The Apostrophe Blog
Photo: Farm children playing on a homemade merry-go-round. Photograph, 1937, by Russell Lee
I knew Bob Dylan was out there, DJ of a show on XM Satellite Radio that hit the airwaves in May 2006. But I didn’t sign on to his Theme Time Radio Hour1 party until eighteen months later, well into the second season. By then, I had lots of catching up to do.
“To listen to ‘Theme Time Radio Hour’ is to rediscover the sense of musical adventure that old-fashioned disc jockeys with strongly individual personalities offered in the days before big money stations pinned their fiscal hopes on the rigid Top 4—style play lists that took the fun out of radio.”
—Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal
Each week covers a particular Bob-chosen theme. In the 50 shows of Season 1 and 25 shows of Season 2, an unexpectedly garrulous Bob travels the world, goes to a party, explores the number 1, rails about death and taxes, tells us what to do with Thanksgiving leftovers, smokes, drinks coffee, and plays every song in the world about the Cadillac. (Lucky for me, XM replayed the best of Theme Time in alphabetical order by theme, A through Y—Bob hasn’t yet done a Z show—in the break between Seasons 2 and 3.) The third season began this October with back-to-back shows on the all-too-prescient theme of “Money”—maybe Bob’s an oracle, too?
As disc jockey, Bob is “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,” wrote Linton Weeks in The Washington Post.
In addition to playing some of the coolest, quirkiest tunes you’ll ever hear on the radio, Dylan makes so many references to the written word—poetry, fiction, philosophy, history, metaphysics, you name it—that the show is something of a crash course in what I’ve taken to calling “BobLit 101.” I know he’s got a stellar production crew helping him with all his Wikipedia research but, more and more, I think this rambling around in some pretty peculiar literary netherlands is all about Dylan himself.
One of my favorite books is a slim volume called Chronicles Volume One. The author? Bob Dylan. Published in 2004, I stumbled on a favorable review in a Time or Newsweek in a doctor’s waiting room pile. I checked it out of the library in early 2005. Dove in and could not put it down. Immediately bought my own copy—hardcover. Read it again in 2007, just before the release of the Todd Haynes movie, I’m Not There. Still majorly impressed. Apparently, I’m not the only one2.
The book’s style is conversational and funny and, at times, downright weird. Reading it is like seeing into the mind and soul of an enigmatic, eccentric, unclassifiable human being, one who has pretty much always thought his own thoughts and inhabited his own uncompromised mind. The book jumps around, forsaking linear time for Bob’s memories and musings from when he was first in Greenwich Village in New York City in the early 1960s with another section set in 1968, after his motorcycle accident, when he was living in Woodstock and married with a young family and then a bit later, when he worked with Daniel Lanois in New Orleans in the 1980s.
It’s in Chronicles that we learn about Bob’s first brush with an eclectic spectrum of writing and literature. A University of Minnesota dropout, Bob’s education happens fast and furious thanks to the well-stocked shelves of his Village bohemian friends, Chloe and Ray. Pericles. Thucydides. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Balzac and Gogol, Hugo and Dickens. Materia Medica. Plato, Dante, and Ovid. Walt Whitman and the Romantic Poets. Clausewitz and Freud. Machiavelli’s The Prince. And that’s just for starters.
Bob writes: “Up until this time I’d been raised in a cultural spectrum that left my mind black with soot…I usually opened up some book in the middle, read for a few pages and if I liked it went back to the beginning…I was looking for the part of my education that I never got.”
Things were also jumping musically when Bob first landed in New York. The young Dylan actually knew and played with many of that era’s country, folk, hillbilly, jazz, and blues greats. Which takes us back to why it makes total sense that the man would be not just a good but a great DJ. Why he’s a walking encyclopedia of music and, at times, it seems Shakespeare as well. As Dylan-the-DJ says: “We quote a lot of this guy, but who can blame us? He’s one of the best. The kid’s real good.”
For example, Episode 24, the show about “Time”:
“Like William Faulkner said, ‘The past is never dead, it’s not even past.’” Then Dylan goes on to recite Macbeth’s soliloquy:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
—Macbeth, V. v. 19
Of course, DJ Bob gets in the last word:
“By the way, some of you literary types are already aware that that’s where William Faulkner got the phrase The Sound and the Fury. Like I said, all of these things have roots.”
Bob Dylan as DJ—his commentary is pithy, insightful, wry, cynical, wacko, and often hilarious. Of course, numerous web sites have sprouted to document the Theme Time phenomenon. A sampling? BobLit3 offers an extensive compilation of of all Dylan’s literary influences—songs, interviews, and as DJ. Dreamtime4 specializes in show commentary and podcasts. And this one from the Bob Dylan Fan Club5 attempts “a complete inventory of not only all the songs and artists played on his shows, but every musician, poet, politician, movie, city, song, record label, recipe, and more that Bob quotes or mentions.” One other treasure trove of Theme Time lore is this April 2008 Vanity Fair must-read, “Inside Dylan’s Brain.”6
What have I personally learned from BobLit 101?
That Jerry Lee Lewis once sang in a countrified, rock ’n roll production of Shakepeare’s Othello. That support for the Spanish-American War was drummed up, in part, by “Yellow Kids” comic books telling stories of atrocities in Cuba, hence the term “yellow journalism.” That Van Morrison likes the plays of Tennessee Williams almost as much as Bob does. And that, according to H.P. Lovecraft, “Almost nobody dances sober, unless they happen to be insane.”
And, while not literary, Bob’s Mint Julep recipe just might improve the quality of just about anything you happen to be reading:
4 mint sprigs
2 ½ ounces of bourbon (Bob prefers 3.)
1 T powdered sugar
1 T water Put the mint leaves, powdered sugar, and water in a Collins glass.
Fill with shaved or crushed ice.
Top with bourbon and more ice.
Garnish with a mint sprig.
As the DJ says, “Two or three of those and anything sounds good!” Here’s the official Theme Time skinny7 from XM radio. This guy8 seems to have mp3 files of each episode available for downloading. And Wikipedia has more detail about Season One9, Season Two10, and now Season Three11.