There were some arresting undertones to the first song Bob Dylan performed at the Beijing Workers’ Gymnasium this week. But they were not the sounds western liberal types wanted to hear. With international concern mounting at the disappearance of Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist with a penchant for criticising the country’s communist regime, America’s erstwhile protester-in-chief studiously avoided any mention of politics. Instead he launched into a harmless rendition of “Gonna change my way of thinking”.
He certainly has. Back in 1963, Mr Dylan refused to appear on a television programme after the network objected to one of his songs as potentially libellous. This time he performed a set vetted in advance by the authorities. The times have indeed a-changed. Even Mr Dylan, it appears, cannot escape that well-trodden path from youthful revolt to wizened acquiescence.
Perhaps this switch is inevitable. After all, Mr Dylan’s baby-boomer generation soon discovered tempting alternatives to flower power. Once they were home from Woodstock, they could settle comfortably into an economy with more affordable houses and fewer warbling pensioners to support than the generation that followed.
But although he did not protest, at least Mr Dylan did not provide China’s regime with any musical propaganda either. His audience should be suitably grateful. Citizens in neighbouring North Korea are regularly treated to renditions of “Our General Is the Best” and the snappily entitled dance and chorus “Song of Coastal Artillery Women”. No one could fault what the North Korean news agency nobly calls the “revolutionary enthusiasm” of these works. But they hardly cast a spell.
Some will argue that it is unreasonable to expect Mr Dylan to do what the west’s political and business caste has failed to do. But there is still something forlorn in watching the grandfather of protest songs blowin’ with the wind.