Years ago I lived for a while in a second-floor apartment on West 19th Street between 8th and 9th avenues in New York City, in a neighborhood I could hardly afford then and couldn’t dream of affording now. Out the back door was a little porch which faced the rear of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, which was built in the early 19th century on land donated by Clement Clark Moore, who served at various times at the church’s warden, vestryman and organist, and was — of course — the author of the famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” read here by Father Christmas himself, Robert Zimmerman aka Bob Dylan:
Here’s ol’ Bob Dylan singing about he’s been afflicted with a bad case of the Christmas blues…
It may be that the economy’s on the upswing, but New York City’s homeless people might argue with that analysis. So, too, might the folks I encounter nearly daily in central New Jersey.
As my son and I walked along Canal Street and up Second Avenue in lower Manhattan, a few days ago, we saw more homeless people than I remember seeing in NYC for a while, including a young couple camped out on a sidewalk in late morning, the girl sleeping on a pile of blankets while her companion stayed awake and kept watch.
Next day, early in the morning, at a park along the Raritan River in central New Jersey, I saw what has become a familiar sight: three homeless men, wearing all of their clothing (including winter parkas in 80 degree weather, as they left a small, wooded nature preserve in Highland Park where they apparently spend the night and then headed toward a long-established encampment along the riverside in the shadow of the New Brunswick-Highland Park bridge.
I believe that many of us these days are so distracted by our own lives and other issues — that the problem of poverty, both urban and rural, has faded from our view. There’s a feeling, I think, even among well-meaning and caring people, that food pantries and government programs and volunteerism have got the problem under control. But, just walk around Manhattan these days, just visit rural Virginia as I did last fall, and drive around the old section of my old hometown of Yonkers, New York, and it’s clear that as the rich are getting so much richer, the poor are getting so much poorer.
Here’s Woody singing his “Hobo’s Lullaby” —
Here’s Dylan, singing Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” —
And here’s John Prine, singing his classic song about being invisible and lonely, “Hello In There” —
Spending a week in a small town in the Berkshires, at a writers retreat, I find myself wondering…”retreat?”
Am I retreating from life? No. Am I retreating from life’s pain? No. Am I retreating from life’s joys? No. No. No. Am I retreating from the having to worry about overdue bills? No — my cellphone is turned on and I check my email several times daily.
So what kind of retreat is this writers retreat? Perhaps it’s more accurately described as a refuge, a haven, a safe house. It’s a place where the rules are that there are no rules except to respect the solitude of others, to whisper, to tread softly.
And it’s a place where it’s OK to step into an empty church in this small town and sit and contemplate and pray in one’s own way of praying, to remember and cherish and wish and dream.
And it’s place where around a bend in the road blooms a field of wildly yellow wildflowers…
Where one road leads to home and another leads to Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst and I choose the road less traveled and stare up at Emily’s window and imagine her white ghostly beauty…
Where the home housing this writers retreat overflows with books including, of all things, a book of Korean love poems, including a poem called “Unforgettable:”
If you cannot forget,
Let it be unforgotten.
One day you will forget.
If you cannot forget,
Let her go unforgotten.
Some part, or all, will fade one day.
But you will answer still
“How can I forget
When this flame burns in my heart?”
There is no way to pull back or retreat, I say. A heart given fully can not be retrieved.
OK. I admit it. I was wrong.
I’m not admitting this because I’ve gotten into the holiday spirit. I’m not admitting this because my body’s been taken over by holiday spirits. And I’m not admitting this because I’ve imbibed too much (or, in fact, any) holiday spirits.
I’m admitting I was wrong about Bob Dylan’s album of holiday music, “Christmas in the Heart,” because I’ve just watched (three times) the new video for “Must Be Santa.”
Why wasn’t I invited to this party? Oh, wait, I know. Because I said Dylan’s Christmas album stunk. OK. I admit it. I was wrong. Leave a lump of coal in my CD player, Santa Bob. I deserve it.
Maybe it’s not Bob Dylan. Maybe it’s Bob Dylan channeling Tom Waits and Louis Armstrong.
Or maybe it is Bob Dylan. Maybe he got into the eggnog and didn’t know someone had spiked it with a bit too much rum. Or maybe he knew about the rum.
Or maybe there’s just no way to describe how awfully bad — and impossible to explain — “Christmas in the Heart” really is.
Or maybe you just have to hear it to believe it. This album could change your life…you might, for example, stop believing in Santa…or you might decide that those dancing elves you saw when you drank too much spiked eggnog at that Christmas party weren’t a figment of your alcohol-drenched imagination. They were really there. They were Dylan’s backup singers on “Winter Wonderland.”
Ho-ho-hold on to your hat —
Here’s the set list:
Here Comes Santa Claus, Do You Hear What I Hear?, Winter Wonderland, Hark The Herald Angels Sing, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, Little Drummer Boy, The Christmas Blues, O Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles), Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, Must Be Santa, Silver Bells, The First Noel, Christmas Island, The Christmas Song, O Little Town Of Bethlehem.
It’s like Jimmy Durante, say, tried to croon “Try a Little Tenderness.” It’s like, um, Screaming Jay Hawkins tried singing “Do-Re-Mi” from “The Sound of Music.” It’s like, er, Andrea Boccelli trying to sing “Run, Run, Rudolph.” It’s like, um, Bob Dylan trying to sing “Moon River.” OK, it’s very much like Bob Dylan singing Henry Mancini’s song from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
I’m talking about the not-an-urban-legend reports that the old elf himself has, indeed, recorded an album of Christmas songs. The album, due out soon, is titled “Christmas in the Heart.” All proceeds from the album’s sales will go to the charity Feeding America.
Would I lie to you about anything having to do with Christmas? No, Virginia. In fact, here’s the actual album cover:
And here’s the track list….imagine Santa Bob singing these Yuletide tunes: Here Comes Santa Claus, Do You Hear What I Hear?, Winter Wonderland, Hark The Herald Angels Sing, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, Little Drummer Boy, The Christmas Blues, O Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles), Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, Must Be Santa, Silver Bells, The First Noel, Christmas Island, The Christmas Song, O Little Town Of Bethlehem.
At the top of my I-can-wait-to-hear this list: Dylan singing the “barump-bum-bum-bum” part of “Little Drummer Boy,” Dylan singing the “kids dressed up like Eskimos” part of “The Christmas Song,” and Dylan singing “the ding-a-ling/hear them ring” part of “Silver Bells.”
In fact, I think the great Dylan may have found yet another way to surprise us the way he’s surprised his fans during a nearly 50-year career filled with unexpected twists and turns. I think he should consider putting out a karaoke album — who wouldn’t want a chance to sing their very own karaoke making-believe-I’m-as-cool-as Dylan rendition of, um, “Desolation Row? How about a polka album with a Jimmy Sturrs-type take on, say, “All Along the Watchtower?” Or how about recording some children’s songs? Wait, he’s done that already. Here’s Uncle Bob singing for all of you red-diaper great-grandbabies:
Dylan singing “The First Noel?” Next thing you know, Porky Pig’s going to try to sing Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.”