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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009


Christmas In The Heart arrived in our house last night. The question is, when to play it. I don't feel very festive yet; nor, in theory, do I feel like revisiting the late 1940s-1950s. I grew up in them, and didn't much like it. Ronnie Hilton, Lita Roza, Mel Tormé, the Mitch Miller Orchestra, Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gormé, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, Ann Shelton, Percy Faith, the Ray Charles [not that one] Singers... no thanks. A serious no thanks. I thought we'd said goodbye to all that.

Rock'n'roll rescued me from all of it, and after rock'n'roll descended into pop, Bob Dylan rescued me from that. I don't feel like time-travelling so regressively.

And yet - so many people who expected not to like Christmas In The Heart (and didn't like Modern Times or most of this decade's concerts) have turned out to like it, so I'm facing the prospect of hearing it with a skittery and nervous open-mindedness.

I'd like to ask, though: is there anyone out there who has had an opposite experience with Christmas In The Heart? Having expected to like it, found that they haven't? I ask disinterestedly, not uninterestedly.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do it, Michael! Don't panic, nothing can and will happen, you'll either like it or hate it, or first hate it and then like it, and you will tell us which and we will say "See!" or say "Well, ..."

best wishes

1:05 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Yes indeed. Ho ho ho.

Of course for decades "When to listen to it" wasn't a question - it seemed as obvious as hunger that a new album had to be played immediately, over and over, the whole day given over to it.

Now, sadly, it always feels more like "Yes I received your letter yesterday..." and quotidian things clamour for priority attention (like fixing that broken doorknob).

2:50 pm  
Blogger Judas Priest said...

I'd say wait until you are feeling somewhat festive. It's still an extreme long shot that you won't hate it of course but you never know. I think that despite its occasional charms, it still pales compared to TTL,TTS,MT and L&T.Come to think of it, the Rothbury soundboard from earlier in the year and the Walkin' Dude recording of November 14th from Boston are far more valued to my ears. However, it's the kind of album that may get pulled out on more than just this Christmas and that alone puts it ahead of a number of his 80'albums that just permanently gain dust around my house.

By the way, I'm currently listening to a superb audience recording (HV with some additional tweaking in the mastering department from Stew) of Paris 03. Really strong show. The cream of 03 for me and Freddie's guitar work comes out patricularly strongly. I was surprised to see your entry in the encyclopedia regarded him as the best NET guitar player ever. I'd rate Campbell and Sexton well ahead of him but on his day, he certainly brought something different to the party....

5:13 pm  
Blogger Judas Priest said...

P.S. Michael, have you not even listened to Must be Santa and Little Drummer Boy even though you have put up links to said videos?

5:42 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Hey Judas~
Yes, I've listened to both. Quite like both.

Given your lukewarm feelings about the album, do you come into the category of people who expected to like it and don't?

(No-one has come forward to declare themselves this way out yet.)

6:06 pm  
Blogger Judas Priest said...

Nope, when I first heard it was an actual Christmas album (as distinct from a new album being released at Christmas) my heart sank. I hate Christmas about as much as you hate post L&T Bob. I clung on to some forlorn hope that he might offer an album with a dark take on the festive period, possibly with all or some originals-or at least if it were to be a complete covers album that the choices would largely be of songs I wasn't familiar with. Once the confirmed tracklist emerged, my expectations were set to zero. Actually, that's not true, they were less than that.

6:29 pm  
Blogger Judas Priest said...

P.S. Must be Santa and Little Drummer Boy are certainly 2 of the stronger tracks on the album to my ears (the early highlights) although in fairness,The Christmas Blues (probably my favourite), Christmas Island and The Christmas Song are also quite good.

7:48 pm  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

I held off until December 1st, by which time I had read a number of comments suggesting that the album was way better than expected. My initial horror at hearing that Dylan had produced a Christmas album had even changed to eager (OK, so that's an exaggeration) anticipation!

Having now listened three of four times, I have say that, while finding that one or two of the songs work quite well (Drummer Boy is well within his vocal range), my overwhelming impression has been one of disappointment. Actually, to be honest, it's more a feeling of sadness - a terrible sadness at how truly awful and indeed ridiculous most of the songs sound, especially the carols; allied to that is my complete incomprehension of the whole project. I'm not an apostate, having really liked all that Dylan has done in the last 12 years, so that cannot be a reason for my disaffection. Perhaps I simply haven't listened enough times...

Anyway, Michael, I'd be interested to hear what you have to say when you eventually take the plunge.

8:43 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Snowballs melting by an open fire.
I like the album every time I hear it which has been probably 10 times.
I certainly like it more than on first listen, but I liked the first listen very much as well.
Pat Ford

2:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My feeling is just the opposite of Frank's; it's the hymns I prefer.
Nothing wrong with HCS, but I'm less interested in that track than any other on the record.
As I've said, the voice is something I like very much, so it's not a negative for me. Pat Ford

2:09 pm  
Anonymous Bev said...

Maybe there's another way to look at this album:

One of my friends, who has a few Dylan CDs but is hardly a fan, asked to borrow CITH. When I asked why, he said because his young son can't get enough of Dylan's version of 'Must Be Santa'.

Dylan songs that children love - who'd have thought we'd have been saying that at the start of the year?

The Christmas tree has now gone up in my household, so I will give it another listen with a glass of port & try not to be so grown up & cynical about the whole thing.

6:13 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello again Michael, you bring back a memory of you once thanking me for saying “disinterestedly” rather than (incorrect in context) “uninterestedly”; it is Homer here again, incidentally. I keep writing that to counter the “anonymous” tag not because I think it is important that I am writing, it’s just that it allows me to engage in “virtual conversations” with other posters, which is pleasant and has led to some interesting exchanges.

Anyway, all that introductory waffle aside, to the point at hand.

Most people I know actually refuse to listen to it at all which I think is very revealing. Revealing about themselves rather than the album or Dylan, I mean. Whatever else it demonstrates they are still in thrall to Bob one way or another - perhaps they hold dear to a vision of Dylan they can’t risk being threatened or something like that. Whatever else would cause them to make such a fuss be made about not listening to a record and even more curiously acting as though such a meaningless personal “boycott” actually signified something (anything) of import.

I understand people disliking it, and indeed would expect non-Dylan fans to find it utterly risible (it’s surprising any don’t really) especially Dylan fans (ex?) who can’t bear to hear him for what he is; an old guy who can no longer sing, born and bred in USA 1941, growing up in the jingly-jangly Xmassy world of consumer boom ‘50s, with women in the kitchen or bedroom where they belong (sadly, but then that is his generation’s thinking, feminism came two decades too late for Bob). Cosy fireside old grandad Bob, thinking of the good ol' days and finally doing something (as if TTL hadn't been enough, but no, still the high-falutin' analysis came*) that no-one could drag Shakespeare, Keats etc into... And yet that group should include me but once I played it I was unexpectedly moved Ah, how sweet it is to hear... finally, just a (a bad perhaps, but very affectingly so to some, me included) song and dance man. I guess since I’ve always liked Christmas (OK I avoid religion and consumerism so it is an eccentric Xmas, but hey I like it my way) and for most of my life I’ve loved Dylan, I shouldn’t be surprised but I am; these last half dozen years have been like an irrevocable breakdown in my relationship with him and his music. This daft little album is like a torch leading me back to my true love. It may well be temporary (I fear one live show would kill the feeling, for example) but hey, it’s the best Christmas present I could have hoped for.

* Of course, I am aware he was slightly to blame for this by including his distinctly un-cool Joyce name-drop....OK, bye for now, back to the album for me.

6:40 pm  
Blogger Judas Priest said...

Go Homer!!!

"Daft little album" - I don't like it as much as you but heartily that's just the perfect description for it.

You should channel this (relative) enthusiasm into a full review (Muir style) in your column in Isis...

11:54 pm  
Blogger Judas Priest said...

By the way, if you can tolerate the voice on CITH, you should have no trouble dealing with it live these days. Croaky as hell of course but in the main still a marked improvement over the album (why oh why record at the end of a touring period Bob??). Combine that with a certain Charlie Sexton running the show and driving our man to a more focussed and intense delivery than in recent years and I think it's fair to say the NET is worth taking another shot at...

12:02 am  
Anonymous likeatrain said...

I remember hearing a performance of 'Positively 4th Street' from about 2 years ago, in an arrangement that would have been successful had Dylan had the pipes to carry it off. It required long held notes on the penultimate syllable of each verse ('to be-GIN with,' for example). Each attempt at holding this note was at best a huge strain and, most often, a failure. And in the last verse Bob's voice just cracked wide open. And yet that performance is one of the most affecting I've heard in the last 5 years or so.

Why? Well, Dylan had decided to go with an arrangement that he had a minimal chance of pulling off vocally - but that did not stop him. Musically, it was pretty interesting, and I could imagine several of Bob's younger voices doing it justice. Hearing this attempt, doomed to fail at the outset but attempted nonetheless, might reasonably be expected to have been a depressing experience.Yet it was quite the opposite. It felt like Bob was standing up to what his voice had become, going toe to toe with it, whatever the risk of embarrassment. The arrangement provided proof that Bob's musical brain was still able to come up with the goods, and it made me think of how frustrating it must be for him, the singer, to be so physically limited now. He knew where he wanted the song to go, and he really tried to take it there. He couldn't quite manage it, but listening to him try momentarily re-connected me to the Bob I have always loved. There was tattered artistry in the performance, real effort. It was sad, too, of course, but - as I say - hugely affecting.

The Christmas album gives me a similar feeling. Prior to its release,the thought of Bob recording Christmas songs had not worried me at all - in fact, I suspected he could do a pretty good job of it. My first listen to the album left me in shock. How much better it could have been, I thought, had it been recorded even 3 or 4 years previously. I found myself down on the album because it did not match up to the (perhaps optimistic, but hardly delirious) hopes I had for it. And because I felt sure that, once and for all,the subtlety was gone from Bob's singing.

But I listened again - not often, perhaps 3 or 4 times more. And as with the '4th Street' performance, I began to respond to the vocal struggle the album documents: the fight to stay true to the melodies of these songs, to hit and hold notes, to do nothing more or less (with Joyce, Shakespeare, Ovid etc this time so far from the scene) than sing songs.

I'm sure there are those who will ask what's the point in listening to one of the great singers struggling simply to put across some Christmas songs. I would respond that there is dignity in the struggle; there is (not just Christmas) spirit in it. There is, as there was in that '4th Street,' Dylan in it. And since 'authenticity' has been debated a bit in these parts recently, I should probably clarify - I mean real Dylan.

12:03 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find myself being careless again. It's Must be Santa, not Here Comes Santa.. that I find to be the least interesting song on the album. I do like it very much, just find myself skipping it on the last couple of listens, just an urge, nothing thought out.
Any thought on the arrangements? I don't see them as Michael does. Yes there is the 50's ambiance, but it's very differently arrived at, the electric guitar dominates most tracks, and the strings aren't strings in the sense of a Nelson Riddle arrangement it's much more a string band feel. These are not big lush arrangements, despite the very rich sound.
I'll say one thing every Christmas song I'm hearing piped in around town sounds completely different to me now, and none of them gain from the contrast. Pat Ford
Any information as to how much was recorded live?

2:01 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Again, many thanks for some really good discussion here. Judas, I can't agree that Homer (or anyone else) should find the current concert voice OK if it's OK on the album. Despite the long-intoned liturgy that Dylan is constantly reinterpreting his work in concert, the audibly plain fact is that he almost always takes more care with his studio vocals than when he launches the same songs in concert (let alone when he's sung them live hundreds of times before).

That said, everything "likeatrain" has to say, in his/her gracefully thoughtful contribution, about Bob's trying and failing on a particular song in concert makes perfect sense to me.

There's no contradiction here, though. What sticks in his/her memory as affectingly evincing "tattered artistry" and "real effort" was one song performance in a concert of a couple of years ago. In the studio he makes that effort on every song.

My own views on Christmas in the Heart will follow shortly!

1:50 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Blimey, have we really reached the point where we think that it's wonderful that he can't sing any more because it reveals the brutal heart of reality and therefore the new artistry of the old geezer? Oh listen, he just screwed up that note - oh, sublime: my heart is bleeding with the sheer beauty of the ghastly noise. You should come and hear me murder melodies while I play my uke pathetically; you'd have an orgasm.

10:58 am  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

I’m not sure I quite understand the rationale ‘likeatrain’ offers for his appreciation of the performance of Postively Fourth Street he heard a couple of years ago. While I am often exhilarated by Dylan’s risk-taking in performance, I don’t enjoy him going for the plainly impossible. I really can’t admire an attempt that is “doomed to fail at the outset but attempted nonetheless” any more than I would admire an arthritic surgeon attempting heart surgery. I think it is the over-ambition that ruins too many of the songs on CITH. Listening to Hark the Herald Angels gives me that same queasy feeling that I sometimes get when taking off in a plane – that worry that there is simply not enough power in the plane to get airborne, or that the runway is too short.

The successful songs on the album are those which he can sing within his limited vocal range, and the best are where he does this reasonably expressively. It is the same in concert these days: he is comfortable with recently written songs because they have been written with his limited range in mind. And the better arrangements of older songs are those that stick to this principle.

I have listened to many of his recent tour performances and, like other posters, have been surprised and delighted by much of what I have heard. It saddens me, therefore that Homer – who has written so well about Dylan in performance, and whose book sent me back in search of tapes I had missed – seems to have given up on concerts these days. Judas Priest, in a previous post, recommended the 14th November Boston gig. For me, one of the stand-out one was Boston, 11th October ( Much of this great and it includes a wonderfully powerful This Dream of You, which is tender and, dare I say it, authentic. Well worth a listen to.

7:48 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Dear "Blimey, have we really": hello and thanks, Nigel!

8:27 pm  
Anonymous Homer said...

Thank you, not for the first time for your kind thanks and encouragement, Judas Priest. I am planning to review the album (and take a Bob-centric view of that new Cohen biography) in my next ISIS column. In fact I should be working on it now but the blog keeps calling me back so it’ll have to wait until Xmas, appropriately enough. I have three articles that I have sketched out to write before work kicks back in, in January – that one, one on the “plagiarism” issue and one peering into the misty future speculating on how music in general and Dylan in particular might be listened to and appreciated in the future. I don’t know if they’ll all be for ISIS as there is also the new journal Montague Street ( to satisfy.

As for the NET, I should have stressed that I have not heard any shows since Sexton rejoined. Although I am sure his arrival will have helped enormously and challenged Dylan to up his game a bit, I’ve been told so many times to listen to shows because “He’s back” and then been disappointed to find he’s anything but that I am scared to raise my hopes again. However voices I very much respect keep telling me to check out “Ballad of a Thin Man” at the very least. So I will.

“likeatrain” that is quite beautifully put and very accurate to one of the ways that CITH affects me; in concert though it has been years since I had one of those moments and I am not sure how many shows I’d have to go to experience it again (if ever.) At the start of the NET you could count on the acoustic songs and the bulk of the set, it diminished over the years down to maybe half the show, a part of the show, a little run of songs, a song here and there, until in 2002 I went to shows in Sweden where we raved about three words “Cain ’n’ Abel”. There was an electric shock around the audience as he actually phrased them as though they meant something. We were in ecstasy all because he put some kind of effort into three words (one slurred and truncated.) It put the laziness (yes I know he tours all the time, I mean in approach – see comment to Michael below) of the rest into too stark a perspective for me though once the ecstasy wore off and I’ve never really recovered.

Michael – while I very much agree with your comment “the audibly plain fact is that he almost always takes more care with his studio vocals than when he launches the same songs in concert (let alone when he's sung them live hundreds of times before)” in the context of the last two decades, I would also say that it is only since this “free improvisation” style affected his concerts. That is, as a euphemism for laziness. He was always at his most dazzlingly improvisational on stage in tours where he rehearsed a standard set that varied insignificantly from night to night. The greatest tours in terms of performance – 66, 75, 76, 79, 80 = core, standard, well rehearsed songs. It doesn’t mean the performances were the same but the material was concentrated and focussed on. I say all this as an enthusiastic support of the NET once upon a time.....

8:29 pm  
Blogger Judas Priest said...

Michael, my definition of vocal for the purpose of my point to Homer was perhaps more narrow than it should have been. What I was getting at is that to my ears, his live vocal is better/less bad than it is on CITH in the sense that it is slightly less mangled. The "bullfrog with emphysema" description that one newspaper review memorably described the voice on TTL, which is certainly apt for a lot of CITH, isn't quite as present live that I can tell. I say that from a perspective that views the vocal to have gone into particularly steep decline from 2007 on (again in those narrow terms). I had no problems with it up to and very much including 2006.From then on, the gargling, roughness has become a real problem although there are still nights when he can roll back the years to a degree. The "care" issue is a little wider in scope and I wasn't addressing that at all when making my earlier comment.

Delighted Homer (and Michael) that we will be able to read something from you on CITH in the not too distant future. It's also good to hear that you're ready to sample a NET recording again Homer. As previously stated, the Nov 14th Boston show (from Walkin' Dude) is the best quality sound wise although the setlist isn't as juicy as the following night and that too is a very good recording so maybe they are the two shows to initially target. The Soomlos Berkeley shows are also worth a listen. I wouldn't expect miracles but I do think Sexton has added an injection that has brought some much needed punch to proceedings.Things seem more fluid and you do get the sense that Bob is delivering with a bit more focus. Ballad of a Thin Man has certainly been very good but I'd also give attention to Change My Way of Thinking (great opener), some of the versions of Beyond Here Lies Nothing (Boston Nov 13th is a gem), the new arrangement of Cold Irons (Boston 14th and 15th are perfect examples) and Hattie Carroll (again from the Nov 14th Boston show). Forgetful Heart is the same arrangement as the Summer but if you hadn't heard it then, that too is a must (Nov 15th).

Happy (hopefully) listening,


2:19 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Naturally I've published your latest Comment, but I don't agree with you. Of course I haven't heard all the song-performances you mention, but after reading a week or so ago that very articulate, positive review of the NYC shows, I went to Youtube and attempted to listen to five different song-performances, of songs I like. They were dire. Then, I was urged by someone else to listen to Portland's 'Ballad of a Thin Man'. You say that every recent 'Ballad of a Thin Man' has "certainly been very good"; t'other person told me Portland was the best - so having already given up on a NYC one, I did my duty and listened to Portland. Well: I think its sole attraction is that he’s not behind the keyboard, and that it’s utterly, miserably mediocre.

None of Homer's acutely defined authenticity is present on any of the above. Dylan is cruising through them, lazily and smugly, in my opinion, without the vocal care or general attentiveness that would give it authenticity, or indeed interest.

As I find myself having to say rather often, I wish it weren't so: but every bit of my critical heart feels it is.

2:48 pm  
Blogger Judas Priest said...

Fair enough Michael. My ears are telling me very different things although I can't comment re NY as the only track I've heard was the newly arranged John Brown (which I rather liked). I hope you get on better with CITH!

3:09 pm  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

In my previous post I mentioned the Boston 11th October show – I meant, or course, Berkeley, not Boston.

I know these things can be subjective (and incidentally I share Homer’s definition of authenticity), but I honestly don’t think, Michael, you could accuse the performance of This Dream of You in that show as one in which Dylan is cruising through “lazily and smugly” or that it lacks “vocal care and general attentiveness”. Give it a whirl if you haven’t already listened! And happy tenth anniversary! I have a signed copy of S&DM3 which I still enjoy dipping into.

6:28 pm  

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