gig is over, compare to the big bang of the Beijing gig, it slipped through my senses like the presto finale of Chopin’s b-flat minor sonata, after the grand funeral march. Even the ominous opening chords of Blind Willie McTell sounded like thunderclaps in a daydream as I’m trying to recall now. I almost cried in Don’t Think Twice(It’s All Right), but soon I felt glad that he didn’t seal this song forever after Suze passed away. In Thunder On The Mountain he sang the stanza that contains “I’ll say this I don’t give a damn about your dreams” twice in a roll. That’s what I’d love to hear from “voice of a generation”. All those boring journalists that suspected he didn’t speak out for Ai Weiwei because of the pressure from the Chinese government, you mistook him for Bono. He has an answer for you, and it's not Ai Shall Be Released:

“If you got something to say, speak now or hold your peace
If it's information you want, you can get it from the police.”

He closed with a less sincere Forever Young, deliberately sang it with pitch-changes that butchered the song. But it’s still a thrill to hear the man himself addressing the Chinese audience in this turbulent era:

“May you have a strong foundation, when the winds of change shift.”

I didn’t take any photos during the shows, somehow it felt too sacred to persevere the images of him with anything other than memory.

May his songs always be sung.


  1. passionate! But the more I read about him, the more I listen to him talk, the more I'm convinced that he doesn't consider himself to be anything more than an entertainer.

    He is gifted in linguistics. No doubt. I don't think he believes in anything he wrote or sang except that he knew they were good entertainment.

    1. perceptions of dylan are like a rorschach inkblot, people read into his life and his art what they will, showing something about who they are in the process,

  2. Ulysses, your post is a powerful tribute to Bob. Your detailed observations really give me a sense of what the concerts were like, and the fact that the events are seen through your sensitive lens is a great prize.

    I'm glad he played Blind Willie McTell in Shanghai; it's one of my favorite Dylan songs. Isn't is a haunting work of genius?

    I'm so glad he finally got to China and that you and old and new fans got to see him.

    Your website looks like a gold mine of interesting topics and commentary. Thank you for directing me to it! I'm looking forward to reading it thoughtfully. I'm going to start with your discussion on Hildegard of Bingen, a composer I admire very much.

    I wish all the best for you,
    Your friend in New York,
    Constance (dharma.wheel)

  3. You either believe the Old Testament or you don't. You do not have the luxury to pick and choose - accepting the verses that are making sense to you while rejecting others that don't seem to fit well with the image of Him that is in your head.

    Faith, by definition, is blind.

  4. I don't look for life's guidance in his songs, they are artworks, not textbooks. I may love Bach's Cantatas but I don't have to believe all the words there.

    He's not a poet or linguist, that's a misreading, and debasement of his achievement. People who don't listen to bootlegs of the Never Ending Tour or attend the concerts, know little of his art. Studio albums for him are always last-minute affairs, and the importance of them in his whole body of works can be compared to the few works that Bach published in his lifetime. Future generations will be wondering why so many people claimed to know him totally missed the real thing.

  5. Came across this looking for posts about Ai. This article pretty much nails it, on Dylan. "he ain't Bono" (and thank christ for that)

    Dylan's political rhetoric has always been first and foremost in the personal. Even his early "political" period shows this. He was growing so fast, immersing himself in the world that was unfolding and sent out the signals, as they came, moving thru him like a bolt of electricity, a column of breath. As he matured, his breadth deepened - the deeper personal revelations were now the lens which the politcal world was filtered thru.
    Dylan as BAch? there's so many of us out here who would agree.

  6. I agree with Wai and Kim Carson. For all his garbled vocals and unpredictability, Dylan knew exactly what he was doing when he went to China. Unlike his critics in the Western media egging him on to have some sort of Bjork-like outburst on stage, he understands that protest is best done when it names no specific target. The Chinese government let his anti-oppression lyrics slide, probably because the songs are so damn good and Dylan's a legend, but probably also because the words could apply to the proletarian struggle just as well as they would to an anti-totalitarian one. In the best way possible, Dylan first looks out for himself as an artist, and isn't that stubborn defiance of expectations the most universal and powerful protest of all?

  7. "All those boring journalists that suspected he didn’t speak out for Ai Weiwei because of the pressure from the Chinese government, you mistook him for Bono."

    What a cheap shot and pathetic dig to knock Bono in a phony effort to build up Bob. I'm a life-long Dylan fan--first starting listening in the 80s--and though I admire the road Bob has paved for others, there's no need for cheap shots about Bono. Bono has done more to relieve human suffering than you or I or Bob Dylan put together. He's used his hard-earned privileges for the betterment of others, something Dylan's always shrunk from, for better or worse. I'm not judging Bob--of course he's not obligated to squat for people but why knock Bono for trying to do good?

  8. @Anonymous, The point is, Dylan isn't into what Bono's doing (at least not since 1965), so there's no sense accusing Dylan for not speaking out. I didn't say what Bono did wasn't worth doing, nor speaking out for Ai Weiwei isn't an admirable thing to do.

    And about "Bono has done more to relieve human suffering than you or I or Bob Dylan put together." Bob never said that's one of his goals, so you can leave him alone. A 19th century Russian country doctor might have done more to relieve people suffering than Dostoyevsky (on the surface) but I don't compare people that way.

  9. Just a word...toward the end of your piece,you mentioned some disappointment with the rendition of "Forever Young." The Bob, usually on the older songs (which, of course, he's played countless times) alters melody and/or tempo, much, it seems to me, like a jazzman improvising
    a solo on an old standard.
    For my part, I revel in Dylan's constant
    evolution as a performing musician who happens to be playing his own material. He's got to keep it fresh for his own enjoyment. After all, he's not a jukebox...and he's definitely not a nostalgia act. Let Bob be Bob.
    Sleepy Joe Lee

  10. Hey Joe, I know what you mean and that's what I like about the Never Ending Tour, sorry if I didn't make that clear in this article.

    Many fans claim Forever Young from Shanghai a highlight of the 2011 spring tour. But for me, what I was thinking at that moment (though I tried not to) was: this might be the last time, the last song I ever see this man performing. It was like seeing my life, or the best part of it, fading away in front of my eyes. I listened to the bootleg after I published this blog entry and this song moved me a lot, hope I get to see him again.

  11. To mark Bob Dylan's 70th birthday, the radio stations that I listen to, played only old tracks. I don't think I heard any tunes newer than the early 1970's. As great as Dylan's early work is, to ignore his work of this decade and the several previous decades is to miss the creative artist that he is today and, in addition, to miss some truly great music. And while some of us are here being so serious and scholarly about the whole thing, it seems to me that today Bob Dylan is having the time of his life. More power to him for that.

    1. Last month, a couple of weeks ago, Bob Dylan turned 80.
      in around March of 2020 the impactful Murder Most Foul, soon followed by new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways. words echo forever, like he not busy being born is busy dying.

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