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