The Magazine

Hark! the Heralded Dylan Sings

Bob Dylan fans are the battered wives of the music industry.

Nov 9, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 08 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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He is one of the great artists of the century.
--Andrew Motion,
England's poet laureate, 2000

The great artist of the past fifty years, I believe.
--Joe Klein, Time, 2009

Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a bowl of soup,
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a rolling hoop,
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a ton of lead,
Wiggle, you can raise the dead
--Bob Dylan, 'Wiggle Wiggle,' 1990

If you needed more evidence, the release this month of Bob Dylan's Christmas album, Christmas in the Heart, should close the case. Dylan fans are like Baby Huey dolls, those inflatable figures with the big red nose and the rounded bottom, weighted so that when you punch them--punch hard, punch with all your might--they bounce right back, grinning the same frozen, unchangeable grin.

We can only make a guess how Bob Dylan truly feels about his fans. But it can be a good, strong guess. He's been punching those Baby Hueys for a long time, hard.

It's not too unusual for a performer to lack respect for his most worshipful admirers; he hears himself as they do not, knowing how far short of his hopes his performance invariably falls, despite their wild applause. Sometimes an artist will even hold his audience in contempt, though he's careful, for business reasons, to keep the contempt at least thinly concealed; Abstract Expressionist painters come to mind. But not since Don Rickles at the height of his powers--the second greatest artist of the past 50 years, some believe--has a performer taken delight in actively abusing the people who pay money to enjoy his act. And when Rickles did it, the people were supposed to laugh, and did. When Dylan does it, the fans pull their chins and think hard. Then they pop right back, Baby Huey-like, and start explaining.

This has been going on a long time. The first instance followed an album called Self Portrait, released in 1970. In a single two-record set, Dylan embraced every musical convention that the revolution he helped lead a few years before was meant to destroy. Self Portrait's sound borrowed equally from the hillbilly corpus of Frankie Laine and the champagne music of Jackie Gleason. Dylan used his Voice of a Generation to sing "Let It Be Me" backed by celestial choirs and swelling strings, and he led a slick, bored-stiff studio band through Tijuana Brass instrumentals. From the hamper of his own work he produced songs of surpassing idiocy--"All the Tired Horses," for example, which featured a choir repeating its only lyric: "All the tired horses in the sun / How'm I gonna get any riding done, hmmm?"

At first, in the pop music world, there was dismay. Then the chin-pulling began. What was Dylan up to? With the honorable exception of the unillusioned Greil Marcus, who opened his review with a reasonable question ("What is this s--?"), critics tried to puzzle it out. Deep thinking reviewers from Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone began toying with what has since become famous, to me at least, as the Dylan roots theory. It has proved remarkably durable and elastic. Whenever Dylan did something artistically egregious, in poor taste, inept, schlocky, or otherwise incompatible with his reputation for genius, the reviewers would explain that he was a kind of musicologist, plumbing the roots of Americana, absorbing within himself the variegated traditions of our native music and transmuting them into art uniquely his own. Hence "All the Tired Horses." Stupid? The work of a tapped-out songwriter who doesn't know when to quit? Think again. Dylan was simply wandering in realms of the spirit the rest of us hadn't yet reached. As his audience has been saying ever since, he's always one step ahead of his audience. The fact of his genius became unfalsifiable. Nothing he did could contradict it.

So Dylan turned and hit 'em again. He became a born-again Christian. He performed in Kabuki make-up. He performed drunk. He wore funny hats. He veered from headbanger rock to Opryland cheese. He made boring, pretentious movies about himself. He played with the Grateful Dead. Nothing seemed to work; his admirers just dug in deeper, gaining confidence as their ranks grew even to include England's poet laureate. At last, in what for any other performer would have been a self-administered death blow, he adopted the stage style he's famous for today: the adenoidal voice mumbling unintelligible lyrics, the chain-saw arrangements mangling the most beloved Dylan standard till the body can't be identified. He tours continuously, doing this night after night.

A Dylan concert is unlike any other event in the history of American show business. It is notable most for the uneasy sense among the audience that no one has the slightest idea what song they're listening to. To an outsider, it looks like a cruel hoax, an inside joke that the joker alone is in on. Yet I've seen fans weep in gratitude as he garbles his most famous lines. The ovations are deafening. Forget Baby Huey: Dylan fans are the battered wives of the music industry.

Not all Boomers have been seduced, of course. Some have dipped in and out of the Dylan catalogue and emerged with fond feelings for a handful of touching love songs, a few really good rave-ups, several funny musical jokes, and once in a while a clever reworking of a standard blues number. His melodies are always simple and often childlike, and sometimes non-existent, on purpose. The lyrics vary wildly in quality. As a lyricist he was poleaxed by the Symbolists early on and never quite recovered. Neither have his admirers, especially the overschooled among them, who were ever after given license to describe his lyrics as "surrealistic" rather than "nonsensical." Late 20th-century American culture held few spectacles more painful than hearing a professor of Elizabethan literature go all exegetical over a "masterpiece" such as "Visions of Johanna," with lines like these: "When the jelly-faced women all sneeze / Hear the one with the mustache say, 'Jeeze / I can't find my knees.' "

Robbie Robertson, who with The Band backed Dylan off and on for many years, takes the most judicious and accurate position toward his friend's stuff. He'd always been puzzled by the overwrought encomiums, he once said. "I heard some great lines, sure. But a poet?" And there are some great lines. But for every great line there's another one with a wiggling ton of lead or a scheme that rhymes jeeze with sneeze. In a devastating essay in Spy magazine, back in 1991, Joe Queenan sifted the wreckage and nominated these as Dylan's worst lyrics: "You may call me Terry, you may call me Timmy / You may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy."

I don't know. We could argue all day.

Misanthropy can be turned into art, especially when the misanthropy is as intense as Dylan's. Americans have made a tradition of it. From Poe to Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce to H. L. Mencken, Sherwood Anderson to Dorothy Parker, the list is long. But Dylan's talent doesn't run as deep as theirs. His contempt hasn't been sublimated and forged into something more comely. Christmas in the Heart, the most misanthropic Dylan album ever, spreads it all on the outer layer. The record is a collection of Christmas standards, familiar kitsch classics like "Winter Wonderland" and "Silver Bells" and forgotten kitsch classics like Sammy Cahn's "Christmas Blues," along with the obligatory quasi-hymns, "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," and "O Come All Ye Faithful," sung, Deus misereatur, in Latin.

The production and packaging are professional. The band is competent in a midnight-at-the-Nashville Hyatt sort of way--maybe a little heavy on the tremolo but still. And the songs themselves are fine, of course. The arrangements, though, are jarringly slick, with sleigh bells and gossamer strings and cooing girl singers--as if Dylan had chosen to lift the backing tracks from an Andy Williams Christmas special circa 1968. Oozing just beneath his asthmatic croak, the arrangements give an effect of overwhelming creepiness. His voice gets worse with every track. You wonder whether someone left the karaoke machine on in the emphysema ward at the old folks' home. He doesn't sing notes so much as make exhausted gestures in their general direction, until at a break he falls silent and is rescued by the backup singers, who reestablish the melody in the proper key. But then he starts singing again.

Many of the notices about Christmas in the Heart have been pussyfooting. We should be clear: The record is not irony, or camp. This is not a case of "It's so bad it's good." Dylan is not Florence Foster Jenkins or Tom Waits. This is a case of "It's so bad I can't believe it." Under no one else's name would a commercial concern like Sony release a product so embarrassing. Yet embarrassing doesn't quite cover it. For a man as self-aware as Bob Dylan, it's--what? The conclusion is unavoidable: He's doing this on purpose. He knows what his record sounds like. It's not a misstep. It's not a gag. It's an affront, a taunt. He's giving us a choice. He's saying, Okay, this is what it's come to: You've got two options. You can cover your ears and go running from the room in horror, or you can call me an enigmatic genius who's daring to plumb heretofore unexplored archetypes of the American imagination. But you can't do both.

Was there any doubt which option his longtime admirers would choose? They're greeting Christmas in the Heart with the usual welcome embrace. (Thank you, sir, may I have another?) Baby boomers no longer having a monopoly over pop music's critical apparatus, there have been unkind reviews, too--jokes along the lines of "Get this man a Mentho-lyptus!" But there's been much more of this: "A true Christmas miracle," said the Washington Post; "a genuine charmer," said the Detroit Free Press. The Palm Beach Post said the new record proved that "Bob Dylan remains as inscrutable as ever." "The case for Dylan goes beyond his music," the Independent said, deftly sidestepping the question of quality altogether. "In his own peculiar, perverse way, he has survived extraordinary pressures to offer a sort of unfolding lesson on how to live a full and fulfilled artistic life."

And the roots theory has been put to excellent use, ho ho ho. "Dylan," said the L.A. Times, "seems to be offering up an astute exploration of the roots of holiday music--Christmas records in particular--in the same way he has returned in various albums over the years to mine pop music's foundation in blues, folk, country and gospel." USA Today said, "His habit of exploring pop's roots resumes." "Throughout his long career," said the London Observer, "Dylan's only constancy has been to his music, to the old, half-forgotten forms and the itinerant player's incessant searching."

Over that long career and all that searching, the Dylan roots theory, trotted out here yet again, has protected Dylan from transgressions even more distasteful than releasing terrible albums. Multiple instances of plagiarism, for example, have been hinted at, then proved, then waved away with lit-crit clichés. When someone is rude enough to point out that Dylan has lifted a few lines from someone else's work or copied a melody that isn't his, the theft is called homage, a borrowing, an element of "cultural collage." It's Inscrutable Bob returning to those roots of his, working within the honorable folk tradition that let one old-tyme warbler pinch freely from another and no hard feelings.

As a pop music reviewer put it in the New York Times a few years ago, by way of exculpation, Dylan "dips into a shared cultural heritage" to write songs that "are like magpies' nests, full of shiny fragments from parts unknown." The problem is, we do know where some of those shiny fragments come from; most recently they've included lines and images taken from a modern Japanese novel and the mawkish poems of a 19th-century Southern versifier with the unlikely name of Henry Timrod. More to the point, in the folk tradition, performers didn't copyright their works. Property rights would have complicated beyond recognition that gentle spirit of communal give-and-take.

Dylan not only copyrights his stuff, he publishes it under the auspices of the particularly ruthless copyright enforcer BMI, and then without apology he cashes the royalty checks from songs that depend on lyrics that aren't his and melodies he didn't write. He must reckon that a shared cultural heritage is all well and good, but a man's got to make a living. To cite the most lucrative instance, Dylan copied the tune of "Blowin' in the Wind" from an old spiritual called "No More Auction Block." So far so normal, as far as the folk tradition goes: Just one troubadour tipping his dusty slouch hat to a forgotten forerunner. But Bob filed ownership rights over the melody, and it has been a favorite of elevator-music programmers for nearly half a century. He has a big house in Malibu to show for it, with ocean views. No telling what the real tunewriter got for thinking it up.

Yet all is forgiven if not forgotten. Is there any length of slack the Dylan die-hards won't cut him? With the big sales and favorable reviews of Christmas in the Heart, we know the answer: Absolutely not. Whenever I hear extravagant praise for Dylan--I wish I had a Free Baconator coupon for every time he's been called the greatest American songwriter--I can't help but think, yow, what would these guys do with a truly great American songwriter? Someone who uses more than five chords and writes tunes that range beyond six steps on the chromatic scale? I like to think that if they ever listened to Ned Rorem or Virgil Thomson, or Cole Porter or Hoagy Carmichael, they would be overwhelmed and delighted by hearing the real thing at last.

But of course they wouldn't be. They have heard "Night and Day." Dylan worship is impervious to evidence. It begins and ends in experience and memory, personal and generational. A few years ago I heard a man in his early eighties who should know better pronounce Duke Ellington the greatest composer of the 20th century. In further conversation it turned out that Ellington's stuff was the soundtrack of his youth, the music that played as he fell in love, learned to dance, left home, went to war, became a man. And he wasn't about to let any of this jibber-jabber about Prokofiev or Stravinsky shake him from his judgment.

Boomers are particularly vulnerable to the same conceit, with an overlay of pompous allusions half-remembered from our American Studies class. We spy, in every cultural event we've witnessed and in every figure we've admired, the greatest, the biggest, the most .  .  . whatever. It looks like sophistication but it's really insouciance. Even as Dylan continues to sneer at them, his boomer admirers will refuse to believe it. They forget that the Poet warned us himself, so many years ago, with such prescience: "Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Poet Laureate?"

<ι><π>Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.