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Freewheelin' in Beijing

Dylan is a protest singer. Performing in China, he was protesting against his anti-China admirers.

india Updated: Apr 10, 2011 21:11 IST

It's that one albatross around his neck that Bob Dylan's always been happy to throw off: the tag of being a protest singer. Along with the overworn title of being 'the voice of a generation', Dylan has done pretty much everything to get himself out of the tuneful protester cubbyhole. He's turned 'electric' from his folk roots; he's turned born-again Christian from his bookish Jewishness; he's been in ladies' underwear ads to just get under the skin of his 'die-hard fans'. Last week, the man played his first gig in a place not immediately identified with the free verse of Dylan: China. Playing before a packed house at the Workers' Gymnasium stadium in Beijing, the man who has a bone to pick with everything and nobody performed Dylan standards such as 'Like a rolling stone' and 'All along a watch tower', all the time wearing a Panama hat that many commentators are sure to find hidden messages in.

Dylanistas are usually not fond of totalitarian regimes. So we can understand some of them not being pleased about their hero playing in China. But if to live outside the law you have to be honest (a particularly Confucian sounding aphorism) then perhaps to cock a snook at a closed society like China's you have to be playing songs about being free-spirited in it.

Some fans have pointed to the fact that Dylan was indeed slipping in a subversive line or two while performing in Beijing and on Friday in Shanghai. They point to the first lines of 'All along the watchtower' - "There must be some kind of way out of here" - and the line in 'The Ballad of a Thin Man' - "There's something happening/ but you don't know what it is/ do you, Mr Jones?". But we won't read much into all that. Perhaps all that Bob Dylan of Bob Dylan fame was doing was playing his songs before a new set.

And who says that his love songs aren't protestations against a tyranny?