Monday, 3 March 2008

Interpreting Dreams, Themes & Schemes

I've had a small involvement in the production of a compilation of songs from Bob Dylan's radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour. It's on the American satellite channel XM . It's also on BBC Radio 2 — where it is somewhat behind the times, 43 weeks last time I looked. And on BBC Radio 6 — where it is a mere 30 weeks behind. You can also download it here, at Night time in the big city.

It was the album of the week in The Sunday Times and the lead review in Mojo magazine, with five stars.

I helped with the words for the gorgeous-looking booklet. This is something I wrote about the collection for a bulletin which goes out to everyone on Ace Records mailing list.

What, I wonder, do we dream of when we dream of Bob Dylan? And, more intriguingly, what does Bob Dylan dream of when he dreams of us?

This is what I think: he dreams of a small boy called Robert who lives in a small city, an industrial centre in a rural landscape. It’s a nowhere town that was once called Alice but had its name changed when an enormous hole was dug where its new name used to be. That giant hole was — and still is — the biggest of its kind in the world, an open-cast iron mine.

It’s a place that seems to doze on the periphery but is, in fact, also surprisingly at the heart of things. When Robert was growing up, it had the most lavishly appointed high school auditorium in the whole country. He played there, in a rock and roll band.

It’s the head point for the drainages to three great seas, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. Swim up any of the great rivers of the eastern United States (Canada, too) and it’s where you’ll end up, like a salmon returning to spawn.

It’s where the Greyhound Bus company was founded and headquartered for many years. It sits between the two great spinal cords of the continent — to the west, the eternal geographical one, the Mississippi River, to the east, the old national one, Highway 61.

Here, young Robert took in all the musics that swam to him up all those rivers, that spilled out of all those long-haul buses, that drifted up the great natural wonder that the Cheyenne called Big Greasy River — and the first European to see it called the River of the Holy Ghost.

Blues and folk and country and R&B, that’s what Robert’s dreams were made of. And I think he had a dream of a radio dee-jay out there somewhere, distant enough to be mythic, close enough to be real. This dee-jay would play records for Robert and his imaginary friends. He’d link song with song, mixing and matching and combining and recombining them. It’d be a bridal outfit of a radio show: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. And the dee-jay would tell stories to go with the songs: about them, inspired by them, around them.

In dreams begin responsibilities, wrote Delmore Schwartz, poet, drunk, Lou Reed’s teacher. And so Robert eventually became his own dream, hosting Theme Time Radio Hour, week in, week out. Last time, I looked there had been 69 shows. I’ve got them all in my iTunes and so, whenever I shuffle-play, I’ll always hear Bob Dylan’s voice, reading me a Robert Frost poem or making one of those wry digs he makes every time he plays a Beatles track. It’s strange: one of the most elusive of performers now shares his thoughts with me on an almost daily basis.

Theme Time Radio Hour is the mix-tapes collection we’ve all dreamed of making. It’s both a taxonomy and a topography of 20th century popular musics. Not all of them, it’s true. There’s no Charles Trenet, say. No Abba, either. But Grandpa Jones is there. Jack Teagarden, Charles Mingus, the Donays and the White Stripes, too. The show is always as happy to let songs collide and divorce as it is following them up the aisle or encouraging them to cuddle up in bed together.

Dylan (and his collaborators, I guess) approach 20th century pop the way 18th century naturalists figured out how tomatoes are related to tobacco and where swallows go to in the winter. Making sense of things nearly always involves categorising them somehow.

As these things do, it started with life’s basics, things like Weather, Mother, Father. And it’s pretty much stuck with the everyday: School, Sleep, Food, Tears. It’s addressed life’s two great certainties, Death and Taxes — though not yet the third, Nurses. It’s travelled a bit: Tennessee, New York. It’s even found space for a little product placement: Cadillac.

Roger Armstrong (and his collaborators, I should imagine) have taken this great, ongoing taxonomic and topographic project and refined it down into an elegant precis of the original. A taxonomy of a taxonomy, a topography of a topography. I found myself thinking about something I was told only recently: that any chip of any diamond will always be a mini-version of the whole diamond, a microcosm of all its glories.

So this double CD, too, takes and shakes the everyday world, raising all kinds of new questions and notions along the way. Listen — carefully or lightly, or both — and you find new thoughts on something as old and universal as the Heart (show 41, Billie Holiday’s Good Morning Heartache) or the potential erotogenic symbolism of Musical Instruments (show 37, Dinah Washington’s Big Long Slidin’ Thing) or the bibbity-bobbity relationship between family life, heredity and alcoholic Drink (show 3, Mary Gauthier’s I Drink).

Then there’s the two versions — one black, one white — of Pistol Packin’ Mama (show 25, Guns). They got me thinking afresh about what really is one of pop’s oddest megahits. It had a 15-year run as a scene-maker, from around the time the time the world went to war to the time Elvis went into the army. Maybe there’s another song recorded by both Bing Crosby (plus Andrews Sisters) and Gene Vincent (plus Blue Caps). I never heard it.

If it weren’t for the jauntiness and accordion of Al Dexter’s original, I’d have realised long ago that it’s a pop musical parallel to the same period’s film noir, with the same anxieties about women’s new place in a new world (and the bedroom). Personally, I see Joan Crawford in the lead, reprising her role in Mildred Pierce, only with a blam-blam-blam in every hand, as Dylan put it in John Wesley Harding.

A fast dance tune about sex and violence, drink, guns and girls that ends with the singer’s murder. If you can’t find your own dreams, schemes and themes in there somewhere, I doubt you’re human.