One thing about XM satellite radio - it's made me appreciate Bob Dylan's humor even more.
His humor has always been there. It's often present in unexpected places.
(My laughter couldn't be contained during my first listen of "Modern Times," Dylan's newest release, upon hearing him sing, "I can't go back to paradise no more, I killed a man back there." That's a laugh comparable to the lines of the first verse of 1975's "Idiot Wind," where Dylan sings about killing a man, marrying his wife, moving to Italy and inheriting her cash when she dies. "I can't help it," Dylan sings, "if I'm lucky.")
(It's not even really troubling that Hootie and the Blowfish stole the entirety of that verse in "Only Wanna Be With You." Dylan sued and reached an out-of-court settlement. That's funny, too.)
Sure, some people can't listen to Dylan. They say his voice is bad. In my book, complaining about Dylan's voice is like complaining about James Joyce's punctuation. If that's what you're getting out of the guy's work, you're looking at it (or listening to it) for the wrong reason.
"Modern Times" has received a positive, albeit mixed, reaction. Greil Marcus, one of the greatest music writers of the last 100 years, has called "Modern Times" "light," and given that Marcus has forgotten more about Dylan than most of us will ever know, maybe we should pay attention.
(Last year, Marcus wrote an entire book last year about one Dylan song, "Like a Rolling Stone." Even as he delves deeply into social and historical context, not to mention the virtual one-of-a-kind accident of the song's recording, Marcus' book could be considerably longer.)
Then again, maybe Marcus was just trying to get into the Dylan comedy market.
Dylan may have been at the peak of his humor when he was on top of the world in 1966. In 1998, Dylan released a recording of his concert at London's Royal Albert Hall from 1966.
Between songs, in apparent protest of his electric music, audiences irritated that Dylan appeared to be abandoning acoustic-based folk music would clap rhythmically. After one song, as the claps continue, Dylan begins mumbling. As the audience's clapping dissipates so they can hear what he's saying, what emerges on the recording is Dylan saying, building from a mumbling whisper, "Rrraberflabbbermerrrrber if you only wouldn't clap so hard."
In one of the most memorable scenes from "No Direction Home," last year's documentary, Dylan races to a car after a concert and exhorts the fans hanging around hoping for a glimpse (or more) to "Stop booing me!" Some see that scene as anger or a glimpse into his nightmare. It strikes me as a comical comment from someone who knew exactly what he was doing, knew why the audience was reacting the way it was and, most important, knew the camera was turned on him at the time.
Dylan was never the prototype pasty-white protest folk singer, even though to this day many people think of him that way.
The last song on his second album, 1963's "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," was "I Shall Be Free," a rambling five-minute standup routine. At one point in the song, President John Kennedy calls Dylan and asks, "What do we need to make the country grow?" Dylan's simple answer: screen sex icons Sophia Loren, Anita Ekberg and Sophia Loren.
At the end of the song, Dylan imagines a day when he does "better things," which includes "catch(ing) dinosaurs." Also, he sings, "I make love to Elizabeth Taylor, catch hell from Richard Burton."
There was a stretch when Dylan appeared to be slowly fading into irrelevance.
On the 1972 National Lampoon album "Radio Dinner," Christopher Guest does a nasty Dylan impression, hawking a K-Tel-type collection of protest songs. In wrapping up, Guest/Dylan says, "It's time for my boot heeeeels to be wanderin'."
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By the mid 1980s, that seemed to be a keen prediction of the direction of the man's career. (Of course, given his hawking for Victoria's Secret and iPod in this decade, not to forget the previously mentioned gig on XM Radio, it appears Dylan has taken up permanent residence at Maggie's Farm 40 years after he said wasn't going to work there anymore.)
In 1985, Dylan took part in the recording of "We Are the World" and was reduced to being fed his lines by Stevie Wonder doing a bad Bob Dylan impression.
Even THAT was funny.
But it's been more recently that Dylan's humor - or at least my perception of it - has been turned to "high."
Let's start with "Time Out of Mind," his 1997 "comeback" album, where the conversation with the waitress in the song "Highlands" is worthy of dozens of guffaws. Dylan demands that the waitress tell him what he wants, and she suggests hard-boiled eggs (presumably so Dylan will have a rhyme with "legs"), then immediately says "we ain't got any." Then they argue over whether Dylan is an artist, and he suggests she read Erica Jong.
To my surprise, the album was greeted with reviews praising its solemnity. Made me feel bad for laughing.
That album came out after a summer where Dylan was battling an infection of the sac surrounding his heart. He was quoted as saying, "I'm just glad to be feeling better. I really thought I'd be seeing Elvis soon."
Thank you, ladies and germs! Tip your waitresses - it's a job, not a hobby.
In last year's autobiography, "Chronicles Vol. One," Dylan mentions in passing that many of his albums in the 1980s were recorded for the purposes of alimony, which explains a lot, including why many of us thought he'd become irrelevant.
He apparently was just waiting to come back into his own. If you look back at some of those press conferences with Dylan, especially from the 1960s, it's fascinating to see how a strait-laced press was trying to deal with self-conscious, irritated hipster Dylan. If you allow yourself to go along with Dylan's whimsy, the conversations are pretty entertaining.
(He says he can't explain the title to "Rainy Day Women No. 12 and 35" to a reporter because the reporter hasn't been to North Mexico. Dylan considers Peter Lorre the world's greatest folk singer. Dylan calls his songs "mathematical." Dylan puts on a tie after he writes a good song.)
His XM Radio show - an hour-long weekly program that features Dylan playing disc jockey and focuses on a loose theme - is one of the funniest things you'll hear, as close as we'll come anymore to those mid-1960s press conferences.
In one recent show, the theme was "cars."
In it, Dylan said, "Next, we're gonna play Bruce and 'Cadillac Ranch.' " But he just said "Bruce" instead of "Brooooooooce," the way most people pronounce Springsteen's first name, and instead of "ranch," he said "raaaaaaaaaaanch." Cracked me up.
Then, speaking of Springsteen, Dylan said, "He's from New Jersey, I believe." There are probably unborn children aware that Springsteen is from New Jersey. Hilarious.
Later, Dylan said something along the lines of, "There are things that used to get made all the time that don't get made anymore. And in the future, there will be things made that aren't being made now. So get used to it."
Indeed. Long may he run.
Tim Cain can be reached at email@example.com or 421-6908.