In the late 1960s, a mercifully small group of obsessive weirdos made it their life’s mission to rummage through Bob Dylan’s trash. They weren’t looking for money, the way creeps who stalk celebrities for profit these days do; they were looking for meaning. Dylan’s refuse, they were sure, contained the metaphorical—and, sometimes, literal—tea leaves one needed to read in order to unlock the mysteries of lines like the one about “The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach / Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.”
Thankfully, freaks these days leave Dylan’s garbage alone. They’ve moved on to his Christmas lights.
In an inspired piece in Vice, Merrill Markoe delivers a detailed analysis of the modest seasonal decorations Dylan hangs annually outside his Malibu home. It’s more or less the same shape every year—all steep drops and modest inclines—and Markoe, like anyone else who has ever attempted to grasp the totality of Dylan’s porous mind, wonders if there are deeper wisdoms just beneath the surface. Are the decorations arranged to resemble a chart? Does it capture the year’s highs and lows, from Dylan’s Nobel speech to the hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico? Or is it abstract art, maybe in tribute to Arshile Gorky?
Dismiss such meditations at your own peril. Understanding Dylan has always been a finicky art form. Listen to “Desolation Row,” say, and ponder the surreal reference to T.S. Eliot, only to find a few lines that speak cryptically of “the windows of the sea / Where lovely mermaids flow.” If you listen to the song as Markoe looked at Dylan’s holiday decorations, you may recall that Eliot himself, in his majestic “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock,” evoked “the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me.” Such phrases cannot be unlocked unless you stare at them like so many Christmas lights, getting a little lost in their glitter while at the same time pushing through into another layer of meaning. And so, for those of us who don’t live in Malibu, here they are, the oracle’s lights, here for us all to decipher:
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.