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

No telling what might come out of Dylan's mouth on
No telling what might come out of Dylan's mouth on "Theme Time": Recipes, mother-in-law jokes or, if the subject is femmes fatales, maybe he'll do his best Sam Spade with a noirish nugget like, "If you see trouble walking in, it's probably wearing very high heels and nylons." (Sony Bmg Via Bloomberg News)
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 7, 2007

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.

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