With his radio show and memoirs, the normally taciturn musician opened up and changed the way his fans thought of him, says Sean Wilentz in an excerpt from Bob Dylan in America.
To say that Dylan, by 2006, appeared to be more open and talkative with the public would be saying little, given what had long been his notorious reticence. Apart from press interviews—usually timed to coincide with the release of an album, and almost always in print, not on film—Dylan hardly ever spoke in public anymore, even through a mask, outside his lyrics and occasional liner notes. At the press conference in Park City, Utah, for the premiere of Masked and Anonymous he appeared briefly, wore a blond wig beneath a blue wool cap, and said nothing. One of the websites that tracks Dylan concert appearances and set lists even included a feature, BobTalk, that immortalized his offhand comments from the stage, on the order of “Thanks everybody! That last song was a song about trying to say goodbye to somebody. This one is about trying to say hello to somebody.” True, by the 1990s, Dylan’s interviewers noted that he was less cagey and combative than he had been 30 years earlier, and that, although certain topics about his private life were off- limits, he was friendly and even helpful in trying to convey how he had conceived his latest project, or how he went about writing songs. But these interviews were rare.
This began to change in Chronicles, where, even though the words were still printed, Dylan’s candor and gratitude came through—and they were his own words, or mostly his own. It changed even more with Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home, where selections from the total of roughly 80 hours of on-camera interviews gathered by Jeff Rosen showed Dylan telling parts of his own story, sometimes pensively, sometimes playfully, but always grasping for the right word or turn of phrase until he found it. The film begins with Dylan just talking: “I had ambitions to, ahhhhh, set out and find—like an odyssey, goin’ home somewhere, set out to find, ahh, this home that I’d left awhile back and couldn’t remember exactly where it was but I was, ahhh, on my way there. And, ahhh, encountering what I encountered on the, on the way was how I envisioned it all, I didn’t really have any ambition at all. I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be, and so I’m on my way home.” Coming so soon after Chronicles, the film showed Dylan opening up about himself as never before outside his songs, but also, as was said of his friend Ginsberg, composing on the tongue.
Even more came through on Theme Time Radio Hour with Your Host Bob Dylan, which appeared for three seasons, and in one hundred episodes, on XM satellite radio (later Sirius- XM) beginning in May 2006. Here was a new, thoroughly digitized version of an old technology, with a national reach far greater than that of the 50,000-watt stations Dylan had listened to late at night as a boy. Here was a virtual reality that was benign, indeed uplifting, the virtual community of shared tastes and desires created by any disc jockey and his listeners. The show originated from no place in particular—in fact, it was recorded and assembled for the most part in Los Angeles, edited in New York, and broadcast from the XM studio in Washington, D.C.—so Dylan, now wearing his disc jockey mask, along with the show’s producers, could make real in words their own archaic fantasies about the surroundings that the listeners could never see. Appearing on a subscriber-only satellite station, the shows also had no commercials, allowing Dylan and his accomplices additional room for invention. And in his selection of themes as well as recordings, Dylan could yet again reclaim and reassemble the American musical past, providing his own patter but also, now, letting the music speak for itself—with no complicating charges of plagiarism.
In a variation on his modern minstrel composing, Dylan had found, in radio, an imaginative medium far better suited than film for writing another song.
One of the most interesting features of the show was Dylan the DJ, or his persona as a DJ. He never denied who it was behind the microphone, dropping, here and there, little jokes or anecdotes about his life as a musician among musicians. With his choice of themes, listeners learned, among other things, that the Bob Dylan who decades earlier wrote a song about the New York Yankees pitcher Catfish Hunter remains very much a baseball fan, enough so to offer his own a cappella singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on his show entitled “Baseball.” But Dylan also took on a role, as a disc jockey from out of the past but also as instructor of music appreciation, biographer, comedian, commentator, and dispenser of recipes, household hints, and other bits of useful information.
One writer has suggestively likened the show to Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets in proclaiming the virtues of writers whose work was in danger of being misunderstood or forgotten. The comparison captures a bit of what the show conveyed, but it is incomplete and a little too highminded. Theme Time Radio Hour sounded more like another conjuring—a blend of an old-time radio show, complete with little jingles, and a hometown newspaper out of the 1940s or 1950s, with its vintage ads, home entertaining features (such as instructions on how to mix an ideal mint julep on the “Drinking” show), lists of interesting things to know (on the “Weather” show, the three American cities that are windier than the Windy City, Chicago: Dodge City, Kansas; Amarillo, Texas; and Rochester, Minnesota), freely associated True History Facts (including the information, dispensed during the show called “War,” that more than 300 soldiers under the age of 13 served in the Civil War, most as fifers or drummers, but some as combatants, including one George S. Lamkin, who joined the Mississippi Battery when he was 11 years old and was severely wounded at Shiloh before he turned 12), telephone call-ins and “letters” from listeners (the latter in the form of emails, contrived by Dylan and the producers), and plenty more besides the music.
With his co-producers, Dylan created an imaginary theater, with heavy overtones of the 1940s and 1950s. The show supposedly emanated from Studio B in something called the Abernathy Building (which in the second season became the “historic” Abernathy Building), close by to Samson’s Diner and Elmo’s Bar and Carl’s barbershop. The actress Ellen Barkin introduced most of the shows with a noirish monologue, sound effects in the background, describing snapshots of big-city private life, somewhat in the spirit of Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks: the very first of them—“It’s nighttime in the Big City. Rain is falling, fog rolls in from the waterfront. A nightshift nurse smokes the last cigarette in a pack”—was typical. One imagines that the movie theaters are featuring She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, or maybe Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr playing in Samson and Delilah. That nurse’s pack of cigarettes costs 14 cents. Everybody smokes.
From out of this past, Dylan the DJ—no latter-day Symphony Sid Torin or Alan Freed, his voice sounding as old as the hills—spun his platters (of which, of course, there were none in this digital age), playing a great deal of music that one doesn’t hear on the radio anymore—except on some college stations and the odd listener-supported radio station like WWOZ in New Orleans—telling something about the performers and, often, even listing the label on which the recording appeared, as if we could run out and buy them. And Dylan’s tastes turned out to be even more eclectic than most listeners could have imagined. There was, not surprisingly, plenty of blues and rhythm and blues, beginning with the very first record on the very first show, Muddy Waters performing “Blow, Wind, Blow”; and there was plenty of country (from the Carter Family onward), western swing, gospel, doo-wop, and rock and roll, by performers and groups both famous and long forgotten; and occasionally, Dylan played jazz (including, as the preface to his show “Moon,” Charlie Parker playing “Ornithology,” which the DJ instructor pointed out was based on the chord structure of “How High the Moon”).
But Dylan also played a great deal of Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra (the performer played most often in the first season), Patti Page, and various crooners from the 1930s through the 1950s, including Bing Crosby. He played LL Cool J and spoke knowledgeably about rap. He took time to recite repeatedly fitting lines of serious literature, from Yeats’ “Drinking Song” to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Baseball Canto.” And sometimes, instead of juxtaposing one thing and another, he threw different things into the same pot and stirred, as on the “Devil” show, when he read of Satan from Paradise Lost, while he played the Reverend Gary Davis in the background, performing “Devil’s Dream.”
By the end of the third season, close to 100 hours existed of Dylan speaking, intermittently, in a grand act of archiving and presentation, offering a vast cabinet of curios as well as masterpieces, musical and literary—and taking glances backward over the traveled roads, from all directions, that he had followed on his long journey home. In a variation on his modern minstrel composing, Dylan had found, in radio, an imaginative medium far better suited than film for writing another song—a song that also turned out to be another kind of memoir, collecting and codifying the scriptures of a lifetime.
Sean Wilentz is a history professor at Princeton University whose books include The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln and The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008. A contributing editor at The New Republic, his new book, Bob Dylan in America, will be published in September by Doubleday.