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

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.

"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."

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