Theme Time Radio Hour

One of my many returns to Bob Dylan came not in 2006, but probably 2007, and it was around Theme Time Radio Hour. Even while I skipped out on Modern Times, Dylan’s well-received album from 2006, I was aware of the hype around the launch of his radio program on XM Satellite radio and I was very intrigued. Canada was late to the satellite radio revolution, however, with both Sirius and XM setting up subsidiary companies here late. I’ve never subscribed (I note that my car came pre-equipped with an XM button and a free subscription that I never activated). I spent a week in Ontario a couple of years ago where I was doing a lot of daily driving for work and I listened to the bluegrass channel every day and thought it was great until I started hearing a lot of repetition, and then I lost interest. Radio doesn’t much work for me as a listener.
Dylan radio, on the other hand, very much did. While I never subscribed, sometime after the first season concluded I ran across a website that had about thirty shows available for download, so download them I did. Each one was an hour long, and my walk to campus (if I walk) is about 35 minutes walking up the hill on the way there and about 25 minutes on the way back down – it was a perfect length. I had one of those little tiny iPods with a pathetic amount of memory, but it would hold a one hour show and so for a couple of months in the summer I was listening to Theme Time Radio Hour every day.
TTRH was a fantastic show. If Dylan had done nothing at all in the 2000s except this show I think we would have to count it as a serious contribution to our culture. Recording the shows on the road as he toured, he played a really eclectic mix of music and strung it together with bizarre-o facts and weird observations. It really was the type of thing that should be listened to at 3:00 in the morning as you’re driving a highway to nowhere in the blackness. Dylan’s voice was perfect for this role, and his chatter was astonishing.
One of the key attractions was Dylan finally speaking about music. At this point Dylan wasn’t doing much talking from the stage, maybe a joke here and there, but for the most part he was a taciturn presence. His interviews, like the recent one on 60 Minutes weren’t terribly revealing – he didn’t seem to respond to people putting questions to him. But he did seem to open up on his own terms, and the radio show was all about him.
Each of the 100 shows that he broadcast over three years was organized around a unifying theme – flowers, Tennessee, baseball. The songs were presumably selected by Dylan with the input of producer Eddie Gorodetsky – I can imagine Gorodetsky presenting options to Dylan, but I have no idea if that is how the show was arranged. Each episode was introduced from the fictional Abernathy Building with a moody voice-over, and then Dylan would launch into his spiel. A lot of times it was clear that he was sharing the research of a bunch of interns with internet access – filling in data about avocado production in Fresno or the like – but other times it was clear that Dylan was speaking from the heart, particularly when he spoke about music. You can listen to Dylan talk about the importance of drumming on a Buddy Holly song that you’ve heard a thousand times and realize that you’ve never spent one second thinking about Holly’s drummer, and now it’s the only thing that you can think about. Then there were the bizarre personal anecdotes. One that has stuck with me clearly for no good reason was on the “Cars” episode. Dylan plays Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” – an obvious choice because it’s a great song, and it’s one that he himself recorded on Dylan. When the song ends, Dylan notes that he has ridden in a car driven by Mitchell (on the Rolling Thunder Tour?) and that she’s a very good driver. “I felt very safe,” Dylan tells us. What a bizarre comment, but, at the same time, I think it says a lot more about the Dylan/Mitchell relationship (now fractured, at least on her side) than I ever knew before.
Given where Dylan was musically at this point in his career (excavating that “old, weird American” sound of pre-rock, pre-folk) you’d expect a lot of music from that era. You get it, but you also get things that I, at least, would never have guessed, including hip hop. Listening to Dylan introduce The Streets, for example, was a really unexpected pleasure. There was also a good chance on any episode that you’d be introduced to someone that you didn’t know but that you’d think was great – Laura Cantrell, for instance, is someone that I discovered through TTRH and I’m very pleased that I did.
I will say that I eventually gave up on TTRH, probably after about forty episodes. I probably over-binged on them, so that the repetition of elements became a bit cloying to me. Once per week is probably a better pace than every day for something like this. This site seems to have streaming links to every episode, and I plan to pick them up again and probably over-indulge for a little while. It’s a shame that he let it all go.
Laura Cantrell, from the “Flowers” episode:

Modern Times

I skipped Bob Dylan’s acclaimed 2006 album Modern Times when it was released. Dylan had fallen off my radar again, I had a baby and I just wasn’t in a space where I was listening to any new music. This is another album that I’ve only begun listening to this week as part of the project. I will say that it took me a little bit of time to warm up to it. I listened to it twice on a two hour bike ride last weekend (the album is 63 minutes, which made it excellent for pacing my ride) and didn’t much care for it. On those first listenings nothing leapt out at me – it has a pretty constant tone to it, and lacks the strong ups and downs of some of his other albums. I came home and looked it up, and found myself surprised to see how unbelievably positively it had been received. A new masterpiece, I read. His first #1 album since Desire, I learned. The oldest living person to have the #1 album (at the time). 6.3 million copies sold. Two Grammy awards.
So I re-listened. Actually, I’ve listened to this twice a day (at a minimum) every day this week. On Tuesday and Saturday I had long travel days, and listened to it even more than that. I think that I have listened to this one Dylan album more than any other Dylan album this year. And, yes, now I get it.
Modern Times was not an album that I immediately got. And, indeed, a couple of the songs that I best liked early are the ones that I least like today. It’s an evolving thing for me, and it will probably remain so. I do think that it is worth the fuss.
1. “Thunder on the Mountain”. This opens really well with the piano, guitar, drums starting up as if the album is shutting down. It’s a song that marks Dylan’s new tendency of singing the name of the song as the first line of the song (he does this a lot on Tempest). It also includes the bizarre verse about Alicia Keys. Why, my wife asks, would he be singing about Alicia Keys? It’s entirely possible that he just likes the way that the name flows into the song – it fits nicely. It’s also possible that he’s telling us something that we’re not getting. It is true that she was born in Hell’s Kitchen, for example. Anyway, this is a good selection for the opener as it is probably the song that is easiest to like on the whole album. I can’t imagine anyone not really liking this one.”I recruit my army from the orphanages” is a great line, and so is “I got the pork chops, she got the pie”, and so is “I’ll say this, I don’t give a damn about your dreams”. This doesn’t add up to a whole lot, but it has so many great individual pieces.
By the way, here’s Keys doing “Pressing On”, from Saved, which was released the year she was born in Hell’s Kitchen.
2. “Spirit on the Water”. This is clearly a song that is important to Dylan. He sells t-shirts with this title on them, and he has played this song a lot on his most recent tour. A slow swinging jazzy number, this is a pretty classic Dylan love song – why can’t you treat me right? but I love you so much anyway, baby. It has a nice closing verse for him to play live now:
You think I’m over the hill
You think I’m past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whopping good time
The crowd yells “No” after both of those first lines, of course. The other thing is that Dylan really sings this one, and does a great job with it. A nice song.
3. “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”. This is the Muddy Waters delta blues song that has been covered by literally everyone (Yardbirds, Cream, Captain Beefheart). Dylan adds new lyrics to it, but his version owes a clear and direct debt to Muddy Waters’s version. I like this one too!
4. “When the Deal Goes Down”. This one slows things down again, a slow ballad with minimal backing. Another sweet love song, a pledge of allegiance. I’m sort of surprised that this song has been picked up by other singers, because it is quite lovely and is the type of thing that can sound really effective for a piano crooner. I like this one too!
5. “Someday Baby”. I wrote about this at length earlier in the week. A good blues song that was the single from the album. Dylan won a Grammy for his singing on this, which is funny because I don’t think it is the best sung song on the album. I also like this. It’s becoming a theme.
6. “Workingman Blues #2”. On my first couple of listens to this album, this was one of the songs I liked best. Now it is one of the ones that I like least. It’s a sort of sequel to “Sundown for the Union”. It has a very despairing and fatalist take on the state of the American economy, beginning from the observation of declining wages and the outsourcing of jobs, but ultimately suggesting that there is nothing to be done about it. The chorus, which includes the lines
You can hang back or fight your best on the front line

Sing a little bit of these workingman’s blues
Is firmly non-committal about what should be done about any of this fate that the singer is bemoaning, as if Dylan thinks that it doesn’t really matter. Musically, too, it is not committed – it seems to take a middle road. This is one of the only songs here that I don’t really like at all any more.
7. “Beyond the Horizon”. Another crooner song, and another pretty good one. This is probably the most minor of all the songs on Modern Times. It’s neither good nor bad, just a bit there. I like the guitar parts here and some of the dark imagery, but it isn’t a really memorable song.
8. “Nettie Moore”. This is my favourite song on the whole album, and one of my favourites by Dylan in the past few decades. I love everything about this one – the phrasing especially. The short Hemingway-esque declarations:
I’m the oldest son of a crazy man
I’m in a cowboy band
Lots of cryptic lyrics here, and lovely little pieces. The chorus, “Oh I miss you Nettie Moore, and my happiness is o’er…” is particularly striking. Great, great song.
9. “The Levee’s Gonna Break”. I don’t think that this is a bad song, but that single repeated guitar note that occurs about every two bars ABSOLUTELY DRIVES ME CRAZY! It’s like a form of torture, like lying in bed and listening to the drip of a faucet – all I can hear is the count in my head to the next identical guitar note. I can’t listen to this anymore. Too bad, because “Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones” is a great line.
10. “Ain’t Talkin’”. The final, epic (almost nine minute) blues ramble is delicious. Dark and haunted. This one sounds like something from Oh Mercy but without the layers of goop that Daniel Lanois heaped onto that album. This album is produced by Dylan under his Jack Frost pseudonym, and I’m guessing that it is pretty close to the sound that he wants (considering how similar the next couple of albums are, that’s my safe guess), and it is interesting to try to imagine the Lanois albums with this sound. Anyway, this is another great late-night Dylan song about the darkness that surrounds us.
So, after some early skepticism, I find that I’m eight for ten on this album, and one of the songs I would like better with only the smallest change in production. It is a really great album, and it includes one song – “Nettie Moore” – that I would personally rank extremely highly in his catalogue. If I weren’t blogging this year I don’t think I would have ever spent enough time with this album to get this much out of it, so I’m pretty grateful for the opportunity.
Here’s the video for “Thunder on the Mountain”, all about Alicia Keys: