Bob Dylan 70th Birthday Season, BBC

Many happy returns Bob, love Auntie

Chris Maume
Sunday 22 May 2011 00:00

Dylan non-nuts might baulk at the number of programmes marking the 70th birthday of His Bobness. Like candles on a cake, it seems there's one for every year of his life.

But I recall Paul McCartney's response to the idea that the White Album would have been better as a single rather than a double LP – "It's the bloody Beatles!". The BBC has clearly concluded, it's bloody Bob Dylan!

Archive on 4: Bob Dylan And Me (Radio 4, Saturday) was terrific, with musicians such as Billy Bragg and Cerys Matthews and critics such as Greil Marcus, Paul Morley and Christopher Ricks each coming at Dylan from a different angle. Ricks was especially good on his religious songs – "lacerating, full of a vivid apprehension of damnation and salvation" – while Matthews picked up her guitar and took us through some early influences, playing – beautifully – the songs that "inspired" the likes of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall".

Morley was excellent, too, on Dylan's interviews, and how, early on, you could see him constructing "Bob Dylan". I liked the exchange in which a reporter asked him whether fame had intruded on his private life. "My private life has been dangerous from the beginning," he replied. "All this just adds atmosphere."

A set of Bob-related Radio 4 playlets, Ballads of Thin Men, contained some nice fictional conceits, the neatest being Tuesday's Dig Yourself, set in the Savoy in 1965 on the day Dylan filmed his famous flashcard sequence on "Subterranean Homesick Blues" for Don't Look Back in an alley by the hotel. A society belle giving a talk on Churchill in the Iolanthe Room gets her flashcards mixed up with his, with life-changing results ....

Narrower in focus than Archive on 4 but just as revealing was Nashville Cats: The Making of Blonde on Blonde (Radio 2, Monday), when Dylan decamped to Tennessee to utilise the world's finest session musicians. They relished the musical freedom he gave them. "We were in hog heaven," the revered pianist Pig Robbins said.

But Dylan's cussedness and shyness combined to ensure that he hardly spoke to the esteemed sessioneers. At one point he turned to his right-hand man, Al Kooper, and muttered: "Tell the piano player not to play in the intro." Kooper said, "Sure, but why don't you tell him yourself? He'd like to hear it from you." Dylan grimaced. "I can't call that guy 'Pig'."

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