Thursday, December 15, 2011


A consistent gambit in the postmodern bag of tricks and pranks has been the idea of pastiche, the piecing together or the layering over of unlike elements, a mix and match of contrasting aesthetics and purposes that, when rendered successfully, are supposed to stun and bewilder the audience; the more grandiose hope, in a generalized apology from academic critics, is that an audience member is supposed to confront the limits of the filters that. The suggestion was that consumers would become aware of how our popular arts present a conveniently small and cozy version of the world where there is structure and rationale for all events, but this is a reach, at best, for most of the practicing post-coders out there that have made the laziest of ironic art.
It always occurred to me that all this pastiche making was producing was sometimes amusing, too often ugly and pointless poems, films, and artwork. 

It seemed more the gesture, the off-hand flick of the wrist instead of the stylistic signature of intelligence that shrewdly weighted the materials at hand. Sometimes, of course, it is nothing more than two things joined in willful defiance of whether anything makes aesthetic or intellectual sense; the result is more primal, cynical, and vindictive even, such as Bob Dylan singing Christmas songs.  The convenience of untutored "avant gard" thinking in our ranks might claim genius for Dylan's scruffy vocal and equate it with the thorny rasp of the best blues singers, certainly artists in a style that has redefined the modern ideal of good singing. I wouldn't compare this to an old blues singer: they can at least carry a tune. Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Bessie Smith, even genius spawn Tom Waits can rise above the melody line with their rattled vocal equipment and lend the lyrics the qualities of nuance, texture, rhythmic interplay with the instrumental arrangement. What's most notable about Dylan's singing, once you get past the oddness, is the flat reading; it's grudgingly workmanlike.

 There isn't a traceable sense of joy, spiritual uplift. Even the comfort of ironic distancing, the Brecht's alienation effect, is lacking.  There is little, if anything, epic about this. This is something that was conceptually brilliant in 1970 when he released his four sides of deliberate schlock "Self Portrait", with different vocal affectations, orchestral arrangements, vocal choruses, odd song selection and a host of other purposefully non-Dylanesque elements. That was precisely the point, I think, as Dylan never had much patience for those who would make religion and political philosophy from his songwriting; it was like he wanted to confound his idolaters and see if they could perversely turn this mash-up into a further message from the Godhead. I understood that immediately when the album came out, but the listening stopped being funny long before side one was over with. It is one idea that depends entirely on the ironic effect it's trying to sustain. 

It was a burden to listen to, the Middle Of the Road playlist ; it was a prank that did not pay dividends for taking it seriously. It was a prank that was also an entreaty to the gathered fans who interpreted what he did or didn't do, said or didn't say as gestures signifying the movement of history; I'm not one to put words in the mouths of men or women greater than I , but here goes>"Knock it off, you guys."The concept has not aged well, and repeating the gimmick here just strikes me as a near tragedy. It is schlock, and it doesn't matter whose name is on it. Dylan, I think, is up to his old game of screwing with the heads of people who take him too seriously. He may love this tune, love singing it, but I still think his intention is to throw another wrench into the mechanics that insist he is something more than a brilliant songwriter.


  1. Ramblin' Jack Hoff8:14 AM PST

    Well, let’s get the preliminaries over with and say that Dylan’s Christmas album is something of a chore and a snore to listen to (although “It Must Be Santa” rocks pretty righteously and induces a legitimate rather than an ironic smile), which makes any defense of it qualified at best. But I would assert that the album is something more than a prank or a “vindictive” act aimed at Dylan’s often hard-pressed and highly forgiving admirers – it might better be seen as testimony to a rocky 50-year marriage where both Dylan and his fans have endured acts of mutual cruelty and neglect. Bob the Bard has forced his fans to put up with some truly wretched and slipshod albums as they wait for the good ones, while the fans have constantly expected their hero to be the Voice of His Generation (if not several of them) when he simply felt like being an entertainer. Dylan has said repeatedly that he wants to be a normal family guy who lives in a little house with a white picket fence around it and as absurd or even insane as that sounds I think it’s sincere on some level. Is it really that shocking to conclude that Bobby D. has suffered from massive delusions – aren’t his best songs about that kind of psychic confusion? This being the case, is it hard to believe he wants to be Bing Crosby, loved for who he is as much as for how well he can write or sing, even more than he wanted to be Woody so many years ago? The greatest feat of bamboozlement Bob Dylan has ever achieved is that he FINALLY stands before his audience naked: a rheumy-voiced old coot who retains traces of his extraordinary genius, wanting to be loved the way you love grandpa when he wheezes out holiday tunes around the punch bowl, forgiven for all sins, kissed by the kids and led back up the stairs.

  2. His best songs can certainly be regarded as ballads and bulletins of a psychic exile, but the success of those songs as art--the song, the movie , the poem, the novel, the play, the painting you can experience, have a cathartic experience and then live within the resonance of the witnessing and continue with life somewhat more complex in perspective than before--had nothing to do with whether Dylan himself was being transformed into the banality he was nominally pushing to the curb.One gives him the license to change, grow , morph into what ever he needs to become as he ages, including becoming a silent visage. The work, though, needs to be compelling and sustain analysis, not elicit apologies for the mediocrity it commands us to gag on.

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