I’m Alright: the great Dylan interpreter

by Jochen Markhorst

In the second, revised edition of his wonderful study of the Basement Tapes, Million Dollar Bash from 2014, Sid Griffin devotes two short pieces to “I’m Alright”. The first one he wrote when he only knew the first take, the fifty-eight seconds one, the second after the release of The Bootleg Series Complete Vol. 11: The Complete Basement Tapes, which features the second take. Brutally aborted too, but this time at 1:45.

The longer take doesn’t console Sid; in both pieces he regrets that this song remained unfinished. And in both pieces he notes that this would have been a perfect song for The Faces. The Faces from the time of Ronnie Lane and Rod Stewart, that is.

Rod Stewart is, certainly on his first records, indeed a undisputed, great Dylan interpreter. Nick Hornby even devotes an entire chapter in his 31 Songs to one of Stewart’s Dylan covers, “Mama You Been On My Mind”. Hornby introduces his ode with a kind of disclaimer:

“It’s hard to imagine now, but loving Rod Stewart in 1973 was the equivalent of loving Oasis in 1994, or The Stone Roses in 1989 – in other words, although it didn’t make you the coolest kid in your class, it was certainly nothing to be ashamed of.”

The embarrassment only begins with the sixth solo album, Atlantic Crossing (1975) with that megalomaniac cover and the ubersweet world hit “Sailing”, with the straw hats, with the jet set stuff and all those interchangeable blonde models, the carnivalesque low point “Ole Ola” (the football song for the Scottish World Cup team, 1978) and the final knockout with “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”.

Before that, however, Hornby argues, the albums with The Faces and Stewart’s next five solo albums, before 1975, Rod is totally okay.

On those first solo records, Dylan is a common thread. Stewart records beautiful covers of “Only A Hobo” (on Gasoline Alley, 1970), “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” (Every Picture Tells A Story, 1971), “Mama You Been On Mind” (Never A Dull Moment, 1972) and “Girl From The North Country” (Smiler, 1974).

The next record is Atlantic Crossing, the one with which Hornby’s embarrassment begins, and the first record without Dylan cover. But it opens with a song of his own writing that explains Griffin’s association: “Three Time Loser”. Stewart doesn’t know the obscure Basement recording yet, but most likely Sid is triggered by the chorus of “I’m Alright”:

All right, I’m all right
I’m a three time loser
But I’m all right
All right, I’m all right
I’m a three time loser
But I’m all right

Dylan’s throwaway actually only shares that one expression with Stewart’s chorus:

I'm a three time loser.
Caught it up in Monterey,
Shook it up in East Virginia,
Now my friends say it's here to stay.

. . .but in the rest of the song there’s one Dylan reference after another. He sings a lady in leopard-skin ankle-high boots, and the third verse seems to be a nod to the mid-sixties Dylan:

How dare you have a party
In a Chelsea basement
When the poor excited Jezebel said come outside.
She felt me up and kissed my face,
Put her dirty hands down in my pants.
She took all of my money,
Left me naked by the silvery moon.

Chelsea, Jezebel (the nun, from “Tombstone Blues”), the basement from “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, and with some tolerance there are more lines to draw to Dylan songs, at least enough to explain Griffin’s Stewart association with “I’m Alright”.

The song is a rather banal rocker by the way, and will not quite meet Sid’s ideal of an exciting Faces/Stewart rendition of a Dylan song.

There is a common ground, though: Wilson Pickett. On June 15, ’66 (and not 1967, which most websites erroneously report) The Wicked Pickett is released, the album with “Mustang Sally”, with “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love”, with “Sunny” and “Knock On Wood”, with a Wilson Pickett, in short, at a peak in his best years – a record that undoubtedly can be found in the Big Pink’s record cabinet, probably brought along by soul-aficionado Robbie Robertson. The penultimate song on that record is “Three Time Loser”:

How many teardrops gonna fall tonight?
How many heartaches must a woman have in one life?
I lost a lover, lost a friend
Through with love I just can't win.
Three time loser
Three time loser.
One, two three in misery.
Three time loser.

It’s a steaming soul smasher, tailor-made for “one of the roughest and sweatiest soul singers” (radio maker Dylan, Theme Time Radio Hour episode 11), of which Dylan only brings the title and theme to “I’m Alright”.

An improvising Dylan derives the music from that other soul greatness, from Curtis Mayfield and his Impressions. Melody deviates only slightly from “People Get Ready” and that Robbie Robertson is such a fan of Mayfield’s guitar licks and -fills is something we often hear, here in the Basement.

Lyrically the song is indeed undeveloped. The simple chorus was already fixed, apparently (because Rick Danko sings along), the verses consist, like in more Basement songs, of filler lyrics, incoherent clichés, unintelligible sounds, semantic misses and cover-ups:

Oh, it’s so high, so divisive
It’s all can, I swear to God
You know she’s gonna be the death of me
But she opened my heart
And now she takes in my breath, but I,
You know, she’s sucking out the life and breath of me   

 …for example (or something). It doesn’t tell too much, but at least it communicates the theme: amorous disappointment – a disheartened protagonist who considers himself a sucker because he is once again in love with the wrong woman.

So, the only artist worth mentioning covering the song is forced to invent some lyrics himself. In 2016 the very nice tribute album Bob Dylan Uncovered Vol. 2 is released at Paradiddle Records and its opening, “I’m Alright” by Bill Shuren & The Cavalry, is so successful that it is also released as a single. Bill Shuren turns this second verse into:

Oh, it’s so high, so defensive, it’s okay,
Now, the sweetest girl
You know she’s gonna be the death of me
Well she holds in my heart
And then she takes in my breath, but I,
You know, she’s sucking out the life and breath of me


…and why not, indeed. The soul from the original is skillfully replaced by a melodic rock approach à la Hootie & The Blowfish, and with a small trick (a tiny, instrumental bridge) plus a beautiful guitar solo, Shuren stretches “I’m Alright” to a respectable 3:17.

From 1981, after five albums without Dylan cover, Rod Stewart returns to his old love at irregular intervals. On Tonight I’m Yours he sings “Just Like A Woman”, in 1995 “Sweetheart Like You” appears on Spanner In The Works, he records “The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar”, in 2006 “If Not For You” and a gruesome “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” in ’97, but he never approaches the intensity and unpolished beauty of the early seventies. The low point is the smoothed, cotton-candy adaptation of “Forever Young”.

Some rehabilitation is achieved on The Rod Stewart Sessions 1971-1998 (2009), a compilation of unreleased material and alternative versions. On side 4 an unknown version of “This Wheel’s On Fire” from 1992 surfaces, on which the hard rocking, unpolished and stomping Rod “Faces” Stewart suddenly shows his best Dylan side again.

Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold.  His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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  1. Oh, yes. Rod Stewart made fabulous records up to ‘Atlantic Crossing’. Such a shame: the artistic ruin of a fine singer. My own introduction to the work of Bob took place when I bought ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’ back at the end of ’71 when I was 11 years old. Rod’s take of ‘Tomorrow Is a Long Time’ remains one of my all time favourite Dylan covers.

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