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Music

Bob Dylan's favourite songs about madness

Bob Dylan has done it all. He’s a poet, actor, visual artist and a Nobel Prize winner. The freewheeling troubadour has pushed boundaries of art to their very limits for six decades and, in addition to this, his songs have appeared in a variety of important movies, including 1973’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and 1998’s The Big Lebowski, adding yet another string to his bow of cultural potency. 

The effects of Dylan’s work are so widespread that you could write a giant thesis on just how transformative they have been on popular culture and society at large. Despite this, it would be wrong to argue that all of Dylan’s musical output has been of the highest order, as it hasn’t. However, you cannot doubt the importance of some of his works; there’s a reason his work from the 1960s and ’70s is still so lauded today. 

In 2006, Dylan began hosting Theme Time Radio Hour, a weekly radio show. Each episode was comprised of a freeform mix of music and concentrated on themes such as ‘Weather’ or ‘Money’. Adding a real density to the show, much of the music used was pulled directly from the producer Eddie Gorodetsky’s personal collection, making it feel as if you’re sat on his sofa, listening to Dylan discuss every topic imaginable over cigarettes and wine.

The original run lasted until 2009 and, on the show, Dylan read out fan emails, took listener phone calls, played vintage radio jingles, told jokes, recited poetry, played messages from celebrities, and provided sage insight into the music chosen. One of the best episodes, came in season three, and this was focused on the theme of ‘Madness’.

The episode begins: “It’s nighttime in the big city / The worst has already happened / A well-dressed couple lean on the balcony; they laugh as they sip martinis.” 

Afterwards, the slightly sinister sounding Dylan says: “Welcome once again to Theme Time Radio Hour. Let me ask you a few questions, friends. Are you disinterested in work or family life? Do you suffer from sleep disruption? Have you had significant changes in appetite? Have you had paranoid thoughts, thoughts of grandeur or invincibility? Any feelings of persistent anxiety, or perhaps panic attacks? Are you hearing voices, or seeing people who are not there? Do you have thoughts of dying? Do you exhibit strong or violent anger? Do you have the inability to pursue a normal life, normal activities or normal relationships?”.

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His surreal monologue continues: “Well, I’m no doctor, but perhaps you’re mad as a hatter, crazy as a loon. Have you lost your marbles? Are your bats in the belfry? Maybe you’re nutty as a fruitcake, crazy as a coot. Taxed in the head, bonkers, bananas, deranged. Are you crackers or daffy? Unhinged or loco? Not all there or all around the bend? Maybe you’re coo-coo or buggy, or simply non-compos mentis. Do you talk to yourself? Do you ever binge out on food? Do you have swings suddenly from one mood to another? Do vague acquaintances treat you as though they know you far better than you would expect?”.

Dylan concludes his introduction: “Allan Ginsberg once said that he had seen the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness. Well, for the next hour, we’ll be providing the soundtrack. We’re gonna look at madness, insanity and craziness. Now, if craziness was a continent, this would be the national anthem. That’s Patsy Cline and a little number written by Willie Nelson, ‘Crazy'”.

For any Dylan fans intrigued by the multi-faceted icon, this is the perfect show. For this edition, Dylan listed all of his favourite songs about madness and mental illness. A mix of classics and obscure takes, there are cuts from Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Eddie Cochran and even Nirvana. Of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Manic Depression’, he quips: “I can’t imagine Jimi Hendrix writing a song called ‘Bipolar Disorder’”.

The episode is nothing short of brilliant. Not only does it reflect how sponge-like Dylan is as a consumer of music, but his brilliant prose is also reflected by his opening monologue, as his position as an eminent historian of music. After Patsy Cline’s ‘Crazy’ finishes, he provides some stellar insight into the life and times of the country star whose life was cut tragically short. 

Providing a full account of madness and mental illness through a variety of songs, this captivating episode is just another reflector of Dylan’s astute understanding of the idiosyncrasies of human nature. Furthermore, the fluid podcast preceded the style that we see so ubiquitous today by a decade, a testament to his artistry. 

Bob Dylan’s favourite songs about madness:

  • Patsy Cline – ‘Crazy’
  • Jimmie Lunceford and his Orchestra – ‘I’m Nuts About Screwy Music’
  • Eddie Cochran – ‘Nervous Breakdown’
  • James Brown and The Famous Flames – ‘I’ll Go Crazy’
  • Charlie Parker – ‘Relaxin’ at The Camarillo’
  • Prince Buster – ‘Madness’
  • Jimi Hendrix – ‘Manic Depression’
  • Peggy Lee – ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’
  • Bo Diddley – ‘Crackin’ Up’
  • Johnny Paycheck – ‘(Like Me) You’ll Recover in Time’
  • Annie Ross – ‘Twisted’
  • The Tibbs Brothers – ‘I’m Going Crazy’
  • The Mighty Sparrow – ‘Mad Bomber’
  • Little Walter – ‘Crazy Mixed-Up World’
  • Dinah Washington – ‘Blow Top Blues’
  • Porter Wagoner – ‘The Rubber Room’
  • Beatrice Kay w/ Mitchell Ayres and His Orchestra – ‘Hooray, Hooray, I’m Going Away’
  • Redd Foxx – ‘It’s Fun To Be Living In The Crazy House’
  • Mose Allison – ‘Lost Mind’
  • Jack Kittel – ‘Psycho’
  • Nirvana – ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle’

Stream the full playlist, below.