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: