SHANGHAI - 'Something is happening here but yaaah don't know what it is, do ya, Mr. Jones?"
With those words, Bob Dylan concluded the main portion of his April 8 concert in Shanghai.
The inspiration for the confused Mr. Jones in "Ballad of a Thin Man" has never been established. Here, too, it was unclear what was on Dylan's mind as he snarled that sarcastic line at the tail end of an energetic 110-minute set.
Was he making a backhanded reference to his Chinese minders, who reportedly insisted that he submit a set list before sanctioning his first- ever concert appearances in China?
Or was it a veiled dig at the international press, so quick to leap on Dylan for performing a supposedly "apolitical" show, as if this were 1966 all over again and he had just plugged in his electric guitar amid the Vietnam War.
Dylan's shows in Shanghai and Beijing left plenty for both cynics and fans to examine.
On the one hand, his songs leaned heavily toward the surreal lyrics of "Highway 61 Revisited" and recent albums -- and away from the overt political messages of his early folk period, so oft-covered by American history books, providing ammunition to those who would label him a sellout.
Yet, the analysis is not so easy. Within the songs he did play, there were plenty of messages sent "rollin' and tumbling" through the air, intentional or otherwise.
When he came out to play "Like A Rolling Stone" at the encore, there was a powerful feeling in that room, and you had to be there to understand it.
Nor did he launch into "Hurricane" with a preface of "I would like to dedicate this song to Ai Weiwei" (the dissident artist recently abducted by state police).
That has never been Dylan's style, at least not since he went onstage at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and sang to the progressives before him, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," signaling his departure from the movement.
Instead, he started both mainland concerts with a stanza from his gospel days: "Gonna change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules/Put my best foot forward, stop being influenced by fools."
Dylan, known for mumbling incoherence during concerts, articulated those words extremely clearly.
Indeed, throughout the show in Shanghai he seemed to be taking great care to draw out the syllables of his songs.
Playing the 2,300th or so night of his two-decade "Neverending Tour," Dylan and his polished five-man backing band were not there to make headlines, but to rock: The music was the message.
There are different ways to do art. One way is to sing, "How many times must the cannonballs fly before they're forever banned," as Dylan did in Taipei on April 3.
Another way is to sing, as Dylan did in Shanghai: "Now at midnight all the agents/and the superhuman crew/Come out and round up everyone/That knows more than they do/Then they bring them to the factory/Where the heart-attack machine/Is strapped across their shoulders."
Each has its place. I would hesitate to argue which is more subversive.
Meanwhile, the international press has been rife with speculation about "banned" songs -- with zero sourcing to date (indeed, I saw several articles from reputable newspapers listing "Desolation Row," which I saw performed live, among the banned songs).
Should we then believe the Chinese Ministry of Culture screened Dylan's set lists at Atlantic City and Foxwoods in 2010?
He didn't play "Blowin' in the Wind" or "The Times They Are A-Changin'" on those nights -- or at any concert last fall. Dylan has 50 years' worth of songs to choose from, and his performances are not always drawn from Greatest Hits, Volume 1.
If it turns out the Chinese did indeed ban Dylan's landmark compositions, then it's a gesture as silly and superfluous as the ongoing obstructions against YouTube and Facebook.
There are many things that could lead to a revolt in China -- worker unrest, illegal land seizures, forced abortion, environmental degradation, police brutality, etc. -- but an aging rock star singing "Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command" to an audience predominated by Americans and Europeans is not the one I imagine will be the catalyst.
Shifting from a beautifully sweet rendition of "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," Dylan and his band swung into the wry beats of "Things Have Changed" as the third track of his concert in Shanghai.
"I used to care, but things have changed," Dylan sang, echoing a quote used in many news articles that very same week. Should we believe him?
Or should we listen to the gentle texture of his final encore that night:
"May your hands always be busy/ May your feet always be swift/ May you have a strong foundation/ When the winds of changes shift."
Jeremy Breningstall is from St. Louis Park and has been working as a teacher and photographer in China for five years.
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