image courtesy of The Telegraph
I consider Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour one of the musical highlights of the early 21st Century. Each week from May 2006 to April 2009, for an hour Dylan aired a sort of parody of an AM radio show, except that the songs weren’t the latest hits from the Hot 100 but an eclectic, carefully curated set of tunes based on particular themes, like drinking, divorce, summer, etc.
Here are the songs from Episode 14, The Devil, compliments of Wikipedia.
- “Me and the Devil Blues” – Robert Johnson (1936)
- “Satan is Real” – The Louvin Brothers (1958)
- “Friend of the Devil” – Grateful Dead (1970)
- Devil In Disguise – Elvis Presley (1963)
- The Devil Ain’t Lazy – Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (193 ?)
- Christine’s Tune (The Devil in Disguise) – The Flying Burrito Brothers (1969)
- Suzanne Beware of the Devil – Dandy Livingston (1972)
- Devil In His Heart – The Donays (1962)
- Must Have been the Devil – Otis Spann (1954)
- Devil’s Hot Rod – Johnny Tyler (1955)
- Devil Got My Woman – Skip James (1931)
- Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea – Count Basie & His Orchestra with Helen Humes (1939)
- Devil With A Blue Dress On – Shorty Long (1964)
- Devil’s Haircut – Beck (1996)
- “Race With the Devil” – Gene Vincent (1956)
- “Way Down In The Hole” – Tom Waits (1987)
- “Go Devil Go” – Sister Lille Mae Littlejohn (1948)
In between songs Dylan plays the part of an avuncular DJ, telling jokes, taking calls from fictitious listeners and actual celebrities, and most interesting to me, providing oral liner notes on the history of the musicians and songs. Suffice to say that his knowledge of popular music is encyclopedic, as indeed the wide-ranging selection of musicians and genres of Episode 14 suggests.
Dylan brings the same spirit and encyclopedic knowledge to his just published tome The Philosophy of Modern Song. The book, a compilation of observations of 66 songs, runs 339 pages and is richly illustrated with photographs, movie posters, magazine covers, vintage advertisements, postcards, and paintings. Even non-Dylan fans might enjoy flipping through and checking out the illustrations.
Dylan doesn’t really analyze the songs, but instead paraphrases them in riffs often rendered in second person. For example, here’s his take on “Money Honey,” a Jesse Stone song made famous by Elvis:
“This money thing is driving you up the wall, it’s got you dragged out and spooked, it’s a constant concern. The landlord’s at your door, and he’s ringing the bell. Lots of space between the rings, and you’re hoping he’ll go away, like there’s nobody home. You stare through the blinds, but he’s got a keen eye and sees you. The old scrooge has come for the rent money for the 10th time, and he wants it on the double, no more hanky-panky.”
This jaunty, somewhat down-home prose is reminiscent of his DJ persona’s voice (and might be the way he actually speaks for all I know).
And again, as in Theme Tme Radio, Dylan sometimes provides background by the way of bio.
After paraphrasing Eddie Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me,” Dylan provides some history:
“Eddie Arnold grew up on a farm, but he also worked in the mortuary field. He was managed by Colonel Tom Parker, who eventually dubbed him “the mortician plowboy” — not even Solomon Burke could call himself that.”
At other times, he philosophizes. Here’s the tail end of his treatment of Pete Townsend’s “My Generation”:
“Today it’s commonplace to stream a movie directly to your phone. So when you’re watching Gloria Swanson as faded movie star Norma Desmond proclaim from the palm of your hand, ‘I am big, it’s the pictures that got small,’ it contains layers of irony that writer/director Billy Wilder could never have imagined [. . .]
“Every generation gets to pick and choose what they want from the generations that came before them with the same arrogance and ego driven self-importance that previous generations had when they picked the bones of the ones before them.”
My approach is to listen to the songs via YouTube and read the lyrics, then read Dylan’s take. It’s a lot of fun, and I’m learning a helluva lot and discovering songs I’ve never heard of. Of course, you can jump around, say from Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” on page 85 to Warren Zevon’s “Dirty Life and Times” on page 191, but I prefer to go in order, one revelation at a time.