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A Critical Analysis of Bob Dylan's 2017 Xmas Lights

For almost a decade, I have had an unhealthy obsession with the Christmas lights on Bob Dylan's Malibu home. Here's what I learned from this year's display.

Merrill Markoe

All photos by the author

Nine years ago I noticed that Bob Dylan, who has a residence in my neighborhood of Malibu, California, had begun to decorate the hedge outside his vast estate with a single string of Christmas lights. It was probably not a coincidence that he was also about to release a Christmas album.

Immediately I was taken by his decidedly casual approach to seasonal decorating. The display was made all the more distinct by the fact that the dominant style of decorating in the rest of the neighborhood could be characterized as “four Star restaurant courtyard.” The more I stared at his work, the more it spoke to me. “I was put here by someone who didn’t want to waste time doing this,” is what it seemed to say.

Because I am a long time fan of the Dylan oeuvre, it didn’t really surprise me that he exhibited a complete independence of style. After all, that is what he is known for. But the more carefully I looked at the lights, the more it became apparent to me that, as with his music, there were many layers of meaning to be uncovered. And so I took it upon myself to make an annual pilgrimage to this oracle in order to divine what holiday wisdom might be found therein.

Which brings us to the eve of the tenth anniversary of Bob Dylan’s annual Christmas light communique. Initially I planned to simply buy him a small gift (maybe a nice gift certificate to the Pottery Barn!) and call it a day. I imagined that he had said all that could be said in holiday lights. What choice did he have but to begin repeating himself?

But when he proved me wrong and marked the occasion by hanging a NEW set of lights, I knew I had to rethink my position. Now it seemed like an ideal time to measure just how far Dylan, the consummate artist, has come in terms of his lighting expressions.

Let’s begin with a trip down memory lane to the first single downward sloping strand of his early period, when he created a simple but effective electronic self portrait to establish himself as a man who wavers unsteadily in his commitment to an annual holiday ritual.

From there we all watched in awe as his central thesis began to evolve into an ever more angular and challenging display. In retrospect, he seems to have been sounding a kind of clarion call about the dire circumstances into which our democracy would soon be heading.

So it is interesting to note this year’s whimsical, more coherent message in which Bob appears to show a new level of frank self-confidence, post Nobel prize.

As in year’s past, there is a larger more universal context to be found lurking beneath the surface.

A meticulous examination of this year’s lighting configuration reveals the Gordian network of torments and rage roiling within this legendary artist who remains arguably our nation’s best interpreter of the zeitgeist. As usual, he has seized on this opportunity to comment upon the uniquely dangerous political crisis in which we now find ourselves.

At the same time, we must not fail to take note of the most remarkable measure of his annual expressive growth. I refer to the "Winter Wonderland" area which traditionally is set a few feet down the driveway.

In 2010 (pictured above) this extra area was but a spare and melancholy tableau meant, perhaps, to elicit a hushed contemplation of Costco, where each of the items seemed to have been purchased. It artfully combined heartfelt empathy with blistering commentary on the economic hard times still found in the working class America of Dylan’s boyhood.

Now compare that with his lush treatment of the same area in 2017. This year he has painstakingly assembled a joyfully illuminated abstraction, unrestrained in both its scope and ambition.

It asks us to imagine Bob, the fearless warrior, (perhaps nude in order to invoke the Gaul warriors who fought unflinchingly against Caesar in 54 B.C.) dancing "beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea." Energized as never before, Mr. Dylan shows us all how we must enlist the full force of our creative powers in the fight for the future of our republic that lays directly ahead.

The area also doubles as a powerful homage to an artist with whom Mr. Dylan, an occasional painter himself, no doubt feels a special kinship: the lyrical abstract and surrealist painter of the early 20th century, Arshile Gorky. Born Vostanik Adoian, Gorky, like Dylan, changed his name as a way to reinvent and reclaim his identity, then went on to become famous for creating his own highly personal vocabulary.

And so, as we wrap up this holiday season, let us close with a special tribute and meditation dedicated to the man who has emerged as our greatest living holiday hero. This short film will hopefully help everyone experience first hand the energy present not just in the Dylan holiday lights... but in each of us all year round, whenever we need it.

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