On November 17, 1978, Bob Dylan was performing in San Diego at the San Diego Sports Arena. He recalled an incident that happened onstage:
“Towards the end of the show someone out in the crowd … knew I wasn’t feeling too well. I think they could see that. And they threw a silver cross on the stage. Now usually I don’t pick things up in front of the stage … But I looked down at that cross. I said, ‘I gotta pick that up.’ So I picked up the cross and I put it in my pocket … And I brought it backstage and I brought it with me to the next town, which was out in Arizona … I was feeling even worse than I’d felt when I was in San Diego. I said, ‘Well, I need something tonight.’ I didn’t know what it was. I was used to all kinds of things. I said, ‘I need something tonight that I didn’t have before.’ And I looked in my pocket and I had this cross.”Clinton Heylin, (2001). Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited. New York: Harper Collins
Shortly thereafter, Dylan had an experience that he interpreted as an experience with Jesus. Dylan said later:
“Jesus put his hand on me…It was a physical thing. I felt it. I felt it all over me. I felt my whole body tremble. The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up.”
Soon, Dylan participated in a discipleship course run by the Association of Vineyard Churches. As an outgrowth of being born again, Dylan’s music for the next few years would be devoted to the teachings of Jesus and sharing that passion. The music written and performed by Dylan was an embracing of contemporary gospel music. The purest example of Dylan’s gospel approach in this time period is seen in the song “Pressing On” from 1980’s album Saved:
The lyrics of the chorus are straightforward: “Well I’m pressing on / To the higher calling of my Lord.” What is the narrator pressing against? Dylan tells us in the first verse:
Many try to stop me, shake me up in my mind
Say, “Prove to me that He is Lord, show me a sign”
What kind of sign they need when it all come from within
When what’s lost has been found, what’s to come has already been?
The doubters are all around, asking for evidence, and Dylan pushes back through his expression of faith, embracing the idea of “pressing on” in counter to everything in the way. There is a connection to another song in the first line of the second verse as Dylan sings, “Shake the dust off of your feet,” which is similar to Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live Is to Fly”: “So shake the dust off of your wings / And the sleep out of your eyes.” For Van Zandt, this line is part of the song’s overall call to cast off any restraints, whether it be laziness, sloth, self-imposed barriers, and accept life in all of its highs and lows. Dylan completes his own line by singing “Shake the dust off of your feet, don’t look back.” [Note: Commenters point out that, with this line, Dylan is most certainly referencing Matthew 10:14: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.”]
The first half of the line may be an unintended reference to Van Zandt, whereas the second half is a deliberate connection to a song from Dylan’s past catalog. In “She Belongs to Me” off of 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan sings: “She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist / She don’t look back.” There’s plenty of respect in this statement by Dylan but there’s also a hint of wistfulness. He knows that her attitude is: What happened has happened; there’s no use looking to the past because it is over and can’t be changed. Dylan suggests in this line that perhaps that stance is slightly too restrictive. The wistfulness of the line is gone when D. A. Pennebaker takes it for the title of his 1965 documentary Dont Look Back (without the apostrophe). Following Dylan around England during his 1965 concert tour, the documentary portrays Dylan in many moods and stances throughout the film, showing him in a transition phase as he is about to embrace electric, rock ‘n roll music later in the year. The defiance Dylan demonstrates in the film in the midst of his artistic evolution certainly reflects the attitude of the artist in “She Belongs to Me.” Dylan don’t look back. In “Pressing On,” Dylan adopts the same vigorous stance once again. During the concert tours performed during the time of this gospel phase, Dylan does not sing any of the songs of his old catalog, eschewing them in place of the songs of religious devotion. He has no need to search within his past work for answers. Don’t look back; he has found what he needs in Jesus.
Having said all of this, the lyrics are secondary in “Pressing On” as this song is a platform for the musical expression on display. There is pure joy in Dylan as he sings with his accompanying singers. It’s not fair to call them background singers as they are very much in the forefront throughout the song. They all sing with passion, but it’s Dylan’s commitment that is most striking. This is some of the best singing of his career, filled with yearning and abandonment. He is pressing against doubt and seeks for his singing to be the ultimate expression of his faith.
There are a few models for the musical structure of “Pressing On.” The chord progression of the verse matches the chords and melody of Van Morrison’s 1971 song “Tupelo Honey.” Additionally, Dylan attempted to achieve a similar sound as “Pressing On” during 1970’s New Morning. The mixture of piano, organ, and singing with background singers at mark 1:26 of the song feels like a dry run for “Pressing On” with different vocal delivery from Dylan.
Two live versions of “Pressing On” were featured on 2017’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 13: Trouble No More 1979–1981, a collection which focuses on the best of Dylan’s born again period. The first is from November 6, 1979 at the Fox Warfield Theatre in San Francisco:
As in the studio recording, Dylan is playing an ideal gospel piano. His voice is in a low register to start, but then kicks up into a higher octave as the song progresses. At one point, the piano drops away and it’s just Dylan and his singers belting away accompanied only by handclaps. It’s clear how much Dylan is enraptured by singing with them. The band comes back in during the second verse as the song builds and builds with Dylan singing of his faith without any restraint. This is the closing number of the show and, with this song, Dylan leaves the stage at a high point.
The second live version of “Pressing On” from the Trouble No More collection is from an April 1980 appearance at Toronto’s Massey Hall:
The arrangement of the song here is different from the San Francisco performance as midway through the song the drummer starts playing double time with the band joining in as if everyone onstage is launching a rocket on a mission to land in heaven. The abandonment in the band’s performance is matched by the intense, yet free vocals by Dylan and the singers. “Pressing On” closes the show as it did in the previous performance linked above. Just as the band is hitting a crescendo, we can hear Dylan yell “Good night!” As the band keeps playing, it’s easy to imagine Dylan leaving the stage, covered in sweat and supported by band members like James Brown’s old act. Only this isn’t an act, Dylan is not looking back, expressing the true emotions of his faith, and leaving it all on stage for the audience.
A performance of “Pressing On” was used in Todd Haynes’ 2007 film I’m Not There. In this strand of the film, Christian Bale plays a Dylan-like figure named Jack Rollins, who is a leader of the folk revival in the early 60s before meeting a wave of criticism for a public appearance in which he says he sees himself in Lee Harvey Oswald. In this section of the film, Bale is doing his version of a Bob Dylan impression, and it’s a stale reading of Dylan in his early folk years. The narrative of this thread of the film jumps forward in time and focuses on Rollins being born again. He leaves his music career and the name Jack Rollins behind to become Father John, who uses music as a central component of his sermons:
Father John is no longer performing to thousands of fans in a sold out concert, but rather to about 30 people in a small, fluorescent-lit basement with kids running around in the back not paying attention. Despite the setting, the performance by Father John is riveting. Wearing snake-skin boots, there are hints that Father John could be a different type of preacher than what he is espousing in his sermons, but it doesn’t matter because of his personal magnetism during the song.
In this scene, Bale’s power as a performer is evident, transcending the paint-by-numbers Dylan portrayal from earlier in the movie to something more, suggesting a longer, deeper story about this mysterious Father John. Bale’s performance is enabled by his lip-synching the forceful reading of “Pressing On” by John Doe:
John Doe, formerly of the seminal Los Angeles punk band X, does not regularly play gospel music, but rather adopts a roots rock sound. Yet his rendition of “Pressing On” is truly transcendent as required by the material. Dylan himself said of Doe’s performance that it was “a once in a lifetime recording.”
Call it the “born again” period of Dylan’s career or his “gospel years,” “Pressing On” is at the pinnacle of this type of music. Dylan embraced every inch of the passion needed to perform a song of this nature. Once he left this style of music behind, he never played the song again in concert after 1980. He didn’t look back and left it all on the stage.
Photo by Scott Bunn