When is Dylan at his best these days? When he pulls out his guitar once and again? Or perhaps delivers a blistering harp solo? Or when he soars to the top of his vocal register in a beautifully raw rendition of an old warhorse? Or is it on his albums, the three great artistic and commercial achievements Time Out Of Mind, “Love and Theft”, and Modern Times?
Neither. No matter how great his studio albums are, his greatest artistic achievement during the 2000s comes from a different kind of studio. A small one, by the sound of it. I recently became the proud owner of a true gem: the complete recordings of the first season of his wonderful Theme Time Radio Hour.
It is a treat on so many levels:
As art, of course: the whole thing is, I claim, a perfect demonstration of communication-as-art (as a counterpart to art-as-communication [pdf file]). The way Dylan integrates the presentation of the music with what he presents: his posing, his voice!, the way he says “Nineteen and thirty-six”, his dead serious tone, which cracks up once in a while, to display that it is just a mask, and it is left to the listener to decide whether the little giggle reveals the true face behind the mask, or if it’s just a crack in it. It’s a vocal performance just as good as any he has put up on stage (at least since 1995).
But also: it’s all highly educating, pouring over with insight and knowledge, a wealth of information about records many of which I’m sure nobody has heard in fifty years.
And man is he funny: The way he presents the “requests”. The intros to the programs: “Night-time in the Big City. The spinster finishes his jigsaw puzzle. It’s Theme Time Radio Hour with your host Bob Dylan” (I don’t know if he’s written them himself, but it doesn’t matter: it’s all part of the grand collage). And the introductions, with drawn out, dead serious excerpts from the lyrics, which, removed from their original context and taken at face value, as words, become laden with a new meaning (and it’s probably this shift, more than the words themselves, which make them funny, in the good sense). And don’t you have to love the guy who comes up with — and has the nerve to present in public — something as silly as: “Next up is the great 50s vocal group The Flamingos, or as I use to call them: The Flaming O-s.”
As a whole, it is an aesthetic manifesto, spread out over fifty lectures, an overwhelming presentation of where Dylan is, where he has come from, and why. It may be hard to listen to more than one show at the time, because all these songs from the fifties and backwards tend to sound the same after a while, and one does them a disfavour by overfeeding on them. But it is also impossible not to be struck by the quality, the sincerity, and the simplicity which harbours so much power. As he says in one of his replies to an “e-mail”, asking: “I can’t help but wonder: Why do all the records you play sound so doggone great? Especially the older ones. And why do the records today sound so complicated”
Well, Jimmy, that is a good question. I don’t have a definite answer, but if you’re gonna press me, I’d say it’s because these musicians not only knew what to play — they knew what not to play. Sometimes you can play much too much and clutter up the sound. Just because you could play a hundred notes a minute, doesn’t really mean you should play more than two or three. Quality has nothing to do with technique. It’s got to come from your soul, and not just be something you’ve learned. Here at Theme Time Radio Hour, we believe in the same thing that Colonel Sanders believed in. He told everyone that worked for him: KISS – keep it simple, stupid. Thank you, colonel.