Deborah Orr: A freewheelin' Bob Dylan is let loose on the radio - what a brilliant idea

Click to follow
The Independent Online

'It's night time in the big city. A woman in a red gown throws out her cellphone. A man sleeps with a gun under his pillow. It's Theme Time Radio Hour ... with your host Bob Dylan." Bob Dylan's radio show always starts with the voice of a deadpan woman describing some variation on a film noir theme, and intoning solemnly that the great man is coming on the air.

Nonetheless, it feels like a novelty every time when the laconic midwestern Dylan twang starts up with that deliberate and intimate chat. Highly stylised, deeply serious and fabulously playful, Dylan's subscriber radio show has been a stateside triumph since it began broadcasting last May.

Bootlegged recordings of the programme have been winging their way round the world ever since, in a brisk act of cultural dissemination that must drive the show's producers nuts. Tonight, and for the next week, listeners in Britain can actually tune in, courtesy of Radio 2. After this seven-day splurge, the show will go out weekly on 6 Music.

As the title suggests, each programme is arranged around a particular topic - be it fathers, food, cars, whisky or whatever. All the music is loosely connected to the theme, and part of the fun is trying to predict what might come up, and in whose version. My favourite among the ones I've heard has been Coffee, partly because it casts its arc of musical enthusiasm a little wider than is usual, and reaches out as far as the 1980s with "Black Coffee in Bed" from Squeeze and almost to this very millennium with Blur's 1999 hit "Coffee + TV". And no, Dylan doesn't play "One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)". Playing your own stuff would be too uncool.

Not that the tendency to select tunes from the early to middle part of the last century is a problem. As Mike from Saratoga put it to Bob in an e-mail: "I notice that you play a lot of old songs. What do you have against new songs?" And as Bob put it to Mike, and the rest of his listeners in return: "We have nothing against new songs. There are just a lot more old songs than new songs."

The explanation isn't disingenuous. One of the great joys of the musical selections is that one hardly ever feels that something important has been left out. Usually, the first song is so iconic and such a perfect distillation of that week's theme that there's simply no argument. Coffee began with "Java Jive" from the Ink Spots, Divorce with "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" from Tammy Wynette, Summer with "Summertime" from Billy Stewart, and so on. Quite often, Dylan will play two versions of the same song. There's quite a contrast between T Bone Burnett's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and Marilyn Monroe's.

Dylan has an endearing habit, after a song has ended, of very slowly reciting his favourite few lines from it. He might also throw in some arcane and apposite literary fact, or play some dialogue from a movie or advertisement that fits his theme and takes his fancy as well. He also, of course, seizes the opportunity to discuss a great deal of musical history, sometimes in fascinating detail.

It's in this respect that the show is most valuable to serious Bob students. Naturally the selections are a track-by-track account of Dylan's own musical influences and tastes. On one show, Dylan offers (with some incredulity): "I was looking through my records the other night, and I have more than 70 records by George Jones."

Prior to this comprehensive stroll through Bob's oeuvre, the closest one came to similar insight was by listening to The Basement Tapes, recorded in 1967 by Dylan and The Band on a home tape-recorder and officially released, remastered, in 1975. The US music critic Greil Marcus wrote in the liner notes that the album sounds "like a testing and a discovery of memory and roots. The Basement Tapes are a kaleidoscope like nothing I know, complete and no more dated than the weather, but they seem to leap out of a kaleidoscope of American music no less immediate for its venerability". These playlists are the same.

'Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour', Radio 2, 7pm

Chase away the cold - Bob Dylan's summer playlist

'Summertime' Billy Stewart
'Summertime Blues' Eddie Cochran
'Heat Wave' Martha and the Vandellas
'Heat Wave' Sol K Bright and his Hollywaiians
'Sunny' Bobby Hebb
'Juneteenth Jamboree' Fatso Bentley
'So Nice (Summer Samba)' Astrud Gilberto & Walter Wanderley
'Youth of a Thousand Summers' Van Morrison
'It Ain't Hot Weather That Makes Me Stick to You' Mr Sad Head
'Summer in the City' Lovin' Spoonful
'Too Hot' Prince Buster
'In the Summertime' Mungo Jerry
'Ice Cream Man' John Brim
'Fourth of July' Dave Alvin
'Hot Fun in the Summertime' Sly and the Family Stone

Weight loss in an instant - but attitudes take longer to change

A review of emerging technologies by Professor Donald Combs of Eastern Virginia Medical School predicts that an airport-style X-ray scanner will soon be able to fry away excess fat. Go through once and you'll lose 5lb in three days, then repeat each fortnight until you reach your target weight. Lovely.

I wonder if this miracle will have the same little-publicised side-effect as liposuction. It's people who can't control their calorific intake who get their fat vacuumed out through an incision. The trouble is that with the fat cells in their problem areas removed, they keep on eating and drinking. The blubber has to go on somewhere, so it tends to colonise areas the where fat cells haven't been destroyed. Weird blobby lumps appear behind knees or on backs. David Cronenberg, or what? That's the trouble with Hoovering. You tidy things up, then two hours later it all needs doing again. Still, it burns off some energy, I guess.

* Wonderful news for Harry Potter fans, with the news that J K Rowling has finally finished writing the title for the final book: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Less fantastic news for long-suffering parents, some of whom have been reading the ever-lengthening tomes out to their various offspring for a decade already, and rather hoped that happy family life may have distracted Ms Rowling from her epic task for good. I'm on my sixth Harry Potter (not for the first time by any means) and my fourth child. Frankly, the fact that there is as yet no publication date for the seventh book is music to my ears. Please, please, please don't finish until all of my children start to enjoy reading for themselves.

* The NHS has performed eight abortions or more on 44 women, and 14 women had had their sixth abortion before the age of 25. This sad state of affairs, claims the anti-abortion charity Life, is a failure of liberal sex education strategy. Perhaps it is, although overall teenage conception rates are at their lowest now for 20 years. I can't help remembering a colleague I had when I worked in a laundry 25 years ago - a17-year-old girl who was what was then called "educationally subnormal", and would now be considered as having "special needs". Her special need was to be treated with extra consideration and kindness. But instead she toiled away folding sheets all day, heavily pregnant with a third child from a third man whose name she didn't know, while her mother looked after the babies. That was in the good old days.