Patrick Webster, A Wanderer by Trade: Gender in the Songs of Bob Dylan. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2019. 195 pp.

REVIEW BY Matthew Lipson, Independent Scholar

Patrick Webster’s A Wanderer by Trade: Gender in the Songs of Bob Dylan employs foundational cultural and gender theory to address the tricky issue of Dylan’s treatment of women and sex, as well as the feminine and masculine spheres in Dylan’s work. It’s a murky and necessary topic, especially loaded and fertile in the wake of the #MeToo era and the ongoing, even existential issue of gender dynamics and social justice. And if Dylan’s work speaks to life as it happens, the nature of love, relationships, and religion, then A Wanderer by Trade grapples not just with issues of gender and sexuality within Dylan’s world, but by implication, a larger world, too. It’s as wide-ranging an undertaking as it sounds, especially given the sheer breadth of Dylan’s canon and various personae.

For this reason Webster narrows the field to Dylan’s catalogue up to 1985, calling it Dylan’s most significant period, and asserts that rarely has Dylan’s post-1985 work been as worthy of study. While this drawing of lines will divide readers, especially given the critical acclaim and accolades of Dylan’s twenty-first century output, the extensive focus on a handful of songs does allow for some provocative close readings.

Webster’s central contention is that with a poststructuralist perspective, we may read Dylan’s lyrics for the ways in which the performative aspects of gender identity play out in his narratives, as well as the ways in which those aspects and modern notions of sexuality conflict within Dylan’s versions of masculinity. The argument is not without flaws, offering more of an introduction to gender theory through a Dylanological lens than a study of Dylan’s lyrics from a gender theory approach. Even so, A Wanderer by Trade excels at what it does, weaving between its theoretical foundation and its subject.

The notion of misogyny and strongly gendered narratives in Dylan’s work may not be news, but it is necessary and meaningful territory and a timely step toward modernizing Dylan criticism. Webster draws fascinating links between the masculine domain and travel in early Dylan, highlighting Dylan’s classic tropes of male rambling and roaming, getting away, abandoning, and the romanticization of the highway as a metaphor for self-discovery and reprieve, particularly from women. Granted, the trope of men “escaping” women who have done them wrong, or vice-versa, hardly begins or ends with Dylan; as with his lyrics and melodies, the topic of male victimhood falls firmly within the folk and blues traditions. Not only do Dylan’s men seek to escape from women, but more broadly from the confinement of their dreams by women and familial responsibility. Men, Webster claims, travel as a way of protecting themselves from the inconsistencies in their own gendered identities, hitting the road as a method of performing and reasserting their own masculinity.

While this reading of gender performance in Dylan’s world certainly has its merits, Webster’s theory stops short of such a reading’s implications. Why are men free to ramble and roam, shirking their duties in favor of soul-searching expeditions? Why do men get to leave in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” “One More Night,” and “Isis”? If travel is an inherently masculine act, at least in Dylan’s world, is it still performative? And what of exceptions, as in “Boots of Spanish Leather,” where women travel, leaving men behind to fill the traditionally female role of pining lover receiving love letters? Webster leaves questions of the morality of men’s travel in Dylan’s lyrics wide open, favoring a laissez-faire reading of masculinity.

Webster does, however, follow up his discussion of masculinity by basing the next chapter on the question of why so many of Dylan’s lyrics contain seemingly misogynistic sentiments. Even more puzzling, as the author points out, is the question of why Dylan’s men are consistently suspicious and even hostile toward women and yet “irredeemably drawn to them.” Countless examples are featured here, naming the women in Dylan’s songs as “deceivers, castrators, temptresses, often unfaithful” and calculating in their intent to trap men into a web of responsibility and danger. Webster does a fine job of categorizing the themes of Dylan’s misogyny, though an audience of Dylan scholars, likely already aware of misogynistic tendencies in Dylan and his male songwriting peers of the ‘60s and ‘70s, will find the discussion cumbersome.

Still, the question of the root of misogyny in Dylan’s narratives lingers. Webster hints at the performative aspect of gender early on, the male-dominated blues tradition, and even the notion of Christ’s masculinity as a potential reason for diminishing the feminine sphere during Dylan’s born-again years. What Webster makes clear, though, is the sheer breadth of Dylan’s approaches to femininity, or rather, the nuances of female gender constructs. In Dylan’s world, Webster asserts, women are not simply angelic or demonic, inviolate or inviolable, confused or contemptible. They are enigmatic, maternal, deceptive at times, subservient at others. And though the chapter defers any straightforward answers to the question it poses of why men are simultaneously suspicious of and drawn to women, it highlights the messy and fractured nature of gender constructs and romantic love in Dylan’s lyrics and attitudes.

Webster works his way from gender as a performative construct to its role in sexuality, both hetero- and homosexual. The claim that Dylan exhibited a puritanical, indifferent attitude toward sex throughout the 1960s mostly holds true, though certainly unrequited heterosexual romantic love is a salient theme in so much of Dylan’s early output. Still, the author suggests that Dylan is and has been misread as a heterosexual artist writing about heterosexual subjects; when so many songs lack gender pronouns, why do we assume “It Ain’t Me, Babe” isn’t Dylan’s preeminent gay anti-love statement? The simple answer, according to Webster, is that nothing in the text suggests otherwise. Webster also highlights the potential for latent homosexuality in Dylan’s work, citing what Craig McGregor calls the “camp bitchiness” of his 1966 persona. The example speaks more to the datedness of many of A Wanderer by Trade’s references than it does to any convincing commentary on Dylan’s identification with homosexuality. One cannot also help but feel that Dylan’s circumstances at the time, including his marriage to Sara Lownds and alleged trysts, diminishes Webster’s post-structuralist reading.

The chapter is framed by Dylan’s born-again attitudes toward homosexuality and examines vastly differing attitudes toward sex and sexuality throughout his career. This is done in a sort of zigzagging way as the author works through Judeo-Christian views toward sex, all to ask, not unreasonably, why would someone as seemingly sensible as Dylan buy into the homophobia and dogma promoted throughout the born-again era? Webster does a fine job of highlighting the juxtaposition between Dylan’s born-again sermons (“You pray for ungodly vice and you’ll get it, ungodly vice and lust,” he once said of San Francisco’s gay community) and his earlier nonchalance about sexual binaries. He also posits that by 1979, Dylan’s belief in salvation through the romantic love of women runs dry, replaced by the love of Christ instead. The period of 1979–1981, however, represents a vacuum in Dylan’s otherwise indifference to the modalities of human sexuality. Webster even goes as far as to suggest that Dylan’s interest in male-female sexual relationships is overblown. Rather, it is femininity, and to a greater degree, masculinity, with which Dylan is especially concerned.

A Wanderer by Trade’s penultimate chapter meditates on the roles of gender and sex in Dylan’s own persona. Webster contends that more worthwhile than any biographical information we might use to demystify Dylan is to consider the ways in which “Bob Dylan” the legend works as an exploration of masculine identity. A central feature of the section is the idea of the “enemy within,” the twin, the search for the lost “other,” and sex as a means by which we seek to reunite with our other half. That half, Webster intimates, is none other than the gender identity which we are not. It is this gender anxiety that drives men to women and to simultaneously distance themselves from the feminine sphere.

It’s a convincing argument on paper, grounded in the theories of Freud and Lacan. It is also, however, where Dylan criticism so often folds in on itself, reaching so far as to ordain Dylan time and again as a sort of omniscient vessel for the human psyche. The theoretical foundation remains strong, but the notion of Dylan or his subjects working, perhaps consciously, perhaps not, in a Lacanian world, may for some ring hollow. Perhaps knowing that, Webster adds the caveat that this is again one of many possible readings.

Dylan critics and scholars ought to be encouraged by the multitude of issues raised in Webster’s book. As cultural texts, Dylan’s work from the period studied here offers insight into both his own treatment of gender identity and sexuality, and the evolution of those themes in popular music at large. The decade to come may serve not as a reckoning for the kind of machismo depicted in Dylan’s work, but as a basis on which to continue bringing Dylan studies forward into the current societal re-evaluation of gender dynamics and sexual multiplicities. In this sense, A Wanderer by Trade offers hope for a future understanding of the nuances in Dylan’s depiction of women rather than a continued mass shying away from his more unsavory tendencies. Despite its flaws, including the dated nature of Webster’s references and the book’s own tendency to wander, A Wanderer by Trade aims to grapple with themes long dismissed in the study of Dylan, and for that it should be commended.

Baron Wormser. Songs from a Voice: Being the Recollections, Stanzas, and Observations of Abe Runyan, Songwriter and Performer. Norwalk, CT: Woodhall Press, 2019. 178 pp. $17.95.

REVIEW BY Tommy Shea

When you’re making yourself up, there’s no map.

– Abe Runyan

He’s a kid from Somethingsville, Minnesota, a place where the wind hits heavy on the borderline, where the rivers freeze and the summers end way too soon.

Before the age of twelve, Abe Starker’s hobby was stamp collecting. But then he was gifted a beige transistor radio. And he started hearing voices.

Hank Williams, Ma Rainey, the Carter Family, Bessie Smith, Lead Belly, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed . . .

They became another family, different from his mother, father, sister, and grandmother, but no less real.

The new voices sounded like “they were coming a long distance. . . . They weren’t perfect, but that’s why the songs existed, because things weren’t perfect.”

Something then started to change inside Abe Starker.

He was already taking life seriously. He thought a lot but felt even more. His wanting became different. Then Abe diagnosed himself with an incurable case of the metaphysical blues. He had a guitar in his hands when he did.

Abe decided he wanted to take himself home, “to my truest place—my imagination.” He wrote a song, then another.

“What I wanted to do wasn’t taught in any college,” he said.

Abe ended up in Greenwich Village.

Under a personal construction, believing he was in need of a new name, Abe came up with Runyan.

It rhymed with that of his childhood hero, Paul Bunyan, and was also the name of a dead New York writer who wrote about guys and dolls and didn’t need it anymore.

If this all sounds vaguely familiar, it is.

Sort of.

But this is a new story, as alive as today.

Weaving fact, fiction, and a rare sensitivity, Baron Wormser is a storyteller who’s a master at crafting revealing moments, growing pains, discoveries, and, in prose as smooth as a rhapsody, explores how deep a song can go.

In his novel Songs from a Voice: Being the Recollections, Stanzas, and Observations of Abe Runyan, Songwriter and Performer, Wormser uses the young and old Bob Dylan as his muse.

And those of the Dylanish main character.

Along with Man and God and law, the rest of the sparks to his flames are all here: William Blake, Little Richard, Lord Randall, Odetta, Dostoevsky and Modigliani, just as they all are on Montague Street in the basement down the stairs.

Baron Wormser must have been there, too, leaning close, listening, thinking, taking it all in and all down, merging the music and the art into Abe Runyan, someone who sings from the pages as real as your favorite song.

Dylan fans will nod along to the familiar journey. Readers who don’t know a thing about the North Country will nod as they reflect on the captivating tale of self-reinvention via art that goes on to reinvent the world.

Both camps will find the lyrical in Wormser’s style, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. This Maryland-born, Vermont-based author of seventeen previous books is also an acclaimed and longtime poet who served as the 2000 poet laureate of Maine, where his life included nearly twenty-five years living off the grid, a timespan and experience gorgeously chronicled in The Road Washes Out in Spring: A Poet’s Memoir of Living Off the Grid. He’s very much at home dipping his pen into political topics, as he did so deftly in the poems that fill Carthage, a timeless and timely look at the toxic combo of top-level power and ignorance. And fiction set against historical events is not a new avenue for Wormser—find his novel Tom o’Vietnam for his view from a fictional veteran’s boots and journey. Songs from a Voice sings to the author’s ability to take the winds of the old days that are an inspiration and make it his character’s own, to make us want to follow each step Abe Runyan takes, and have the front row seat for not only each song but each sentence.

Wormser has said his goal was to have the reader “feel the complexity of an artistic imagination as it issues from one particular life.” That might be the only time he erred on any of these pages, because we take not just one but two men’s creativity and gifts with us when we close this book, feeling keenly the complexity of both Runyan’s and Wormser’s gifts to the world.

Terry Gans. Surviving in a Ruthless World: Bob Dylan’s Voyage to Infidels. Cornwall, U.K.: Red Planet Books, 2020. 283 pp.

REVIEW BY Walter Raubicheck, Pace University

The establishment of the Bob Dylan Archive [BDA] in Tulsa marks the beginning of a new era of Dylan scholarship, revolutionary in scope and potential impact. Gaining access to multiple early drafts of lyrics as well as preliminary takes of officially released songs will significantly broaden our knowledge of both Dylan’s working methods and his artistic vision. The depth and breadth of the tapes, manuscripts, notebooks, and handwritten notes are simply astounding. Certainly the BDA is an inestimable gift to those who wish to study his work.

One of the first products to emerge from work in this archive is the new book by Terry Gans, Surviving in a Ruthless World: Bob Dylan’s Voyage to Infidels, published by Red Planet Books. The subtitle references Dylan’s working title for the album, and the book traces the evolution of the lyrics, melodies, and arrangements from his earliest ideas for the record in 1982 to its release in the fall of 1983. It is a fascinating journey; Gans presents us with the results of his work in a well-ordered, meticulous manner that is a testament to the hours he spent listening to studio tapes and reading folders filled with Infidels-related material—and obviously taking copious notes. What we are given here is as thorough as it is revelatory.

I for one am grateful that Gans devoted this time and hard work to this particular record, which tends to be overlooked when lists of Dylan’s “Ten Greatest Albums” are composed and compared. Infidels usually fails to compete with the three mid-‘60s classics, the ‘70s masterpiece Blood on the Tracks, or such late-period triumphs like Time Out of Mind or “Love and Theft”. This is due in part to a common perception that the ‘80s were Dylan’s “Lost Decade,” one in which he lacked a sense of direction and purpose after he completed the Christian trilogy. Supposedly he only found this direction again with Oh Mercy in 1989. I would argue that Infidels is infused with a newfound purpose, felt on each track, and that the album is one of Dylan’s deepest meditations on the modern world, every bit as insightful and revealing as those found on Time Out of Mind or “Love and Theft”. And now we have Gans’s book to provide convincing evidence to support this claim . . . though he himself refrains from such critical evaluations.

In his Foreword, Gans clarifies his purpose in writing the book, which does not include interpreting what he discovered in his research:

I will do my best to avoid hopeless traps like ’Bob must have thought’ or ‘Here is what Dylan meant’ . . . my hope is to stick to the facts: the drafts, notebook jottings. . . . We can all study clues, we can all enjoy songs and we can all cherish the journey of interpretation. To paraphrase: if you want a meaning you can trust, trust yourself.

So the book resists all attempts to compare, for example, the religious content of Infidels to that of the explicitly Christian perspective of the preceding three albums or the religious imagery in the later Oh Mercy. This is the book’s strength, and its limitation.

The book is organized chronologically as it discusses the stages of the creative process. It begins with information regarding where and when Dylan composed the songs in 1982 (often sailing the Caribbean islands on a boat he co-owned, Water Pearl); how he went about finding a producer (ultimately settling on Mark Knopfler); and which musicians he hired for the project. Then comes the heart of the book: Gans describes the recording sessions for each song in the order in which they were first attempted in the studio, regardless of whether they appear on the finished album or not. So we begin with “Blind Willie McTell,” since it was the first song recorded for the album, and end with “Death is Not the End”—sixteen songs in all. Only eight were released on the album, others were released on subsequent albums (including official bootlegs), and one was never released at all (“Julius and Ethel”). For each of the sixteen songs, Gans uses the tapes in the BDA to inform us as to how many takes exist for each song, and how they differ from one another in tempo, arrangement, and, quite often, lyrics, since Dylan did a lot of writing and rewriting of words in the studio during the sessions themselves. We are told how Dylan, Knopfler, and the engineers reacted to each take and what songs were played in the studio that day besides the one being recorded for the record (often blues jams). Following the chapter on “Death Is Not the End,” Gans lists the several cover songs that were recorded for possible release as well as what he calls the “Covers, Jams, Noodles, Etc” that Dylan and the musicians played for fun or relaxation in the studio in between the songs that were intended for the album or for separate release. He also devotes a chapter to describing the work that went into creating the two videos that were used to promote the album (“Sweetheart Like You” and “Jokerman”) as well as a rundown of Dylan’s March 22, 1984 performance on Late Night with David Letterman of two songs from the album (“Jokerman” and “License to Kill”).

Finally, Gans gives us useful appendices, especially the list of how often Dylan performed each song recorded during the Infidels sessions in subsequent years. We also receive a list of “Cliches, Aphorisms, and Images” that are either colloquialisms or adaptations of lines from other texts (which, as of 1983, were not yet considered scandalous). Interestingly, he also provides the information about each image and painting seen in the “Jokerman” video and concludes with a list of which songs, covers, and jams were played at each session between April 11, 1983 and May 5, 1983—the final session for Infidels.

It is instructive to learn how much Knopfler contributed to the album in terms of the arrangements, not to mention his constant affirmations and cheerleading. Also, to know for sure what Mick Taylor played, what Knopfler played, and how reliable and supportive Sly and Robby were gives us a new appreciation of the dynamic during the sessions. Since Knopfler had to leave in early May 1983 for a Dire Straits tour, he was not present for later overdubbing and mixing, during which Dylan took control. But the respect between him and Dylan comes through very clearly in the book, a respect that contributed to the wonderful performances and singing that characterize Infidels.

Surviving in a Ruthless World is now the definitive description of what went down in The Power Station Studio C in New York in April and May of 1983. The thoroughness that is the strength of the book, though, is also the source of a reader’s occasional frustration. To what end is the research pointing? Clearly that must be interpretation of the lyrics and a reconsideration of the place that Infidels occupies within the Dylan canon—which Gans has no intention of attempting. He largely leaves it up to us to address some of the traditional controversy surrounding the record: Does Infidels mark Dylan’s rejection of Christianity and his return to Judaism? Or is it a return to “secular music”? Why did he leave so many fine songs recorded at the sessions off the album, in particular “Blind Willie McTell”?

Despite himself, at times Gans does provide some interesting interpretations. In the discussion of “License to Kill” he writes that “the song encapsulates the core exploration of Infidels, the present-day self-absorbed species and its relationship with the Earth, its brethren and its Lord.” Similarly, he says in his conclusion,

Man could be viewed as the Infidel, betraying the promise of life and the earth the Lord provided. A case for the poisoned relationship between Man and the universe can be made in each song. Perhaps Infidels, with a global application, is a title better suited to the collection of songs than the more personal Surviving in a Ruthless World would have been.

These are insightful reflections about the overall vision of the record. But Gans does not explore this vision “in each song,” giving us instead a plethora of unused lyrics that, together with the lyrics on the album—along with the published lyrics—provide a framework for a fascinating insight into Dylan’s worldview in 1983.

In addition, the number and quality of early lyrics Gans found for Infidels in the Archive is surprising and impressive. Dylan’s writing for the album in 1982 and 1983—in notebooks, on typewritten drafts, on the stationery of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Manhattan, or created in the studio between takes—represents a resurgence of his unique lyrical abilities. After the heavy biblical imagery of the Christian albums, in which his own distinctive imagery was de-emphasized, the words he wrote for the Infidels songs are—well, Dylanesque. This new poetic vitality was first in evidence in several songs written during the Shot of Love sessions: “Every Grain of Sand,” “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” “Caribbean Wind,” and “Angelina.” In fact, those four songs have more in common with the Infidels lyrics than they do with the other songs on Shot of Love or the songs on Saved and Slow Train Coming. Deeply religious, they express their spirituality in Dylan’s own symbolic language as opposed to the language of Christian scripture—even when they are conveying scriptural ideas.

Gans quotes or paraphrases many of the unused lyrics: for example, in his discussion of “Jokerman,” we learn that Dylan had written “standing in the river catching fish with your hands” for an opening line and that the prince in the final verse originally will “take your soul” and “take your children as his sacrifice.” In addition, the priests “at this point are not in a pocket but are turned ‘into pimps that make old men bark.’” The alternatives to the words Dylan sings on the album are often, but not always, just as powerful: and thanks to Gans, we now know what other lyrical possibilities Dylan the songwriter had to choose from. Why he made the choices he did, of course, can be known only by the songwriter, if they can be known at all.

Gans mentions that in 1983 Dylan studied with a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn. Of course, when this news was broadcast at the time, it led to the popular theory that Dylan had abandoned Christianity and returned to his Jewish roots. Gans does not speculate on this piece of Dylan’s biography, but Infidels was cited at the time as evidence of this new “conversion.” Christ is not mentioned specifically in the recorded lyrics, the published lyrics, or the alternative lyrics Gans provides. And while “Neighborhood Bully” is a passionately pro-Israel song, no matter how Dylan tried to downplay that fact in interviews, a close reading of all the lyric alternatives indicates that the songwriter was drawing on concepts from both the Old and New Testament in these songs. For example, Gans points out that in a draft of “Clean Cut Kid” Dylan had written “MYSTERY BABYLON MOTHER OF WHORES,” a direct quote from the Book of Revelations. We also have in “Man of Peace” the star “that three men followed from the East.” That the Jokerman has “The Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy” as his only scriptural teachers does not indicate that he is adequately prepared to resist the temptations of evil. If the trio of albums that preceded Infidels can be considered his Christian phase, then Infidels can be considered a Biblical record, one whose vision includes ideas from both Testaments. In his Rolling Stone interview of June 1984 (an excellent companion piece to Infidels), when asked if the Old and New Testaments were “equally valid,” Dylan answered, “To me.”

These are the kinds of reflections that Gans’s book induces but does not carry out. As he says, any “speculations” he does make in his book are meant to “provoke” the reader, and clearly my reading of his book provoked me in many ways to re-think the meaning of Infidels and to reconsider its position within Dylan’s corpus. It has risen even higher in my estimation, certainly lyrically, but also musically. Knopler’s production is clean and crisp, his and Taylor’s licks always enhance the atmosphere of the songs, and Sly and Robbie’s rhythm section is rock solid. Dylan’s singing is strong on the rockers and both forceful and tender on mid-tempo ballads like “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” and “Sweetheart Like You.” His singing has not yet accumulated the rasp that is first in evidence on Oh Mercy (and which he has learned to use for expressive purposes in his later work).

With Infidels, Dylan reclaimed his reputation as rock’s foremost wordsmith. After Blonde on Blonde he moved away from the powerfully surreal imagery of his most influential song/poems, attempting to find new veins of imagery within traditional country and folk, until he found his distinctive muse again on Blood on the Tracks. The lyrics of Desire adopted a consistently narrative mode, and while Street Legal was a grand attempt at recapturing the lyrical fire of his mid-‘60s work, it was a hit-and-miss affair. Then came the Christian songs in which Dylan restrained his own unique language in deference to his new-found religious vocabulary . . . until, as mentioned, a handful of songs intended for Shot of Love. But on Infidels we have a compelling vision of the world described with symbolic images drawn from the creative mind of Bob Dylan. (Who else could have written “Well he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool” or “He can ride down Niagara Falls in the barrels of your skull” or “No more mud cake creatures lying in your arms”?) Thanks to Terry Gans’s research and new book, we now know infinitely more about when Dylan first wrote these lyrics and what other words he conjured up in the context of this album.

Gans has provided the groundwork for all future studies of this important period in Dylan’s career. Anyone else who writes seriously about Infidels will need to begin by reading and studying Terry Gans’s Surviving in a Ruthless World.

Bob Dylan. “Whiskey.” Theme Time Radio Hour, Episode 102, September 2020.

REVIEW BY Michael Hacker, Independent Scholar


Dylanalchemy: Turning Whiskey into Gold

In September 2020, it was announced that Theme Time Radio Hour, the broadcast series curated by Bob Dylan, would be returning for a special two-hour episode after more than a decade’s hiatus. The new episode was themed “Whiskey,” and it was sponsored by Dylan’s own celebrity spirits label, Heaven’s Door. Theme Time Radio Hour originally ran on satellite radio from May 2006 to April 2009, stopping precisely after the airing of the 100th episode. (There was a later airing of Episode 101, known as the lost episode, which was titled “Kiss” and had to do with smooching.)

All of the episodes feature Dylan as a wise and all-knowing DJ with a twinkle in his raspy voice, announcing an hour’s worth of songs revolving around a particular theme. Episode One was called “Weather,” and included songs such as “The Wind Cries Mary” by Jimi Hendrix and “Didn’t It Rain” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Each subsequent episode featured a different theme, with Dylan introducing the songs and spinning some historical background or a funny anecdote into the mix. The sound design harkens back to the golden era of radio, but the songs chosen span from the early days of records in the 1920s right up to the present moment—so you might hear a Louis Armstrong record bumped up next to a song by Reba McIntyre. By the time Dylan hung up his headphones in April 2009, the series had broadcast episodes ranging from “Trains” to “Divorce” to “Cops and Robbers.” At first, most people, pundits, and critics were amused by the venture and thought it quaint and charming, but as is so often the case with Dylan’s work, and especially his activities away from songwriting and performing, it slowly became obvious that this Theme Time Radio Hour series was a far more ambitious and consequential undertaking. In the process of making these episodes, Dylan not only showed us the vastness of his musical interests, but he also got to stick his nose and ears back into some old music and blow the dust off, which must have had a strong impact on Dylan’s own recent songwriting and choice of material to cover in live performance.

On September 21, 2020, the new episode aired, teasingly titled “Whiskey Part 1,” and was immediately digested (swallowed?) by legions of Dylan fans, whose ranks had recently swollen and become energized by the startlingly strong new album released by Dylan that June, Rough and Rowdy Ways. The first thing acute listeners noticed upon hearing the new episode was that the female announcer had changed from the earlier broadcasts, and listeners no longer heard the sandpaper and satin voice of Ellen Barkin, that being replaced by the bourbon and honeyed tones of vocalist Diana Krall. After Krall’s noir-drenched dramatic intro, Dylan does his usual set-up, made somewhat unusual in this case by the fact that the episode is a one-off (for the moment, at least, much like Dylan’s lone memoir, Chronicles, Volume One), and also one driven by a marketing tie-in to the Heaven’s Door brand of whiskey. A few years back, Dylan joined other celebrity liquor peddlers like George Clooney (tequila), Marilyn Manson (absinthe), and Jay-Z (cognac) in what can often be a very lucrative business. The origin myth of Dylan’s whiskey brand goes something like this: in 2015, Dylan trademarked the name “Bootleg Whiskey.” The phrase appears memorably in Dylan’s haunted song about bluesman Willie McTell:

There’s a woman by the river

With some fine young handsome man

He’s dressed up like a squire

Bootlegged whiskey in his hand

An entrepreneur who owned a company set up to invest in new beverage startups came across the trademark registration and reached out to Dylan about starting a partnership. Heaven’s Door Whiskey launched in 2018 and currently sells various high-end bottles of whiskey, bourbon, and rye. The way most of these celebrity spirits companies work is that there is a big and mostly anonymous booze maker who mixes together a custom blend with input from the celebrity; in this case, Dylan said he wanted his whiskey to “feel like being in a wood structure.” The high-test liquid is then branded, bottled, and marketed per the celebrity’s particular taste and style—Dylan’s bottles are decorated with patterns from his metal sculpture gates, and they range in price from about forty dollars a bottle to several hundred for limited editions packaged with memorabilia.

At some level, this new episode of Theme Time Radio Hour is a nearly two-hour promotion for Dylan’s liquor business, an advertisement, a commercial. There are many examples of Dylan, our great artist, dipping his toe and sometimes diving headfirst into the green pool of filthy lucre, and even many of the most devoted Dylan people sometimes feel that Dylan has sullied his artistic integrity by getting involved in money-making ventures. Responses to Dylan-as-capitalist swing between two poles: at one end people believing Dylan is a genius who deserves every last penny he can squeeze from the public; at the other, people believing Dylan is a sell-out and always has been. Most people fall somewhere in between. And to be sure, Dylan has put his name on a long and sometimes comical list of products for sale. Recently, a line of Dylan-sanctioned clothing inspired by the Rolling Thunder tour appeared online, joining all manner of official Dylan-branded gewgaws, including key rings, drink coasters, coffee mugs, and tote bags. Over the years, Dylan has lent his name and music to a panoply of companies including Apple, IBM, Google, Cadillac, Chrysler, and Pepsi, among others. Dylan’s most infamous/beloved product tie-in was connected to the Victoria’s Secret lingerie line. Not only did Dylan allow the use of the song “Love Sick” for the campaign, but he also appeared in a slickly filmed commercial shot along the canals of Venice with supermodel Adriana Lima. (Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, Dylan and Lima never appear together in the same shot.)

And then, as I was in the middle of putting down words for this piece, news came that Dylan had sold the copyrights of his entire song catalog to the Universal Media Group for somewhere between $300–$400 million. At first, the sale seemed like another cruel dagger flung at the pockmarked corkboard that is the year 2020. But after taking a beat, which is always the optimal way to process any Dylan news, it seems just another step in the infinitely straightforward and circling journey that is Bob Dylan. On a purely clear-eyed practical level, Dylan knows he will not live forever, and were he not to have taken this step, control of this catalog would have been left to his heirs, which I don’t think anyone can imagine as a non-complicated situation. We have relished the thought, I think, that Dylan single-handedly controlled most of his publishing for many years, which seemed another mark of his fierce independence, but of course that sense of independence is simply relative when all is said and done. There is little doubt that this latest move, and all of Dylan’s marketing and licensing forays, have something to do with financial gain, with cold hard cash. But if accumulating wealth were Dylan’s goal, he could have done many other things to accomplish that more effectively. I think these moves have more to do with two aspects of Dylan that also imbue his creative work: his peculiar uniqueness on the one hand, and his everyman ordinariness on the other. And these two qualities are front and center when listening to the Theme Time Radio Hour series, including the recent “Whiskey” episode.

I was struck immediately upon listening to the new broadcast that Dylan’s voice and delivery sound as if he had helped himself to a sampling of the sponsor’s goods during the nearly two-hour broadcast. Dylan’s trademark quirky delivery and behind-the-beat timing are spot on throughout, but his tongue is thick and slurry, at least to my ears. No matter, this episode reaches the high bar set by previous episodes, swirling together an entertaining cocktail of cornball jokes, obscure historical and cultural anecdotes and a terrifically curated song list, with a few obvious choices sprinkled among mostly rare and seldom-heard recordings.

The “Whiskey” episode kicks off with Wynonie Harris singing “Quiet Whiskey.” Later, in one of the episode’s sweetest moments, Dylan “calls up” actor John C. Reilly and asks him to read “Comin’ Through the Rye,” by Scottish poet Robert Burns. Reilly tells Dylan he’d rather sing the poem, which he proceeds to do. And Reilly’s beautiful voice and interpretation suddenly pierce the “wink-wink” bubble created by Dylan talking to a Hollywood actor. It’s an illustration of the power of music that shows just how, even in this semi-hokey format of an old-timey radio show updated for the modern sensibility, a song well sung can still transcend. After Reilly’s version, Dylan rambles for a bit, and then he spins “Comin’ Thru the Rye” again, this time Julie London’s sultry as-all-get-out version of the song. That construction is one of the joys of the Theme Time Radio Hour series, as the information and the music engage with one’s own experience and prior knowledge and spur a movement toward openness, toward learning something, toward a new way of looking at things. Julie London is a singer who barely registered on my listening radar, but now, after hearing her rendition of “Comin’ Thru the Rye,” I will pay more attention to her work. And a “little birdie” (aka the Internet) told me London was married to both Jack Webb and Bobby Troup, two show-biz men whose careers were tightly linked to Los Angeles, my hometown. So there’s this intensely seasoned stew of interconnected music and facts and stories that make up Theme Time Radio Hour. That concoction elevates the listening experience. What more could one ask?

There’s a didactic quality to much of Dylan’s patter, such as when he explains the meaning of the phrase “pinpoint carbonation,” which refers to an old-time process that uses dry ice to get smaller bubbles into carbonated beverages like soda pop and beer. The process creates a more intimate gas-to-liquid bonding than conventional techniques, and thus the fizzy bubbles are smaller and more effervescent than beverages carbonated in the modern way. It’s one of the magical effects of the Theme Time Radio Hour series that hearing about this arcane bit of industrial technology evokes a feeling similar to that one has upon hearing many Dylan lyrics, a kind of half-recognition/half-puzzlement that always leaves room for exploration, for wandering.

Much credit for the intelligent and seamless weave of the entire Theme Time Radio Hour series, including this “Whiskey” episode, must go to Eddie Gorodetsky, the producer. Gorodetsky is a successful writer and television producer who is also an enthusiastic record collector and musicologist of obscure rock ‘n’ roll, blues, country, and novelty records. My assumption has always been that records from Gorodetsky’s massive collection form the germ of each episode, and I’ve also assumed someone is writing most of the words Dylan speaks during the broadcast. However, when I encountered Gorodetsky at a social gathering about a year ago, I said to him, “I’m just curious—who is it that comes up with the wild facts and stories on the show?” He looked at me with a slight grin and said, “It’s all Bob.”

When all is said and done the most striking thing about Theme Time Radio Hour is that the entire enterprise smacks so loudly of DYLAN. It’s “Dylanesque.” What does that mean? And how is the approximately 160-pound figure of a man known as Bob Dylan able to infuse so many things: songs, drawings, poems, speeches, photographs, movies, live performances, even radio shows—with this same Dylanesque quality? The answers to those questions won’t be found here, but I’m coining a term, DYLANALCHEMY, to represent the near-mystical process by which Dylan’s work is first created and then transformed into meaning by his audience. Not the most elegant word, to be sure, but it’s my attempt to convey the sense that no amount of analysis or contemplation will ever fully reveal how Dylan’s work does what it does. With Dylan, there’s always the sense that he’s singing to someone, or communicating with someone, usually more than one person. There are great artists who create work mostly for themselves, for their own particular satisfaction—Dylan is not like that. Dylan’s work is always addressed to a listener. Even in those moments where Dylan appears to be almost deliberately antagonizing his audience, he is still singing to someone, possibly just not the expected listener. And this is one of the ways in which the Theme Time Radio Hour series clicks into place amongst the vast array of Dylan’s multi-faceted output.

The Dylan “project” is more than just his songs, of course, but there is sometimes a tendency to see Dylan’s “side projects” as distractions or diversions from the contemplation of Dylan as our representative songsmith. To cop from the name of a bootleg release of The Basement Tapes, Dylan’s work is a “tree with roots.” The most obvious offshoot of Dylan’s songwriting and singing is his protean live performance output—the thousands of times Dylan has stepped in front of an audience to play music. But Dylan’s hundreds of paintings and drawings, his large metal sculptures, his books, his films, his interviews, all of these things also stretch out as branches from the trunk. The Theme Time Radio Hour series represents another deep root extending far into the earth and helping to anchor this majestic oak, now nearly eighty years old.