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Two years after his break-up with WBUR, Chris Lydon is back in business

In his 1973 book Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail í72 (Simon & Schuster), Hunter S. Thompson recalls running into Chris Lydon, then a reporter for the New York Times, at a campaign event in Nebraska. As Thompson told it, the encounter was brief but lively: " ĎYou pointy-head bastard,í I said. "

Thirty years on, Lydon, 62, remains unfazed by Thompsonís assessment. " In those days that was a very cordial greeting, " he quips. " I used to quote Virgil at him. That was a very long time ago, but good days. "

Good days havenít been in abundance for Lydon, at least not on a professional level, since 2001, when a messy and much-publicized contract dispute with WBUR led to the cessation of his involvement with the popular talk show The Connection ó an episode he describes as a " train wreck. " Now, though, with a new radio show due to start in March, things are looking up for the man who was once described as " Rush Limbaugh for grown-ups. "

Actually, Chris Lydon has about as much to do with Rush Limbaugh as Mozart has with Weird Al Yankovic. In the seven years that Lydon hosted The Connection, he was an unabashedly ó some might say flamboyantly ó erudite host. A pointy head, if you like. And this was one of the things that made his show so compelling: regardless of whom Lydon had on ó primatologist, politician, poet ó the host would often seem to know more about his guestsí area of expertise than they did.

" Thatís me, Iím a searcher, " Lydon says. " There are a couple of things in the world that Iím not interested in. The truth is, Iím not very good at rock and roll or TV culture. " Perhaps, but donít even get Lydon started on Virgil. Or, for that matter, Euripides. " The Euripides conception of this puzzle of values and history that the world is living through today is spellbinding, " he says. " We should all be reading the ancients. "

Over the past few weeks, Lydon has had a chance to reacquaint himself with the work of the great tragedian, serving as a chorus member in Peter Sellarsís production of The Children of Herakles, at the American Repertory Theatre. And Lydonís involvement doesnít stop there. Sellars ó who once staged Così fan tutte in a diner and Don Giovanni in the Bronx ó has sought to intensify Euripidesís refugee drama through pre-show dialogues with actual refugees. No prizes for guessing whom he chose to moderate.

" Itís more than a potted plant but less than a ringmaster, " Lydon says of his role. " I think of myself as a midwife. Iím here to help people deliver their best thoughts in the time we have. " A viewing of Sellarsís play, however, quickly reveals that Lydon is more than a midwife of ideas ó very often he is the father, the mother, and the first-grade teacher rolled into one. Indeed, itís clear that Lydon is never happier than when heís in the middle of a debate. By the time he gets off the stage, he is all but flapping his arms with glee.

" I tend to run on a fairly high throttle, " he says. " But this Peter Sellars thing has been unbelievable. Every night has been astonishingly fresh. Itís a kind of alchemy. When you let people speak in their own terms, a miracle happens. "

Those who donít count themselves among Lydonís fans tend to dismiss him as a scene-stealer, more interested in the sound of his own voice than those of his guests. In fairness, though, another strength of The Connection was the way Lydonís enthusiasm rubbed off on people ó guests and listeners alike. He recalls with delight, for instance, a regular caller, " an undocumented Barbadian orphan who lives in Mattapan and knows everything, who has out-talked Gore Vidal and Harold Bloom and Camille Paglia and William F. Buckley. " Lydonís show was nothing if not democratic.

" We had a terrific audience, " he says. " I thought it was a terrific showcase of what the country is really like, without the bullshit. Here in America, you have high-tone media looking down on the audience and the low hyping them and scaring them. But left to their own devices, with the bar set reasonably high, people are just dying to jump in. We took it to 75 stations. It was catnip. It was perfect. "

Then, a couple of years ago, the Connection adventure came to an abrupt, and ugly, halt. " I donít talk about that, " Lydon says gruffly. He will, however, allow that the period after his showís demise was not the high point of his career.

Lydonís tone grows decidedly more animated when talk turns to The Whole Wide World, the radio show he and his long-time producer, Mary McGrath, are set to launch. Though the showís distributor, Public Radio International, hasnít finalized carriers yet, Lydon promises that " itíll come in loud and clear for Boston listeners. " And, while the showís initial run is only seven episodes, Lydon insists that we havenít even come close to hearing the last of him yet. " This is just the opening shot, " he says. " Itís going to be very good. "

As good as The Connection?

" Letís just say that the spirit of the old Connection is very much with us. "

The Children of Herakles runs through January 25 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, in Cambridge. Call (617) 547-8300 for ticket information.

Issue Date: January 23 - 30, 2003
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