Bob Dylan in China

article image

Paula Rabinowitz had no trouble remembering the first or the last time she saw Bob Dylan before his concert last Friday night in Shanghai. 

            “I was at Newport (Folk Festival) in 1963 when he went electric,” said the Minneapolis woman, a Fulbright Scholar living in Shanghai. “Nobody really booed.”

            As for the last time, it was election night in 2008. Rabinowitz accompanied rock critic Greil Marcus to a Dylan performance at the University of Minnesota. Rabinowitz sat in the fourth row with Marcus, whose daughter was her student.

            “Dylan came out on the stage and announced that Obama had won. People started dancing,” she said.

            Rabinowitz will likely remember the show at the Shanghai Gymnasium for similarly historic reasons. Dylan was permitted to perform in China for the first time only when he agreed to submit a set list to the National Ministry of Culture. The government had expressed concern that Dylan might “offend the feelings” of the Chinese people with protest songs.

 Dylan sang “Desolation Row” Friday night, and the sky didn’t fall. He apparently didn’t hurt the feelings of Chinese fans in attendance.

            Dylan sang his 12-minute 1965 anthem midway through the second show of his tour of China. He performed “Desolation Row” in Taiwan on Sunday night but not on Wednesday in Beijing in mainland China.

            The audience at the 8,000-seat Shanghai Gymnasium reflected the international population of the city.

            “It’s going to be an epic show,” said a Peoria, Illinois, man who identified himself as “Bob Admire” and said he was a Caterpillar employee in town on business. “He’s got a serious band with him.”

Dylan’s band included guitarist Charley Sexton and bassist Tony Garnier, who accompanied him during an appearance at the Iowa State Fair in August 2001.

            On the fairgrounds stage that night, the best-song Oscar which Dylan won earlier in the year sat on an amplifier. Almost 10 years later, the statue was here in Shanghai, where “Things Have Changed”–the Oscar-winning third song on Friday’s play list–might have served as the anthem of this historic tour for Dylan.

            Something had to serve in place of “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” neither of which Dylan sang in Beijing or Shanghai. The earlier show in Taipei closed with an encore of “Blowin’.”          

Scalpers bought a considerable number of the tickets available for the concert. At show time, an entire section of seats in front of the stage sat empty.

            “I don’t know what to do,” said a young French man named Hugo, who stood outside the concert hall, undecided whether to pay scalpers for a ticket. “If I don’t get a ticket, I’ll go home and cry.”

              “That’s Shanghai for you,” said Amy, a Dylan fan from Perth, Australia. “The concert is supposedly sold out, but scalpers bought the tickets and scanned them. You don’t know if they’re real or not.”

            A fortyish, Chinese financial analyst, Ray, surmised why the Chinese in the audience appeared mostly young, while westerners, particularly Americans, were likely baby boomers.

            “Dylan’s huge impact on American society occurred during our cultural revolution,” he said. “The Chinese didn’t start listening to western folk music until much later.”

 Peggy Phillips, who has lived in Shanghai for 10 years, hadn’t attended a Dylan concert since her college years in Boston in the mid-1970s.

            “He is an icon from my golden years,” Phillips said.

            As Dylan launched into “Like A Rolling Stone,” his next-to-last song, fans streamed down the main-floor aisles and cheered.

            “I’m surprised the audience was so passionate,” said Ray about his normally reserved compatriots. “This concert was such a good sign.”

            A 16-year-old Chinese girl, Ann, stood on her seat in the last row of the auditorium, singing and waving her arms. A student at a Shanghai international school who came to the concert with her Columbian teacher, Ann most wanted to hear “Like A Rolling Stone.”

            “I have had the time of my life,” she said. She began listening to Dylan on the Internet when she read a children’s book that alluded to him. “It is hypocritical and censorship that the government had to review the songs he’d sing.”

            Dylan, who turns 70 in May, performed in Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday night. He closed with “Forever Young” and did not return to the stage for an encore.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.