I had to hear “It’s Alright, Ma.”
“Highway 61 Revisited” is the legend, but I prefer the previous LP, “Bringing It All Back Home.” “Bringing It All Back Home” is a bit darker, a bit less trebly, but it does not contain “Like A Rolling Stone,” so people defer to “Highway 61 Revisited.” And one of the memorable moments of my life is driving in my sister’s Sienna outside of Minneapolis and seeing that highway sign, you pinch yourself, you don’t think these landmarks really exist. And “Highway 61 Revisited” also has the put-down song “Ballad Of A Thin Man,” with its annihilation of Mr. Jones, and “Desolation Row” and “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry,” which Al Kooper made famous on side two of “Super Session” with Stephen Stills, but “Bringing It All Back Home” has “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
Back in ’65, almost nobody had seen the D. A. Pennebaker film, with Dylan nonchalantly discarding the cards with the lyrics upon them. But that was the reality of Bob’s early career, the audience was always late to the party, there were early adopters who got the memo and then with hits the hoi polloi went back and realized his brilliance.
And “Bringing It All Back Home” also has “Maggie’s Farm,” which became part of the revolutionary lexicon back in the sixties, we weren’t gonna work on her farm no more.
And there’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which the Byrds ultimately made so famous.
And “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” which the Byrds performed too, along with Joan Baez and so many more.
And then there’s the almost creepy “Gates Of Eden,” wherein Dylan spits truth and we can just try and digest this manna from heaven.
But the piece de resistance is “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
Trying. This was ’65, with Lyndon Johnson in office, when rather than agitating for change you dropped out, went on your own hejira. It wasn’t quite defeat, but more akin to liberation.
And in the next verse, Bob utters words so famous that most people don’t even know he wrote them, they’ve become part of the fabric of our nation…
He not busy being born is busy dying
Dylan’s dropping wisdom left and right in this seven and a half minute song, I listen to it every week, it’s as fresh as yesterday, but when I searched in Spotify that’s not the version that came up, not the studio take, but a live iteration from a double CD package entitled “The Bootleg Series Volume 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964 – Concert At Philharmonic Hall.” I owned it, but I don’t think I ever really heard it. But listening over the Christmas holiday it became my favorite album.
Because of the immediacy.
What did Woody Guthrie’s guitar say, “This Machine Kills Fascists”? Well, this double live album wakes you up and inspires you all at once. We live in an era where it’s all about the trappings. You don’t even take the stage without a huge investment in hair and makeup, certainly not in New York City.
And the album starts with “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” which comes across as a warning, not a detailed accounting of what’s going on, but what is to come. Imagine if you bought a record, broke the shrinkwrap and when you dropped the needle you found out what was gonna happen TOMORROW!
But the revelation is “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met),” which I wouldn’t be surprised to find John Lennon spun incessantly before composing “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).”
And the truth is “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” graces the “Last Waltz” package, but it never impressed me much there. It was just another album track on “Another Side Of Bob Dylan,” but in this live version…whew!
She invited him into her arms, then kicked him to the curb.
This never happens in today’s musical world. Egos rule. No one is bruised. If you’re famous you must be rich, you must always win. But this woman tied Dylan’s emotions in a knot and sure, the song’s got the character of a kiss-off, but you can tell he’s wounded. He’s vulnerable in a way we’re unprepared for. And even though this track was cut fifty years ago, it sounds like he’s telling you what happened last night, literally.
And be sure to listen to “Who Killed Davey Moore,” a questioning of responsibility for the death of a boxer akin to today’s most prominent artist singing about CTE instead of groveling to perform at the Super Bowl.
But the song that brought me to the album was “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”
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
Ain’t that the truth, it’s the bloviating religious zealots who live in glass houses. This was written back when religion was dying, before every Grammy Award winner thanked the Lord, before anybody playing popular music worth listening to attended the Grammys.
And the song is littered with famous phrases. Dylan reunited with the Band in ’74 and when he sang “But even the President of the United States, Sometimes must have to stand naked” the audience cheered. Nixon resigned months later, if only today’s music could comment so honestly about and have such an impact upon our present Presidential predicament.
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
America is about selling you false hope. You can be thin, you can be rich, you can triumph, when the truth is unless you dismiss the tsunami of b.s. and accept who you are you’ve truly got no chance. Back then hipsters abandoned football, today the lemmings drink at the trough of Super Bowl commercials, believing that corporations will be their savior, having lost faith in artists, and why not, since the artists are sucking at the tit of the corporations harder than anybody.
For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destiny
Speak jealously of them that are free
Raise what they grow up to be
Nothing more than something they invest in
This was back when there was a false belief that institutions cared about their inhabitants, the students, the workers, before colleges became a way for bloated administrations to become rich and corporations wanted no employees at all, everybody became a contract worker, lifetime employment was a pipe dream. Dylan’s poking fun at the puffed-up mindless who are placing their faith in fake institutions, now the people who used to question these enterprises prop them up and the proletariat is even more desperate.
While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape by society’s pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he’s in
Used to be it was the middle class that was bent out of shape by society, now it’s the unthinking lower class, which wants to give everybody above them the middle finger not knowing the joke is upon them, but they lost all hope long ago and if they’re gonna sink further the rest of us have to go with them. Furthermore, these words are the essence of internet hate. They want to drag you down into their lair of failure. Try to evade it, but it’s hard.
While them that defend what they cannot see
With a killer’s pride, security
Let me see, there’s a little man in the sky, who sees everything you do, and he’s gonna save you when you die and if you don’t believe it beware on your way to the abortion clinic.
For them that think death’s honesty
Won’t fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes must get lonely
We’re all gonna die. And whether it be Ted Bundy or Lee Atwater regretting their behavior on their death bed don’t let this be you, don’t spend your life standing up for something that will become irrelevant when you pass, which you most certainly will.
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
He’s willing to lay down his truth, he doesn’t care about the consequences, because duplicity is a loser’s game and you only get one go-round. But no one with a profile is following in Dylan’s footsteps, they’re all afraid of blowback and loss, sponsorships will evaporate into thin air, television invitations will dry up, you’ll be ostracized in a world where there’s nothing so important as being a member of the team, but an artist sits outside the game and speaks his truth.
And when you listen to this live concert from 1964 you’ll be overwhelmed, stunned that someone cares that much, has thought about it and is standing naked on stage with just his guitar and his words knowing they’re so powerful that if you just listen to them your life will be changed, you’ll see the world differently, you’ll be empowered.
That’s the power of a song.