It wasn’t exactly Newport 1965, but Bob Dylan played two of the most controversial shows of his recent career in April. Joining a list of artists that includes Beyoncé, the Eagles and Roger Waters, Dylan performed for the first time in China as part of a 2011 tour of Asia and Australia.
Tickets for the shows, at the 6,000-seat Worker’s Gymnasium in Beijing and the 8,000-seat Grand Stage in Shanghai, were priced between $20 and $250. Dylan opened both dates with “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” before mixing classics (“Simple Twist of Fate,” “Like a Rolling Stone”) with later tunes like “Love Sick.” In both cities, he closed with “Forever Young.”
Dylan came under fire from Maureen Dowd of The New York Times and from Human Rights Watch for not performing enough of his early protest material, despite the fact that he rarely plays those songs. “I was amazed at all this debate,” says Luke Hede of Live Nation Asia, which promoted the shows. “He was doing a normal Bob Dylan show. I’ve read that he was self-censoring and all this stuff, and it’s not true.”
Like every Western act that wants to play China, Dylan did have to submit a set list, complete with lyrics, for approval by the country’s Ministry of Culture. Because Dylan submitted more than 50 songs, which had to be translated into Mandarin, the process took nearly two months. According to Live Nation, the government didn’t censor any of Dylan’s choices. (The government seems most concerned with sexual lyrics, anyway. When the Rolling Stones played China in 2006, they had to drop five songs, including “Honky Tonk Women.”)
According to a source, an official from the Ministry of Culture was monitoring the set from the audience. Archie Hamilton, a local rock promoter who attended the Shanghai show, said he spoke with a concert organizer that night. “He said, ‘The irony here is Dylan’s probably the safest guy to promote in China, because he never speaks onstage,'” Hamilton says. “There’s no chance he’s going to say anything controversial.”
This is a story from the May 12th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.