by Jochen Markhorst
When Modern Times is released, in August 2006, the old master has achieved a status that a new album immediately hits the top of the charts and is breaking news in a wide range of the most diverse media. Enough is to be said about this particular album, but the trending topic is the surprise that the starlet Alicia Keys is being sung in the opening song “Thunder On The Mountain”
I was thinking about Alicia Keys, couldn’t help from crying
When she was born in Hell’s Kitchen, I was living down the line
I’m wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be
I been looking for her even clean through Tennessee.
It is quite an issue. “A declaration of love,” some think, others consider it a bit creepy, and many are surprised at Dylan’s factual knowledge – Keys does come from New York’s problem neighbourhood Hell’s Kitchen and indeed did disappear, for three weeks in 2006, after the death of her grandmother.
Alicia herself has no idea either to what she owes the name check, and she acts incredulously pleased and honoured. Dylan chuckles and confines himself to a brief explanation when Rolling Stone’s Jonathan Lethem asks: “I remember seeing her on the Grammys. I think I was on the show with her, I didn’t meet her or anything. But I said to myself, there’s nothing about that girl I don’t like.”
We probably don’t need to look for much more behind it. The master recycles here, as he re-launches and re-uses a lot on this album anyway, a few lines from “Ma Rainey”, an ode from and by Memphis Minnie from 1940:
I was thinking about Ma Rainey, wonder where could Ma Rainey be
I been looking for her, even been ‘n old Tennessee
She was born in Georgia, traveled all over this world
And also the words living down the line and couldn’t keep from cryin’ do come along in this song, confirming that the Alicia Keys verse is not much more than a playful paraphrase. Nevertheless, Keys may feel honoured, obviously, and she repeatedly expresses the hope that she may one day meet Dylan. The more optimistic followers now expect an answering song on her next album, but Alicia finds that a bit too pedantic. Her poor excuse is bad, cowardly and charming: “The problem is, nothing good rhymes with Dylan. And Zimmerman is worse.”
In the end, her reverence is much more elegant than a sung reply in a song. For the documentary Muscle Shoals (2013), about the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, Keys opts for an interpretation of Dylan’s “Pressing On”, a song he recorded there in 1980, again with producer Jerry Wexler, for his second evangelical album, Saved. It is a tasteful and actually brave choice. From the rich history of the studio, she could have picked dozens of other, more famous and perhaps also better matching songs, but she goes for a forgotten gem of one of Dylan’s most maligned albums. And then produces a beautiful cover thereof, by the way – apart from being a nice lady, she is most certainly a gifted musician too.
Of the evangelical phase, Saved has been burned down the most enthusiastically, on both fronts. Granted, some reviewers do a very one-dimensional job, but still: filtered, the criticism is justified. Musically most of the songs do not reach the average level of Slow Train Coming and Shot Of Love, which is even sort of recognised by Dylan himself:
“Slow Train was a big album. Saved didn’t have those kinda numbers but to me it was just as big an album. I’m fortunate that I’m in a position to release an album like Saved with a major record company so that it will be available to the people who would like to buy it.”
… lyrically the album is generally too preachy, overdramatic even, and too fundamentalistic to be covered up by a mantle of love. That only works in those few moments when the power of the music overshadows the message; at “In The Garden” for example. And “Pressing On” too.
“Pressing On” has stood the test of time, and Keys is not the first to notice it. In the intriguing film I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007), the Dylan split-off Jack Rollins / Father John treats a pitifully sad room on a masterful version of the song – actor Christian Bale convincingly playbacks John Doe’s performance (much more convincing than the musicians in the accompanying band, in any case). That version also goes back to the original, which at the time, when it was released, was considered by most critics to be one of the few bright spots of the album.
That album version is beautiful. Effectively arranged; after the lonely, driving piano, the female singers, drums organ, bass and guitar drip in. Not a too original structure, of course – but irresistibly exciting with the right melody. The leading role is for the gospel ladies, the starring role for master drummer Jim Keltner, who will remain Dylan’s loyal – and devout – companion for these evangelical years. Keltner counteracts the criticism of the album with references to the quality of the live performances; the excitement and intensity of some evenings: “…it’s a pity those songs were recorded in the studio, instead of live.”
Now, Keltner is a certified hypersensitive emotional person, an endearing man who sits sobbing behind the drum kit, overwhelmed by the beauty or content of a (Dylan) song. This has been the case since his third Dylan session (after “Watching The River Flow” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece”), since “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” in 1973: “It was such a touching song. It was the first time I actually cried when I was playing.” And not the last time, by his own account:
“So I went over to his studio in Santa Monica to listen to the album. I was put in a little room with a chair and some speakers. There was a box of Kleenex on the table next to me, and by the third song I started to cry and cried practically all the way through the end of the tape.”
But he definitely has a point here. Live recordings from before the studio recording (the beautiful Warfield ’79, for example) do illustrate that this is really a song for the stage, or even better, for Sunday mass in a wooden church somewhere in Alabama.
Covers abound, especially in Christian circles. The Chicago Mass Choir gospel choir with Regina McCrary is impressive and the many crackling amateur recordings of church orchestras on YouTube demonstrate that “Pressing On” can hardly be ruined. Although … the Irish songwriter Glen Hansard is a talented Dylan disciple, performed as his support act (Australia ’07), but is also a devout follower of Hare Krishna. And consequently his, otherwise skilled, version lacks the je-ne-sais-quoi (on Bob Dylan In The 80s, a very sympathetic tribute album from 2014).
But above all covers, the “secular” Alicia Keys shines – perhaps mostly because of the dry, warm sound of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, bringing her recording back home.
What else is on the site
You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page. You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.
The index to all the 590 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.
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If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.
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