Buckling under almost no real pressure, Bob Dylan wrote a letter to fans and followers in response to the “controversy” over his April 6 concert in Beijing, China. After rumors circulated that Dylan had changed his set list and removed songs in response to censorship from the communist government, critics such as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd took Dylan to task, decrying a lack of songs that challenged China’s human rights violations—basically, upset he didn’t play “The Times They Are a-Changin’” or “Blowin’ In the Wind.” While these are obviously two of Dylan’s most notable protest songs, they represent only one phase of Dylan’s multifaceted career. However, they must be Maureen Dowd’s favorite songs or something.
Dylan did play 17 songs spanning almost his entire discography—and with a back catalogue that stretches back nearly half a century, it really would be the “Never Ending Tour” if Dylan played every song everybody wanted to hear. (And besides, the real tragedy is that he didn’t play anything off Blonde On Blonde.) Nevertheless, Dowd’s column was inflammatory even by her standards, damning Dylan for plummeting to new depths of selling out, writing, “Dylan sang his censored set, took his pile of Communist cash and left.” In his response, Dylan confirms that while the Chinese government did ask for a list of the songs he’d be playing, and that he’d obliged by sending his most recent set lists, but denies that there was any sort of censorship. Anyway, let this be a lesson to Radiohead, who damn well better play “Creep” next time Maureen Dowd sees them.
Here's the text of Dylan's response in full:
To my fans and followers,
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.