The Disgruntled Dylanologist

All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie.

“Holiday in the Highlands”: Bob Dylan’s Christmas a

Well, my heart’s in the Highlands at the break of day,
Over the hills and far away,
There’s a way to get there, and I’ll figure it out somehow,
But I’m already there in my mind,
And that’s good enough for now

Christmas is a good two months away, but already Jack Frost is nipping at our nose…or ears, as the case will be this Tuesday when Bob Dylan, producing under one of his favorite pseudonyms, releases his first Christmas album.

Love it or loath it, Dylan’s decision rip another page from the American songbook isn’t quite as out of place as one might expect. For just about as long as there have been Christmas albums, pop stars have perpetuated the longstanding yuletide tradition of recording holiday-themed discs. Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and Phil Spector all have recorded Christmas albums. In fact, Diamond’s second helping of Christmas cheer, A Cherry, Cherry Christmas, will be released the same day as Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart.

So why have so many musicians, including those who don’t even celebrate Christmas, start roasting chestnuts over an open fire right around this time every year? The reason is simple: Christmas albums are cheap, easy to make and, if done right, they can result in a stocking stuffed with wads of cash. Dylan, however, isn’t in it for the money. All royalties from Christmas in the Heart are being earmarked for food banks in the U.S. and abroad.

Of course, just because everyone from Burl Ives to the the Beach Boys have recorded an album chock full of Christmas classics certainly doesn’t mean Dylan had to. Like many of us during the holiday season, he could have surreptitiously made a donation to his favorite charity and forgone the scrutiny this latest seasonal offering will inevitably stir.

But Dylan isn’t like the rest of us, and this isn’t the first—nor will it likely be the last—career move that will leave audiences and critics wondering what’s really going on behind those shades.

Over the last four and a half decades, Dylan has constantly reinvented himself, surprising his audience and critics alike. But of all his countless self-reinventions, his brief conversion to Christianity in 1979 has always been one of his most vexing.

And while some of Dylan’s finest songs were written during that period—“Change My Way of Thinking,” “Every Grain of Sand,” “Pressing On” to name a few—the decision to replace the Star of David with a crucifix has long been a thorn in his side. If the early reviews are any indication, Christmas in the Heart will likely have a similar effect.

Not that the notoriously indifferent Dylan is losing any shlofn over it. His decision to record 15 of the most well known Christmas classics clearly is more influenced by altruistic reasons than artistic ones. And judging from the enthusiastic and playful tone that permeates the disc from beginning to end, Dylan seems to have thoroughly enjoyed making Christmas in the Heart. Having said that, however, those who have heard the album can attest— not since Bing Crosby and David Bowie traded verses on “The Little Drummer Boy” on Crosby’s 1977 network special has the Christmas spirit been rendered more surreal.

And while many of his detractors have asked why Dylan would even make a Christmas album in the first place, if we just step back and take a look at the man in question, the answer seems self evident. This is Bob Dylan we are talking about, after all — the same person who cited flamboyant wrestler, Gorgeous George, and über oddity, Tiny Tim, as two of his biggest inspirations.

The real question, therefore, isn’t really so much whether listeners will embrace the new Dylan album as a holiday tradition or not. Truth be told, they probably won’t.

But you just never know. Like so much with Dylan, the answer remains a mystery. And frankly, Dylan probably won’t want it any other way…

It must be a holiday, there’s nobody around,
She studies me closely as I sit down,
She got a pretty face and long white shiny legs,
She says, “What’ll it be?”
I say, “I don’t know, you got any soft boiled eggs?”

October 11, 2009 Posted by | Disgruntled, Dylanologist | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Shelter from the Storm”: Bob Dylan comes in from the rain; finds his direction home


‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood

When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud

I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.

“Come in,” she said,

“I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

Every fall, Beloit College releases its ‘Mindset List.’ Comprised of 75 cultural landmarks, the list offers a revealing glimpse into how the roughly 300 freshmen of this small, liberal arts college view the world.

Admittedly, even for those of us born after 1991 (the year Beloit’s entering freshmen were born) it can at times be difficult to remember a world without the Internet; a world when wars weren’t fought on 52” flat screens in our living room; a world where Britney Spears wasn’t always a perennial staple of classic rock radio. But a world without Bob Dylan?

Welcome to the world as seen through the eyes of the Class of 2013.

Technically, Kristie Buble, the 24-year-old New Jersey police officer who failed to recognize the legendary musician last week should have been able to ID the iconoclastic singer. After all, Officer Buble was born in 1985, a good six years before Beloit’s incoming freshman class.

And while Empire Burlesque, also released in 1985, is hardly one of Bob’s most memorable offerings, his last two recordings—2006’s Modern Times and this year’s Together Through Life—both have reached #1 on the Billboard charts. Not to mention Bob has graced the cover of Rolling Stone—a magazine Buble has likely perused on more than a few stakeouts—three times in as many years.

In light of the fact that Dylan was found ambling aimlessly in the rain, disheveled and somewhat disoriented, the press has reveled in the reports that the 24-year-old rookie was unable to place the face of the “eccentric-looking old man” who just happened to be Bob Dylan.

To that end, much has been made of the now self referential 1965 lyric, “How does it feel / To be on your own / Like a complete unknown.” But maybe the joke’s on the J-men. Perhaps the fact that Dylan, one of the most iconoclastic people of the 20th century (and as a result one would also suspect one of the most recognizable) wasn’t recognized is the real testament to Dylan’s enduring eminence.

Because the truth is that there is another line nestled in middle of that the famous couplet that has been all but overlooked—

“How does it feel / To be on your own / With no direction home / Like a complete unknown.”

And while the lyric isn’t the most literal as it relates to last week’s incident, in hindsight it’s by far the most insightful.

Dylan begrudgingly began his career as the preeminent torchbearer for the burgeoning folk movement of the early 1960s. After going electric in 1965, he embraced the rock star status his new musical direction afforded, despite the self destructive toll it eventually took on him.

In the 1980s, he struggled with the growing enmity the burden of being labeled an ‘icon’ brought. But by the mid-1990s Dylan seemed to be at peace with himself, comfortable with the knowledge that he has spent a lifetime searching for not only for his roots, he’s spent a lifetime searching for America’s roots. And while the ultimate destination of that seemingly never-ending search still remains unknown, now more than ever Dylan seems doggedly determined that he’s headed in the right direction.

For some, the notion of being mistaken as an eccentric old man by a 24-year-old beat cop who‘s come of age in a world where “Magic” Johnson is better known for being HIV-positive than his high-flying hook shot may seem like a slap in the face to the legendary performer.

But if you step back for a moment to consider the fact that Bob Dylan can remain incognito in an era where recognition has become a direct correlation to our perceived social currency, then perhaps the ability to blend into what Greil Marcus famously referred to as an “Invisible Republic” may be the most telling testament of all to the fact that after spending a lifetime scouring America’s musical and cultural landscape in an effort to unearth the essence of the American experience, Bob Dylan has finally found his way home…

I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail,
Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail,
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn.
“Come in,” she said,

“I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

August 16, 2009 Posted by | Disgruntled, Dylanologist | , , , , | Leave a comment

Brought ‘Together Through Life’: Are Dylan’s new album, Obama’s first 100 days true milestones or just grist for the mill?


Talk about me babe, if you must.

Throw out the dirt; pile on the dust.
I’d do the same thing if I could
You know what they say? They say it’s all good.

Last week marked important milestones for two figures who factor prominently in this blog.

On Tuesday, Bob Dylan released his 33rd studio album, Together Through Life. Twenty-four hours later, Barack Obama crossed an equally transformative transom— his first 100 days in office.

Obama’s press conference was characterized by a cool, calm detachment emblematic of the man himself.

Stepping to the mike, he urged to press corps to take a deep, reflective breath: “Please be seated. Before we begin tonight, I just want to provide everyone with a few brief updates on some of the challenges we’re dealing with right now.”

Opening his first album in three years with a rollicking rim shot recalling an electrifying time when he was in his prime, any pretense of cool detachment on the the part of Dylan was obliterated by what can best be described as the musical equivalent of hell, fire and brimstone.

“The most important thing we now know about [him] is…that he means to confront that way of life directly and profoundly, to exchange sand for rock if he can. Whether you agree with him or not — whether you think he is too ambitious or just plain wrong — his is as serious and challenging [a figure] as we have had in quite some time.”

It turns out, Time magazine reporter, Joe Klein, was referring to the impassioned political journeyman from Illinois. Of course, he could just as easily have been writing about a traveling minstrel from Minnesota who goes by name of Bob Dylan.

Bar a few well documented missteps, the press has uniformly given Obama high marks. Their assessment of his first 100 days has been no exception. As presidential historian, Doug Brinkley, observed: “Nobody will ever be able to accuse him of being an idle man during his first 100 days. He’s clearly showing himself to be a progressive in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, with the moral core of Jimmy Carter.”

And while Obama’s legions of champions probably don’t think of the man who led them out of 30 years of political desolation as a gangly gimp with a Boston accent who can’t make up his mind which side of the street to stand on, such a character would be very much at home on the new Dylan album.

It would hard to deny that something very haunting and mysterious is happening in the border town terrain Dylan traverses on his new album. But whether Dylan’s Tex Mex influenced song cycle ends up becoming infectious part of our collective musical DNA, or just another benign addition to the Dylan discography isn’t entirely clear yet. As always is the case with Dylan, the prognosis is never that cut and dry:

DYLAN STILL THE MASTER
Sat, May 2, 2009 © Copyright (c) The London Free Journal
By DARRYL STERDAN, SUN MEDIA MUSIC CRITIC
“Well, after nearly 68 years and 33 studio albums, the master still hasn’t lost his touch. Together Through Life, like the last trio of releases in his remarkable late-career resurgence, is another layered work of genius that seems straightforward, but inexorably draws you deeper into its web with every listen.”

NEW DYLAN FALLS SHORT OF CLASSIC
May 2, 2009 © Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal
By TOM MURRAY, freelance
“Good, but not great. In the end, it feels as though Dylan is in stopgap mode again, releasing a collection of OK to good songs because he feels it’s time.”

THE ROLLING STONE REVIEW
April 23, 2009 © Copyright (c) Rolling Stone
By DAVID FRICKE
“Ultimately, Together Through Life is a mixed bag of this decade’s Dylan — impulsive, caustic, sentimental, long done with the contrived details of contemporary record-making. That hardened, bleating voice is also perfect for these times: A nation drunk on hope less than six months ago now drowns in red ink and pink slips.”

Of course, you don’t need Rolling Stone to know which way the wind blows. And while nearly everyone who’s heard the new Dylan album has an opinion it, in the end Erik Thompson of Culture Bully probably got it right when he wrote: “….reviewing a new record by Bob Dylan is a bit like reviewing the Roman Colosseum (sic); you might not like the way it looks now, but there is no denying the cultural significance of the structure and the history found within. [Dylan] has indeed slayed his share of lions over the years, and that the blood of those battles still colors his music even now.”

A charismatic, youthful president’s first 100 days in office; the release of a hauntingly alluring album that recalls a century of America popular music. Considering the place these men hold in our collective cultural imagination, the dogged determination to put their respective milestones into some sort of perspective was probably, in hindsight, inevitable.


The irony, of course, is that perspective is best achieved looking back. And that’s something both have vehemently vowed never to do…

Brick by brick, they tear you down.
A teacup of water is enough to drown.
You oughta know, if they could,
They would whatever goin’ down, it’s all good.

May 4, 2009 Posted by | Disgruntled, Dylanologist | , , , | Leave a comment

‘Together Through Life’: Is Dylan’s changing relationship with Barack Obama a telltale sign of things to come?


Oh well, I love you pretty baby

You’re the only love I’ve ever known
Just as long as you stay with me
The whole world is my throne

A perennial fixture on the American political scene for the last 40 years, he has engaged, enraged, and probably even entertained the notion a few times. But despite his entrenchment in the country’s political dialogue, Bob Dylan had never outright endorsed a presidential candidate.

Then last June, seemingly out of nowhere, one of the most guarded, poker-faced figures of the 20th century laid his cards on the table—

“Right now America is in a state of upheaval,” he said in that slow, measured meter that forces you hang on his every word. “But we’ve got this guy out there now who is redefining the nature of politics from the ground up. He’s redefining what a politician is. Yes, I’m hopeful that things might change. Some things are going to have to.”

Ever the astute politician, the junior senator from Illinois quickly returned the accolade by telling Jan Wenner of Rolling Stone, “[there are] probably 30 Dylan songs on my iPod,” including “the entire Blood on the Tracks album.” And just like that, the fate of perhaps the most iconoclastic figure of his generation was tangled up in Bob.

Of course, we all know how the story ended. Barack Obama went on be elected the 44th president of the United States. And Dylan? Bob did the only thing he knows how to do, he just kept on keepin’ on…

Then on April 7, in a Q&A session with Bill Flanagan to promote his new album, Together Through Life, Dylan decided to break it off with Barack.

Dylan has always been dismissive of politics: “[It’s] entertainment…a sport. It’s for the well-groomed and well-heeled. The impeccably dressed. Politicians are interchangeable.” The real surprise was his response when asked if Obama would make a good president.

Rather than stick to the script that Obama is going to “redefine American politics,” Dylan started to weave a far more cautionary tale: “Most of those guys come into office with the best of intentions and leave as beaten men.”

Dylan conceded to having read Obama’s book, Dreams from My Father: “His writing style hits you on more than one level. It makes you feel and think at the same time and that is hard to do.” But clearly, the book had raised more issues for Dylan than it had answered: “He’s got an interesting background,” Dylan said. “He’s like a fictional character, but he’s real.”

But just when you thought Dylan might be warming back up to Barack Obama (after all, if anyone knows how to straddle that enigmatic abyss between fact and fiction, it’s Bob Dylan), Dylan resorted to one of his best known tricks— turning a compliment into cantankerous condemnation: “He probably could’ve done anything…the political world came to him. It was there to be had.” No question, the dodgy old Dylan was back.

At 67, Bob Dylan has spent a lifetime re-inventing himself. So while we shouldn’t be completely surprised by his change of heart about Barack Obama, we should take notice.

When it comes to predicting the direction of this country, Dylan may not be the end-all, be-all. He is, however, a startlingly accurate bellwether.

Even at the beginning, Dylan knew where it was at. On September 22, 1961, Dylan performed “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” for the first time publicly. One of Dylan’s most politically charged songs, “Hard Rain” warned (among other things) of the horrors of nuclear war.

One month later to the day, President Kennedy appeared on television to announce the discovery of missiles on the island of Cuba, initiating a 13-day cat-and-mouse game with the Soviets that brought the world to brink of nuclear holocaust.

Forty years later, Dylan’s prescient premonitions remain eerily accurate. Dylan’s 2001 album, Love and Theft, was about a country in flames, and then underwater. The record was released on September 11, the very day America saw the World Trade Center towers reduced to a mass of smoldering rubble. Four years later, a deluge of despondency washed across American as the federal government sit idly while the city of New Orleans was literally wiped off the map.

Dylan’s next album, Modern Times was, on one level, a nostalgic nod to the classic Depression-era film by Charlie Chaplin. The disc was filled with soul-searching songs of working people losing faith and losing ground. The fact that the album was released in the summer of 2006, at a time when Wall Street was flying and the housing market was humming along, the record seemed oddly out of place. That is until the markets crashed and all those workingman’s blues came true for millions of Americans.

In two weeks, Dylan will release his 33rd studio album. Titled, Together Through Life, the working moniker for the record was for a while rumored to be, I Fell A Change Coming On.

And while Bob’s predictions have more often than not been alarmingly dead on, Dylan is hardly a harbinger of doom. But based on his past track record, those of us who think and write about Dylan have to wonder exactly Dylan was thinking about when he was writing one.

A few lucky journalists have gotten a sneak peek. The rest of us, however, will just have to wait. But one thing is for sure—

Considering Dylan’s abrupt about face on the man who will be leading us over the next few years, I wouldn’t take anything for granted…

Listen to me, pretty baby
Lay your hand upon my head
Beyond here lies nothin’
Nothin’ done and nothin’ said

For a full transcript of Dylan’s recent interview with Bill Flanagan, click here.

April 13, 2009 Posted by | Disgruntled, Dylanologist | , , , , | Leave a comment

Are The Times A-Changin’ Again?: Dylan will let us know in April


Come writers and critics

Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again

It seems the writers and critics will get another chance to witness history in transition. The man who famously prophesized about a battle that was ragin’, an order that was fadin’, a road rapidly that was agin’ has got that old feeling again— a change is coming on.

The news broke with the report that Bob Dylan had contributed a song to My Own Love Song, the upcoming road picture by French filmmaker Olivier Dahan starring Rene Zellweger and Forest Whitaker. But when the confirmation of the possible existence of an entire album of new material appeared on Dylan encyclopaedist Michael Gray’s blog on January 22, Dylan aficionados heeded the call: the creative juices were flowing, the spigot was back on and soon we’d be drenched to the bone.

Of course, it was the title that excited the Dylan community most—“I Feel a Change Coming On.” And even though Bob has since settled on “Together Though Life” as the moniker for what’s anticipated to be another Dylan masterpiece, the mere mention of ‘change’ on a Dylan album, especially when that mention is made by Bob himself, is all that’s needed to get the Bobcats buzzing…What kind of change are we talking about here? A personal change? A political change? As with all things Dylan, the speculation is half the fun.

But rather than play into what would undoubtedly become an endless loop of pondering, reflection and rumination on exactly what ‘message of change’ Bob will impart this April, I thought I’d turn my attention to the messenger. Or should I say messengers…

Last November, Ben Parr of mashable.com offered an insightful take on the modern times in which we live. Titled, “5 Ways Social Media Will Change Recorded History,” the gist is this— history is no longer a thing of the past; history is now.

And in light of the recent flurry of cyber speculation revolving around Dylan’s new album, it got me thinking how different both Dylan and his body of work would have been had he come to prominence in an era when we truly had no secrets to conceal.

Here are the five tenets put forth in Parr’s article:

1) Everyone will have the ability to know what you did and who you were with on a daily basis. We all like to keep our business to ourselves, but Dylan takes anonymity to another level. Sure Bob has a snazzy new website loaded with all the ‘community’ bells and whistles. Yes, he has his own MySpace page. And while it’s uncertain if he has opened a Twitter account, as much as we’d all enjoy that ‘never ending tweet,’ there’s no comparison that “Come mothers and fathers / Throughout the land / And don’t criticize / What you can’t understand,” trumps “@oldgeneration why r’t u getting this” any day. Besides, Bob’s earned the right to express himself in more than 140 characters.

2) Historical trend analysis will leap to a new level of precision. No more relying on gatekeepers and guardians whose sole source of power comes from self-preservation. Actually, Dylan would probably have liked this. As Bob himself said, “Come gather ’round people / Wherever you roam.” But whether he likes it or not, Dylan himself is a gatekeeper, a purveyor of popular culture. And as the most prolific and prescient songwriter of the 20th century wouldn’t it be a shame to have the enduring contributions of Bob Dylan overlooked in favor of lesser contrarians who have simply caught the most prevailing wave of public opinion?

3) We will not use history to learn from our mistakes, but to prevent them before they happen. In a culture where prevention prevails, there’s no question Dylan’s vast discography would have been dramatically different if Dylan hadn’t occasionally let his guard down. Some of Dylan’s best work has been an attempt to put his past indiscretions in perspective. Four words: Blood on the Tracks.

4) There is little room for hiding details about our lives. In 1995, Clinton Heylin painstakingly chronicled Dylan’s life down to the minutest detail in Bob Dylan: A Life in Stolen Moments, Day by Day: 1941-1995. It’s no coincidence Heylin hasn’t come out with a second edition. In this age of limitless access to information, we no longer need a noted Dylanologist to collect the stolen moments of Bob’s life. Thanks to Google, we can do it ourselves.

5) An ethical war over the use of this information will arise. We live in an era of ‘remix’—a time when the notion of a pure, unadulterated ‘artistic vision’ is a thing of the past. Thanks to photography websites like Flickr, and community online editing sites like Stroome, the ‘remix’ culture is no longer upon us— it’s already arrived. And if you think Dylan hasn’t got caught up in the mix, you only need to think back a few weeks to Pepsi’s recent Superbowl ad that mashed up Bob and Black-Eyed Peas front man, Will.i.am. Talk about a mangled message.

Considering the all encompassing prevalence of social media, it should hardly be a surprise that the way we came to hear about the new Dylan album is the same way we get all our information these days. Because whether it’s looking back on the monumental moments of the past, or peering head on into the mundane nature of our daily lives, in the end history is essentially a story in transition— history is change.

But in this era of excessive transparency, it’s somehow comforting to know that we can still rely on Dylan to see the forest for the trees…

It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Interested in reading Ben Parr’s complete Mashable article? Click here.

March 17, 2009 Posted by | Disgruntled, Dylanologist | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment