Dylan jokes, talks of music as he spins songs on XM

May 03, 2006|By NICK MADIGAN | NICK MADIGAN,SUN REPORTER

"It's nighttime in the big city," a woman's voice intones, low and even, as thunder rumbles in the distance. "Rain is falling in the big city. Fog rolls in from the waterfront. A night-shift nurse smokes the last cigarette in her pack."

With that archetypal Edward Hopper moment begins the first show of Bob Dylan's new career as a disc jockey, set to air today at 10 a.m. on subscription-only XM Satellite Radio in what is perhaps the most anticipated of the burgeoning medium's high-profile roll-outs -- with the possible exception of the considerably less poetic Howard Stern, who debuted in January on XM's rival, Sirius.

"It's time for Theme Time Radio Hour," Dylan growls after he is introduced, doing his best to sound chipper. "Dreams, schemes and themes. Today's show -- all about the weather. Curious about what the weather looks like? Just look out the window, take a walk outside."

Dylan, America's reigning troubadour, whose raspy-voiced incantations have been an indelible part of the American soundtrack for 40 years, then sets up the first tune, "Blow Wind Blow" by Muddy Waters. Respectfully, Dylan calls him "one of the ancients by now, whom all moderns prize."

For the next hour, Dylan -- whose show was recorded earlier and made available to reporters and reviewers -- methodically, almost affectionately, runs through a phalanx of songs, from the Staple Singers to Judy Garland to The Spaniels, all singing, one way or another, about meteorological phenomena. The songs include the upbeat, like "California Sun" by Joe Jones and "You Are My Sunshine" by Jimmie Davis; and the moody, such as "Just Walking in the Rain" by The Prisonaires and "It's Raining" by Irma Thomas.

"Into each life some rain must fall," Dylan mumbles between songs. "Trouble may be waiting along the way."

For XM, snagging Dylan means a high-stakes bet on a legend.

"Look at all the attention they've gotten this week," said Sean Ross, a broadcasting industry analyst with Edison Media Research. "Dylan has certainly been elusive these many years as an interview."

Ross said Dylan's presence on XM will find an audience. "It will keep XM in the headlines and make it attractive, even if it doesn't compel someone to shell out every month."

Dylan's foray into radio is not necessarily a radical departure for the normally reticent singer, who spends a great deal of time on the road giving concerts but very little time discussing anything remotely personal. And, yet, in the past two years alone, he has published his memoirs, Chronicles, Volume One; submitted to an interview with Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes; appeared in a Victoria's Secret commercial; collaborated on No Direction Home, the Martin Scorsese documentary on PBS about his early career; and allowed Twyla Tharp to use his songs in a Broadway tribute to his music set to premiere this year.

In the context of Dylan's new openness, hearing him spin the records he loves is akin to a history lesson from a master of the musical arts.

"Songs and music have always inspired me," Dylan, who will be 65 on May 24, says on XM's Web site. "A lot of my own songs have been played on the radio, but this is the first time I've ever been on the other side of the mike. It'll be as exciting for me as it is for XM."

The site describes the music on Dylan's show -- none of it his own -- as "hand-selected from his personal collection." From the first few moments of his show, it is obvious he knows his stuff, or at the very least, has done his homework.

Introducing Jimi Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary," Dylan says Hendrix "was trying to write a Curtis Mayfield song." Then, he adds, "Everybody thought Jimi was a wild man, but this shows his more gentle side."

Dylan also describes the late bluesman Slim Harpo, whose real name was James Moore, in admiring terms and reveals for a moment something about himself. "Slim wrote a bunch of songs with his wife, Lovelle," Dylan says. "Boy, I wish I had a wife like that -- help me write some songs."

In another stab at humor, Dylan recites some of the lyrics, in Italian, of Stevie Wonder's "A Place in the Sun," doing damage to the mellifluous language but showing that he doesn't take his new gig too seriously.

Against a background of rushing wind, Dylan turns somber as he talks about "those hot, dry Santa Anas," the California desert breezes that push wildfires through bone-dry canyons.

"It's hard for people who've not lived on the West Coast to realize how radical the Santa Anas figure in the local imagination," he says. "The West Coast weather is the weather of catastrophe. The Santa Ana winds are like the winds of the apocalypse. But the summer wind that Frank is singing about may be a little lighter. Come on in, Frank."

With that, Sinatra sings, and the threat passes.

At another point, setting up Fats Domino's "Let the Four Winds Blow," Dylan says he finds himself playing "a lot of songs from New Orleans." Without mentioning Hurricane Katrina, he says he is glad the city is rebuilding, if slowly.

New Orleans must have been on Dylan's mind. He gave a concert there Friday, the opening day of the 37th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where other acts included Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Elvis Costello.

He will be back on XM next week, in a show devoted to Mother's Day. Among the lineup will be songs by Ruth Brown ("Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean"), Jimmy McCracklin ("Gonna Tell Your Mother") and Little Junior Parker ("Mother-in-Law Blues"). He even plans to feature a rap song, LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out."

As he wraps up his first show, Dylan remains enigmatic: "Until next week, you are all my sunshine," he says. "If you think the sun is too hot, just remember, you don't have to shovel it."

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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