There’s this scene of longing in Portnoy’s Complaint. I’m not going to fact-check, because the recollection’s what counts: Young Alex Portnoy has gone down to the neighborhood park on a snowy day; there he sees a single perfect pardon-the-expression shiksa skating gracefully across a pond, dubs her Thereal McCoy, goes home to make use of her memory.
It’s one of those pages where Philip Roth captures the precise in/outness, possession/rejection and, pardon the double meaning, self-love of being a non-Orthodox American Jew/Jewish American. It popped to mind last night within a note or two of my first listen to what I soon knew was the most important American pop album since “The Rising”: Bob Dylan’s “Christmas in the Heart.”
Is this record sincere and in ghastly taste? Might be, but so are its models–the Great American Pop Star Holiday Albums. Is it a spot-on incarnation of a particular, half-century-dead, school of American recorded music? Roger. Is it a, pardon this expression too, post-modern commentary on same? Of course. Is it awesomely (in the pre-21st-century sense) specific in its musicality? Oh yes.
And does “Christmas in the Heart” embody, parody, celebrate, embrace, gaze upon dumbstruck as at a slow-motion pile-up, the gaiety and religiosity to which America pretends each December? Uh, duh. But does it at the same time convey the whole-bodied sense of ownership, the whole-souled sense of not-having-been-invited-to-the-party-and-secretly-glad-of-that, together with the slightly shameful ridiculous feeling when you show up anyhow (singing “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” in the 5th-grade choir) that is the rootless-cosmopolitan secular American Jewish condition at Holiday Time? Mm-hmm. And does it, even so, with wisdom unavailable to the early Roth, capture the complement: our great and good nation’s heartfelt, yet suspicious, yet nonetheless dutiful welcome of the Other?
But wait, there’s more. Listen to Dylan’s final “t”‘s. Listen to the precision in his phrasings, rhythmic, melodic, and in intonation: Bob Dylan rising to the level of a Sinatra, a Fitzgerald, a Holiday in blazing his own trail through stands of chestnuts, roasting, open-fired, songs we can sing in our sleep, the tunes to which visions of sugarplums dance. Listen to the interplay of classically synthetic pop-choral/orchestral sounds-of-the-season with his own certified-organic vocal instrument. And recall that “Jack Frost,” the nominal producer–i.e., the man who made every musical choice you’re hearing–is Bob Dylan himself, once famous for his one-take intolerance of the studio.
I used to wonder why Dylan, already pseudonymed, chose that seasonal second-degree nom de travail. “Christmas” may be the answer. It may even be the album he’s waited all his life to make, its formalism, its jaunty, maudlin material, and the wintry ravage to his vocal cords achieving the effect “Self Portrait” could not. After 48 years writing killer songs and singing them live every which way, Bob breaks out here at last as master of that peculiarly American art form: studio-recorded performance of standards.
But the brilliance of this record is not merely formal. Dylan knows something is happening, and he knows just what it is. It’s Portnoy’s pristine skater; it’s us, watching from the shore. Every note and every beat of “Christmas in the Heart” prove Thereal McCoy knows what America needs, but Bob Dylan knows what we want.