Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas, Dylan and Music that Matters

“So this is Christmas, and what have you done? / another year over, a new one just begun...”

Christmas is like that isn’t it? John Lennon got it right. There’s the implied long wait, the excitement building, then the event, and it’s over. So this is Christmas? Now it’s over, and what have we done? Well, if you’re anything like us, at our house, you’ve simply had another year run by uncontrollably past. It could be that your Christmas was like John’s old partner George's was when he was “simply having a wonderful Christmas time...ding, dong, ding, dong...” I’m certain that for many that describes it. We move from one party to the next, eating too much, drinking too much, obviously spending too much. What began as a simple birthday party for the son of God, has turned in to this big...thing.

Whatever you believe about Christmas, you probably celebrate it with the food, some songs (whether about angels or snowmen), family and friends. My brother came for dinner on Christmas this year. He hadn’t spoken to me for three years but this year he came. We exchanged gifts, I gave him a Beatles’ Monopoly game and he gifted me with a dinner at The Keg. The problems of the past were, if not forgotten, then at least, not spoken of. So Christmas time can be a healing time, but it can also be a time when people collapse in a heap from the pressure of it all. My wife tried to finish knitting a sweater for our younger son; she’s still working on it. To help her pass the time I’m reading a Peter Robinson mystery novel aloud while she knits.

Video Capture from Subterranean Homesick Blues

My older son and I went to some Boxing Day sales. He bought computer gaming gear, and I picked up a box set of four 45 rpm records, of Bob Dylan songs. The sleeves simulate the original releases. The box is numbered on the back, stamped in gold, to make it seem like a more valuable limited edition. The tunes themwelves are the old stand bys: “Subterranean Homesick Blues” / “She Belongs To Me;” “Like a Rolling Stone” / “Gates of Eden;” “Positively 4th Street / From a Buick 6;” and “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” / "Highway 61 Revisited." It’s this last one that has the most cachet for me. More about that in a moment, but first we’ll finish looking at the box. It’s a solid, cardboard box, the artwork very '60s in flavour. A scratchy photograph of Bob Dylan in the studio, singing into a microphone, playing a Fender Stratocaster, behind a music stand is the large circular image; dots of colour float next to the picture, and the title and name at angles. It’s all very retro.

“Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “She Belongs to Me” appeared in March 1965, on the Bringing It All Back Home album. “Gates of Eden” is from that album too. It was Dylan’s first album to move away from the folky protest music he was best known for towards the more surreal lyrics and rock’n’roll music he would soon adopt. The album alienated some of his early fans, but sold better and faster than any of his previous albums. It introduced him to a new set of fans, and heralded the way for a generation of electric folk musicians (arguably several generations!). “Like a Rolling Stone” was released in June of ’65, and there was nothing like it on the radio. It was loud and raucous and quickly went to number 1 on some Top Forty charts.

Top Forty charts are a thing of the past, and so too is the drama and excitement of pop radio. In the Sixties that was where we heard things. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Donovan, and Bob Dylan made impressions on radio. AM radio. The stations that you only listen to nowadays when you want snow reports, phone in shows and news on the nines all used to play rock’n’roll. And records like the 45s contained in this box were the things they played. When Dylan’s records were accepted by pop radio, his old fans called him a sellout. Israel G. Young wrote in a 1965 Sing Out! “Bob Dylan has become a pawn in his own game. He has ceased his Quest for a Universal Sound and has settled for a liaison with the music trade’s Top Forty Hit Parade...if necessary, he’ll sing songs he repudiated. For example, he sang many songs in England he no long sings here because the English audience is two years behind his American image. Next year he’ll be writing rhythm-and-blues songs when they get high on the charts. The following year, the Polish polka will make it, and then he’ll write them too. By then he’ll be so mired in the popularity charts that he’ll be safe enough for the State Department to have them send him to entertain troops at whatever battlefield we’re on at the time...I don’t think it’s worth it, Bob. If you don’t watch out, you’ll become commercial.”

Commercial! It was a swear word in the Sixties. We wouldn’t want our heroes to be able to sell records. We want them for ourselves. If you knew anything about Bob Dylan in 1965 you might have known that he began playing rock’n’roll in his early teens. He gave that up because he couldn't keep up with the “supercleanness bit of Frankie Avalon or Fabian” and now he was pushing them off the charts. People would have to keep up with him from now on!

It was Christmas 1965 when I received Bob’s next album as a gift. Highway 61 Revisited came wrapped with The Beatles' Rubber Soul. Music would never be the same. Can you imagine two such classic paradigm changing records being released today? Whatever you think of Adele’s 21 and The Black Keys’ El Camino, or Jay Z & Kanye’s Watch the Throne, or the Fleet Foxes, Radiohead, Lady Gaga, the Decemberists, Wilco or any of the other of Rolling Stone’s Top 100 albums you must admit, none of them will have the impact that Bob, John, Paul, George and Ringo had that Christmas nearly fifty years ago! And here I was buying Dylan’s songs again in a new package that simulated an old format from way back when.

Dylan did do a polka, on his 2010 Christmas album; he wrote R&B, he did some blues, He even licensed a couple of songs for commercial use (a bank and ladies under-garments) but through it all he has led the way for generations of roots musicians to follow. When I play my guitar, I often play from the Dylan songbook, (or the Lennon/McCartney one).

“Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” is the rarity in the box set. The song was slated to be Dylan’s next single after “Like a Rolling Stone.” He played it for friends Phil Ochs and David Cohen. Cohen thought it was great, Ochs called it “okay” and when pressed admitted that he didn’t like it. He thought it wouldn’t sell. The single didn't sell, though, and it was withdrawn. It was replaced by “Positively 4th Street” and “...Window” became one of those obscurities of Dylan’s career. The track eventually showed up on 1985’s retrospective boxset Biograph. For me, the song works better as a single, so it certainly belongs here in this set coming from the same incredibly rich era of Dylan’s writing. And the fact that it comes at Christmas makes it almost perfect.

I don’t get much music for Christmas any more. My family and friends are overwhelmed by the CDs and records that drop through my mail slot. But those are generally review copies; they are work related. It’s not easy to force yourself to listen to some of this stuff. So, I still go out on Boxing Day to look for something new to add to my collection. I bought an Adele live set, DVD + CD, and I will confess that I found the video eminently watchable, even moving in spots. She had made it, she was at the “Royal Albert Fucking Hall!” but having watched it twice I’m not sure I’ll watch it again. I will keep Adele's Live CD in the car for a while longer though, until the hooks wear out. And they will, except for, maybe, the Dylan song she covers! The Bob Dylan boxset with the four 45s, with the gold number stamped on the back, was the only other thing I found this year. I played the four singles one at a time, stopping to flip them over, centre them on the circular disc over the spindle, and listening for the telltale scritch-scritch before the music began. It took me back, made me think about so many Christmases, so many records and songs. Another year might be over, but a new one’s just begun. Time for more music, and the memories that that music will bring.  And in it all, the hope that something will last long enough to keep me listening for forty years.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review andSleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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