Pillow Talk: Damon Krukowski on Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour
Krukowski, Damon, Artforum International
BOB DYLAN KNOWS a lot of songs. His own extensive--and wordy--catalogue aside, the covers he performed live between 1988 and 2000 alone take up nine CDs. This is nothing new--Dylan has been absorbing everyone else's repertoire since before his 1962 debut album, Bob Dylan, which combined songs and arrangements he had learned from Eric von Schmidt, Dave Van Ronk, and others. In the oral history of the folk revival Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, von Schmidt describes a typical visit from Dylan back in the day: "He wasn't much interested in playing; he wanted to listen. So I played.... It was something, the way he was soaking up material in those days--like a sponge and a half. Later somebody said, 'Hey, Bob's put one of your songs on his album.'"
Since May, Dylan has been using his preternatural memory in a new way, as DJ for a show on XM Satellite Radio, Theme Time Radio Hour with Your Host Bob Dylan. Once a week, he draws on his wide and deep knowledge of American pop music for a show based around a theme such as weather, mothers, drinking, baseball, coffee. He introduces and comments on every track he plays, and he frequently quotes a line or two from the lyrics, which makes the fragment suddenly sound like a Dylan song. Is it because of his wry rasp that these words sound like his own? Or maybe we are witnessing the sponge and a half in action: He might well be soaking up new material before our ears, collecting words and phrases and rhymes that will later reappear in his own music.
But on display in the XM show is not just Dylan the magpie who has stolen everyone's riffs--there's also Dylan the archivist and even theorist of Americana. This is Dylan as successor to Harry Smith, whose landmark three-volume Anthology of American Folk Music, issued in 1952, helped shape the folk revival, including Dylan's own early songwriting. In Greil Marcus's vivid phrase, the anthology projected an "old, weird America" into the Eisenhower years--an America that had all but ceased to exist, in Smith's own reckoning, by 1932, the cutoff date for the recordings he included.
Theme Time Radio Hour neatly picks up where Smith left off--the songs Dylan plays generally range from the New Deal to the mid-1960s, though there are a few unexpected contemporary ringers, such as Jonathan Richman and Beck. Interspersed are bits of old radio ads and lines from classic movies, which combine with Dylan's weakness for corny one-liners (such as "She's been married so many times she's got rice marks on her face"; "What do you do if you miss your mother-in-law? Reload. Try again.") to create an overall effect of time travel to another era of entertainment--not unlike the pencil mustache Dylan has been sporting of late.
Probably the best description of the music on the show comes from Dylan's memoir, Chronicles, Volume One (2004). Miserable during the New Orleans recording sessions for his 1989 album, Oh Mercy, Dylan consoled himself with the radio, which, he recalls, "filled me with inner peace and serenity and would upend all my frustration. …