Being That, For The Moment, I Have Had It Up To My Pupik With The “American Songbook,” Ho Ho Ho


I already have a touch of Reviews-of-the-Christmas-Album Fatigue, but I  don’t have Christmas-Album-Itself Fatigue. And so we are off to the  surface of Neptune, to find my  Bob Dylan penpal-of-the-future and see what she thinks.  The lovely blue roundness you see above disguises a bleak lifeless landscape dotted with sharp rocks and yielding to a horizon of Mordor-ish volcanoes spewing great banners of flames into a perpetually dark but feverish sky. This poorly imagined landscape should be familiar to my Dear Readers of a certain age who enjoyed film strips about the History Of The Planet Earth in 3rd grade. On this sorry and frightening setting we find a scrap of Life, imperiled but undaunted: a little space module, next to it a makeshift arrangement of fabric and sticks propped against a boulder.  A figure appears from behind the module, in a space suit and staggering under a  heavy load of something it’s carrying over  to the fabric and sticks. This is our penpal, the lone survivor of a hopeful experiment. She’s only known a space ship and now Neptune, all companions have perished after providing her  with the skills and information required to survive here, alone.

images-3 And one other voice as company. Whatever was packed in the trunk of that space module, all that made it was Christmas In The Heart,  Bob Dylan’s 47th commercial release,  which was available in stores on the mother planet in October,  2009, and which features cover versions of a variety of songs relating to something called Christmas. This is the only company our little penpal has in her routines of whatever she does to pass the time and then pass it again and again. All she really knows is this patch of Neptune and 15 songs sung in the same voice.

images-5 Precious fictions aside, what does Christmas in the Heart mean?  There is this baby whose birth is repeated in several of the songs the melodies of which are especially solemn and portentous. The baby is a king of a great nation, although it is certainly not born in a palace. The baby seems to  demand attention and gifts from everyone, from impoverished child musicians on up to the angels. However,  the parents are not much in the picture here, and the boundaries of the kingdom it’s inherited aren’t clear either. This baby, and its mysterious heritage, vast prestige, and appetite for attention are Christmas.

images-6Does the baby grow up into this Santa Claus person? He’s described as wearing an outfit similar to the illustration here, a red coat, a cap, also adorned with a white beard: if not aristocratic, then a sage. And he’s always greeted with optimism and welcome, just as the baby is similarly greeted.  But these songs are buoyant rather than august, and Santa Claus brings rather than demands gifts,  so perhaps the great baby has grown into a mirthful and generous king who created Christmas to share largesse and good fortune with his subjects, who again can’t be narrowed down to a particular area. In one peppy Santa Claus number, the singer lists past presidents of the United States, other world leaders who likely enjoy, or in the case of those who have passed on, have enjoyed, the happy example set by this Santa Claus (who would appear to outlive the mortals he serves). Christmas is a kind of regulated and dependable munificence and lightheartedness. Who wouldn’t welcome this state of affairs?

images-8 However, we know that suffering is the lot of all conscious life, and  the human mind alone among all forms of sentience will  create suffering even when circumstances don’t justify anguish. And so among the songs of awe, cheer, and benevolence, there are tales of people unable or unwilling  to participate in the positive mood and activities associated with the event or condition of Christmas. Some are separated from the embrace of family, or they are entirely alone.  The song, Christmas Blues, with its infectious unhappiness, is strong evidence that self-inflicted despondency is universal to the human psyche. Christmas is truly an occasion that exceeds boundaries or categories.

images-9The one real enigma among this suggestive and fascinating material is Christmas Island. This is just a Jimmy Buffet song describing a vacation in a tropical locale.

images-10Here is a photo of the Christmas Tree Nebula. Happy Holidays my lonely little Neptunian. And your speculations about the singer of these songs are correct: he is older than stone and as warm as the stars.


All The Merry Little Elves

arbus_treeIf   news came down the line that, say, Taylor Swift,  or Tracy Chapman, or Bruce Springsteen, or Eminem were releasing an album of Christmas music this winter, their fans would enjoy little flurries of speculation, and the media would make the announcement with different degrees of curiosity.  But  poor Bob Dylan’s decision to follow in the tradition of The Partridge Family and Mariah Carey will provoke urgent and contentious palaver about the state of the man’s soul. Is he walking with Jesus again? And if so, how far are they going this time? Is this the very last straw in his cynical mercenary commercialism? What the hell is he up to now?

33202True enough, Christmas music is a special case. It’s more assimilated than gospel music, and it blurs the lines between spiritual and secular like no other type of music. It’s hypocritical and vacuous:  the Christmas carol in the shopping center. It’s sentimental and vacuous: the Christmas carol playing behind the tearful climactic scene of a melodrama. It’s an affected reminder of the power of spirituality and community: picture the same climactic scene in a more pretentious and middlebrow melodrama. It’s an essential and unambiguous pleasure in one of the most sacred days in the Christian calendar.

images-1imagesA good singer has to negotiate their relationship to this music, to its ubiquity, its connotations, and to the peculiar range of cynicism, curiosity or attachment their audience will bring.
Somehow Bob Dylan was able to turn a straight reading of ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas into a stark and severe domestic drama in which Santa Claus appears as a kind of deus ex machina rather than a child’s fantasy. He may bring a little something to O Little Town of Bethlehem that even Elvis missed. So all us merry little elves will  just do what we do, and wait in our own little contentious patience for this new release, and palaver and predict purposelessly like I’m doing here, and as Bob says, we can go hang ourselves.

Inside the museums. Bob Dylan and Jenny Holzer (sort of)

“Who, now who wants to go get whipped, you know, and if you do wanna go get whipped, hey, aren’t you really being entertained?”

imagesThe Dylan-Judson match-up offers all kinds of thrills, including Bob Dylan’s  severe and undated insight in his sallies against  Horace Judson’s apathy. The great moment for me is the comment above, and I ask everyone to watch the scene again simply for Dylan’s vicious elocution of the word *whipped.* 

Indifference and condescension are Horace Judson’s weapons against the wild-haired boy animated to a frenzy by what only looks like the practiced purposeless  rage of his generation. Dylan’s impassioned efforts to get Judson to take the interview seriously, eventually lead  Judson to wearily ask the question that would make him famous in certain circles:  “Do you care about what you sing?” and Bob Dylan’s famouser answer “Would you ask the Beatles that?” It’s Dylan who demands Judson agree that someone would not “go see somebody if they didn’t want entertainment.”  And there’s Bob’s  flash of wisdom: an artist can set out to whip an audience with pedantry, polemics, obscurantism,  but  no artist can fight the desire for pleasure.

holzer_monument4_100x100Being whipped/being entertained–this is what I kept returning to when I visited the current Jenny Holzer exhibit at NY’s Whitney Museum.  Holzer is a familiar and admired artist among my demographic–liberal/intellectual/informed/always ready at a moment’s notice to critique our privileges. This exhibit displayed several works that employ text and sophisticated technologies for hypnotic effects of words transmitted with light, color, movement. The texts in this exhibit are of two general types: the cryptic and suggestive platitudes she’s known for, and material transcribed directly from declassified government documents including interrogation transcripts, and  reports involving  political prisoners held by the US, including the report of the death of at least one prisoner.  The walls of one room are covered with enlarged photocopies of interrogation transcripts and reports, easy to read and of course containing many blacked-out passages too sensitive to be declassified.

images-1Anyone who visits Holzer’s exhibit must necessarily become the sum of characteristics that distinguish them from the conditions that made these works possible, and not much greater than that sum. How can I put this clearly? While I am reading the transcript of a young man’s testimony regarding having been beaten while held as a political prisoner, I am right that minute safe, free, sheltered, clean, able to understand my surroundings and welcome to communicate in any way I choose with the people around me, and with  no necessary  responsibility towards the material I’m reading. If I work as a framer and I happen to be admiring the mounting job done on this display, none of the above changes. Even if I was the person who held the interrogation, there in the Whitney I’m still the sum of what separates me from these words. I am very certain of what I am in that moment and that place. What is the pleasure here? A voyeurism quickly checked by guilt? Then being flooded with the knowledge of my privileges and securities? And then the  confrontation with the sobering fact that I still occupy the same world as the one recorded in these documents? Submitting to a vague complicitness and a vaguer desire to be an agent of rectitude in this world? Of course–I came to get whipped, and I got what I wanted.

holzer_thorax_100x100The installations with text and flashing colored lights offer the pleasures of flashing colored lights, the game of reading the text as it shoots by, and the cleverness of many of the platitudes which are just that hair’s breadth away from hackneyed truisms to appear thought-provoking or witty to people with exercised critical thinking habits, people who go to Jenny Holzer exhibits at the Whitney Museum. Forget about the technology of flashing colored lights, just think about the sheer quantity of electricity needed to keep these installations running each day–it’s a condition beyond the dreams of much of the earth’s population. I came to get whipped, and I got what I wanted. 

images-3” You know what they say, man, they say it’s all good.”  I wanted this song broadcast through loudspeakers all through the Whitney Museum.  I wanted to see people dance on those floors, dance lovely and dance ugly, and I wanted to hear them holler “It’s alllll goooood,” and I wanted to hear them laugh, and the widow’s cry still going unanswered, and Jenny Holzer’s flashing colored lights and Dept of Defense files all around, and all of us so awfully heated up and so entertained.

“How much abuse will you be able to take?” Bob Dylan in Liberty City

images-1Have you seen the little video to Beyond Here Lies Nothin’?What a scream!  Myself, I can’t wait for the interactive version, where I can score points for getting her to push him into the retro TV, or getting her to back over him with the retro car, or making a great twist ending where he stabs her in the kidney while she’s stroking his face. What woman won’t be  empowered by seeing that fashion model bruised and bloody and  locked in the bedroom,  come out fighting, kick butt a little, and then show her tender feminine side? The problem is, the damned song is too short!  I just wanted so much more. A gun, at least.

Hello “Bob Dylan’s America” !

A house divided against itself makes a most beautiful Bob Dylan song

Rope Breaking on Man Holding Stone Heart on HillsideBob Dylan and his heart speak a real language to each other  that Bob Dylan is then able to translate into songs. Think of him as the sibyl of his own heart.

Heart of Mine is a clever conceit, a piece of playful and self-aware hypocrisy until the line “so malicious and so full of guile.” His heart frightens and threatens him. It will create feeling to cause pain. He is his own enemy, and how well he knows his own enemy! The song, with its lyrical title, is indeed a lovesong to the heart itself, the heart which should be content to rest within its home, which is the singer alone. But the singer knows everything about his heart. It needs more than its very own self, it needs to roam, it needs to speak itself to someone else, it can’t be fed by its own life.  We come to feel as certain as he does in the lie that the heart is a restless, hungry, free creature. We come to believe that Bob Dylan’s heart is his familiar.

Heart of Mine is a whimsy compared to Forgetful Heart, which gets across a kind of self-estrangement that is a dark and awful mirror. The recording sounds ancient from the very opening, scratchy and hissing as though we’re listening to something excavated and barely restored. There are only four verses, and the song is one of those that is over before you’ve had time to know it.  The words are utterly simple and the vocal clear as stones beneath water, and the cadence has a simple and peculiar charm. There are  short equally stressed syllables and then the words that rise on those currents of feeling that break through in different places: “the times we knew” “when you were there” “…that life could give”– the words themselves carry no more weight of meaning than other lines in the song, but the voice surges through them and it is in those surges that the coldness of forgetting opens up into the pain of forgetting.

images-2No longer the singer’s companion in love, his heart is now a shadow in his brain. Think about the heart as a shadow–an outline, nothing but the shape of something blocking the light. Sometimes you can read what a thing might be in its shadow, that’s all you can do. And no rest for his brain always awake, always tormenting itself by reading that lifeless shadow in the absence of the feeling he once shared with his heart. 



The door has closed for evermore. That’s a lovely lyrical convention, a well-chosen metaphor for time sealing up passion’s memories. If indeed there ever was a door.   This is radically witty. It makes a real door.  

Bob Dylan can make me believe that forgetting and remembering are conditions and not willed actions.  Bob Dylan can make me believe that a heart is a familiar, an inseparable companion, and not simply his feelings as they happen to him. Then he can make me believe that feelings themselves have Being and are not  fleeting and arbitrary impulses. He can make me feel pain that someone might call a self-inflicted fiction. He can make me feel he is never alone when he is alone, that he is intrinsically and often excruciatingly in perpetual conversation with an other that is the same.

519RKRQNPXL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA115_415YD84QF8L._SL160_AA115_51y80+hPK-L._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA115_Forgetful Heart is an unhealthy and unnecessary visit to pain we don’t have to have. When people complain that Bob Dylan’s songs are not as “relevant” as they would like, I wonder what is more relevant than being reminded of the truth of our hapless, sorry condition, and how deeply we relish being reminded of our sorriness via beauty. We are self-defeating and truth-seeking creatures in a terrible real world. “Welcome. And enjoy,” says  Forgetful Heart.

Together Through Life–talkin’ a little more, walkin’ a little less

images1Whoever first observed the suggestive links between the last song on Album X and the material on Album Y, is our inspiration today. Modern Times ended with Ain’t Talkin’ that epic of restlessness and restraint.  No stopping, and no invitations to join him on his journey unless you’re already one of the loyal and much-loved companions to whom he has to explain nothing. He’s vagrant and lonely and all-seeing.  Do not ask him for explanations and now he’s out of sight.

images-3On Together Through Life,  the vagrant of Ain’t Talkin’ is now saying, “Listen to me.”  In My Wife’s Hometown, the old blowhard claims he just wants to hear the drummer’s cymbal ringing. But no drummer could drown out the singer’s great growling braggadocio: he married one goddamned witch and boy are we going to hear about it. Not even so much hear about her, as hear what kind of guy it takes to hold on to her. If we don’t get that the song’s a big cojones-full boast,  the cackles at the end tell us everything we need to know. And  we’ve  forgotten all about the drummer by then. 

Someone else grabs you by the sleeve–“you’re going to Houston? I know all about Houston, man, let me tell you. You better walk right and watch out…I know all about it.” And now that he’s got our attention, we travel all over Texas with him, without leaving our seat. Memories so sharp they feel like right here and now, for the singer and for you. It feels like he’s already telling more than he should about Mary Ann and Lucy and Nancy. (Except that it’s Betsy, isn’t it. I’ve heard “Nancy” all along on the album,as whoever compiled the lyrics link I’ve cited at the bottom of this post– then I clearly heard “Betsy” on the Dublin performance, and now I hear Betsy all the time. Odd when that happens.) . Then he’s gone, stopped caring for the moment   what happens to me in Houston. He’s traveling on in his own past, but still grabbing someone’s sleeve–Mister Policeman, help me find this girl. I see the cop smiling, shaking his head, and then the singer brings his memories, all those barrooms, to us again: help me find all that stuff, and help me put my tears in a bottle once and for all. Then he collects himself, tells us again what to do if we ever go to Houston. All those shifts from past to present are addresses, appeals.

“I’m not that far away,” he growls rather appealingly to the woman who’s shakin and shakin for him. Keep it up, honey, he’s not going to stop watching. But you know, his attention wanders just a little, and who does he see, that scandalous old clown, Judge Simpson–in the midst of his contagious bluesy old raunch, he’s still a man of  mature years shocked by the corruptions of his neighbors. Even lust can’t quite shut down his field of vision, and we get the treat of Bob Dylan gossiping to us, somehow without the bluesy raunch letting up for a moment–all one moment to him, and to us.  What else are you going to tell us?

images-1“I feel a change comin’on.”  Change, movement, travel, transience, restlessness–we’re used to these principles in Dylan’s songs.   Ain’t Talkin’ warned us that he’s not going to stop for us, not going to turn and face us, we can overhear him for as long as we can keep up, but don’t ask for more than that. But  I Feel A Change Comin’ On  invites us in to his moment of change. He doesn’t tell us what the change is.  It’s not for us to know what’s coming next. But he’s comfortable and easy in making the listener the companion of his moment of change. “We strive for the same old ends.”  “I just can’t wait for us to become friends.”  This just isn’t the same as the exclusive  fellowship limited to those who “share my code,” and are loved insofar as they are loyal. In the moment of change, a stranger may become a friend.

And now that he’s made us companions, now that we know he’s talking to us, he’ll tell us what he really knows. It’s all good. The widow’s cry. The orphan’s plea. Wouldn’t change it.  If I could.  How  I wish every 25 year old in Williamsburg who thinks wearing a Spiro Agnew t-shirt is *ironic* would listen to this song fourteen times until he recognizes what keen and scathing wisdom looks like to grownups. Reviewers keep referring to this song as “sarcastic” but there’s a deep dark wit at work here that can’t be covered by sarcasm. The song could be a most excellent example of Dylan flattering his listener’s intelligence, getting across that he knows we’ll find that deep dark wit and laugh right with him.



Here’s a link to an early transcription of lyrics, and before you start finding everything that you don’t hear, raise a glass to whoever went to this trouble :

As great as you are, man, you’ll never be greater than yourself. The reviews of TTL start coming in.

355Miss X: Now this is a great work of art and I’ll tell you why. It takes a scene that’s a common topic of paintings, and makes it unfamiliar and revelatory at once. A landscape canopied by a luminous sky, a village, a church steeple: human life nestled into a fold in the earth. But the sky is a wild alarm of dark and light.  These stars aren’t twinkling pinpoints that can tell quaint  ancient stories of gods and lovers. The tree erupts like a flame into this sky. Nature is rampant and berserk and thrilling and the tiny houses seem to sleep? to cower? to tremble in awe? at the wild world above and around them. The church right in the near middle of the scene, the attenuated steeple reaching into the gamboling night–isn’t that what faith is? what it feels like? Reaching into the raving void?  Don’t you get that this is how Van Gogh really sees the night sky, then he makes me see it through his eyes, and then I’m thinking about nature and god and whether the only way things exist is the way we see them? And when I look at the painting, I’m riding that sky, not just looking at it and thinking about it? Now that’s what great art is all about: an original vision, inspired by what’s inspired artists for centuries,  that opens up into the biggest questions about life in a way that feels new for centuries after the artist had his vision and laid it down for others to see.


imagesMiss Y:  Here is a painting of shoes. There’s three pairs of shoes,  lying along a backdrop. One shoe is upside down.The painting is a dim world of shades of earth, with no colors of life, or nature, or ornament. Someone made these shoes, and someone has worn each pair, and someone laid each pair down here, and someone tossed one of the shoes upside down and didn’t right it. Whoever wore each pair of shoes has put them on and taken them off more times than the shoes were really made to hold up under, and judging by the worn sole and all the creases and worn out patches of leather, none of these shoes was worn just indoors on smooth floors.  When do you take your shoes off, and why are these shoes unoccupied right now? These shoes are unlovely and  everything about them, from their existence to their appearance to the fact that they’re in a painting, is because of what’s not there: the people who made and wore them, the actions that took them off and placed or flung them wherever they are, the artist’s peculiar decision to scrutinize and paint these shoes. The shoes are worn with age, coarse, arresting, strange, and thick with very particular lives. 

Well, these paintings can’t both be great, or they can’t be really great in the same way or only one can be really great in the greatest way.  I think about this when I read all these reviews of Together Through Life.