Theme Time Radio Hour: Another Side of Bob Dylan
Best Music of 2008 Part Two
A big part of 2008 for me was my introduction to Theme Time Radio Hour, the program hosted by Bob Dylan. I have been up early many days this year, letting the dog out, and while perusing the news on the web with my first cup of coffee, firing up an episode. The program, now in its third season on satellite radio, is a series of one-hour programs, each based on a theme – divorce, birds, hair, baseball, presidents, women’s names, smoking, with Dylan as your disc jockey. You get the idea.
“Your place for themes, dreams and schemes,” he often cackles, and he seems barely able to contain himself as he eagerly shares little-heard gems that he seems to have discovered throughout his life. If you didn’t know it, Bob Dylan is a major-league record nut. He tells a caller that all the music on the show comes from his own personal collection, and that he likes music “that was made 70 years ago and music that was made last Tuesday.”
Those are attributes I can really admire and appreciate in a DJ. According to “Inside Dylan’s Brain,” a Vanity Fair article that serves as a kind of a thesaurus for the first two seasons, more than fifty percent of the music he plays is from the nineteen fifties and earlier. He plays show tunes, novelty songs, soul and R&B. He talks with great enthusiasm about calypso and reggae, sticks up for rap and cowboy music and plays the Replacements, Green Day, the Ramones and Run DMC alongside Dinah Washington, Muddy Waters and Mud Boy and the Neutrons. Genres have no place here.
And he’s funny. “I don’t usually like to tell people what I’m doing, but I am talking to a couple of car companies about possibly being the voice of their GPS system,” he says, introducing Ray Charles’ “Lonely Avenue” on his latest theme, Road Maps. “I think it would be good, if you’re looking for directions and you heard my voice saying something like ‘Take a left at the next street. No, a right. Know what, just go straight.’”
If you have read Chronicles Part One, you’ll know the world Dylan creates from a place he calls “the Abernathy building.” He seems to revel in history, pop culture, show-biz and political intrigue, rumors and gossip. He offers perspective on Nixon and the Checkers speech, Kennedy and his women, Sinatra and the Mob, Sinatra, Kennedy and their women. He likes Willie Nelson’s voice before he became the Red-Headed Stranger. When it comes to the Three Stooges, he argues Larry is the smartest and admits that he’s s Shemp man. He talks with equal aplomb about Edith Piaf and Paul Winchell, the ventriloquist who came up with the idea for the artificial heart. He is, he says, proud to live in America, “the only place where Slim Gaillard could sing an ode to matzo balls and gefilte fish.”
Dylan answers email, takes callers’ questions and includes conversations and soliloquies with Tom Waits (who ruminates on the extinction of the passenger pigeon, among other things), Elvis Costello, Jack White, Marianne Faithful, Richard Lewis, Jenny Lewis, Luke Wilson and Penn Gillette, among others. I mean, how cool is to hear David Hidalgo explain that Don Santiago Jimenez, the father of Flaco, is the godfather of tejano music, the first one to sing lyrics over polkas?
Dylan honestly sounds like he’s having the time of his life. “We’ve told the Percy Mayfield story a couple of times here,” he says introducing the original demo of “Hit the Road Jack” on the Road Maps show. “If you haven’t heard it, go download some of our shows illegally.” Did I mention he was funny?
After reading Chronicles and listening to a bunch of Theme Times, I think I know why people might get frustrated interviewing Dylan. If I ever got a crack at him I wouldn’t ask about him any of his songs. But you can bet I would bring up that Womack brothers’ acoustic demo of “Across 110th Street” that he says “shows how funky two acoustic guitars can be.”