Who Laughs This Way – Hohoho?

If you answered, “Must Be Santa” give yourself a star (we also would have accepted Hunter Thompson as a correct answer).  And then be sure to check out this new straight-up weird Bob Dylan music video for his Christmas song of the same name.

It’s quite hard to say at first what to make of this song/video, but as an avid Dylan listener, I’ll try to expound.  First thought is that this puts to rest any doubt that Dylan’s main artistic purpose in life these days is to be as unpredictable and odd as possible.  But for a person who for some time now I’ve assumed to be loveless, cynical, and fairly contemptuous of his fame, this video also exhibits Dylan’s weird sense of humor and appreciation for the absurd.

I mean, the guy is wearing a ridiculous wig (either that or he’s been conking his Jew-curls straight) under a series of hats the whole video, including a Santa hat, which takes place at a raucous X-mas house party, possibly in the 1950’s.  And the entire song is just drums, accordion, and Dylan and a chorus singing children’s lyrics about Santa, at one point with the singing of the names of Santa’s reindeers with the names of the Presidents since Eisenhower interspersed (curiously, he ends at Clinton).

Then of course there’s the matter of what it means that Dylan–the once-proclaimed spokesperson for a generation who made a career out of criticizing American society, including its consumer culture, and who is also Jewish–has just put out an entire Christmas album.  But I guess that’s exactly the point: it doesn’t mean anything.  Anybody who tries to read any meaning into this song or video would be a fool.  Even Dylan can have some fun, especially if it’s at the expense of making his hardcore fans ask, WTF?

9 thoughts on “Who Laughs This Way – Hohoho?”

  1. Wess, here’s your lynchin – your approach to understanding Dylan is way too stiff and scientific. I can definitely make sense of his lyrics, though not always on first listen. He works on a visceral level. He’s not spelling things out for you – it’s a basic principle of artistry – make the audience do some work and it becomes so much more interesting.

    Also, Dylan is an amazing singer. It’s rare that someone can write such amazing lyrics and perform them in such a unique way. Dylan is absolutely one of the single most important American artists of all time – on the same level as the creation and progression of jazz, as a whole.

    To the writer of this blog – I’m fairly certain that Dylan never returned to Judaism after his conversion to Born-Again Christianity in the late 70s, though I could be wrong.

    As for this song and its video – it’s lighter Dylan, but it’s fun. And the video is interesting – is this a whore house? Is Dylan the pimp? It adds to the song – sort of setting the scene for a wild, debauched Christmas some of us might know.

  2. I don’t like the song itself (or most modern Christmas music), but I agree this is one of the best versions I’ve ever heard, and by far the best video of it.

  3. I’ve heard good things about that. I just find it hard to listen to him for much at a time.

  4. I love this! It may end up being the first (and prolly only) Dylan on my iPod. Why all the analysis? It’s just an awesome song.

  5. Wess, watch “I’m Not There”. Your insight into him isn’t all that unique, and it is addressed in the film.

  6. This is heresy and will probably get me lynched, but.. I’ve suspected for many years now that Dylan is mostly a fake, who’s occasionally been brilliant and insightful, has often been sincere and passionate, is an adequate poet with periodic flashes of true genius, is a fair musician, and is a terrible singer. I have a strong sense that a great deal of his entire oeuvre, however, is better described as an elaborate prank, and I think that also describes much of his career.

    Dylan (born Robert Zimmerman) is thought by some to have named himself after the Welsh writer Dylan Thomas, whom he’d studied. His idol was Woody Guthrie, and according to son Arlo, Dylan came to New York (from Minnesota) in part to meet the man. Arlo charges that Dylan developed his distinctive ‘singing’ style largely in imitation of Woody, who by that point was suffering from Huntington’s Disease, which affected how he spoke and sang. Arlo says the distinctive elements of Dylan’s style are in fact distinctive symptoms of the disease. He thought Dylan didn’t realise this, and he found it distasteful.

    All this would be irrelevant, if only there was some estimable genius in the meat of his work, the lyrics. And to be entirely fair, he has had some terrific moments in writing. To also be fair, nearly everyone does, at some point. Write enough, and you can’t help it. But by and large, no one can actually make clear sense of his lyrics. Many interpretations are available, but they are only that, and while most won’t, some artists over the years have admitted that some of their most acclaimed flashes of brilliance are in the imagination of the viewer, and were not intentional or preconceived. Dylan himself once declined to explain himself, saying that if he explained what his songs meant, “we’d all be arrested.” What the hell is that supposed to mean?

    What solid evidence do we have that the bulk of his work actually means anything at all? I can’t make sense of it, and I’m not going to pretend to, or presume that I need to. Dylan Thomas communicated clearly, why can’t this guy? I’ve asked friends who are fans to explain it to me. They can’t. They also can’t explain why they’re fans, which doesn’t help.

    I don’t discount his success, his appeal, or his influence on the arts. And he deserves credit for distributing the proceeds of this album to charity. But I feel more and more that as an artist, Dylan has been, by and large, mostly a prankster, and an accidental victim of his own accidental success. I suspect that much of his apparent distaste for his fame is, as much as anything else, a real fear of being found out and exposed.

    I personally consider pranksterism its own kind of high art, and folk artists are well suited to the challenge. As Ani DiFranco observed, rock musicians take no one seriously but themselves, while folk musicians take everything seriously but themselves. The late legendary Utah Phillips was a renowned prankster, who carried a fake cockroach wherever he went (originally to score free meals, and later just to “mess with people”). Ed Sanders, of The Fugs, termed it “goofing” (about which he wrote an entire song), but made it a regular practice, and freely admitted it was the basis of most of his art. Arlo’s most famous work is about the biggest prank he ever played. And we celebrate Abbie Hoffman (another famous Jewish artist who was politically engaged, also a friend of Sanders) as one of the greatest pranksters of all time. (He also has a terrific interview in Re/Search #11, ‘Pranks!’)

    Not just anyone can do that. It takes a particularly smart and clever person, with a good sense of their audience and their cultural context. Dylan may indeed be a genius, but I think probably not a great philosopher. And I do suspect that a great deal of what he’s done is a joke. I don’t discount any of it. But I suggest we not take him any more seriously than he takes himself.

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