Back in my record-biz days, I developed, to my horror, a disillusioned contempt for that which calls itself The Audience. Part of it came from working with bands, many of whom suffered for decades at the hands of that fickle beast, which hasn’t a clue as to how lives are altered by that ugly mistress, fame. There these ducklings sit, arms folded in judgmental arrogance atop their gilded perch, engaged in schizophrenic relationships with their heroes and gods, yet regarding them as little more than tenuous diversions serving at their pleasure.
Oh! the maddening paradoxes. The Audience wields all the power, yet it whines of having none. It openly lies about its wants and desires, claiming to subscribe to one ideology while embracing the opposite. Still, we’re instructed to consult its wisdom while willfully ignoring its most glaring weakness: the crowd is us, and we’re fucked up. Imagine the damage a whole bunch of us could do. Mysteriously, despite its human variables, The Audience is proffered as a perfect creation, blameless, impervious to scrutiny. If an artist fails to make a connection, it’s always his fault.
Somehow, all of this cooked my frosty brain as I listened to the Bob Dylan Christmas album, excoriated mightily since its autumn birth. A few weekends ago Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis retched in bemused bewilderment on their Sound Opinions program. Entertaining, to say the least. Elsewhere, the sense of betrayal wasn’t as funny. Jesus Christ, Bob, what have you done to us? It was bad enough he willed that ’30s gigolo snail-trail over his wrinkled puss like an octogenarian Errol Flynn and growled lecherously on behalf of Victoria’s Secret, selling out the Bobbo that the last five generations of humanity have come to love, but what the fuck’s up with these Jack Frost/Tin Pan Alley sugar squirts? What happened to the Bob of Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, or even Modern Times? Where’s that cat who so ambitiously angled to be the next Woody Guthrie?
I wanted to hate Christmas in the Heart. Wanted to hate it bad. I even had a headline all picked out: “One-Horse Open Sore.” While I won’t be spinning it for the family on Christmas morn (Dylan sings like a burning humpbacked dishrag, far from the Taylor Swift honey lungs we’ll jukebox to ho-hum under Roofus du Frye), I have to admit: I admire it. Here you have an artist in what is admittedly his twilight, an artist who after some 48 years of visibility owes us nothing. He could’ve retired after John Wesley Harding and still be remembered as a cultural game-changer. Yet here he is, garbed in tinseled flocking and leading us down Santa Claus Lane. It’s a credit to Bob’s stature that we follow him, anyway, as he indulges his nostalgic muse and we wonder if it’s all a crafty put-on (although with the talent he’s assembled, that seems unlikely). We follow Bob; he trails Gene Autry and der Bingle.
As an artist — a true artist — Bob’s made a five-decade meal out of confounding everyone, from the squarest square to the truest blue. I hope we’ll never have occasion to miss that kind of personality, guys like Dylan, Neil Young, and Miles Davis, guys who never heeded the compulsion to conform to expectation (i.e., gave a fuck). It’s kind of funny that this Dylan would so alarm the cognoscenti. It was somehow OK — groundbreaking, even — for him to famously juice the 1965 Newport Folk Festival over pious cries of purist protest. That was acceptable rebellion. A Christmas album, however, is an inexcusable transgression, a sign of fading relevance.
We miss the obvious parallels in both scenarios: that we, the audience, do not control Bob Dylan. He doesn’t serve at our pleasure. Frankly, I don’t care if Christmas in the Heart is terrible, or even infuriating. It’s refreshing nonetheless, especially at a time when everyone’s expected to kneel before the market and lavish praise upon the Consumer, to kiss his feet and crown him king. No, thanks. I want my artists to travel wherever whim should take them, whether it wafts through the air of Washington Square or dashes through the snow on a one-horse open sleigh.