David Runciman

Before he discovered literature in a friend’s apartment in New York, Bob Dylan’s connection to the world beyond the narrow one into which he was born came almost exclusively from the radio. The radio is usually on somewhere in the background of his memoirs, and it’s always broadening his horizons, letting him know what American music could sound like, in all its unexpected variety. Now he has his own radio show – he started broadcasting in the US last year – and it should be no surprise that it is deeply nostalgic for the music of his own youth. What’s more surprising is that the show doesn’t sound at all dated. This is one of the wholly unexpected blessings of Dylan’s later years: it turns out that he is a wonderful disc jockey. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could be better.

What makes Dylan such a magnificent radio presence is his obvious love of the medium coupled with his refusal to be bound by its conventions. His voice, for example, is almost a cliché in radio terms – its gravelly, nasal drawl is perfectly suited to the business of introducing records – but his delivery is very strange. Sometimes he mumbles, more often he over-enunciates, speaking a touch too slowly, regularly sounding as though he is reading a script. The result is weirdly rhythmical and somehow comforting. The format of the show is one of its many delights: it’s called Theme Time Radio Hour, and each week Dylan plays a series of records around a particular theme – marriage one week, divorce the next. Many of his selections are obscure to anyone under the age of 60, his taste tending towards the 1940s and 1950s over the 1980s and 1990s. But he is not wilfully obscure, nor is he a musical snob. For the divorce show, he played Tammy Wynette’s ‘D.I.V.O.R.C.E.’ For the show about fathers, he played the Temptations’ ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’. For the show on coffee, he played Blur’s ‘Coffee and TV’ (but not his own ‘One More Cup of Coffee’). The pleasure of listening to pop music on the radio is always finely balanced between the wish to hear something different, and the hope that the next song will be a familiar one. Almost all radio stations tilt the scales heavily in favour of the familiar for fear of scaring people off. Theme Time Radio Hour doesn’t pander to anyone, and as a result it gets the game pretty much right.

Dylan also seems to understand the balance between the intimacy that is the essence of good radio and the more functional role of the DJ, which is to play the records. He often introduces or back-announces a record by simply reading out the first or last verse of the lyric in his incantatory style, making the words sound like poetry. But he also gives his listeners occasional glimpses into his own world. For the show about flowers, he talked about picking out his favourites at his local garden centre. For the show about cars he remembered the ones he’d coveted as a child. It’s never easy to know how seriously to take all this stuff, given his predilection for faking his own biography, but that is part of the pleasure (as it is with his memoirs). You often get the sense that he treats the whole thing as a big joke, and that, too, is part of the show’s easy charm. Occasionally, he reads out a communication from a lucky listener. In the show on the theme ‘rich man, poor man’, he told us about an email he’d received from, as he put it, ‘someone named Alan Dershowitz, who describes himself as a feisty civil libertarian from Harvard Law School’ (it’s hard to convey on the page the exquisite irony with which he spoke these words). Alan had an eager-beaver question about one of the records he’d been playing, and Bob was only too happy to help, though he warned Alan that he might be coming back to him ‘for some free lee-gal ad-vice-ah’. Who is the joke on here? Who cares? Sit back and enjoy the ride.

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[*] Ebury, 291 pp., £7.99, May, 978 0 09 191418 9.