Wednesday, March 28, 2018

It's Alright, Ma: Dylan's Scathing Look at Contemporary Culture Through Jaundiced Eyes

Dylan at his best. Dylan at the height of his powers. Dylan as Dylan.

Bringing It All Back Home is the first of a trio of albums Dylan released in the mid-Sixties, the albums that many would argue changed everything, and certainly affirmed Dylan's place in rock history. Little did we know then that he'd still be performing more than half a century later, and what's more, he was still performing this song 50 years later. (Though recorded in 1965 he wrote and first performed it the summer before.)

I like this commentary on the song from the Songfacts website:
Dylan vents about subjects such as commercialism, hypocrisy and warmongering in this song. In the book, Bob Dylan, Performing Artist, author Paul Williams states this song sees Dylan acknowledge "the possibility that the most important (and least articulated) political issue of our times is that we are all being fed a false picture of reality, and it's coming at us from every direction."

Williams adds that Dylan portrays an "alienated individual identifying the characteristics of the world around him and thus declaring his freedom from its 'rules'." *

Dylan has performed the song 772 times in concert and has publicly called it out as a favorite. I have likewise, many times, called it a personal favorite. It was this song, used in the soundtrack for Easy Rider, that pierced me like no other, expressing things that were rattling around inside me but that I was not yet able to articulate.

Like a book of aphorisms or proverbs, there are so many one liners here that have been repeatedly asserted and affirmed since they were penned.

"he not busy being born is busy dying"

"and sometimes even the president of the United States must have to stand naked."

"Meantime, life goes on all around you."

I wish I were able to find the time to dissect this masterpiece. Life does indeed all too often get in the way. For a thought-provoking take on the song I once again defer to Tony Attwood's Untold Dylan. Attwood notes that the message here is bleak, and I suspect that it's not a very appetizing message, yet for me it was an arrow to the heart. Someone was saying something that I completely identified with. Writes Attwood: We can protest for ever, the master says, but “There is no sense in trying” because all the words are wasted. Why? Well you have to wait until the last line to find out, but of course we now know why. Because this is how it is.

There's been a lot of enthusiasm generated by the national student protests regarding gun violence in the schools. It's probably good for young people to be idealistic and hopeful. I was out of step at the time, and probably still out of step.

I've occasionally compared the events of the Sixties to a head injury causing a mild, or maybe not so mild, concussions. The JFK assassination, the realities of racism in the deep South, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations, riots in the streets and, of course, the ubiquitous reality of Viet Nam. 

To borrow a line from a later Dylan songs, "I been hit too hard, seen too much."

For what it's worth, I thought I might highlight or underscore some of the passages from this song that spoke to me back in 1969.

What’s astonishing is how relevant the song continues to be today. And today again, as when it was released in 1964, there’s nothing like it being played on the radio, absolutely nothing that so tells it like it is so vividly, with such poetic precision. It's the Yin of our culture's manufactured Yang.

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

Here's a live performance of the song. It's not just lyrics, it's the way he delivers them that just rivets you. While Dylan was writing this, Mr.  Tambourine Man, Gates of Eden and Subterranean Homesick Blues, The Beatles owned the top of the pop charts with She Loves You and I Want To Hold Your Hand. 

Postmodern deconstruction? Existential angst? Or siimply Dylan being Dylan?

** This song, as noted, has been performed continuously through 2014, with many presidents, and this line ever relevant.
*** I was too young still to "despise my job" but I read recently that 70% of Americans hate their jobs according to one poll. That feels high to me, but job dissatisfaction is a fairly widespread phenomenon.


doolan said...

Darkness at the break of noon... even the most fortunate of us might, at some point, face an unexpected darkness. Shadows even the silver spoon... nobody is immune from unexpected tragedy. The handmade blade, the child's balloon eclipses even the sun and moon... as a grandfather I know that the seemingly simple things, like seeing the joy of a child with a toy, is more awe-inspiring, deeper in meaning than any understanding of the great universe. And, yes, there is no sense in trying to understand either the wonder of a growing child or, indeed, the sun and moon.

Ed Newman said...

Brings many thoughts to mind. Nice angle on this.
I refrained from stating that it necessarily was using Koestler's Darkness at Noon as a starting point.
Thanks for the idea behind the comment.

Phil T. said...

In my sophomore English class in 1968 we had a wonderful young teacher, Tom Intondi. He opened the minds of these 15 year old Catholic students by introducing us to Dylan. We went through both this song and Frankie Lee & Judas Priest. I was never the same after that class.

This verse was always one of my favorites, hitting hard.

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

Excellent article on a masterpiece of a song. One of my favorites by the master.

Michael Sobsey said...

doolan's interpretation is well stated