Imagine, for a moment, that you’ve lost your entire memory. You’ve forgotten everything you once knew about life and the world. Or maybe you’re a Martian in possession of a good spaceship and in want of a wife on Earth.
In either case, imagine further that you are handed a copy of Theme Time Radio Hour with your host, Bob Dylan – Season 2 and told: let this be your guide. How will you do? What will you learn about life, love and the world? Will its 50-tracks — from many decades, places and genres — teach you enough to strike out on your own?
Saul Steinberg’s famous New Yorker cover (March 29, 1976) imagined the ‘View of the World from 9th Avenue’ — that is, through the psychogeographical prism of uptown westsiders. The partiality of its vision is its truth. Here we have something similar: a View of the World from Studio B of the Abernathy Building. (Call me sceptic but I do sometimes wonder if that location actually has a zip code or phone number.)
What do you learn if you let Bob Dylan show you how the world looks out of that studio window? And how might that partial view measure up in practical terms? How much useful information will it give you about the physical and psychological environment of that big world out there that is currently a total blank to your cerebral cortex? (I’m guessing a little here, to be honest, about the details of Martian brain structure.)
Here is what I reckon you’d learn. Some of it, anyway — even the best of guide books leave you work of your own to do. Think of this as a top ten fact about the world as viewed from the Abernathy.
1. Human beings like to have sex with each other — and with each other’s partners. This causes problems, sometimes to the point of violence (Loretta Lynn’s ‘Fist City’), murder even (Porter Waggoner’s ‘The Cold Hard Facts of Life’).
2. Love is a complicated thing (Laura Lee’s ‘Separation Line’, Jo-El Sonnier’s ‘Tear-Stained Letter’, James Brown’s ‘Three Hearts In a Tangle’, BB King’s ‘Walkin Dr Bill’, The Dirtbombs’ ‘Your Love Belongs Under A Rock’, Lucinda Williams’ ‘Changed The Locks’).
3. Chickens have a special significance, particularly at celebratory events (Wanda Jackson’s ‘Let’s Have A Party’). They also choose to spent at least part of their time in trees (Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘The Chicken’).
4. The French pass their early mornings pondering whether to wear a red or a blue sweater. Or, to be more specific, that’s how young Franco-Tunisian women of the mid-1960s spent the first part of the day (Jacqueline Taïeb’s ‘7 Heures Du Matin’).
5. Cigarettes are both a central fact of night-time life and a contra-indicator to marital stability (Joe Maphis and Rose Lee’s Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music, Red Ingle’s Cigareets, Whusky and Wild Wild Women).
6. People change their names, sometimes to somewhat silly ones (Sun Ra’s ‘Rocket Nine Takes Off For The Planet Venus’, Swamp Dogg’s ‘Sam Stone’).
7. Inter-generational conflict has an inevitable quality to it but it is also one which changed somewhat in the late 1950s (Mose Allison’s ‘Young Man’s Blues’).
8. If you’re after bagging a big, stripy cat or two in the subcontinent, you could pick worse guides than the man from Toronto whose starlight years were the two in the mid-1920s that he spent working in an alcove of the New Princes Restaurant, Piccadilly (Hal Swain and his Band’s ‘Hunting Tigers Out in Indiah’).
9. Women are human beings of many parts, not all of them always the ones they were born with (Archibald’s ‘She’s Scattered Everywhere’).
10. When it comes to satisfying a man, you should be wary of underestimating the significance of a limp wrist (Charlie Feathers’ ‘One Hand Loose’).
Frankly, as catechisms go, I’ve come across worse guides to the many meanings of life, love and chickens.
By Pete Silverton