If many no longer consider the rock acts of yesteryear, or at least the ones who had their heyday many years ago, to be culturally vital, then the Vatican and the Chinese Ministry of Culture disagree. It seems that the aura of rock ‘n’ roll danger is alive and well from the perspective of these venerable institutions, with Dylan being denied a live audience in Beijing, and with the generous forgiveness for past sins recently bestowed upon the erstwhile Fab Four by the Catholic Church. But, what does this mean for the rest of us? Social observer and music enthusiast Geoff Moore, you’re on …
Most peculiar, Mama.
Two of the most notorious, insular, and autocratic (and perhaps rotten) institutions on the planet, the Chinese government and the Vatican, remain bemused by rock ‘n’ roll almost 60 years after its birth. Everybody plays the fool in April, but usually just for an hour or two on the first of the month.
News last week that the Chinese ministry of culture has barred Bob Dylan from performing in Beijing and Shanghai and that the Roman Catholic Church has granted the Beatles absolution was confounding, bordering on the bizarre. Had you ever doubted or dismissed the cultural impact of rock ‘n’ roll, here is living -albeit ludicrous- proof that it all mattered and it still does. Amazingly, two giants of the genre, of 20th century music, who hit their heights in the 60s are still provoking certain powers that be. For very different reasons.
In ‘Culture and Art,’ chapter 32 of Mao’s little red book, the Chairman pontificates strictly on literature and art and their places within the “revolutionary machine.” The quotations date from 1942, years before the release of ‘Rocket 88’. So it comes as no surprise that Beijing’s policy on rock ‘n’ roll is ad hoc: Wham!, yes; the Rolling Stones excepting certain songs, okay; Oasis, no. The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China is working without a manual when it’s forced to address the devil’s music.
At this stage of The Never Ending Tour Dylan is no threat to anybody, the troubadour will turn 69 on May 24th. English-speaking audiences have enough difficulty decoding his lyrics as it is and he never addresses the crowd anyway. And yet, a regime backed by the utterly massive People’s Liberation Army and one which has not hesitated to aim the PLA’s tanks at its own citizens is apparently frightened of Dylan, at least the idea of him and what he and his canon represent.
For some (and still far too many in this day and age) ‘The Chimes of Freedom’ continue to be perceived as a death knell.
A man many consider the founding father of modern science, an astronomer, a physicist and a mathematician, was tried for heresy in 1633, convicted and lived out the last 11 years of his life under house arrest. A sentence considered quite merciful. It took the Church nearly 400 years to come to terms with its relationship with Galileo Galilei and his belief in Copernicanism – a heliocentric solar system.
By Vatican standards, the conundrum of the Beatles’ existence and beliefs was dealt with swiftly. Just 40 years after their snippy dissolution, L’Osservatore Romano, the official organ of the Holy See -think the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily except with content more in line with Pope Benedict XVI’s views- wrote, “It’s true they took drugs, lived life to excess because of their success, even said they were bigger than Jesus and put out mysterious messages, that were possibly Satanic.”
Burn them! No! Forgive them!
“They may not have been the best example for the youth of the day but they were by no means the worst*. Their beautiful melodies changed music and continue to give pleasure.” You cannot help but wonder if this pronouncement prompted most of the 826 citizens of Vatican City to liberate their Beatles remasters from their caches of forbidden materials. And while it’s amusing to imagine a conclave of dusty Cardinals sitting around, inhaling incense and discussing the Beatles (They’re just like us here at the ‘Bin!), who really cares what a gang of cloistered old men think.
The article in L’Osservatore Romano stinks of calculated manipulation and desperation. A hackneyed PR-positive spin on the embattled Holy See for the world’s press; after all, who doesn’t love the four lads from Liverpool? And why not somehow piggyback on that near universal affection?
There are far more urgent and pressing issues on the Vatican’s plate other than the absurd doctrinal rehabilitation of a rock band. Issues that are bigger than the Beatles. Which means, if you mash up the arguments of John Lennon and Saint Anselm of Canterbury, the continuing exposure of institutionalized and ritualized sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is, right now, bigger than Jesus in the minds of us all.
Strange days, indeed.
(*This means you, Keith Richards…)
Geoff Moore is an author of books – real ones that you can buy in a store. He resides in Calgary Alberta where he observes culture and then writes about it. He would stand in front of a tank, if called upon – provided there was beer after.