One of Time Out Of Mind’s three drummers, Keltner first worked with Dylan in ’71 and has worked with him often since, including the session that produced Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door – “I actually cried while we were recording it.”
To speak about Bob is usually to try and pin him down in some kind of way. See, the thing with Bob is – he’s not as mysterious as everybody seems to think he is. That’s the one thing that I’ve always found about Bob. He’s a really normal guy. There’s a great normalcy to him. I actually love how normal he is. But his immense gift is so great that that people have always elevated him to this other place and try really hard to figure him out, in a way they might not do other artists. I don’t believe that, when it comes to recording, Bob has done anything much differently from anybody else, really. Everybody is recording with mics and stuff – so, really, how different can it be? And everybody, when they go into the studio, they want to try something new, right? Bob has just always done that, too, try to do something that he hasn’t done before.
The first time I met him was early 1971. The earthquake had just hit Los Angeles, and I was over in England for a spell when I got a call from Leon Russell, to go to New York to meet up with he and Carl Radle and Jesse Ed Davis at a studio to record with Bob.
It was around March, a cold, rainy day down in the Village. I remember Bob seemed to have a cold, because he was blowing his nose and tossing Kleenex around. He had a pencil and a notepad, and he was writing a lot. He was writing these songs on the spot in the studio, or finishing them up at least. And the rest of us, we just started playing, jamming around on some different chords and things, and finally the song came together, Bob came over, and we recorded them: “Watching The River Flow” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece”. Those two songs were done really quickly.
I remember that Bob didn’t say anything throughout the day. I mean, he and Leon were talking, but he didn’t say anything to the rest of us. And I didn’t think that it was weird. He didn’t seem weird, like he was trying not to talk. The thing was, nobody was talking to him, because I believe everybody was sort of afraid to try and talk to him. But I remember, later on, the talk was that Bob didn’t speak. I just thought, “Well, yeah. But you probably had to speak to him for him to speak back to you!” People will say that Bob’s not prone to smalltalk, and that’s actually not true. I’ve been with him many times when we’ve had lots of that. But, you have to appreciate: when you’re in the studio, there’s a lot of intensity. Your intention is to make a record. And that’s a big deal, y’know? It’s a record. So your mind is focused on a lot of different things.
I think it’s true that Bob is often happy to kind of jam a song together. If you’ve been writing a song and playing it on your own, and you want to hear what it’s gonna be like with a band, that’s just what you would want to do. You want to come in and see what the players have to offer. I mean, some artists do come in with a real definite thing in mind, and some don’t. I’ve played on records with both those attitudes, and I can’t say that somebody knowing exactly what they want from the get-go is best. I mean, sometimes you need direction, sure, but as far as searching for the song, I’d say that was pretty normal.
This is one of the reasons you surround yourself with musicians you trust. On Time Out Of Mind, Bob called me and a lot of other guys specifically. I remember one evening, maybe the first night, he asked me, “What do you think about Jim Dickinson for this?” I said, “Aw, that’s a great call.” Jim Dickinson’s usually a good call, anyway, on most stuff. Next day, Jim Dickinson was there. So Bob was thinking about the sound, y’know. He put the call out for Duke Robillard, Augie Meyers, all those guys, I think Bob’s process, more than going around individual musicians saying, “Hey, why doncha try this, or why doncha try that,” is to think to himself: who would play good on this record? I think that’s probably the best way to do it, in fact. You can either let somebody else get the musicians for you, and then figure out how to try to tell them to do it, or you get the musicians yourself who you think can pull off your ideas.
When we did Time Out Of Mind, I think there were some demos of the songs that we listened to, or earlier versions that had been done prior to the sessions that I played on that they wanted to do again and flesh out another way. And there were other songs Bob would just go out and begin to play, and we would begin to noodle around and back him up a little bit. There are a lot of first takes on there, in my recollection. Y’know, we would go on and do more takes, but often we’d come back and realise the first take was the one. I don’t know what Daniel and Bob might have done after the musicians left, I can’t speak to that, but I know that Bob, pretty much, when he does his performance, and he likes it and the band is good – that’s it. That’s the way, pretty much, that it’s always worked with Bob.
The second song I ever recorded with Bob after that “Watching The River Flow” session, was early in the morning, on the Warner Studio soundstage, where we did “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, for the Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid film. Sam Peckinpah was there, and he was huddled up with Bob, talking to him. I admire Peckinpah as much as anyone, but that day, which was the only day I ever met him, he had a rumpled suit on, a red bandana round his head, and when I got up close to him, I saw his face and I felt so sorry for him, because he had the Hangover of Death. Y’know that one? I mean, his face was crushed.
Anyway, this is a very emotional thing for me, and a very powerful moment. The changes in that song were so haunting, and you put that together with the words, and you put that together with Bob’s performance – which was really beautiful, one of his great vocals - and then put that together with the image on the screen, because we had the movie playing there as we recorded, it was too much for me. I’ve told this story many times, but I actually cried while we were recording it. That was a perfect example of a beautiful session and how Bob works. We went in, we heard Bob play the song maybe once or twice. He played, we played, and that was it. The great thing about the really great songwriters, is that the great songs, the really magic ones, they play themselves. There’s very little question about what you’re supposed to do. I love that when it happens. And Bob has done that over the years to a great extent, with a great variety of musicians.
Of these unreleased songs that are coming out, I have a memory of “Girl From The Red River Shore”. I have a memory of it as being just beautiful. On Time Out Of Mind, I was sitting right in front of Bob. It was the first time I’d ever recorded with him like that. He was in the corner part of the room, facing out, and they had my drums facing him full on, with the rest of the musicians all around. It was interesting for me to work with him that way. And that particular song, it was one of those really beautiful Bob moments: a great song, and he sang it really beautifully.
I wanted to check the words with him. With Bob, I don’t get the words right away, there’s so much story in his songs that you usually only get it when you listen later, especially when you’re involved in the playing. What happens with me, though – and I’m sure it’s the same with the guitar players and the other musicians who play with Bob – is there’ll be key words in there that set me off in some musical direction. The more of a storyteller the artist is, the more it affects how the whole song comes together, and that was one of those songs. I could feel everybody in the room feeling that song. I think that was a first take. And, yeah, I was disappointed it wasn’t on the album.
Man, there were so many funny things that happened while we were doing that record, and, plus, I was going through a personal crisis at that time, that Bob was actually talking me through, in a funny way. There really was so much going on during that record - but I just can’t tell you any of those stories. I can’t tell you any of the personal stories, and the stories that were really funny to me, I don’t want to break the confidence that my friends have in me. But it was a funny time, and an intense time.
One thing I can say. Daniel Lanois was producing, Mark Howard was engineering, and you have a room full of musicians; some of whom Daniel wanted to be there, and some of whom Bob wanted to be there. So there was this curious dynamic. All the musicians are very respectful of each other. It was a great hang, everybody really loved hanging out and the musicians had a great time together. But there was this dynamic going on between Bob and Daniel.
What I saw was that Bob really was bouncing off Daniel. This may have appeared to some people to be Bob abusing Daniel, but I’d say it was more that he was using Daniel to bounce off. That was the main value that Daniel brought to the production of that record. He really allowed Bob to know what it was he wanted - and what he didn’t want. And I think the reason the recorded ended up really beautiful was exactly because of this dynamic that was going on between Lanois and Bob. I believe that, in the end, Bob got what he wanted, but he got it through that process. And it was a very intense process. That’s all I can really say. And maybe that’s enough.