The single string of festive lights hung up at one of Bob Dylan's many homes has transfixed me for years.
I have mixed feelings about Christmas decorations. Often, I like them. Rarely do I find them inspiring.
I live in Malibu, California. The average version of a decorated yard in my neighborhood looks more or less like an outdoor restaurant courtyard at a four-star hotel. The decorating style is consistent because many of the residents hire the same company to wrap their trees and shrubbery for them. They all look somewhat like this:
So intimidated was I that for many years I never decorated my yard. It seemed too daunting, too expensive. And then, in 2008, the veil was lifted. A Christmas miracle occurred. A new role model appeared before me, and as luck or serendipity would have it, it was the same role model I used to turn to for creative and lifestyle advice as a teenager.
I speak now of the first time I noticed that Bob Dylan had wedged a small, decidedly uneven, single strand of Christmas lights into the hedge in front of his estate.
It's possible that they were there before 2008. I'm embarrassed to say that before then I wasn't really paying attention. But it also makes sense that this was the very beginning, since he released his one and (so far) only Christmas album, Christmas in the Heart, in 2009.
Here is the earliest known photo I took of Mr. Dylan's holiday oeuvre.
I was immediately taken by his distinctive approach to decorating. Much the way he forged his own path in music, he exhibited an independence of style significantly different than the other homes in the area.
If a professional decorating staff was enlisted, their work was subtle to the point of being invisible, deeply disguised by a faux-naïve approach that recalls Matisse or Chagall. The string of lights seemed to say, "We have been casually tossed into this hedge by someone in a hurry." But of course, this was no randomly displayed, haphazardly arranged, string of colored bulbs. What we had here was the work of Bob Dylan: prolific poet and songwriter, painter, filmmaker, paterfamilias to a whole generation of creative offspring, gate welder, patron of Christmas, born-again Christian and born-again Jew, seer, genius.
So I returned the following year, in 2009, to once again stare at the ever more erratically shaped curvilinear lines.
Having grown up in a world where nothing Bob Dylan has ever done is considered too small to merit serious consideration and scrutiny, this was the year I began to wonder if these lights contained a deeper meaning. Using Christmas lights as a medium, was there something beneath the surface that Mr. Dylan was trying to tell us?
I decided to embark on a multi-year quest. My goal: to contribute to the existing body of knowledge about this legendary artist. Thus did I return, season after season, much like the holidays themselves, as I sought to uncover the subtext behind these deceptively simple annual statements.
The serious student of Mr. Dylan will not be surprised to learn that careful examination did indeed reveal many hidden layers. What first appeared random was, in fact, the complete opposite.
This became clear for the first time in 2010, as I noticed that the angle and pitch of the lights seemed more extreme. At first I thought, Perhaps he's making a cosmic statement by recreating the Big Dipper . But later that night, after a bit of googling, it occurred to me what he had really done. The lights spoke to something of great concern to both the country and the world. They mirrored the monthly underemployment levels in the US throughout the year.
When Christmas of 2011 arrived, I was ready and eager to uncover any hidden message Mr. Dylan might have to share. But oddly enough, 2011 brought a light display both truncated and minimal. The questions before me now were these: Were there fewer bulbs this year because they had burned out? Or were the ones remaining being used to convey a message in another way entirely?
This was the year that I realized I needed to abandon all previous paradigms and formulas, as Dylan himself has always done, and view what was before me with fresh eyes. By enlisting the help of someone more musically knowledgeable than myself, I was able to interpret the light arrangement musically.
The result was a Christmas carol of a very different sort—a highly sophisticated atonal composition that starts out light and playful but ends in a darker mood, clearly influenced by modern composer George Crumb and his revolutionary Christmas themed piece " A Little Suite for Christmas."
Here it is, performed in its entirety:
2012 was a year that began on a very auspicious note. It was, of course, the year that was supposed to mark the end of the world, as predicted by the end of the Mayan calendar.
Facing his own mortality, Mr. Dylan was predictably in a somber mood as he created a self-portrait in lights that told a complex personal story. The lights of 2012 told the tale of a legendary artist, his triumphs and his tragedies, in the context of both international and national events, with a nod to the vast impersonal universe that surrounds us.
2013, though full of ups and downs, was nevertheless a very good year for Mr. Dylan, as he clearly illustrated with the surprising addition of a second string of lights.
Which brings us to 2014, the final year of my study. It is a year in which we see a more painterly, almost abstract expressionist vision, still full of characteristic touches of personal symbolism. While the second string of horizontal lights, added last year, is still visible this year, the vertical lines are emphasized.
What does the prominent "7" shape in this year's lights imply? Is it a symbolic wishbone? Will Bob start a new band this year called Wishbone Seven? I only ask these questions. I no longer answer them.
Instead, 2014 marks a new beginning. It is the first year that I have hung my own Christmas lights, both as a nod to the season and an homage to my mentor.
Though I painstakingly tried to incorporate his teachings, I still have much to learn. Nevertheless, season's greetings to one and all.