Showing yet another side in a long career, Bob Dylan is playing disc jockey, spinning smooth patter along with records ranging from Muddy Waters to Frank Sinatra as XM Radio enlists more star power in the U.S. satellite radio war.
In a preview recording of his show that debuts on May 3, the singer/songwriter/author is by turns playful and spooky, topical and historical, eager to share his favorite stories and records — and clearly having a ball.
“He sounds like he’s been doing it for years,” rock critic and Dylan expert Greil Marcus said in an interview. “In his head he probably has.”
Fans have long combed through Dylan’s vast catalog of songs, his quirky, guarded public statements and even his garbage for clues to just about anything, and this show will be no exception.
He gives them plenty to work with, studding his show with self-referential jokes, including several proud mentions of his native state of Minnesota.
But at another point he observes, “We seem to be playing a lot of songs from New Orleans.”
He might be remembering a line from his recent best-seller, “Chronicles, Volume One”: “There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans more.” Or he might be looking forward to May 28 when he’ll perform at the opening of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
But no, he is thinking about the weather.
You don’t need a weather man
The man who wrote a dozen or so meteorological titles — “Blowin’ in the Wind,” for example — has chosen the weather as the theme of his first show.
Thus, he makes a number of pointed but low-key comments about Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans.
And thus, Muddy Waters sings “Blow Wind Blow”; Jimi Hendrix, “The Wind Cries Mary”; Frank Sinatra, “Summer Wind”; and Dean Martin (with a Dixie brass band), “I Don’t Care If the Sun Don’t Shine”.
Also aboard are Judy Garland, Irma Thomas, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, calypso’s Lord Beginner, Fats Domino, the Spaniels, the Staples Singers and the Carter Family — quite a varied group.
Many of these recordings are quite obscure. Marcus — author of last year’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” a wide-ranging book about one Dylan song — enthused that some of the records were new even to him.
Dylan also tells the story of Johnny Bragg, sent to a Tennessee penitentiary for rape in the 1940s, when “rape could have meant just looking at a white woman in the wrong way.” While a convict, Bragg formed a singing group and had a hit called “Just Walkin’ in the Rain.”
“A sad story. A beautiful song. ‘Just Walkin’ in the Rain.’ The Prisonaires,” Dylan announces.
Dylan obviously loves these people and songs, savoring the names of the musicians — and sometimes their wives — and fondly reciting favorite lines. He even quotes Stevie Wonder in Italian. Wonder did a number of foreign-language versions of “A Place in the Sun.”
Only a pawn in their gameXM Satellite, with a market value of about $5.8 billion and more than 6.5 million subscribers, hopes to use stars like Dylan to maintain its lead over Sirius Satellite Radio Inc., which has featured shock jock Howard Stern and others to lure about 4 million subscribers.
But an XM spokesman could not comment on how many new subscribers Dylan might attract, how much he was being paid or even how long the weekly, hour-long show might run.
“When we do a content deal we have a rough idea of how many new subscribers it might attract,” Nathaniel Brown said. “But mostly we’re committed to providing subscribers and potential subscribers with the kind of program they can’t find anywhere else, and Bob Dylan’s new show is a perfect example of that.”