Frank Zappa – “Electronic Projections” (1977)

December 5, 2009 at 6:42 pm (Frank Zappa, Music, Reviews & Articles)

This excerpt (written by Frank Zappa) is taken from a larger story by Arnold Jay Smith and Bob Henschen in Down Beat magazine, Jan. 13, 1977…


I like electronic music, I think it will be around for a long time. I think that the instruments are going to have to be designed so that they’re easier to operate in live performance situations.

On Zoot Allures, most of the electronic events that are taking place are things that were done with studio electronics. There are some synthesizer things that I played on the album, but they’re real simple-minded.

Electronics, for instance the string synthesizer, is the best thing that could happen to pop music because when you consider the attitude of normal string players, even jazz string players, it’s so disgusting doing business with them that it’s great that somebody has finally invented a box (the string synthesizer) that will help you do away with them and their aura. If you can get a better sound by using real musicians I would prefer to do it. But unfortunately the attitude of those kind of musicians toward the work that they do is so moribund, it just adds a cloud…. People are more worried about their pensions than the notes that they’re playing, and I hate to do business with them. Working with many so-called “studio musicians,” all they care about is their pensions, going to their union meetings, and maintaining their position in a musical community that has nothing to do with music, but more to do with, you know, really horrible middle-class, middle-of-the-road lifestyle. It’s depressing for me, in most instances, to deal with them, because they do not have my musical interests at heart, and I doubt if they have anybody’s musical
interests at heart when they come in to do those sessions. All you gotta do is stand in the hallway during one of their little union breaks and listen to their conversation, then you know where it’s at. And it’s the same thing in symphony orchestras. So thank God somebody put together a box that’ll sound like a string section, because in a hockey rink who can tell the difference?

As for where music will be in ten or fifteen years, all the jazz musicians will forget how to improvise and really get good at playing disco music. Each one of them will have three cars and a house in the country.

Frank Zappa

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David Fricke – “King Crimson: Old Cult Groups Never Die (They Just Become More Popular)” (1982)

December 5, 2009 at 3:57 pm (David Fricke, Music, Reviews & Articles)

An interview with King Crimson, by David Fricke, from the March 1982 issue of Trouser Press magazine…


Where’s Fripp? Where the hell is Fripp?” Five minutes into King Crimson’s opening-night late show at New York’s Savoy, a bug-eyed post-hippie rock ‘n’ roll yahoo (distinguishing marks: tousled, black shoulder-length curls, graying Genesis T-shirt, blue jeans that could probably walk by themselves) bursts through the club’s door, races through the foyer without giving the bar a second’s thought, and stops on a dime at the back of the hall. A few inches shy of six feet tall, he cranes his neck every which way to see the stage beyond the heads and shoulders of several hundred other Crimson freaks who got there before him.

“Where’s Fripp?” he howls, unable to spot the guest of honor. His friend, standing next to him and a good head and a half taller, explains calmly that Robert Fripp is playing his guitar seated on a stool at stage right, just below his sight line. “Holy shit! He’s sitting down,” the yahoo repeats (obviously unaware that Fripp has never performed in any other position); awe and worship resonate in his cracking voice just as it does in the hoots and hollers of “Crimson!,” “Bruford!” and “Fuckin’ A-a-y!” echoing throughout the packed house. To the progressive/art-rock cultists, battered by the scornful winds of punk, those who witnessed the hard-fought artistic victories won by Crimson, Genesis et al. in the early and mid-’70s, since co-opted by pop hacks like REO Speedwagon and Styx, King Crimson lives again. Long live the King.

But the return of King Crimson is not just a celebratory experience. As with all things Crimson and Fripp, there are lessons to be learned, preconceptions to reconsider. The odds are that the majority of fans at the Savoy are of the original (pre-punk) Trouser Press variety: passionate Anglophiles who wear their Crimson gear: buttons, vintage T-shirts, even one denim jacket handsomely painted with the grinning red sun from the inside cover of In the Court of the Crimson King like badges of honor. They pay loud, genuine respect to the physical expertise and imagination of drummer Bill Bruford, whose previous exploits with Yes and the old Crimson already comprise a sizable chapter of art-rock history. They probably know bassist Tony Levin from his work with Peter Gabriel and on Fripp’s own Exposure. They may even be passably conversant with founder Fripp’s forays into ambient music and art-punk via Discotronics and the short-lived League of Gentlemen.

All, however, share the conviction that that this is no idle cash-in reunion.These paying customers always admired King Crimson not only for what it played but what it stood for. Thus guitarist Adrian Belew (whose credentials with Frank Zappa, David Bowie and the expanded Talking Heads probably don’t carry much weight with this crowd) gets the same enthusiastic reception for a string-bending wipeout as Fripp does for a stirring psycho-solo. The audience hears the same commitment in material from the recent Discipline album and new, as-yet un-recorded pieces that they recognize in live reprises of “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues Aspic, Part Two.”

For all the stick they get from a sniggering; press which considers them diehard nostalgic sheep, this audience is built on trust. They are willing to trust what they may not entirely understand either in Fripp’s music or his copious philosophies that accompany it. And they trust King Crimson because has never let them down.

The day after the Savoy show, Bill Bruford, 32, tries to explain that trust. “What I’ve noticed from the audience is that they’re perfectly happy to accept us and our music,” he says in that cheery British manner which contrasts so starkly with Fripp’s dry academic wit. “Obviously we brought back those old fans by using name King Crimson. [The band was originally dubbed Discipline, hence the LP title.] And it will take time, I think, for the ideas to work through. But I don’t think the old fans I met were disappointed. They seemed to like it.

“What they are responding to is an effort by us; they know this is not a reunion as such. Those are the two main points of this tour that it is a real effort and not a cheap reunion. And that is a good place to start.”

Fripp, as usual, has a few words on the subject. “There is a new possibility for a positive relationship between performer and artist that hasn’t been for about 12 years. We’re finding a lot of people that don’t bear the scars of the excesses of the ’70s, that are young enough [or just willing enough?] to start over. Our very best reactions are coming from those people who have no idea who King Crimson was or is.”

The ones who do have an idea aren’t just responding automatically. “I thought when we played the States,” Bruford continues, “there would be a lot of shouting for ‘Schizoid Man’ and all that. There hasn’t been. I’ve heard a lot of cries of ‘Bruford’ and ‘Frippertronics’ – you know that crude animal instinct an audience has but nothing like a ‘Schizoid Man.’ I’m pleased about that. I think people are underestimating our audience. They are not sheep.

They do possess remarkable intuitive abilities. In the Times Square subway station after the Savoy show, a group of hard-core Crimson fans dissect the set; as their train pulls up they agree it was an unqualified success. “You know,” one of them announces as he steps into the subway, “Fripp is back where he belongs.”

Fripp could not agree with him more.

Robert has said repeatedly this is his dream band,” says Adrian Belew, lead-off batter in a full day of Crimson conversations at Island Records’ New York office. “He’s been dreaming about it for four or five years.”

Belew has been dreaming about it for a lot longer than that. An affable America with an Eno-esque hairline and chipper chipmunk face, Belew is a King Crimson freak of long standing. “To suddenly be part of it,” he raves, “was like joining the Beatles or something.”

His recruitment into the band was sudden enough. He and Fripp met at a Steve Reich concert in New York, where Belew was cutting Lodger tracks with David Bowie. They hit it off, and Belew’s Ga-Ga band opened five New York shows for the League of Gentlemen. Then when Belew passed through London with Talking Heads early last year, Fripp popped the question. Bruford says he and Fripp had been together as a “band” for two days when Belew entered the picture.

Fripp claims Belew had reservations about joining the band. Belew describes the situation as simply a crisis of confidence. “When I came into this band, I was insecure for the first time in my 21 years of playing music. I thought everything I was doing was a load of crap. I couldn’t write songs and I began to feel maybe I wasn’t a singer. I honestly felt It didn’t have an artistic contribution to make, and I knew this was going to be a heavy responsibility to be singer, Lyricist, and share guitar responsibilities with Robert.”

Fripp and Bruford’s encouragement only complicated matters since Belew held both in considerable awe. The turning point came during rehearsals, by which time the group included Tony Levin, who sacrificed lucrative session work to join. Belew had been rehearsing with a Roland guitar like Fripp’s, trying to adapt his style of playing a rubbery, feedback-heavy sound compared to Fripp’s liquid distortion and staccato peal-outs to an unfamiliar instrument; he was grappling with lyric writing as well. By the third week Belew was a nervous wreck.

“Then I realized, ‘Hey, I’m not playing my guitar. I’m just basically sounding like Robert. Where’s my voice in this?’ So I picked up my Stratocaster, restrung it, and everything changed.

“The next move was vocally. When I started making my sounds and doing my thing, everybody kept saying, ‘Yeah, Adrian, you’re finally into the band.’ I only came into my own in the fourth week, just before the live concerts started.”

It comes as no surprise that Belew, a loose, friendly guy, welcomed the name change from Discipline to King Crimson. He draws a parallel between Fripp and previous employer Frank Zappa, both disciplinarians of slightly different mettle.

“Frank spells everything out for you; Robert is only giving a shape and an outline, and everyone is free to make their own parts. But the kind of approach you have to use to perform the material is the same. “Compare, for example, the tracks “Discipline” and “Indiscipline” on the new album. The former started out as a very Frippian guitar figure in 15/8 overlaying a kinetic 17/8 Bruford time signature. All Belew did was map out his part with Robert and get it down pat.

” ‘Indiscipline’ started out as a vehicle for some pretty erratic drumming. Originally it was almost a throwaway, a drum solo with a riff hung on it. Eventually I came up with a little melody, Robert came up with a line for himself, and at that point we thought no, it’s still not enough.

“I knew what it needed was a vocal, but I couldn’t think of anything to sing. So I thought of doing these talk sections throughout the song. We did that the very last day of recording. I took a letter my wife had written me about a painting she had done. I just took all these lines out of context without specifically naming what the subject was, then added a few lines of my own. It’s a very undisciplined song.” (Belew has psyched out Crimson freaks who may have already memorized those lines by adding to and subtracting from them during performance.)

Another example of Belew’s spontaneity is his impassioned relating on “Thela Hun Ginjeet” (an anagram for “Heat in the Jungle,” the song’s working title) of two close encounters first with an angry mob of blacks, then a couple of oppressive bobbies outside the London studio where the band was recording.He ran in immediately after, “so shook up and excited,” and told his story to everyone in the studio. “Then Robert sneakily turns on the tape recorder and asks me to repeat the story for several other people. And that’s what you hear on the record.”

Asked if he subscribes to any of Fripp’s Gurdjieffian small-mobile-intelligent philosophies, Belew (whose own solo album has just come out on Island) admits that heavy statement is not his style. “I like to leave things open, make a little fun out of it. I didn’t know if that would be accepted here. Fun didn’t seem like the right thing for King Crimson.”

The Warner Bros. party line is that Robert Fripp is not doing any formal interviews this tour. The 35-year-old guitarist had already undergone shock interview therapy a few weeks prior to Discipline’s release. In addition, his recent tell-all diary in Musician Player and Listener leaves little to the imagination, explaining everything you wanted to know about the new Crimson but may have been afraid to ask. As for old Crimson stories, refer to the three-part Frippiad published in early issues of Trouser Press.

Fripp does consent, however, to a brief chat to clear up a few previously unexplained points like the real nature of the experience” (as he put it in Musician) by which he came to recognize Discipline as King Crimson. “I can expect it if people want to be cynical and say Fripp’s a charlatan. But will; we began rehearsing just as a three-piece [before Levin joined I was simply aware of this quality of energy which was the iconic aspect of King Crimson available to this band if we wished to plug into it.

“It’s a subtle experience but it’s entirely real all the same. I don’t feel I have to apologize or explain what the band is. For me, it’s entirely real. My sense is that this band is King Crimson. To me, it’s painfully obvious, and anyone who comes along to see it knows. You can’t form King Crimson; you can’t reform King Crimson; you can’t form a band and call it King Crimson. For that band, it is not possible. This is a special band because it’s so ordinary.”

“Ordinary” is not the word most people would use to describe original lyricist Peter Sinfield’s dazzling but ultimately hammy imagery and the rich, high-decibel classicism of In the Court of the Crimson King, In the Wake of Poseidon, and Lizard; the moody baroque drift of the hauntingly beautiful Islands; the primal shriek and heavy-metallic improvisations of the great Fripp/Bruford/David Cross/John Wetton quartet on Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black and live U.S.A.; or Red‘s last evocative gasp. No, Crimson is no ordinary word. But as one of the original art-rockers couldn’t King Crimson be held partially responsible for the subsequent excesses of rock in general (and art-rock in particular) Fripp has railed against in recent years?

His reply is a flat-out no. “The movement of which Crimson was a founding member some will say the founding member! went off course. Crimson was partly to blame because we continued to be a part of it, but when the time came to stop we were the only band to stop. That proves one point about the band’s credentials.”

And what does Fripp consider the essential difference between the new and old Crimsons or between this band and the short-term projects (League of Gentlemen, for example) of his recently-completed Drive to 1981?

“This,” he declares, “is the very first band I’ve formed where I’ve said I wish to determine the parameters of the band’s action. Not to be a dictator, but more like a guy saying, ‘This is the sports field; now go and play sports and I’ll play sports with you.’ It’s initiating a situation so you can concentrate energy.

“There have been reservations. Adrian’s reservations about getting involved with this band is an entirely accurate observation. I had reservations about getting involved with this band. It’s not a band to take lightly. It’s a commitment.”

At this point Bill Bruford enters the room, ready to join the fray. Fripp and Bruford have had highly publicized differences in the past, and Fripp’s diary mentions friction early on in Discipline. What were Bruford’s reservations?

Fripp suddenly jumps up out of his chair. “It is time I must leave,” he announces. “Robert, there’s no need to leave,” Bruford insists, assuming the question has caused some discomfort. “No,” Fripp says, flashing one of his enigmatic smiles, “it is not that I want to leave, but that I must. I think I’ll go out for some chocolate cake.” And that was that.

I was the jilted lover before, the lover of King Crimson,” Bruford continues; his boyish, animated face reveals his enthusiasm for the subject. Bruford joined King Crimson in late 1972, leaving a lucrative association with Yes to follow Fripp’s errant path. “There are a number of groups, a fewish number,” he said at the time, “but a number of groups that are on the precipice in a way, beyond which there is a blackness, a kind of void, and they’re Peering into it hoping that it may go this way, but knowing that it may not go this way at all, it may be completely wrong. I feel that King Crimson is now one of those groups.”

Crimson spent the next two years peering into that void; when Fripp ordered a retreat in 1974, Bruford was crushed. “I was just getting emotionally involved, although intellectually I know I shouldn’t have and when Robert broke up the band, I was the jilted lover. I wanted to keep it together. When Robert asked me to do this, my only suspicion was that I didn’t want to be jilted again.”

Having led his own band for the last three years, Bruford actually welcomes the opportunity to butt heads with Fripp. (“I probably give as good as I get,” he admits.) During Discipline’s first days, though, Bruford says he and the other band members dealt gingerly with Fripp, fearing the wrong word or note might cause him to abandon the project.

“He was returning to the battlefield and I don’t think anyone wanted to scare him off. Some people still ask me why the first group stopped and I still don’t know. I’ve got my suspicions, but I’m no great psychoanalyst.” For all their little spats, Bruford and Fripp go together like yin and yang. To use his sports-field metaphor, Fripp describes a cricket pitch but Bruford throws it. Or, as Bruford explains it:

“lt starts out as a stream of negatives first off, which cracks many a lesser man. ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that, and I suggest you don’t do this. By the way, I also recommend you don’t do that.’ You’re in a prison and you’ve got to find your way out of things. I quite like that. I must be a masochist or something, but I don’t feel right unless I’m imprisoned and told to find a way around it. That’s the challenge.” In other words, discipline (according to the inscription on the back album cover) “is never an end itself, only a means to an end.”

What concerns Bruford among all this towering babble about first-division bands, crises of confidence, the quality of Crimson energy, etc., etc. is that King Crimson make music first, talk second. For someone with the gift of gab, Fripp can be a man of few words. Bruford originally joined Crimson when Fripp came to his house for dinner one night, carting his guitar and amplifier along with him. After dinner Fripp suggested they play together for a bit. That was the audition.

Ditto the new band. Fripp stopped by Bruford’s house “and did the usual thing: asked me, ‘What would you do if I did this?’ I’d say I’d do something and he’d say ” ‘Wrong, try something else.’

“We didn’t talk about it all that much, although you wouldn’t know it from all this talk. When musicians get together they to play their instruments more than they tend to play their instruments more than they talk.

“You see, I enjoy playing,” Bruford continues. “It’s FUN. I just hope we look at the cheerful, optimistic side of this and don’t take ourselves too seriously just play some music and don’t get too carried away with discussion. I don’t want people to feel they need a Ph.D. in behavioral sciences to understand King Crimson. It’s not like that.”

Bruford smiles, almost bashfully. “It’s just a pop group with some good ideas. The more we remember that, the more everyone will enjoy it.” Talking Heads probably don ‘t carry much weight with this crowd) gets the same enthusiastic reception for a string-bending wipeout as Fripp does for a stirring psycho-solo. The audience hears the same commitment in material from the recent Discipline album and new, as-yet un-recorded.

David Fricke

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President Obama’s Weekly Address (Dec. 5, 2009)

December 5, 2009 at 2:56 pm (Life & Politics)

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Neil Young – “Archives Vol. I (1963 – 1972)” (2009)

December 5, 2009 at 1:38 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

Taken from TONEAudio magazine comes this article/review of NY’s massive Archives box set by Ben Gendron (not sure of exact date on this)…


Neil Young’s Archives Vol. I 10-disc multimedia box set is the stuff of dreams. Specifically made for the Blu-ray disc format (the compilation is also available on 10-disc DVD and 8-CD sets, respectively), it is the most groundbreaking music release in decades-an immersive intersection of sound, vision, and interactivity that will change how bands present their history and how fans experience art.

For years nothing more than a rumor that became legendary for the myriad delays caused by the absence of a suitable technology, the set reaffirms Young’s brilliance, ambition, and imagination. Not there was ever any doubt. That the Canadian native possessed the foresight to commence this project in earnest nearly four decades ago, and then execute it with such intelligent design and loving enthusiasm, staggers the senses. And that’s exactly what Archives Vol. I does from beginning to end.

The first of four planned chronological sets intended to document nearly every aspect of Young’s peerless career, Archives Vol. I spans 1963-1972 and includes 128 songs (48 of which are previously unreleased), more than four dozen bonus tracks, the debut non-theatrical release of the 1973 film Journey Through the Past, and, most strikingly, mind-blowing 24-bit/192kHz stereo PCM sound remastered from the original master tapes. A giant box with a “secret stash” compartment, 236-page hardbound book, foldout poster, and custom keeper for the sleeved discs complete the impressive physical package. The ingenious manner in which the material is presented onscreen (and, by extension, on your stereo) is even better.

Almost everything is organized in a virtual file cabinet in which every song has its own folder. Click on the song title and a folder opens up, revealing every detail pertaining to the tune (musician credits, recording date, record label and catalog number (if applicable), and cover art) as well as a set of subfolders. While the latter vary according to the song, they hold a wealth of memorabilia, documents, and photos. Certain tracks also come with audio and/or video logs-bonus media that comprise live footage, radio interviews, concert banter, promotional spots, and television appearances.

If all that wasn’t enough, each disc includes a timeline, a thoroughly engrossing pursuit that encourages user navigation and includes thumbtacks that, when clicked, open extra archival aural and video material. The timeline is also where all future BD Live downloads will appear. Only available on Blu-ray, Young intends on making additional content available for free as it is discovered and restored, meaning that Archives Vol. I could grow infinitely in scope. This potential is alone worth the investment in the advanced technology, and it seems Young is sincere in making good on the promise. Written Young biographies that speak to what happened in his life during the time period on each particular disc and assortment of other menu options, including an audio/video setup helper that ensures that televisions are properly displaying the 1920 1080 content, round out the menu choices.

In terms of exploring new avenues for presenting content, it seems nothing has been forgotten. Not even footage of Young perusing his own archives alongside photographer Joel Bernstein and producer L.A. Johnson. As he sifts through a seemingly endless stacks and spreads of photos, papers, and paraphernalia, Young’s blunt comments and astute reflections serve as some of the most revealing matter in the box. Cleverly, the moments are all “hidden” as Easter Eggs amidst the menus. Other Easter Egg content is scattered amidst the song files, be it an unreleased take of “I Believe in You” with Young jingling sleigh bells or a jaunty alternative version of “When You Dance, I Can Really Love” that comes across as more raw (and country) than the original.

And it’s the pairing of Young’s incomparable music with corresponding historical records-original lyric manuscripts, never-before-seen photos, radio ad sheets, rare 45rpm single artwork, setlists, tape boxes, hand-drawn sketches, newspaper articles, concert and album reviews, advertisements, show programs-that makes Archives Vol. I a journey that’s like nothing else. The opportunity to explore, browse, and watch Young’s amazing evolution-on this volume, we see him from his time with the clean-cut high-school band the Squires to his tenure in Buffalo Springfield before his subsequent stretch as an idiosyncratic solo artist, Crazy Horse associate, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young member-offers unparalleled insight and unlimited depth.

There are too many highlights to mention, too many surprises to list. Just as it should be: One of Archives‘ biggest achievements is the way it invites the user to peruse, loiter, and sample at their own leisure. Yes, this major creative excavation is meant to be savored, but it’s difficult not to want to devour everything. Young and Johnson even provided a listening-only option where tracks play straight through as they would on a CD while a period home-playback mechanism (i.e., reel-to-reel tape deck or old phonograph) “plays” the tune and doubles as a screen saver. Witty.

Yet Archives Vol. I is as much a visual as a sonic undertaking. Despite the early periods covered, illuminating video footage abounds. One of the set’s priceless entries shows Young strolling into a Hollywood record store, finding a CSNY bootleg LP, confronting the clerk, and literally taking the album out of the shop. Viewers are also treated to watching CSNY perform “Down By the River” on ABC’s The Music Scene in 1969; Young strolling unannounced into a Greenwich Village coffeehouse to play a few songs; CSNY singing “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” onstage in June 1970, with Stephen Stills plucking a double bass; Young working with the London Symphony Orchestra on “A Man Needs a Maid”; Harvest recording sessions inside the vocalist’s Broken Arrow Ranch barn, complete with musicians perched on hay bales; Young observing the printing of his album covers at a record-pressing plant; and more.

Using the various “support” elements (radio interviews, timeline, etc.) as reference points, Young’s music assumes greater relevance and gains in stature. Ideas behind songs and arrangements, as well as reasons and regrets, unfold with narrative clarity and frank humor. Archives Vol. I removes much of the opaque divide between Young and his audience, allowing for unmatched transparency and enhanced perspective. The inspiration behind “Old Man,” decisions behind the flawed remixing of Young’s solo debut, motives for the singer’s move to Topanga Canyon (and later, Broken Arrow Ranch), initial ideas for what became Harvest, and feelings on subjects ranging from everything to Buffalo Springfield’s breakup to songwriting to his own image are all divulged.

“It’s interesting how I contradict myself over time,” Young observes at one point, the statement indicative of the set’s enormous span and informative nature. From the start, it’s clear that Archives was as revealing to Young as it is for the fan. And it’s the singer’s hands-on involvement, whip-smart commentary, and willingness to share so many riches and memories that remove ego from the equation. What could’ve been a monumental celebration of self is instead a fascinating portrait of a pioneering artist that’s forever evaded labels, rules, and convention. Even at 10 discs, Archives Vol. I leaves you wanting more-a testament to both Young’s superior body of work (in addition to the entirety of Live at the Fillmore East and Live at Massey Hall releases, nearly every song from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After the Goldrush, and Harvest are here) and the project’s spare-no-time-or-money-expenses quality.

And nowhere is that attribute more manifest than in the sonics. The warmth, richness, fullness, airiness, separation, body, extension, detail, intimacy, tonality, depth, dimensionality, clarity, and sheer life-like presence that these recordings convey defy expectation and transcend limitation. At every step, whether on 1965’s “The Sultan” or a wowing, previously unheard 1971 version of “Dance Dance Dance” with Graham Nash, the sound is room-filling, balanced, natural, lively, and utterly engaging. Digital has never been better.

Neither has any box set in recent memory. In Archives, Young and company have gone beyond their realm. They’ve created a platform that other artists can use to assemble their own music-based multimedia scrapbook. Think of what Pearl Jam, Radiohead, and Bob Dylan could do with this format! Until that happens, Young has established a precedent that may be impossible to top, and he’s not yet even halfway through.

Ben Gendron

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Tom Jones – “If He Should Ever Leave You” (2008)

December 5, 2009 at 11:39 am (Music)

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Linton Weeks – “Freewheelin’ Dylan Calls the Tune” (2007)

December 5, 2009 at 9:18 am (Bob Dylan, Music, Reviews & Articles)

An Oct. 7, 2007 article from The Washington Post about Bob Dylan’s XM Sirius radio show Theme Time Radio Hour (which may or may not be defunct now after its last show earlier this year). Dylan’s show is brilliant, baffling, always fascinating and the way that radio used to be, but sadly no longer is…


Through the years, Bob Dylan’s dealings with the public have been difficult.

Hear him live and he can be a mumbling and aloof musician – as at his recent Merriweather Post Pavillion concert.

Rifle through interviews with Dylan on YouTube and you discover a contentious, pretentious artist who is laconic, distant, apparently indifferent to enunciation, pleasantries and other everyday social constructs.

But listen in on Dylan’s weekly satellite show, Theme Time Radio Hour on XM Radio – now in its second season – and you discover quite a different Dylan. He’s voluble, generous, articulate. He’s liable to quote a poem, give tips on hanging drywall, pass along a recipe. In his show on baseball, he broke into “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” – a cappella.

For nearly 50 years, besides being the voice of his particular generation (and maybe several others), Bob Dylan has been a musical rainmaker. He is a tireless performer, prodigious songwriter and now ardent professor and promoter of all kinds of songs. He has produced more than 30 studio collections. This month Columbia Records is releasing a three-CD retrospective of Dylan’s Methuselahian career.

The one thing missing from the radio show, oddly enough, is Dylan’s own music.

“With this show, Dylan is tapping into his deep love – and I would say his belief in – a musical world without borders,” author Peter Guralnick writes in an e-mail. “I feel like the commentary often reflects the same surrealistic appreciation for the human comedy that suffuses his music.” Guralnick has written several books about music, including biographies of Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke.

Tight-lipped about actual numbers, an XM spokeswoman will say that about 2 million listeners tune in to Dylan’s show, which repeats through the week on several channels. Keen listener Elvis Costello says Dylan’s shows “are a bit like those films of Picasso painting on glass. They don’t pretend to explain anything about the host but they offer just a little glimpse of the musical – and literary – taste of a great singer and songwriter without obliging him to confess every dark secret.”

A pitch for Dylan’s show might be: Garrison Keillor meets Alan Lomax meets your weird friend who makes theme-oriented mix tapes in his downstairs rec room.

Theme Time is a “surreal hour of radio,” comedian Richard Lewis writes in an email.

The show is not available on terrestrial radio, but Washington-based XM does offer free three-day trials on its Web site. The company says it has no plans to distribute the show on CD.

XM execs have nothing to do with the production of the show. As part of the contract, Dylan, 66, is given artistic freedom. The show is delivered, pretty much as a done deal, to the XM studio in New York. “Doing something that would be illegal or filthy is not in his repertoire,” says Lee Abrams, XM’s chief creative officer.

“The actual recording of it is a big mystery,” says Abrams, who usually hears it for the first time when it airs.

Every show begins with a noir intro – spoken sotto voce by whiskey-voiced Ellen Barkin – such as this: “It’s nighttime in the big city. A husband plots his escape route. The last train from Overbrook pulls into the station. It’s Theme Time Radio Hour with your host, Bob Dylan.”

And for the next hour the listener is transported to Bobby’s World. Each show is built around a theme and the music is a deep and multicultural trove of musical history. He plays tunes by a parade of musicians, such as the Andrews Sisters; Hank Williams Jr.; Darlene Love; Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys; the Horace Silver Quintet; Bobby “Blue” Bland and the Washington-based Winstons.

“I don’t mean in any way to diminish the importance of the quality music he plays,” says magician and loyal listener Penn Jillette, “but Dylan’s heart is so in this show that you hear Dylan even in other people’s music.”

Dylan tells lame jokes. “I just came back from a pleasure trip. I took my mother-in-law to the airport.”

Coffee, he says, “is the common man’s gold. And like gold, it brings to every person the feeling of luxury and nobility.” His voice is rich and dripping with irony.

We learn from Dylan that comedian Phil Silvers wrote “Nancy (With the Laughing Face)” for Frank Sinatra to sing about his newborn daughter. That Elvis Presley wanted to be Dean Martin. That Voltaire drank 50 cups of coffee a day. That Bobby Darin took his stage name from a Chinese restaurant – the Mandarin Duck. The first three letters of the sign were burned out, Dylan tells us.

He reads verse by “Def Poet” Henry Ward Beecher. He recites “Annabelle Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe. This is Dylan the performer, the informer. In one episode, he introduces us to new music: songwriters Chris Difford, Glenn Tilbrook and Ron Sexsmith. In another, he explains Hawaiian-style slack key guitar. And in still another he gives out a recipe for barbecue sauce.

In the first episode of this season, Dylan’s theme is “Hello.” Besides waxing etymological about where the word “hello” comes from, he plays songs of greeting: “Hello Mello Baby” by the Mardi Gras Loungers and “Hello Trouble” by Buck Owens.

“If you see trouble walking in, it’s probably wearing very high heels and nylons,” he says as he unspools a soliloquy on femmes fatales. One of his favorites: Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice.

The uncorking of Dylan’s wit and wordiness may have begun with a series of interviews Dylan did with his manager, Jeff Rosen, in 2000. The interviews were crafted into No Direction Home, a 2005 documentary by Martin Scorsese. That same year, Dylan published Volume 1 of his planned three-volume autobiography. “Chronicles” is chatty and fact-filled. “Like his best songs,” the Denver Post wrote of the book, “it’s full of unexpected twists, turns and observations.”

The radio show reveals an even more expansive Dylan. Theme Time listeners get the full monty of Dylan’s satiric tone and slant wit, as he shares his musical tastes.

To writer and comedian Amy Sedaris, the magic of Theme Time is simple. “I like the way Bob Dylan talks. I like how he drags his words out. I like what he finds interesting.”

Linton Weeks

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