Sunday, October 18, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

I got a text from my friend, Richard Beck, the other day. "Christmas in the Heart. Spoof or on the level?" He is referring to the new Christmas cd released last week by Bob Dylan. This is not a question that would be asked of Andy Williams, or even Sting or Bono. The very idea, however, of Dylan singing Winter Wonderland is a little jarring. A Christmas album requires a certain level of melodic competence and sentimentality (namely, crooning) that aren't often associated with Dylan. I haven't yet bought the cd, but the 30 second snippets on iTunes confirm the initial impression, "jarring."

And so the question. Is Dylan dealing from the bottom of the deck here? Does he know that this is a different animal than Amy Grant's Christmas album? Is he winking at us all? Or is he playing it straight, adding his voice to the chorus of great performers who have done Christmas albums (Jim Neighbors, Motown Christmas, A Chipmunk's Christmas are some of my faves)?

Rolling Stone's reviewer detects an earnestness here and the review in the Chicago Sun-Times reminds us that the Ray Coniff singer stylings found on this album have always held a certain fascination for Dylan. They think he's on the level. But as a ministry friend of mine used to say, once you learn how to fake sincerity, ministry is a breeze.

(Contrast this with Slate's hilarious review. "Mommy, Santa's scaring me! Just in time for Halloween, Bob Dylan's Christmas album is here, its arrival harkened by the 68-year-old legend's fearsome wheeze—a sound more Beelzebub than Jolly Old Elf. Christmas in the Heart is being called a goof, the latest of Dylan's many efforts to ├ępater la bourgeoisie, confound his worshipful fans and exegetes, and generally mess with people's heads.").

This question is not just a question to ask about Dylan's Christmas album. It's a question that blankets his entire career (which was my response to Richard's text). For some, Dylan has always been a fraud (Robert Zimmerman), inventing himself (telling stories about crossing the country with hobos in box cars) in calculating and outrageous ways to make sure that everyone is looking at him. Others take Dylan's poses as the necessary invention to go along with out-of-the-ordinary gifts. This, it seems to me, matches Dylan's own public statements. Listening to his radio in Hibbing, MN, he felt born to the wrong family, that he belonged to a life other than the one he had inherited from his parents. But even in those statements, there's enough of a combination of earnestness and mischievousness that you're just not sure.

Dylan reminds me of the story, Big Fish, where the Father has told such outrageous stories about himself that all of us are convinced he's putting us on. Turns out in the end, however, that while there were massive embellishments, the stories carried the truth of his life in ways that more straightforward accounts simply couldn't. It's not just that Dylan has lived into the stories that he has told so that they are now true in that they accurately deliver him to us (though I think this is certainly the case). It's that they are connected in some way to a core that is really Dylan. They are ultimately believable, even in their clearly fictional elements, because they share a riciprocal relationship with something irreducibly authentic. There was something in him big enough to pull this off. I'd like to think that if this weren't the case, we'd all be the wiser.

Richard chooses to accept this offering on the level (in his own words, he's sappy that way). I think its probably both. Dylan has to know this is not Bing Crosby, but he's gonna sing the Bing Crosby songs anyway. There's some mischief here and he knows we can't look away. But this is who he is and what he does. He just might pull it off, and I'm pretty sure he thinks he has.

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