Bob Dylan: The Methuselah of Righteous Cool 

October 3, 2007

Illustration by Tanith Connolly

It is enough just to hear his laugh again—adenoidal, wracked rasp of Solomon sense and parched good times drifting over the static airwaves from California to New England and every burg in between. No idiot winds blowing here, just an old man cracking wise over the abyss that is America today. He can afford to, this man with nothing left to prove again. Jaded as Job must’ve been with seen-it-all wisdom, his own myth is a long-defiant invention of folkloric dimension as he spins the tallest of tales, and songs, over the radio today—just like he did in his apocalyptic ‘60s, his Rolling-Thunder ‘70s, his burned-out ‘80s, his rekindled ‘90s, and on into the distant hope of this new century…

I can only be writing about one man, Mr. Bob Dylan, and his rabble-rousing storyteller’s return to vintage form with his program on the Theme Time Radio Hour weekly satellite radio show. When rumors of his show, with its tagline of  “Dreams, schemes, themes,”  leaked out over the news a few years ago, I remember thinking it seemed too good to be true. Dylan as DJ? As chatty host? C’mon. Besides being exalted for his epic canon of classics and a career spanning longer than those young pup Stones (not to mention in relevance), he is a man notorious for his misanthropic silence on stage, for his curmudgeonly ways and rapier wit, and for his willful refusal to do anything, ever, that he doesn’t want to do.

Integrity and genius, that’s Dylan squared. But it doesn’t make him an easy man to follow or understand. His restlessness burns on, leaving many of us stranded in his footprints. And some of us revel in that, too.

Bob is one of the lone holdouts against the ravenous Pop Culture Combine. Consider his solo achievements—here’s a guy who has been legendarily famous since his early 20s, he has been poked, prodded, criticized, and worshipped, many times over. Yet his own tongue-in-cheek self-description of being a “song and dance man” keeps on keepin’ us guessing. If you’ve ever witnessed one of his cockeyed, inspired kamikaze speeches at an awards show like the Grammy’s, when the audience holds its collective breath wondering what he might dare say next, then you know the obvious delight Bob still takes in disturbing the peace any way he can, while at the same time managing to continually make most artists seem tame.

Would he succumb to the pop culture virus now? Aficionados wondered. In the last few years, he somehow surprised us all, time and time again. There was his artistic resurgence with Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times. Or consider his Never Ending Tour that started way back in ’88 and continues on now as he travels America’s back roads and ballparks. And his biggest surprise, his seemingly perverse decision to lease his music for a Victoria’s Secret commercial. (Though with his uncanny, prophetic sense, Dylan once joked in one of his patented, Dadaist, stoned, high-wire press conferences in 1965 that if he ever did sell his music it would only be for ladies’ undergarments. Why not? Maybe he was more serious than we knew. We couldn’t tell. Just like back then, we couldn’t tell when he said he’s as good a singer as Caruso because he could hold his breath longer. Drum roll and chuckles. Either way, it’s as if he’s been biding his time for the last 40 years, just waiting to be courted by the right lingerie company. Chutzpah? Yeah, he built his career on that.)

And yet, to hear his crusty, ruined voice shine out over a satellite frequency is even more startling than seeing his weary frame juxtaposed against the young, sexy limbs of lingerie models on television. Introduced as if in a noir setting with drizzling rain falling on city streets, and narrated by Ellen Barkin and her sultry voice, Theme Time Radio Hour ricochets off the airwaves in a shotgun blast of vaudevillian one-liners, tender recollections, historical anecdotes, and absurdist humor.

Not to mention the music he chooses each episode, which jump-cuts from ‘40s swing band strolls to ‘50s Sun Records rockabilly to ’06 singer/songwriters roots fare. Imagine some pirate, twilight zone radio station that beams down Billie Holliday, Sinatra, Buck Owens, the Clash, and Bruce, among myriad other galaxies, into our XM frequencies. His encyclopedic musical knowledge and rough, off-kilter charm was always obvious in song, but he makes it moonshine-clear here every week.

Each episode has its specific theme, whether “Baseball,” “Divorce,” “Dogs,” “Sleep,” or “Luck,” and plays out like a compressed, panoramic journey of Americana with your favorite, slightly crazed uncle as the guide. He not only spins the songs, but he whispers the secrets behind them. And like the poet he is, he recites lyrics before and after songs, somehow transforming mundane phrases into a bard’s verse. He also answers fan email on the show and gives advice as he cues up an Abbot and Costello bit, or a Nietzsche quote, or sings “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in all his cracked, nasal, raging glory. (Cooperstown Baseball’s Shrine even recently inducted the “Baseball” episode into its Hall of Fame archives.)

While answering an email on the “Friends and Neighbors” show, he defines the parameters of his playlist. The listener’s question asks, “Love the show, but why do you play so many obscure artists?” Bob spells it out, “That’s a fair question, Vernon. First of all, why should we play things you can hear anywhere else? On the other hand, the artists I play are interesting and deserve their moment in the sun—besides; I’ll bet they’re not obscure to their friends and neighbors.”

I still have yet to try the mint julep recipe he reeled off during the “Drinking” episode, but I damn sure have the ink-scrawled note I copied the ingredients on. Kentucky is 10 minutes dead south, so maybe I’ll wait for my first Derby. But here it is straight from the bartender’s mouth: “First you take four mint sprigs, two and a half ounces of bourbon—I prefer three—a tablespoon of powdered sugar, and a tablespoon of water; you put the mint leaves, sugar, and water in a Collins glass; you fill the glass with shaved or crushed ice and then add bourbon, top that off with more ice—and I like to garnish mine with a mint sprig, serve it with a straw. Two or three of those and anything sounds good.” Two to go, Bob. by Jim Marshall

Check out just a few more of his cornball, throwaway treasures interspersed through the shows: “I just came back from a pleasure trip—took my mother-in-law to the airport.” And introducing a favorite rapper, he chants, “Here’s LL Cool J. Don’t call it a comeback. He’s been here for years, rockin’ his peers, puttin’ them in fear, makin’ tears rain down like a monsoon, explosions overpowerin’ the competition. LL Cool J is towerin’.”

To call his show “eclectic” doesn’t do justice to his genre-skipping between the crackling 45s, the analog LPs, and the digital discs. But he’s been doing this from the beginning in some form or another, adapting traditional songs, eclipsing them like some musical palimpsest, wiping away and always adding, and finally mutating them into his own original vision.

Whether it’s Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, or Woody Guthrie, Dylan mines their nuggets of truth and filters them with a master’s mad alchemy. It’s true he favors the music he heard in his youth on many of the shows, meaning the 1950s generation of hard blues, raw country, and hiccupping rockabilly. In his memoir, Chronicles, he writes, “I was always fishing for something on the radio. Just like trains and bells, it was part of the soundtrack of my life.” But this fits too. After all, Bob still marks his teenage years by when he saw Buddy Holly perform in Duluth, Minnesota, 1959, three days before his early death. You just know that Bob hears the echoes of both the Texan and fate’s scythe slice through the iron-ore range of his beloved North Country.

The one thing you can’t do with Dylan, though it’s been tried in almost infinite critical analyses, is pin him down, label, or classify him. He won’t be reduced or defined by refusing to hold still long enough. But then he told us that in song as far back as the early ‘60s when he left the folk world behind. Since then, with irony piled high, that’s all we’ve been trying to do, to little avail. That’s why his radio show is such an exotic treat for fans; for one of the few times, we can actually hear Bob melting his iron stance a bit. His rusty cackle alone is worth the price of admission.

Coincidentally or not, Dylan has toured with Willie Nelson the last few years, barnstorming minor-league baseball parks across the land. Consider the two greats next to each other: both on the short list of American maverick icons, true troubadours, songwriting savants, road-hogs, ragged scarecrow-like archetypes, and yet we know Willie so much better than we know Bob—which only adds to the Minnesotan’s legend. Willie goes out of his way to please his audience, while Bob still challenges his every night, for better and worse. But somehow Bob’s impenetrability trumps Willie’s affability, mystery over nostalgia—and yet Bob may have learned some things from Willie just as he did from the Grateful Dead while mired in his 1980s’ slump. At the very least, his buddies’ examples helped get him plugged back into his ol’ freewheelin’ style again.

In a 1997 interview, Dylan said, “I don’t know who I am most of the time. It doesn’t even matter to me… I find the religiosity and the philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else… I believe the songs.” And there’s no reason to doubt his words. He’s always been playing for the highest of stakes. As Dylan reminds us on a recent radio show while speaking of another artist, “He once heard Little Walter play the harmonica and it changed his life forever—music used to do that.” What else can be said, really?

With his late-period classic trilogy just completed now with the brilliant Modern Times, the publication of his kaleidoscopic memoir, Chronicles, and last but certainly not least, his raucous and retro radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, Dylan has peaked again in a new decade, this time in his 60s. Few artists have imagined such careers or leave such a legacy—in any genre. Once again, this Jewish, sometimes-Born Again, wire-haired Huck Finn character must “reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest….” Godspeed, Bobby.

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One Response to “Bob Dylan: The Methuselah of Righteous Cool”

  1. geraniumkiss Says:

    What a lovely post.

    I too love the show. His cornball jokes are cute, but become hilarious because he, Bob fricking Dylan told them… the idea that “the voice of a generation” the legend who wrote Masters of War and Gates of Eden and Visions of Johanna tells mother in law jokes is so refreshing. It shatters the image of the larger than life deified archetype that people just about worship and show him as just a guy… and he becomes somehow even bigger. The highlight which comes so seldom is when you can hear a laugh.
    He is such an odd man. And that is why we love him.

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