Tangled Up in Keys
Why does Bob Dylan namecheck Alicia Keys in his new song?
Bob Dylan's 44th album, Modern Times, isn't coming out until Aug. 29, but it's already planting stories in the press. The album's title alludes to Chaplin and possibly Sartre, but a shout out to an R&B diva born in 1980, the year of Dylan's Saved, has already generated advance buzz. "Dylan Searches for New Soul Mate," blared a headline from the Guardian, offering as evidence the following lines from "Thunder on the Mountain," the album's opening track:
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.
Maybe Dylan looked at Keys' Wikipedia site. Keys was indeed born in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen (when Dylan was "living down the line" in his born-again phase). Keys was asked for a sound bite about the reference, and she gushed that she was "crazy excited about it" and "honored to be on his mind." Some Dylan watchers, still reeling from his creepy 2004 appearance in a Victoria's Secret ad, may be a little less crazy excited. Does Keys inspire Dylan's tears merely because, at 26, she's way too young for him?
In fact, Keys is just the latest in a long line of black female singers who have besotted Dylan since his youth. (OK, Keys is half black, and maybe Dylan learned that from Wikipedia, too.) Dylan has long worshiped at the shrine of the black female voice, a source of musical inspiration, erotic obsession, and even religious conversion.
In the beginning, there was the mighty Mavis Staples, whose vocal on a Staples Singers record inspired the teenage Dylan to "stay up for about a week, and who, in turn, made a gospel anthem out of "Blowin' in the Wind" after she learned that this white boy had been her fan since childhood. (The white boy had also blown harmonica on a Victoria Spivey record in 1962 and said that he was first inspired to play folk music after hearing an Odetta record.) But despite Dylan's efforts, they were not to be the next Johnny Cash and June Carter. A couple of years ago, Staples revealed that Dylan had been the lost love of her life. "We courted for about seven years, and it was my fault that we didn't go on and get married," recalled Staples, who would later regret turning down his marriage proposal because she thought Dr. King wanted her to "stay black."
Dylan stayed black anyway. In the '60s, his attempted crossover found its way into lyrics. "Spanish Harlem Incident" : "The night is pitch black, come an' make my/ Pale face fit into place, ah, please!"; "Outlaw Blues" : I got a woman in Jackson,/ I ain't gonna say her name/ She's a brown-skin woman, but I love her just the same"; and, in a lamentable image, "I Want You" : "Well, I return to the Queen of Spades. … " By 1978, when Dylan embarked on what was cynically called his "alimony tour," he provided spectacle by adding, along with disco arrangements and Neil Diamond-style jumpsuits, a group of African-American backup singers, who the Village Voice's Robert Christgau, in a reference to Ray Charles' Raelettes, dubbed "The Dylanettes." Dylan would often wryly introduce these singers as "my ex-wife, my next wife, my girlfriend, and my fiancee." In fact, one of the singers, Helena Springs, was not only his girlfriend but cowrote more songs with him—most of them unrecorded—than anyone else and helped inspire him to write "New Pony" and to find Jesus. Another, Carolyn Dennis (the daughter of an original Raelette, who eventually brought her mom into the lineup), became his secret wife in 1986 and gave birth to Dylan's fifth child.
Dylan called the singers the Queens of Rhythm, and would later admit that he hid behind them to compensate for his own musical uncertainty. "I had them up there so I wouldn't feel so bad," he said. His born-again Christian phase lasted only a few years, but his ethnic conversion was just beginning. One foggy night in Switzerland in 1987, Dylan had a mystical experience and realized that he could deliver what the Queens of Rhythm had been giving him. "It's almost like I heard a voice. It wasn't even like it was me thinking it," he recalled. "I noticed that all the people out there—I was used to them looking at the girl singers, they were good-looking girls, you know? ... But when that happened, they weren't looking at the girls anymore. They were looking at the main mic." When Dylan found his inner soul sister, the Queens of Rhythm lost a gig.
Dylan and Staples had a musical reunion in 2002 to record his gospel number "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking," and, compared to the 1979 version, Dylan sounds not like a white Negro but a soul survivor. When he rasps about sitting at the "welcome table," he sounds like he's earned his right to sing the blues. Dylan and Staples' intonation and phrasing wouldn't have sounded so uncannily alike back when she was rebuffing his proposal. This is the millennial Dylan who shouts out to Keys on his latest record, a Dylan who is curious about Keys because he has already made himself more like her—the kind of affinity not lost on Todd Haynes when he considered casting Beyoncé as one of the six actors playing Dylan in his upcoming biopic I'm Not There. Dylan's earlier lyrics alluded to his interracial eroticism, but a more recent lyric could apply to his transformation. He's not dark yet, but he's getting there.
David Yaffe is assistant professor of English at Syracuse University and the author of Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing.