With a couple of exceptions, I don't really listen to the radio. If I head to southern New Jersey to visit my parents, I'll briefly tune in to WPRB, the Princeton University station, to see what's up with K Records and that International Pop Whateverground. Or, when I walk past construction sites, I stop a second to hear Howard Stern's familiar (somehow comforting) whiny warble. Well, I did the latter until recently: Now that Stern's jumped to FCC-free-but-charging-me Sirius, I haven't caught that addictive mash of soap-opera dynamics and soft-core porn cartoons.
When I was more synced to radio (those Pump Up the Volume years), I listened to late-night programs, where the deep DJ had to wonder if a single listener just caught the amazing transition from Sun City Girls to Velvet Underground to bad Rollins spoken word. Bob Dylan's excellent Theme Time Radio Hour approximates that vibe, though it airs Wednesdays at 10 a.m. on XM Satellite Radio (with encore presentations here and there). I don't listen at drive time; it makes more sense to find it free online (there are a few spots) and play it back at 3 in the morning.
The Freewheelin' one seems to agree with my ritual, or something close to it. Each episode begins with a woman reciting, "It's nighttime in the big city . . . ," followed by various details—different each week—suggesting a nocturnal tableau: "a night-shift nurse smokes the last cigarette in her pack," "a truck drops off tomorrow's newspapers," etc. Dylan's catchphrase—"dreams, schemes, and themes"—also evokes those gorgeous wee hours. But hey, besides disagreeing with when it airs, there's no reason to complain about Theme Time Radio Hour, the best dose of airwaves hiss I've pirated in ages.
As the show's name suggests, each episode focuses on a theme: weather, baseball, drink, etc. So far the best installments were coffee and jail; I imagine my mom and dad would dig mother and father, respectively.
That said, Dylan thankfully doesn't take a Hallmark or saccharine approach. For instance, the wedding episode depressed my girlfriend via its focus on battles of the sexes—i.e., Laura Lee's "Wedlock Is a Padlock" and Dylan's accompanying deadpan wedding jokes: "All marriages are happy; it's living together afterwards that's rough," etc.
The music's great—a mixture of classic country, blues, soul, and rock and roll with the occasional Blur, Squeeze, Hendrix, Stones—but the real treat's Dylan himself. The wordsmith chews the scenery without raising his voice (well, he sorta warbles when he has a go at "Take Me Out to the Ball Game"). His trivia-dropping chatter's often purty and poetic (on "Mama Didn't Lie," by Jan Bradley, for example: "a mini fable sung by a honey-toned crooner"), and he makes great jump-cut connections: from "pigeons of hell," a lyrical fragment from the Pretenders' "Back on the Chain Gang," to the Birdman of Alcatraz ("we sure could use him now with the bird flu"); from William Shakespeare ("one def poet," says Dylan) to another William—Andre William's "Jail Bait." Hot stuff.
His libretto's one gorgeous collage: He recites lyrics we just heard, creating real-time echoes. We learn about how many cups of coffee Voltaire drank a day. (Suavely, on the coffee episode, he didn't play "One More Cup of Coffee [Valley Below]," from his '76 album, Desire, though he seemed to drop hints. . . .) He gets Karl Marx on us while reading a listener e-mail from Johnny Depp, and elsewhere breezes into "Gin and Juice" before giving recipes for a mint julep and whiskey drinks. Fleshing out Dylan's own intonations are also old stand-up recordings, man-on-the-street stuff, baseball play-by-play, etc.
Speaking of which, I do have one content-based complaint: Charlie Sheen shows up as often as Frank Sinatra. That, and we're forced to hear Penn Jillette offer a cloying anecdote about mama's boys (i.e., himself). Penn Jillette?
Regardless, though Dylan's radio show's only been on since the beginning of May, it already feels like a well-worn, postmidnight-scented classic. Here's hoping he keeps broadcasting after that new record drops in August.