Sometime this weekend, I had a little music fest with Andrew. I reminded him of U2’s song, “Bad,” and he reminded me of this Dylan gem:
Dylan has always been a favorite of mine. Even though old fuckers liked to tell me he was before my time, and I was too young to appreciate him properly, I still loved him. And fuck them for being exactly the kind of person Dylan would criticize.
I had the good fortune to see him in concert – alas, I was a teenager, and I’ve forgotten most of the concert. But the memories I do have are irreplaceable. I remember riding shotgun in the boyfriend’s car after work – he had just picked me up. I was…seventeen, I think? We were listening to the radio, and the DJ said Dylan was playing at some little theater in Mississippi. We looked at each other, eyebrows arched, silently questioning. And fuck yeah, we headed straight to the sound shop, bought tickets and drove to Mississippi.
It was a long drive, so we were late and missed the first song or so. And we got lost – had to stop and ask directions from a cop. (Good thing he didn’t search the car. He would have stolen our pot.) It was the first concert I’d been to where they kept all the lights on. It was bright, and we could look around at the rest of the concertgoers. We were definitely the youngsters. Those old fuckers were openly smoking pot, passing it around, dancing and singing, and just feeling good. It was an intimate concert. We were in the balcony cheap seats, but Dylan was right there.
I remember thinking it was sad that Dylan couldn’t sell out a tiny theater like that anymore. But I was also grateful, because it means there was still a ticket available for me. It’s a night I hope I never forget.
I hadn’t heard this particular song in years. And my god, I feel like I’m hearing it for the first time. In some ways, I am, because I was a pre-teen or teen when I first heard it. And while I was far more mature than I should have been in those years, listening to this song now, I can see why it’s having a bigger impact now than it did then. It has shot up the ranks of my Dylan favorites and now rests comfortably at the top. (For now. This is always in flux for me, particularly with Dylan.)
“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” was released on Dylan’s 1965 Bringing It All Back Home. This is Dylan at his finest: the social justice poet, filled with anger and righteous indignation. He’s frustrated and pessimistic. The song is a bleak condemnation of the society he was living in (and his society will sound awfully fucking familiar to us): rampant consumerism, crooked politics, never-ending beating of the war drums, etc.
Look how he breaks it down (I started to bold some of my favorite lines, but quickly realized I was about put the whole fucking thing in boldface):
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 fools gold mouthpiece
The hollow horn plays wasted words
Proved 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
That you’d just be
One more person crying.
So don’t fear if you hear
A foreign sound to you 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
Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their marks
Made everything from toy guns that sparks
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 that 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 without 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 despite 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 platforms 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
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 been seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.
If you dig the song half as much as I do, it should rocket to your favorites. Enjoy.