Monday, February 13, 2017

It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) -- Dylan Sets The Hook

This is the song that locked me in. That is, when I was a kid living through that convulsive cultural concussion that included Kennedy assassinations, a war in Southeast Asia that made no sense, cities burning and ongoing black oppression despite the new laws that had been passed --- and television escapism that entertained and diverted everyone's attention but did nothing to feed the soul -- this is the song that told me someone was out there who understood what was rattling around inside my head... or soul.

Arrows have barbs for a reason. Bow hunters from ancient times to the present understood that arrows needed arrowheads or barbs to embed them in the sinews and keep them from falling out.

Fish hooks likewise have barbed tips for the very same purpose. No matter how that fish squirms and shakes, waggles and flops, that hook is only going to penetrate deeper, tangled in the sinews.

So it is that a song's lyrics can penetrate ever so deeply into unprotected, unarmored tissue, the soft underbelly of the soul.

I wasn't the only one to be pierced.

What I remember from my youth is hearing that "the drug problem" was only a problem when it wasn't contained in the ghetto. That racism wasn't an issue as long as it stayed in the Deep South. Books like Steinbeck's Travels With Charley, a first person account of a road trip with his dog, caught many readers off guard when he wrote frankly about the last leg of his journey, through our southern states, and what he saw there.

Hollywood's Easy Rider was also a road trip story. Hippies were also not welcome in the Deep South. This song accompanied the soundtrack from that film, and produced the most profound effects upon its hearers, at least those like me whose hearts were experiencing disillusionment with the way things were. Were we living the American Dream? How could we have so much and feel so empty?

It's Alright, Ma is a song about innocence lost.

* * * *
The elements of existential philosophy are all here. The sense of the absurd. Disillusionment. The tragic sense of life. But when you reach the end Dylan's response is not resignation. As the narrator goes kicking, upside down inside handcuffs, he kicks his legs to crash it off. 

The existential sense of living within an absurd world becomes a recurring theme throughout the decades with Dylan. His music took root because we ourselves felt it, understood in some inarticulate way. His songs put into words the nebulous things we were feeling. You can especially feel it in his Grammy-winning Time Out Of Mind. "I've been down to the bottom of a world full of lies, I ain't lookin' for nothin' in anyone's eyes," he sings. "Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear... it's not dark yet. But it's getting there."

* * * *

It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)

Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying

Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying

Temptation’s page flies out the door
You follow, find yourself at war
Watch waterfalls of pity roar
You feel to moan but unlike before
You discover that you’d just be one more
Person crying

So don’t fear if you hear
A foreign sound to your ear
It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing

As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don’t hate nothing at all
Except hatred

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred

While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked

An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it

Advertising signs they con
You into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you

You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand with nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks they really found you

A question in your nerves is lit
Yet you know there is no answer fit
To satisfy, insure you not to quit
To keep it in your mind and not forget
That it is not he or she or them or it
That you belong to

Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to

For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Cultivate their flowers to be
Nothing more than something they invest in

While some on principles baptized
To strict party platform ties
Social clubs in drag disguise
Outsiders they can freely criticize
Tell nothing except who to idolize
And then say God bless him

While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he’s in

But I mean no harm nor put fault
On anyone that lives in a vault
But it’s alright, Ma, if I can’t please him

Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex, they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
While money doesn’t talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony

While them that defend what they cannot see
With a killer’s pride, security
It blows the minds most bitterly
For them that think death’s honesty
Won’t fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes must get lonely

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed
Graveyards, false gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough, what else can you show me?

And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only

Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music

Who but Dylan wrote songs like this? I know not one.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. 


Phil T. said...

It was Sophomore year in HS, 1968. Though I attended Catholic School, (Mater Christi in Astoria, Queens, NY), it was quite progressive for the times. We listened and analyzed this song in Mr. Tom Intondi's English class. Though Tom passed away since then, I am forever grateful for that class and his (and of course Bob's) effort to open our minds to the truth behind the curtain.

Great article.

Anonymous said...

It's alright Ma = most brilliant Dylan song. It sits alone at the apex of his opus.

Ed Newman said...

Thanks for the visit. Yes, that was a great period in Dylan's song-writing career... and this captures the full flower of that genius.