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

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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.

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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.