Sunday, October 11, 2009
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.
Bing Crosby and David Bowie duet on “Little Drummer Boy” circa 1977
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?"