“It’s nighttime in the city. There’s a hint of jasmine in the air. A startled cat runs across the piano keys. My neighbor keeps walking around upstairs. A man slowly falls out of love.
It’s Theme Time Radio Hour, with your host, Bob Dylan.
We’re going to need more ice.” ~ Diana Krall
Airing from 2006 to 2009, Theme Time Radio Hour with your host, Bob Dylan was a weekly satellite radio series that explored different topics through music, such as “Money,” “War,” and “Presidents.” After an 11-year absence, Dylan unexpectedly returned in September 2020 to Theme Time with a new special; a two-hour episode focused on the theme of “Whiskey.”
Dylan wasn’t shy about saying that he was back to hawk the products of his whiskey and bourbon distillery, Heaven’s Door Spirits. But except for brief mentions of the Heaven’s Door brand, the show followed the pattern Theme Time had established over a decade earlier; songs old and new with Dylanesque introductions, commentary, and corny old jokes interspersed throughout; special guest appearances; def poetry readings; recipes and helpful tips.
Theme Time’s decade-long hiatus had led to a few changes. Actress Ellen Barkin, who had introduced most of the series episodes, was replaced by pianist / singer, Diana Krall, who did a musical take on the show’s classic “Night in the Big City” introduction. There was also a new associate producer on board, Lester Hawkins, joining the jazzily-named group — Sonny Webster, Ben Rollins, Nina Fitzgerald-Washington — who had co-produced Theme Time over the show’s three-year run.
Our Host, Bob Dylan, sounded much more relaxed than he had in the early ‘oughts, trading the Midwestern buzzsaw burr he had affected for Theme Time’s initial run for a far mellower voice that wasn’t taking much of anything too seriously, especially his own jokes. Whether telling old groaners — “I was nursing a drink when a termite walked in and asked me where was the bartender” — or linking Edgar Allan Poe, David Allan Coe, Poe’s “The Raven” and “two birds with one stone” together, Dylan sounds as delighted as a 10-year-old with a new joke book.
“All Happiness is Fleeting”
“To paraphrase Alexandre Dumas, in ‘The Count of Monte Cristo,’ ‘I’m so delighted to see you here. It makes me forget, for the moment, that all happiness is fleeting.’ ~Bob Dylan, Theme Time Radio Hour, “Whiskey”
Our Host opens the “Whiskey” episode with perhaps a reference to the troubled times of 2020, quoting a Black French writer’s 1844 work about a man wrongfully imprisoned for 14 years who notes that “all happiness is fleeting.” That quote and Dylan’s invocation to “stay safe” at the show’s close both seem to be subtle acknowledgements of the global corona virus pandemic. Certainly, the resulting lockdown must weigh as heavily on Dylan as on any performing artist, curtailing his so-called “Never-Ending Tour” completely for the first time in 32 years and confining him to his Malibu estate where the “Whiskey” episode was likely recorded.
Dylan makes several other remarks during the show that might be tied to the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, although, in usual Dylanesque fashion, his references can be so opaque that they’re easy to miss.
There’s always a danger of reading too much into anything Bob Dylan says anyway, not that it discourages the dozens of books and hundreds of articles — including this one — which appear each year from doing just that. Dylan’s style of dealing with the public encourages the speculation, of course. Alternately incongruous and irreverent, Dylan‘s Dadaistic pronouncements are the stuff interpretations were made for.
“To me, the first lesson of being subversive is, don’t tell people you’re being subversive.” ~ Eddie Gorodetsky, The Los Angeles Times, December 10, 2000.
“I’ve always believed that the first rule of being subversive is not to let anybody know you’re being subversive.” ~ Bob Dylan, Theme Time Radio Hour, “Trains (Part 1),” March 14, 2007
“Oh Yeah!” Timmie Rogers and Errol Flynn
“White comics can insult their audiences freely, but Negroes can’t insult white people. Negro comic works with wraps on, always behind the cultural ghetto.”
~ Timmie Rogers, Ebony Magazine, October 1960
Dylan gave a largely forgotten Black comedian — Timmie Rogers — a fairly lengthy introduction to Theme Time’s audience, but there’s a lot more on Timmie that could be told. As Our Host notes, Rogers refused to shuffle out in the blackface that was still routine among Black entertainers of the `40s and `50s, or to speak “darky talk” on stage.
Instead, in one of his first gigs Rogers donned a tuxedo and sang a song that mocked segregation, “I’ve Got a Passport from Georgia.”
I’ve got a passport from Georgia,
And Im goin` up where lifes a cinch.
Where the cravat’s a correct tie,
Where you wear no Dixie necktie,
Where the sign reads, `Out to Lunch, ` not `Out to Lynch. `
~ “I’ve Got a Passport From Georgia’’ from the Duke Ellington musical ‘’Jump for Joy’’
A regular on “The Jackie Gleason Show” during the 1950s and ’60, Rogers continued to perform on television into the 1970s. He was the first Black comedian to be awarded a Gold Album. Inducted into the National Comedy Hall of Fame in 1993, his photo hangs alongside those of Milton Berle, Richard Pryor, Jack Benny and Red Skelton.
“Visitors,” his daughter said in an interview, “recognize everyone else but usually ask, ‘who’s Timmie Rogers?’”
Our Host is careful to call out Rogers’ “Good Whiskey (And a Bad Woman)” lyrics as extremely politically incorrect, even for 1946, and especially for 2020, but unless you were listening carefully you might miss Dylan’s aside, “[Rogers] says, ‘Be sure you get a young chick, because gals do not improve with age.’ An adage he shared with Errol Flynn.”
If he didn’t invent the saying, “I like my whiskey old and my women young,” adventurer, actor, and all-around rake Errol Flynn was at one time the person most associated with the phrase, especially after being accused of statutory rape by both a 17- and 16-year-old. Flynn’s 1942 trial on both charges was a full-blown circus, with the press reporting the trial with more amusement than outrage; Flynn’s attorney accusing the young women of cutting a deal with the prosecutor to avoid felony charges for “oral copulation”; and the judge telling the assembled court “I hope you’ve enjoyed this case as much as I have” after the jury found Flynn not guilty.
The phrase — “in like Flynn” — became a national joke and Flynn himself went on to marry a 19-year-old who he had met at a candy stand during the trial as well as conducting an affair with a 15-year-old. Whiskey, teenagers, and hard living finally caught up with Errol Flynn eight years after his trial. He died at age 50, looking like the living embodiment of “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
His cronies buried him with six bottles of whiskey.
Bugsy’s Missing Statue
“Some booze was brought into the country illegally by Bugsy Siegel, who later founded Las Vegas. But, isn’t it strange, there’s no statues of him there.”
One of the weirder Dylan non sequiturs of the show is during a segment on Prohibition where he notes that there are no statues of Bugsy Siegel in Las Vegas, even though, Dylan continues, Siegel founded the city.
Mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel had nothing to do with the founding of Las Vegas some hundred years before his arrival there. But he was a driving force behind the development of the Las Vegas Strip in the late 1940s, an obsession that would eventually lead to his murder.
There are no statues of Siegel — whose checkered career included arson, rape, armed robbery and Murder, Inc. — in Las Vegas… nor would you expect there to be, even in a country rife with statues celebrating figures whose histories include secession, slavery, and the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. The most you’ll find memorializing Siegel is a plaque dedicated to the gangster at the original site of his Flamingo Hotel.
So what can we make of Dylan’s remark? In the widespread Black Lives Matter protests that followed the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25 2020, statues of Confederate leaders and soldiers as well as of Christopher Columbus and of several U.S. Presidents and other public figures who were slaveowners were toppled, defaced, and in some instances proactively removed by authorities. Some criticizing the protesters’ acts argued that the destruction of statues was part of a “left-wing cultural revolution” to “wipe out our history” and to demonize our Founding Fathers.
And isn’t it strange that there are no Bugsy Seigel statues in Las Vegas?
The Case of the South American Waxy Tree Frog
“There’s even a powerful painkiller opiate that trainers discovered can be administered by having the horse lick the back of a South American Waxy Monkey Leaf Frog. Hmm.”
Truth is often stranger than fiction in Theme Time-land. What sounds like another Gorodetsky/Dylan joke about licking frogs to get high (an actual thing) is true, although happily, no horses are being forced to lick frogs. However, according to a 2012 story in the New York Times, shady trainers in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico were giving their horses a powerful performance-enhancing potion drawn from the backs of frogs whose scientific name is Phyllomedusa sauvagei, commonly known as the waxy monkey tree frog, native to South America.
“That would be an awful lot of frogs that would have to be squeezed,” opinioned a testing laboratory scientist.
It’s More Important to be Great than to be Perfect
“I want you to listen to the beginning of this record. There’s a call and response section. Tiny goes ‘Boodow!’ and the whole band goes ‘Boodow!’ Then Tiny goes ‘Booday!’ and the whole band goes ‘Booday!’ Except for one guy who still goes ‘Boodow!’ Nowadays, you’d just take Pro Tools and take that guy out, or maybe you’d re-record the whole track. But back then, it was more important to be great than to be perfect.” ~Bob Dylan, “Trains,” Theme Time Radio Hour
“Everybody’s so busy fixing their mistakes, and auto-tuning, they wouldn’t know how to make a record like this anymore,” says Bob Dylan of Byllye Williams’ “Hangover Blues” played in the “Whiskey” episode. Dylan’s disdain for modern recording techniques was a regular theme of the Theme Time series, including his amused commentary on Tiny Bradshaw’s “The Train Kept A-Rollin.” You can hear the one lone band member shoutin’ “Boodow” about 10 seconds into the clip above. But don’t stop there. It’s a great song, as Dylan says on the “Trains” episode, made even better by the mistake.
Everybody makes mistakes — the hundred-odd episodes of Theme Time contain enough errors that Dylan once responded with a tongue-in-cheek rant when a caller named Tim Ziegler informed him that he got a record label wrong.
“You know, sometimes we don’t get it right. I mean, it’s important to remember, this isn’t a classroom here. This is music we’re playing. It’s music of the field, of the pool hall. The back alley crap game. The bar room and the bedroom. We don’t want to make it dusty and academic. It’s full of sweat and blood. It’s like life itself. If every once in awhile we get a name wrong, or we tell you it’s on the wrong label, it’s not going to kill anybody, Tim. Just listen to the music.”
In the “Whiskey” episode Dylan misspoke when he said Charlie Poole’s version of “If the River Was Whiskey” was recorded in “19 and 20.” It was actually recorded about ten years later and released in 19 and 30 on the Columbia label, making Dylan and Charlie Poole the label-mates he says they are, albeit separated by several decades. And he gets the name of the Charles Bukowski book he quotes from wrong as well. And weirdly, he claims Joshua Soule Smith’s ode to the Mint Julep is titled, “The Sweet Dreams of Drunks,” although that last is likely another Dylan/Gorodetsky in-joke, a word-play on the poem’s actual title: “The Very Dream of Drinks.”
Apparently no one on the Theme Time team noticed the errors, and they certainly wouldn’t stop any listener’s enjoyment of the show, unless that listener’s name was Tim Ziegler.
In the show’s last few minutes, if you listen to Dylan’s closing commentary on Byllye Williams through headphones, you’ll hear a plane overhead, the sound not edited out.
I like to think of Our Host and Eddie Gorodetsky together sitting outside in Malibu, recording the show, telling jokes, laughing together, and sippin’ whiskey.
Maybe they’re out there right now.