Dylan At His Very Best

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

He answers:

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.

7 thoughts on “Dylan At His Very Best

  1. Indeed, the shows (I’ve only heard about six and excerpts from a few more, but I know exactly what you’re talking about) present a delicate, but surprisingly rough-hewn on-and-off between the two worlds of facts/figures/selected biographies and pun-oriented humor which is, because of its nearly oversimplified context, hilarious and enticing. And though all the songs represent a special portion of each hour, every once in a while you’ll hear a certain catchy significance in a single one of them (Ruth Brown’s “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” for example). I can’t say enough how originally effective the broadcast is in its minimalist showmanship and its apparent adaptation of quaint loveliness to an almost postmodern background.

  2. There was a site online with all the radio show files, but it went offline about a year ago. Anyone know if there’s another about? I can’t find it anyway. Cheers

  3. Belgian band Chris C & Swingin’ Danglers cover 9 Dylan songs on their new release THE FARMHOUSE TAPES.
    all recorded live in one room
    sounds good
    just thought I’d share

  4. Yes, I agree these shows are a real joy and Dylan seems to be in his element in this format. I think I made reference to them in an earlier post last year. Season 3 has just started and can be downloaded from: http://www.hungercity.org/ thanks to the generosity of tbuick and charlespoet who have kept steady on what has turned into a marathon.
    Thanks, as always, to Eyolf for this great site.

  5. hey eyolf, i just heard a crazy new version of “tangled up in blue” and instantly wondered if you’d heard it. the one i’m listening to is from 10/24/08, vancouver, i’m not sure how long he’s been playing it. it’s based on an acoustic guitar riff, and kinda reminds me of the blowin’ in the wind arrangement he’s been playing this year. there are some lyrical changes as well. i can get you a copy if you’d like.

    i agree theme time radio is great, but i’m still quite enamored with the neverending tour.

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