Bob Dylan, like many of those in the lively arts, frequently urges us to admire his present work rather than to dwell on his past triumphs, although he has been known to make an exception to the rule when it comes time to release his latest greatest-hits package. Unlike some rock-music critics, I’m happy to oblige Mr. Dylan and acknowledge what is, at the time of this writing, his most recent commercial offering. Entitled Christmas in the Heart, it’s a collection of 15 seasonal songs so uniformly awful that one begins to wonder if, like a marginally less-abrasive version of Don Rickles, Dylan may actually take delight in abusing the people who pay money to listen to him. (This is the moment also to acknowledge that the artist’s royalties from Christmas in the Heart continue to be donated to the World Food Program, and a variety of other worthy hunger-relief charities.) The sound of pop music’s most fabulously discordant voice groaning its way through “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” would appear to be just the latest stylistic departure for a man who has already adopted a disastrous, faux-Elvis rhinestone wardrobe and become a shill for Victoria’s Secret, among other recent career follies. The only redeeming parts of Christmas in the Heart are the occasions when Dylan declines to sing and gives over the performance to a band and choir, and even then some of the tunes barely stumble to their finish. At a time when few of us are on long-term contracts and no one has a job for life, except pop stars who can go on churning out records and playing the nostalgia circuit until they drop, this would appear to be the work of a man who has long since ceased to worry about what his audience thinks of him. Dylan’s career has always been peppered with “genre experiments,” if you will, from rock to country, folk, gospel, and blues, with frequent excursions to the world of old-fashioned vaudeville, a stylistic melee that at one time or another over the years has exasperated even the most forgiving of his fans. But where has it all led? It’s one thing to eschew consistency for challenging new work, but for Christmas in the Heart? Surely all but the masochistic will wish to spare themselves the ordeal of listening to the album, and instead make a donation directly to their nearest food bank.
After a fallow 20 years or so, Dylan’s latest career resurgence appears to have begun in 1997, when he was hospitalized with a life-threatening heart condition. The realization that he was mortal like the rest of us was followed by his release of an unexpectedly good album. Time Out of Mind’s sales of a million or so may seem less than overwhelming when compared with the numbers routinely racked up by his greatest hits, but it was enough to win Dylan a Grammy and to paste his face onto the covers of both Time and Newsweek. As happens to most artists who endure long enough, it was critical-reappraisal time. Before long, Dylan would climb into an ill-fitting tux to accept an Oscar for his song “Things Have Changed” from the otherwise forgettable film Wonder Boys. (The statuette tours with him, presiding over shows while perched on an amplifier.) Dylan then had the perhaps morbid good luck to release yet another album—his 45th—on September 11, 2001. Entitled Love and Theft, it appears to have been seized upon as a form of musically assisted therapy in those troubled days, because, objectively speaking, little else about it would have warranted its glowing reviews. The music essentially recalls Al Jolson and the golden age of burlesque as much as it taps into the rhythms of modern pop. As for the words, Dylan keeps it light: There are one or two of those great country, broken-heart choruses, and of course it’s always a thrill to hear the Conscience of a Generation casually advise a mate, as he does in the song “High Water,” “Jump into the wagon, love / Throw your panties overboard.”
The Dylan backstory can be quickly recalled. Born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, to a middle-class Jewish family in the port town of Duluth, Minnesota, he was to fall under the influence of the folk artist Woody Guthrie and then drift across the country to begin singing and playing the guitar in Greenwich Village coffee bars. In September 1961 Dylan gained public recognition when Robert Shelton of the New York Times wrote,
His clothes may need a bit of tailoring, but when he works his guitar, harmonica, or piano and composes new songs faster than he can remember them, there is no doubt that he is bursting at the seams with talent.
The breakthrough album was called The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and it, too, emerged at a time of profound national trauma: Released in June 1963 to initially modest sales, it would enter the Billboard chart, eventually reaching No. 22, in the weeks immediately following that November’s events in Dallas. It’s admittedly unlikely that many young Americans consciously decided to drive out to their local shopping mart to buy the album because of its supposed allegorical insights into their culture. But it would be fair to say that Dylan’s songs, “Blowin’ in the Wind” prominent among them, struck a chord at a time when many people, in all walks of society, were struggling to come to terms with the murder of their charismatic young president. There was, too, the joyous derangement of Dylan’s up-tempo songs, with their combination of a propulsive beat and mildly subversive, sub-Lewis Carroll wordplay.
And that voice. Incredible. Those of us who ply a trade writing about pop music soon come to terms with the fact that many or most of its leading practitioners fall some way short of real virtuosity, but, even so, Dylan was something special. The critic Lester Bangs perhaps expressed it best when he wrote that it “was as if sandpaper could sing.” Though not quite as ravaged-sounding as he is today, Dylan already favored a catarrhal rattle that could make babies burst into tears and the family dog leap up and begin frenziedly gnawing its own tail. What other generation (besides, that is, the present one) has so wallowed in such gratuitously offensive noise? One can only sadly concur with the CBS Records salesman who, on first hearing Dylan’s voice, was to convey publicly an opinion privately shared by several of his colleagues. “It’s a load of sh-t,” he concluded.
Although Dylan himself, perhaps wisely, has discouraged the intense scrutiny of his lyrics, no such restraint would be shown by the various paying listeners, critics, and academics who greeted him as the latest all-knowing “youth spokesman” to appear over the horizon. Perhaps the most obvious example of this last sect is the now 76-year-old Sir Christopher Ricks, the British-born professor of humanities at Boston University, who has written a number of erudite books and essays seeking to elevate “the voice of the Twentieth Century” to canonical status alongside Tennyson, Shakespeare, and Milton. In nearly every Dylan song, Ricks finds either “explicit correspondence” to or “structural echoes” of the work of other poets. Thus, the 1969 single “Lay, Lady, Lay,” a slight if untypically warm tune comprised of a recurring four-note guitar phrase, becomes an exercise in what Ricks terms “erotolayladylaylia,” whose roots he traces to John Donne’s poetic undressing of his partner, “Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed.” Similarly, Dylan’s sing-along anthem “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (which its composer later conceded had nothing whatever to do with nuclear fallout, but was about “the lies people get told on their radios and in their newspapers”) becomes an elegiac variation on the 17th-century Anglo-Scottish ballad “Lord Randall.” Or take Dylan’s critically fêted 1973 air “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which has spawned upward of 70 cover versions, and is said (though not specifically by Ricks) to represent a “mystical insight” into the beyond. The song consists of two four-line verses and a similarly brief chorus. The first line of the chorus is: “Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door.” Those are also the second, third, and fourth lines. A minute later, Dylan then repeats the entire refrain, which concludes the mystical insight. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” reached No. 12 on the Billboard singles chart and was recently featured prominently in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of all Time.” One could go on. It’s worth dwelling on Professor Ricks, a man of many other sterling qualities, if only to illustrate the widespread infatuation with the banal and sordid that seemed to seize many of the West’s places of higher education around 1962, and which shows no sign of abating some 50 years later.
While the morbid condition we might term Dylanitis goes unchecked, Dylan himself continues to appear on almost any stage that will host him, gasping out a variety of the lyrics he wrote as a young man in the early days of the Johnson administration. It would hardly matter were he instead to recite the Republican Party manifesto, because his words are invariably lost in a cyclotron of nostalgic abandon on one side of the footlights, and amplified guitar on the other. The rock-concert audience is almost infinitely forgiving. It requires to see and hear only the vaguest facsimile of the original records it associates with adolescent memories of dating, dancing, and more. The crowds come to be pleasured, and you can feel them willing the show on. Technical expertise is not mandatory, which may account for the self-loathing that appears to afflict so many rock stars; they know how far short of their hopes the performance invariably falls.
In Dylan’s case there are additional calls on the audience’s indulgence. The old songs are regularly given new tempos and arrangements, and are often unrecognizable until you hear the chorus, if even then. The new songs are indecipherable. There are no video screens or flares or lasers, or any of the other standard rock-concert accessories. As a rule, you will get more bang for your buck elsewhere. I still acutely remember a night in June 1989 when my wife and I paid to sit in two plastic seats in the upper reaches of London’s Wembley Arena, from which we watched Dylan perform on what was billed prematurely as his “last ever” tour. He stood toward the side of the stage, appearing to us as a black dot, eschewed any between-song banter, and left the hall after 75 minutes, declining to return for an encore. At least in the vicinity of our alpine perch, the acclaim was unmistakably tinged with reproach. “What was that?” my wife asked me on our long train journey home, where we arrived to find ourselves in the midst of a power cut that affected most of southern England. Darkness fell on a subdued household.
It would be churlish to dwell at any length on Dylan’s private life, or to deny that at one time his drug consumption, promiscuity, and general truculence did indeed portend a cast of mind that would ignite the fires of originality his admirers claim for him. In November 1965, he married Sara Lownds, with whom he had four children. In her divorce petition of March 1977, Mrs. Dylan remarked,
I can’t go home without fear for my safety. I was in such fear of him that I locked doors in the house to protect myself from his violent outbursts and temper tantrums . . . He has struck me in the face injuring my jaw . . . My children are greatly disturbed by my husband’s behavior, and the bizarre way he has elected to live.
Among Dylan’s domestic peccadilloes was a reported taste for well-upholstered young women, whom his wife and children would periodically encounter at the family breakfast table. In June 1986, he married Carolyn Dennis, a longtime member of his backing group, and had a daughter by her, though not in that order. Miss Dennis continued to appear onstage with her husband, and the marriage remained a closely guarded secret until it, too, ended in a somewhat lurid divorce. Dylan’s second wife was to remark enigmatically that “Bob has been a wonderful, active father,” who has “eight or nine children.” Miss Dennis was at least able to enjoy a degree of access consistently denied to other of her husband’s colleagues. According to Dylan’s biographer Howard Sounes,
None of his long-time musicians had many opportunities to speak to Bob. He traveled in his own bus, stayed apart in hotels, and often the first time they saw him during the day was when they walked on stage together. When the show was in progress, he would often scowl at them as if he thought everything was terrible. Afterward he went directly to his own bus and disappeared into the night.
With the newsreels of Auschwitz still fresh in the memory when he went to school, Dylan grew up in a practicing Jewish family that would have been well aware both of the strain of virulent antisemitism abroad, and of its more muted variety closer to home in Minnesota. As he’s said, Dylan’s faith appealed to his search for “meaning” in life, and perhaps also helped him feel an outsider. In May 1954, he had his bar mitzvah. Twenty-five years later, shortly after his divorce from Sara Lownds, Dylan participated in Bible-study classes at the Vineyard School of Discipleship in Reseda, California, whose pastor, Kenn Gulliksen, has recalled, “We then went over to Bob’s house and ministered to him. He responded by saying, yes, he did in fact want Christ in his life. And he prayed that day and received the Lord.”
Of late, Dylan has tended to retreat from the popular notion that he is a “born again” Christian. “I’ve never said that. That’s just a media term,” he informed Kurt Loder of Rolling Stone. When Loder asked whether he subscribed to any organized religion, Dylan replied, “Not really. Uh, the Church of the Poisoned Mind.” More recently, Dylan has been linked with the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which favors a rigorously academic reading of the Judaic texts and purportedly seeks to reconcile the “mundane and materialistic” aspects of life with the “essential godliness” of creation. By releasing his album of traditional Christmas anthems, Dylan would seem to have exhibited the refreshing independence and whimsicality that lie at the heart of his spiritual life no less than they do his music.
Bob Dylan: visionary, poet—stereotypes and expectations accumulated down the years that may not always withstand cold scrutiny. When Rolling Stone and the rest insist that he is “one of the great geniuses of our time,” one is tempted to ask the old Jewish question: “By a genius is he a genius?” In one of his rare interviews, Dylan has thanked his legion of devoted fans for never “judging” him. That may be precisely the problem.