Dylan Does Xmas

Bob Dylan does Christmas

Andrew Olson

Reader Weekly

Dean Martin, The Beach Boys, and Mariah Carey have all made successful Christmas albums, but Bob Dylan did not.

Released a few weeks ago, Christmas in the Heart is Bob Dylan’s attempt to create something that has worked for some and has seen others fall flat on their face. In Dylan’s case he seems to have fallen flat.

When I first saw Bob Dylan perform live at Canterbury Downs in Shakopee in 1999 I was so far away that he was just a dot in the distance. He sounded nothing like his albums that I had grown up loving and it left me feeling like I truly missed his better years. I still love his voice on his records and I see him as a lyrical genius and chameleon poet.

Dylan’s first album was almost all songs written by famous songwriters, but it had one original that he wrote. The record became know as a huge folly in the early sixties when it flopped until his subsequent albums captured a generation. It seems like Dylan did much better when he moved into his beat period, emulating Kerouac after surpassing the sound of Woody. Dylan should have learned from his first album that he is a songwriter, and not someone who performs others’ material with great success.

When you list bands that have become famous off of Dylan’s tunes it is who’s who of rock and roll. The Byrds (Tambourine Man), Jimi Hendrix (All Along The Watchtower), Guns N’ Roses (Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door), Peter, Paul, and Mary (Blowin’ in the Wind), and recently even Jack White’s The Dead Weather (New Pony) to name a few. Hendrix’s close friends thought he was strange as a blues based performer playing folky Dylan tunes, but they were proven wrong when he became famous. Even his trademark breakthrough hit, “Hey Joe” is believed to have been written by a folkie from the same brood. While Dylan is thought of as more “folk” based, it is difficult to not recognize his blues roots as well. Even John Lennon, who was heavily influenced by Dylan in the Rubber Soul years, did a Christmas song of his own, but it was more about wishing war would end than Santa Claus visiting.

With all of this how could Dylan do a Christmas album? Someone wrote on a local blog that they were happy that Hendrix never lived long enough to make a Christmas album, and after listening to it a few times through I would have to agree.

Take “Little Drummer Boy” for example. Where is the genius in hearing Dylan say, “Pa rum pum pum pum” over and over again? Where is the social conscience in singing about playing his drum the best? Then the background singers come in on the song, creating the most forgettable music you might ever hear.

Dylan sounds tired and lackadaisical while singing and his voice seems several octaves higher than when he was young. This brought me back to the thoughts I had of seeing him live in 99’ when he sounded nothing like his old self and more like an old crone. Granted he was on tour with Paul Simon, who has a great voice, but he just seemed to be going through the motions. It probably didn’t help that the sound system was crap and it was an outdoor concert, or maybe even my expectations were too high from growing up on his records. He may have done better when he played up here inDuluth, but the day I saw him it was like watching a funeral.

A few years later Dylan totally sold out and did some ads for Victoria’s Secret and reaffirmed my belief that very few bands never sell out. I had always thought of him as a voice against the machine, yet with that commercial he seemed to have surrendered to it.

The only decent tune on the CD was “Must Be Santa,” which sounded musically like The White Iron Band, but not like a Christmas song. It has this “Drunk in Duluth” feel, but the looseness being played by the accordion makes it seem like the band was drunk (but unfortunately not up here). Maybe it is a throwback to Hibbing Polka music and drunkin’ Christmas parties of his youth?

The video of “Santa” is even weirder on his site with a long, iron-haired Dylan stumbling around a raucous Christmas party. It probably was the most tolerable song on the CD, but is that really saying much?

Some people may read this review and disagree with me or assume I am not a fan of Dylan. I see him as the most important songwriter of the past century and someone who changed what music means. Before his music songs were all pop-ditties about bubblegum, holding hands, and rockin’ and rollin’. After he broke through he pushed all music artists to a new level of excellence.

Dylan still remembers us up here, and he said in a recent interview that “you’ll never see another town like Duluth. It’s not a tourist destination, but it probably should be. Depends on what season you’re in there, though. There are only two seasons: damp and cold. I like the way the hills tumble to the waterfront and the way the wind blows around the grain elevators. The train yards go on forever too. It’s old-age industrial, that’s what it is. You’ll see it from the top of the hill for miles and miles before you get there. You won’t believe your eyes. I’ll give you a medal if you get out alive.”

With all of the Christmas songs starting right after you pack your Halloween costumes away maybe it is just getting a little too over done. I love the season and look forward to enjoying the staples of it (except could you imagine working for a local news station and hearing “Christmas City” that much?). I love the choralaires harmonizing on these songs, but if Dylan showed up singing at my door I’d still let him in too.