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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

"Doing something that would be illegal or filthy is not in his repertoire"

A sometimes smarmy but generally right-on article by Washington Post staff writer Linton Weeks, passed on to Dreamtime by Joyride's shady boyfriend, Jailbreak.

Weeks can't resist the usual generalizations about Dylan which, if not used, would mean that the writer would actually have to think about what he was writing. But, that aside, some interesting stuff follows: Lee Abrams claims that the actual production of TTRH is as much a mystery to XM Radio as it is to the general public. I have no idea what the opaque Abrams quote, "Doing something that would be illegal or filthy is not in his repertoire" is meant to mean. It sounds as if it came directly from Mr. D. himself. Other members of the TTRH posse - including Penn Jillette and Peter Guralnick - also weigh in.

Full formatted article can be read at The Washington Post site, which also includes some TTRH clips, if there's any Dreamtime reader out there who isn't already listening to TTRH.


On XM Radio's 'Theme Time,' Freewheelin' Dylan Calls the Tune

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 7, 2007; Page M03

Through the years, Bob Dylan's dealings with the public have been difficult.

Hear him live and he can be a mumbling and aloof musician -- as at his recent Merriweather Post Pavilion concert.

Riffle through interviews with Dylan on YouTube and you discover a contentious, pretentious artist who is laconic, distant, apparently indifferent to enunciation, pleasantries and other everyday social constructs.

But listen in on Dylan's weekly satellite show, "Theme Time Radio Hour" on XM Radio-- now in its second season -- and you discover quite a different Dylan. He's voluble, generous, articulate. He's liable to quote a poem, give tips on hanging drywall, pass along a recipe. In his show on baseball, he broke into "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" -- a cappella.

For nearly 50 years, besides being the voice of his particular generation (and maybe several others), Bob Dylan has been a musical rainmaker. He is a tireless performer, prodigious songwriter and now ardent professor and promoter of all kinds of songs. He has produced more than 30 studio collections. This month Columbia Records is releasing a three-CD retrospective of Dylan's Methuselahian career.

The one thing missing from the radio show, oddly enough, is Dylan's own music.

"With this show, Dylan is tapping into his deep love -- and I would say his belief in -- a musical world without borders," author Peter Guralnick writes in an e-mail. "I feel like the commentary often reflects the same surrealistic appreciation for the human comedy that suffuses his music." Guralnick has written several books about music, including biographies of Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke.

Tight-lipped about actual numbers, an XM spokeswoman will say that about 2 million listeners tune in to Dylan's show, which repeats through the week on several channels. Keen listener Elvis Costello says Dylan's shows "are a bit like those films of Picasso painting on glass. They don't pretend to explain anything about the host but they offer just a little glimpse of the musical -- and literary -- taste of a great singer and songwriter without obliging him to confess every dark secret."

A pitch for Dylan's show might be: Garrison Keillor meets Alan Lomax meets your weird friend who makes theme-oriented mix tapes in his downstairs rec room.

"Theme Time" is a "surreal hour of radio," comedian Richard Lewis writes in an email.

The show is not available on terrestrial radio, but Washington-based XM does offer free three-day trials on its Web site. The company says it has no plans to distribute the show on CD.

XM execs have nothing to do with the production of the show. As part of the contract, Dylan, 66, is given artistic freedom. The show is delivered, pretty much as a done deal, to the XM studio in New York. "Doing something that would be illegal or filthy is not in his repertoire," says Lee Abrams, XM's chief creative officer.

"The actual recording of it is a big mystery," says Abrams, who usually hears it for the first time when it airs.

Every show begins with a noir intro -- spoken sotto voce by whiskey-voiced Ellen Barkin -- such as this: "It's nighttime in the big city. A husband plots his escape route. The last train from Overbrook pulls into the station. It's 'Theme Time Radio Hour' with your host, Bob Dylan."

And for the next hour the listener is transported to Bobby's World. Each show is built around a theme and the music is a deep and multicultural trove of musical history. He plays tunes by a parade of musicians, such as the Andrews Sisters; Hank Williams Jr.; Darlene Love; Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys; the Horace Silver Quintet; Bobby "Blue" Bland and the Washington-based Winstons.

"I don't mean in any way to diminish the importance of the quality music he plays," says magician and loyal listener Penn Jillette, "but Dylan's heart is so in this show that you hear Dylan even in other people's music."

Dylan tells lame jokes. "I just came back from a pleasure trip. I took my mother-in-law to the airport."

Coffee, he says, "is the common man's gold. And like gold, it brings to every person the feeling of luxury and nobility." His voice is rich and dripping with irony.

We learn from Dylan that comedian Phil Silvers wrote "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)" for Frank Sinatra to sing about his newborn daughter. That Elvis Presley wanted to be Dean Martin. That Voltaire drank 50 cups of coffee a day. That Bobby Darin took his stage name from a Chinese restaurant -- the Mandarin Duck. The first three letters of the sign were burned out, Dylan tells us.

He reads verse by "Def Poet" Henry Ward Beecher. He recites "Annabelle Lee" by Edgar Allan Poe. This is Dylan the performer, the informer. In one episode, he introduces us to new music: songwriters Chris Difford, Glenn Tilbrook and Ron Sexsmith. In another, he explains Hawaiian-style slack key guitar. And in still another he gives out a recipe for barbecue sauce.

In the first episode of this season, Dylan's theme is "Hello." Besides waxing etymological about where the word "hello" comes from, he plays songs of greeting: "Hello Mello Baby" by the Mardi Gras Loungers and "Hello Trouble" by Buck Owens.

"If you see trouble walking in, it's probably wearing very high heels and nylons," he says as he unspools a soliloquy on femmes fatales. One of his favorites: Lana Turner in "The Postman Always Rings Twice."

The uncorking of Dylan's wit and wordiness may have begun with a series of interviews Dylan did with his manager, Jeff Rosen, in 2000. The interviews were crafted into "No Direction Home," a 2005 documentary by Martin Scorsese. That same year, Dylan published Volume 1 of his planned three-volume autobiography. "Chronicles" is chatty and fact-filled. "Like his best songs," the Denver Post wrote of the book, "it's full of unexpected twists, turns and observations."

The radio show reveals an even more expansive Dylan. "Theme Time" listeners get the full monty of Dylan's satiric tone and slant wit, as he shares his musical tastes.

To writer and comedian Amy Sedaris, the magic of "Theme Time" is simple. "I like the way Bob Dylan talks. I like how he drags his words out. I like what he finds interesting."


pamela hitchins said...

Oh, I liked the article, but I guess I'm smarmy enough myself in my reverence for Dylan. And I've had the pleasure of hearing only one TTRH, the one on baseball that you sent me, Fred.

I read on another (less noble) site about a man who "walked out on Dylan" in Manchester because his voice was old and gravelly and unintelligble. The man is clearly a fool, though not about those qualities of Dylan's voice in Manchester (that was pretty much what I heard at the concert). And I would like to have heard this song or that, and a little chatter, Dylan's sharp sense of humor. But it struck me, sitting there, that one does not go to see a god to get what one wants. One goes to experience what the god has to give in that brief space in time. Which of us knowing ANYthing about Dylan goes expecting anything at all? You go to witness, not to get.

TTRH is, though, as Weeks points out, different. How cool is it that the production itself is a mystery? It's like the incarnation, the one spot in time and space where the god becomes man, talks, jokes around, and maybe sings rather than growls unintelligbily.

There is no one like him, and to be alive at the same time is truly a gift.

Fred@Dreamtime said...

I sometimes think a Dylan concert is like a Rorschach test; people see (and hear) different things. Now, from my perspective, his voice was, yes, "old," and much better suited to the newer than older songs. As I said about LARS, he's in the impossible position of competing with the Dylan of 40 years ago. Although it will never happen - too many fans come to hear the old songs - me, I'd be just as happy to hear a Dylan concert composed of content entirely from the Time Out of Mind period onwards. I'm just happy he's never started doing a medley of greatest hits. :-)

But, except for Lay, Lady, Lay I thought he was in much better voice than the last time we heard him at the Verizon, six years ago, where it was nearly impossible to distinguish a word and he gave what I thought a very lethargic performance. This time around his enunciation and phrasing were much clearer and his energy level much higher. But, as I said, people hear different things at Dylan concerts. Go read the old Nov. 22 2001 reviews at Bill Pagel's site, and they're generally glowing... and not the concert I saw or remember.

As is probably obvious, :-) I think the TTRH shows are well worth searching out. It's a Dylan I think you would love, and his music selections are fascinating. You can listen on-line through a free 3-day trial at XM Radio (pick a Wednesday to sign up) and then at a very reasonable monthly subscription (which is what I do), or for free at AOL Radio, or there are links to other resources at both Expecting Rain and Night Time in the Big City, which you can reach through the blogroll links to your right.

Peggy wants to know where you were sitting in the 3rd row. We were in Seats 3 and 4!



pamela hitchins said...

I was in the seats on the side, not on the floor. We were in the first section to the right of the stage in section 119. I was in the third row ("row C") seat 9. Once he went to the keyboard, we pretty much saw the side of his head and his back. I didn't mind, but I liked reading your review where you wrote about his interplay with the pedal steel guy.

Had a good view of Tony Garnier, whom I love, so that was great. I love to watch him making love to his bass.

There was a guy in the first row in front of me who was whacked out on something, and stood up and danced (sort of like Elaine on "Seinfeld"!) through the entire concert except when the man in front of me had had enough and pushed him down. This was right in the middle of "My Back Pages." What a moment for a drunken fight! Security came and escorted several couples out. I was a couple of stair steps above them so they didn't interfere with my view of the stage, but they were still distracting. A little while later the drunken dancer and his female friend came back and danced again. The guy who politely sat behind him in his seat the entire time, except for the pushing part, did NOT return. Didn't seem quite fair to me!

I loved being there. I agree with you that I could hear nothing but the later songs and not mind. They are my favorites of his anyway. I can never understand the people who talk about his 60s music like it was the best he did. I totally disagree. I love his gravelly voice but I felt that he didn't really sing last week. He growled his lyrics, kind of thrusting them out of his mouth like a chant for the most part. I was thrilled that he did "Nettie Moore" and "Spirit on the Water," but of course hoped for "Not Dark Yet" and "Tryin' To Get To Heaven" and even "Workingman Blues," which I'd seen a lot on his recent set lists.

I will definitely look into subscribing to TTRH. Thanks, Fred.

I just finished reading "A Simple Twist of Fate" about the making of Blood on the Tracks. Getting ready to start Greil Marcus' Like a Rolling Stone.

pamela hitchins said...

I've considered starting a blog like you and Kerry, but I haven't been able to come up with a good name for it. I'll keep thinking! Everytime I think about writing something for gather I just can't bring myself to do it! This means I haven't been able to write about Dylan! The pain, the pain!! ;-)

Kerry Dexter said...

interesting to hear your thoughts and experiences. got me thinking about the whole concert going thing, and how in a way that is both an individual communication and a shared conversation, both archived, so to speak, and ephemeral. okay, time for me to go make a Music Road and or SOT post or several about all that I can see.