Monday, June 30, 2008

Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour

The legendary Bob Dylan has finally given us a reason to pay attention to the radio again. Recently (at least my entire lifetime) there has been a real dearth of musical radio programs worth listening to, with the very notable exception of Joe Frank, who isn't quite in the same genre. Scattered around the radio, mostly on NPR, are a few shows like The World Cafe and All Songs Considered, but the idea of a musicologist like Dylan picking a set worth of songs based upon a chosen theme every week is just too good to be true. Of course, no one will ever hear it because its on satellite radio, XM at that. Call me when they start podcasting it (though I believe you can download them here).

It is almost sad hearing these broadcasts, filled with interesting banter and a blend of obscure and slightly less obscure tunes from all genres, knowing that throughout my entire life all radio has been comprised of about 14 songs. And because he happens to be Bob Dylan, he has access to pretty much everyone on earth to discuss the weekly theme with, some of whom stop by the show, a list of performers that span plenty of genres from Simpsons creator Matt Groening to fellow crooner Tom Waits. And he'll occasionally deadpan a line like this:

“Hope all you listeners won’t accuse me of cronyism just because I occasionally play records by people I know.”

I always heard about radio station whose playlists weren't hindered by the obligation to play Fortunate Son every third song, but I thought they were a myth, like bigfoot or the wolfman. Wait, Wolfman Jack is real? There are plenty of great songs about the radio glory days, Elvis Costello's Radio Radio and ZZ Top's I heard it on the X, and even more songs that reference the good old radio. Those of us too young to have witnessed any sort of good radio can finally relate to what everyone was talking about. Dylan simply has an enormous wealth of musical knowledge, exhibited by his side note on Charles Aznavour:

“The Frank Sinatra of France…sings in six languages – French, English, Italian. He’s written over a thousand songs…I only know about half of them.”

So there is the pleasure of hearing the music, but that is not it. In between songs there are history lessons and jokes, the thoughts of a man who is unquestionably the greatest songwriter of all time. The dry wit of comments like, “The Harmonica is the world’s best-selling musical instrument. You’re welcome.” harks back to the hilarious Talkin World War III Blues. It says a lot that the biggest problem with the show is that he doesn't play enough Dylan. Hard to imagine a New York themed episode without Talkin New York and Hard Times in New York Town or a shoes themed episode without Boots of Spanish Leather? At least during the coffee episode he'd play One More Cup of Coffee? Nope.

So while I will enjoy this program, I have to assume it will not last long. All good things come to an end, most unfortunately too soon and for the wrong reasons. Some executive will do some objective analytical study and show that this time slot would be better filled with an hour long panel discussion of why radio is failing, the irony slipping past him like water off a ducks back. I'm not sure how exactly we should be supporting this and encouraging it as a new theme in radio rather than the exception that proves the rule (Radio is terrible), so I guess I'll just keep listening and praying that maybe, just maybe, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

So far there have been 2 seasons of Theme Time Radio hour, the first lasted 50 episodes and the second 25, lets hope that trend doesn't continue with the third season, supposed to begin on September 19, 2008. He has already covered such classic themes as cars, mama, Texas, trains, weather, jail, and drinking. Or in other words, the last verse of David Allan Coe's, though written by noted Cubs fan Steve Goodman, You Never Called Me By My Name.

Well I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison
And I went to pick her up in the rain
But before I could get to the station in a pickup truck
She got run'd over by a damned old train

So with 75 episodes under his belt, what themes remain for next year? War? Food? Tricked out rims? The next time I go on a road trip, I will be taking with me this radio show. The one problem is that satellite radio is not available on demand. I don't know what I'm doing on Wednesday at 9 in the morning, but I'm guessing most people are at work. Luckily, the shows are, for the moment, available on the internet.

“Some radio programs play just one type of thing. But here we’re like New England weather– if you don’t like what you’re hearing stick around, it’ll change in a minute.”

-Bob Dylan

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