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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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.