There’s been a good deal of hoopla recently about Dylan’s concert in Vietnam and his concerts in China. “How,” serious people asked in dismay, “could the man who wrote “Blowin’ In The Wind” ignore the repressive acts of the Chinese government, and especially the detention of Ai Weiwei?” Well, as Mike Hammer says when he shoots the blonde who has just stripped for him in I, the Jury, it was easy.
After all, this is one of the Two Standard Questions that people have been asking of Dylan for almost half a century now. The First Standard Question is, “Where do you get your ideas for your songs?” Interviewers and well-intentioned fans alike just won’t let go of this question. The trouble is, they believe that creativity is a conscious, controllable process; they want Dylan to give some easy formula for any given song that will begin with, “Well, see, the idea behind it is this…” People asked Dylan The First Standard Question throughout the ’60s and ’70s, and Ed Bradley even asked The First Question a few years ago when he interviewed Dylan on 60 Minutes.
Dylan is never going to answer The First Standard Question because the only thing he can say is what his mentor and role model Pablo Picasso once said to a friend, “Sometimes there are no answers.” People don’t like to acknowledge that creativity is a kind of miracle, and is often as baffling to creative people as it is to the rest of us.
And the Second Standard Question, of which the questions about the recent concerts in Asia, is a variant, goes like this: “What happened to your commitment to social activism?” Because Dylan burst upon the scene with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are-a Changin’,” “Oxford Town,” and other songs of social engagement, people did the equivalent of typecasting. They said, “Oh, Dylan is a folksinger in the mold of Woody Guthrie,” and went on with their lives. For them this is what Dylan was, and always would be. Unbeknown to them, the times weren’t the only thing that was “a changin’.” Dylan was changing, too, and radically.
The truth about Dylan is that he is, was, and always has been, a semi-mystical esthete. His infatuation with Woody Guthrie and his commitment to social justice was only a brief phase in a long, complex career. The best evidence for this that I know of occurs in his memoir Chronicles, and expresses his state of mind after “Like A Rolling Stone” made him an international celebrity in 1965.
Introverts like Dylan don’t like being international celebrities, so he started casting about for alternatives to the fishbowl of fame, and this is what he came up with: “I don’t know what everybody else was fantasizing about, but what I was fantasizing about was a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard.”
This is surely the most shocking thing that Dylan has ever written. In one sentence he undercuts his image as a social activist, as a rebel, as the spokesman for his generation, and so forth. Like Voltaire’s Candide, he just wanted to stay home and tend his garden—and write amazing songs, of course.
There is a deep split in Dylan’s psyche that makes people’s confusion about him understandable. On one hand, Dylan is intensely introverted; like Greta Garbo, he just wants to be left alone. On the other hand, he has wanted to sing for people since he was about five years old.
Dylan deals with this split by going out and singing, and then not commenting on his times. He doesn’t give interviews, just as he doesn’t banter with the people in his audiences. As Greil Marcus once said of Elvis, he doesn’t so much sing as present himself.
So my advice to the people who wanted Dylan to speak out about the repression in China is—as they say in New York—get over it. It’s not going to happen. It’s been 46 years since he recorded “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1965. Dylan has changed, but it’s not at all clear that the journalists who write about him have changed.