Friday, December 7, 2012

Bob Dylan: here comes your worst Chrismas nightmare

To quote a well-known literary phrase: This is just WRONG.

I leafed through most of the tracks, now posted on YouTube, on this strange album/artifact. It sounds like an old man choking on Liquid Draino. I was hard-pressed to find the worst track, or even the most representative track, so I just took a stab. The religious ones might be worse, but the elevator-music/Walmart p.a. system arrangement in this one won by a Santa Claus whisker.

What's this Jew doing, anyway - what's this born-again, died-again, reborn, dead for a while, then all-of-a-sudden-gets-nominated-for the-Nobel-Prize fella doing recording a whole buncha Christmas carols with a backup chorus of chicks and someone playing one-o-dem little ting-a-lingie things?

I don't know, me and Bob Dylan. I will admit to a crush, nay, an obsession in my youth, back when he was the most enigmatic thing since Russian black bread and writing things like:

Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying

Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying

Every once in a while Dylan moves himself, and in a recent interview he quoted the above lines and said something like, "I can hardly believe I wrote that, man. It's fantastic."

Well, it is. But how did he end up here, on the slippery slope to poor album sales and for-God's-sake-let's-hide-this-from-the-kids? How did he become a Christmas abomination, standing on a street corner bleating old carols strained through too many layers of cigarette phlegm?

I still look at Bob Dylan as an enigma, ever-changing, always leaving us guessing as to what he'll do next. I think I know him, then he'll turn around and reveal himself as much more intact and articulate than his current downtrodden-old-bum image would suggest. I saw him just last night on a rather dull documentary about Pete Seeger, who has the dubious distinction of having the worst teeth in folk music. The cuddly old Commie was praised to the skies by Springsteen, Baez, a totally adorable Arlo Guthrie (I want to take Arlo Guthrie home with me - he is a beautiful man), and - Bob Dylan.

When I see interviews with him, it startles me: he has a diamond-flash way of speaking, quick, ferociously articulate, and way ahead of the game, always - in fact, reinventing the game as he goes along so that no one can get ahead of him. And then there are those eyes: not "bluer than robin's eggs," as Joan Baez wrote in her tortured ballad Diamonds and Rust, but flourescent blue, lit from behind by - something - but it sure is something the rest of us don't have, and certainly never will.

So, fine, all this is in the positives, isn't it, and then there were all those early albums I listened to half-to-death (even though I had no idea who Medgar Evers was) until my parents were ready to scream. The last Dylan albums I truly enjoyed were Desire and Blood on the Tracks. Like Rubber Soul and Revolver (which I liked to call Rubber Revolver), these two would have made a nice double album, maybe called Desire on the Tracks. Here Dylan was still playful and soulful and sometimes heartbreaking, even in the simplest of songs (One More Cup of Coffee being my favorite: I always preface it in my mind with the mournful slow movement of the Rodrigo guitar concerto.)

Long before Desire on the Tracks and this Christmas thingie, Dylan got into beeeeeeg trobble  when he cut a very strange album called Self Portrait, which had a picture of a smeared cookie on the cover and virtually no original material. Almost all of them were "covers", and bad ones too, such as his version of Take a Message to Mary in which a female chorus intones, "These are the words of a frontier lad/Who lost his love when he turned bad. .  ."

As they say down in old Jerusalem town: oy vey.

Self Portrait, a (gulp) double album that would have made a nice no-album, inspired one of the best-known opening lines of any music review: "What is this shit?" The Rolling Stone guy didn't know what to make of it, and I didn't either. Sounded like something he recorded in the basement of Big Pink, whatever-the-fuck Big Pink is anyway, when the guys in the band were all drunk and falling down.

Bob tries, he really does, but the best Bob Dylan performance I have ever seen isn't by Bob Dylan. It isn't even by a man, but by Cate Blanchett, who nails His Bobness like no other actor ever could. I don't think anyone could play the older Bob because the older Bob sounds like he has shredded his vocal chords (cords? Either way looks wrong) with a StarFrit all-purpose flesh grater. Everyone complained about his singing THEN. They should hear his singing NOW. But the people who really objected back then, the teachers and parents and Great-Aunt Matilda, have all died of old age anyway.

The only thing I heard more often than "I don't mind long hair as long as it's clean" in the '60s was, "I like Bob Dylan's songs, but not when he sings them." They preferred somebody else, like Peter, Paul and Mary or The Byrds or Sonny and Cher.

Bob has apparently lifted all of Bing Crosby's arrangements in this album, and superimposed the vomitous horror of what is left of his voice. Somebody else has already sung these songs, Bob, in goopy syrupy voices and stuff, but still. They're a little more palatable to listen to than the garburator growl of an old man still trying to hang on to something, some sense of youthful glory.

The legacy of Dylan's earliest creations, that glittering Krypton ice palace that can still illuminate like a great spill of diamonds, slowly, somehow, turned back into coal (the thing you find in your stocking if you're bad). Or maybe it's rust, flakes of russet-colored, degenerated iron, the leavings of a man who couldn't stop singing even when his voice was gone.


  1. I've heard a couple cuts on his latest album. He sounds like a zombie bullfrog with a bad cold. That's an amazing quote of his showing amazement at stuff he wrote 50 years ago. I get that sense sometimes, too, when I see some of the shit I cranked out back in the day. Tells me there's a mind that writes and then there's the other mind. They're often strangers.

  2. Jeez, that Christmas album. What a piece of shit. WHAT possesses him to do these things? His intelligence is intact, at least according to the interviews I've seen. He has a mind. Is he just bored and screwing around with us? Here Comes Santa Claus, indeed. Here Comes Satan.

  3. Most likely a HUGE pile of lucre involved.

  4. Oh I don't know. I was surprised to learn, when I read his bio, that his records don't sell particuarly well. He's mid-list and always has been, in spite of his rabid fan base. Maybe people would buy it out of curiosity, but can you imagine people playing this sitting around the Xmas tree swilling down spiked eggnog?

  5. Bob Dylan moves in mysterious ways.