Bob Dylan: Spinnin’ Those Cool Records

The voice seems familiar, but the venue’s different. I’m driving down the highway, and there’s a guy on the radio talking about a record he’s about to play. I’m not sure what station’s on, but that voice…the emphasis on the last syllable of each sentence. The late-middle age growl. The cynical humor, a sardonic grin in every other word.

It’s Bob Dylan, deejay.

Then I remember. The car’s got satellite radio, XM to be specific and Dylan hosts a weekly one-hour show called The Theme Time Radio Hour on several of the couple hundred channels. This week’s installment, in honor of Valentine’s Day, centers on the heart.

And it’s brilliant, half performance, half … ok, all performance. Halfway between an epic Dylan story-song and a chapter from his wonderful Chronicles book. Eclectic references – did you know that Valentines Day is named for three Christian saints?

Or the riff after a Billie Holiday’s Good Morning Heartache: “I know a lot of people who’ve kicked heroin, but I don’t know many who’ve gotten off television.”

While satellite radio has one of the all-time crazy business plans – let’s launch billions in hardware into, like, orbit man and beam, um, like radio back down to earth – it does make for some terrific niche listening – and it gives iconoclastic shows to the likes of Dylan, Tom Petty, Snoop Dogg, Quincy Jones, David Johansen, Grandmaster Flash, and Steve Van Zandt, who has actually turned his Underground Garage program into a 24-hour station.

Clearly, these guys love to play dee-jay. Johansen, the reptilian New York Dolls frontman, hosts the Mansion of Fun for six hours on Sirius. Petty checks in on Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure on XM’s Deep Tracks. Snoop’s home studio in LA is the setting for Welcome to Da Church With Big Snoop Dogg on XM.

I’ve yet to hear these, though I did spend some driving time with the Underground Garage station on Sirius during a recent road-trip. It was gas listening to records programmed by the likes of original Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham and Dictators frontman Handsome Dick Manitoba.

Those shows are filled with lots old-time reminiscence, grimy rock and roll nostalgia. Dylan’s is different. Oh, he looks back – way back musically. But he also mixes in plenty of new tracks.

And there’s a thematic beauty to his programming choices, mixing Solomon Burke with Billie Holiday, The Everly Brothers with Jenny Lewis w/ The Watson Twins. Here’s the playlist from this week’s heart-themed show:

Solomon Burke – Home In Your Heart
The 101’ers – Keys To Your Heart
Billie Holiday – Good Morning Heartache
Jerry Butler – He Will Break Your heart
The Everly Brothers – Brand New Heartache
Jenny Lewis w/ The Watson Twins – Melts With You
Billy Bunn & His Buddies – That’s When Your Heartaches Begin
Ron Sexsmith – Secret Heart
Little Richard – Directly From My Heart
Irma Thomas – Ruler Of My Heart
Van Morrison – Straight To Your Heart, Like A Cannon Ball
The Jewels – Hearts Of Stone
Erma Franklin – Piece Of My Heart
Yardbirds – Heart Full Of Soul
The Coasters – Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart

This is a restless mind at work. The prose poetry – an hour-long talking blues, really – is captivating. Paul Winchell and the invention of the artificial heart. Statistics on how many Americans suffer from heartburn. Thoughts on Elvis and the famed Sam Phillips Sun sessions.

Someday, these shows will be collected as classic works that scholars will use to explore the themes of one of our great story-tellers. For now, it’s just great radio, driving down the road on a cold February night.