I was not a Bob Dylan fan.
Of course we sang “Blowin’ In The Wind” at summer camp, but this was long before the rock press, and I hadn’t even reached puberty, I thought it was a Peter, Paul & Mary song.
Same deal with “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” When we sang this, I thought it was an old folk song, it had so much wisdom, distilled into that one line, the song’s title. This was the folk music era, we were singing songs both old and new, everybody had a nylon-stringed guitar and then…
The Beatles hit.
Overnight, music went from background to foreground. Music spearheaded change. We were addicted to our transistor radios. We suddenly went from listening to the baseball game to the Top Forty countdown. The WABC party on Saturday night. We were too young to go out, we’d stay at home and play our 45s and listen to the radio.
And we switched from acoustics to electrics. Everybody was forming a band, singing the songs of the British Invasion. And then came “Like A Rolling Stone.”
We hated it. Dylan had a nasal voice unlike the Beatles. The track was endless, when it came on the radio we switched the station. But through overplay, we got used to it, but I never loved it. I still don’t think it’s the best Dylan song, never mind the best single of all time, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Now “Like A Rolling Stone” came on Dylan’s sixth LP, “Highway 61 Revisited.” Talk about artist development! Columbia stuck with him and Dylan got better and broke through. I’m not sure this can happen today. Either you can be an overnight hip-hop sensation or you can labor forever and maybe make it to the middle, able to tour theatres with little cultural impact.
But with the breakthrough of “Like A Rolling Stone,” suddenly Dylan was all over the airwaves, even if it was not with his own records. The Turtles broke through with their cover of “It Ain’t Me Babe” and the Byrds brought us folk rock with “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which you might not have been able to understand but was exquisitely ear-pleasing, unlike most of Dylan’s originals.
Dylan became a legend. The Beatles referenced him. And then he released the double album “Blonde On Blonde” with “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” with its indelible refrain, EVERYBODY MUST GET STONED!
We couldn’t believe this was on the radio. And we still weren’t sure about drugs. PBS had documentaries on heroin addiction, marijuana was for the lost. Were the Beatles really on drugs? And suddenly, the concept of getting stoned was everywhere on the airwaves, but was he talking about dope, no one really knew!
Then came the motorcycle accident, the comeback of “John Wesley Harding” and then the commercial breakthrough of “Nashville Skyline,” with “Lay Lady Lay,” as played on hit radio as much as anything else that summer of ’69. And we saw Dylan sing “Girl From The North Country” with Johnny Cash on TV.
But then, the following year, Dylan threw it all away with “Self Portrait.”
The Beatles never had a stiff. But the famously reclusive and supposedly distanced Dylan came back in a matter of months with “New Morning,” hailed as a return to form.
This is where I came in.
I still love “New Morning.” From its opening notes of “If Not For You” to the title track to my favorite, “Sign On The Window.”
So when I saw a student advertising used albums for sale I went to his dorm room and purchased a scarred version of “John Wesley Harding,” that was essentially unplayable, I think he ironed his skis on it or something. And I was done with Dylan until…
The end of ’73, when he said he was coming back on tour.
I sent away mail order, registered mail, and I got tickets, very good ones, in the loge at Madison Square Garden. And I’ll never forget that moment in “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” when Dylan uttered/sang…BUT EVEN THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES SOMETIMES MUST HAVE TO STAND NAKED!
The audience roared. They were listening, they were paying attention, they knew the lyrics.
This was during Watergate, but before Nixon’s resignation later that summer. The seeds of discontent were growing. The younger generation had the President on the run. We were gonna get ’em, we were gonna get our revenge.
But this was before they impeached Clinton over a blow job.
This was before politics became so tribal.
We’d been licking our wounds, but the downfall of Nixon inspired us, made us believe…
We could win in the end.
That America was truly the land of justice for all.
Now in preparation for the concert, I ordered every Dylan album, even a replacement copy of “John Wesley Harding” save the reviled “Self Portrait,” from King Karol in New York. And with so much music to listen to, it was difficult to get too deep into any of them. But “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” stuck in my head, I knew the Byrds’ cover from “Easy Rider,” and when the CD revolution arrived…
I bought “Bringing It All Back Home.”
Note, this is the album before “Highway 61 Revisited.” People still think “Highway 61” and “Blonde On Blonde” are the best, but I beg to differ, for me it’s “Bringing It All Back Home.”
Now the funny thing is at this late date, “Bringing It All Back Home” gets more attention, even if it’s subtle. Over time the documentary “Don’t Look Back” has become a cultural institution, with impact far in excess of that it had upon initial release. As a result, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is quoted constantly in the culture. Yes, Johnny’s in the basement, and the vandals took the handles and you can make a video throwing away lyric cards…
But “Bringing It All Back Home” also includes the legendary “Maggie’s Farm.” Boy wasn’t Dylan prescient, seemingly all of us are working on Maggie’s farm these days.
And it’s “Bringing It All Back Home” that contains the aforementioned “Mr. Tambourine Man.” And “Gates of Eden” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
But tucked in deep on the second side, never released as a single, is my favorite Dylan track ever, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”
It’s seven minutes and twenty nine seconds long. And it reveals itself over time, with repeated listening, you keep on gaining new insights. But still, some of the statements are obvious, like…
Money doesn’t talk, it swears.
Ray Davies and the Kinks would do a riff on this topic in 1974, with “Money Talks,” from “Preservation Act 2”:
Money can’t breathe and money can’t see
But when I pull out a fiver people listen to me
But Dylan was ten years ahead. An artist speaking truth. About the power of mazuma.
And yes, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” contains that overused phrase in the wake of Dylan singing it…”he not busy being born is busy dying.” I’m not sure the younger generation even knows where this phrase comes from, but there it is, in “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”
And I’m lying on my living room floor, listening to “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” over and over again in the wake of my ex leaving, and this is the stanza that stood out:
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
This has stood by me for decades. I’ve taken the path less traveled, I’ve gone against conventional wisdom, and people don’t like it. They e-mail me every damn day to tell me I’m wrong and I’m an imbecile. And I look them up online and they’re not world-beaters, but retail clerks, wannabe musicians with day jobs. I’d never respond to an online newsletter, but these people…they have to drag me down into the unhappy hole they’re in, I can’t be immune.
And my second favorite stanza…
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
BINGO! That’s America, that’s why the young rule, they haven’t discovered it’s all a big joke, so they’re willing to spend money and time trying to get somewhere they can’t. They believe in the myth. That they too can win, if they just believe… Hell, look at the self-help book industry. Read me and your life will work! But that never happens. Like the Landmark Forum and the rest of those quick fixes. You spend your money, get your high and then you’re left out on the street broke and busted.
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
This was before the Jesus freaks, before artists kept thanking God for their victories. And still, religion is supposed to be a showstopper, you can’t question it, while these same people kill and maim in the name of “God.” I’m willing to give up my religion if you’ll give up yours. We know it’s all phony, it’s just a construct we hold on to to give our lives meaning, to make us believe we’ll live forever, but now science proves so much is untrue or impossible, yet people still cling to “God.”
An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
They’re playing them 24/7, but if you remove yourself you’re often alone, that’s the conundrum of society.
And another stanza with so much wisdom you can’t believe Dylan actually wrote it, you can only marvel:
For them that obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Do what they do just to be nothing more than something they invest in
Yup, you’re your job. Everybody must overwork. You can’t love what you do. It’s a grind. You’re a cog in the wheel paying fealty to your boss. That’s America to a “T.” And when anybody questions it, those invested in the game cry foul. Think about this, go your own way. But at your peril. Don’t complain when you can’t pay your bills as an artist. No one ever said it was easy.
Propaganda, all is phony
We’re inundated with propaganda. That’s Fox News. Look underneath, check the facts and you’ll oftentimes find…it’s just blowhards, there’s nothing underneath the supposed doctrines and statements.
For them that think death’s honesty
Won’t fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes must get lonely
The rich, they think they’re never gonna die, that they’re gonna rule forever. Sumner Redstone believed that, but lived long enough to have his personal life dragged through the media to his detriment. We’re all the same, we’re all human, even though you’d like to believe otherwise. In other words, we’re all gonna die, your time is gonna come.
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
Yup, you only get one go-round, don’t regret it, keep your eyes open, go your own way.
And don’t be a conformist. The gang mentality…artists were never part of this, they were singular thinkers. Sure, they liked cash, but message was so much more important.
People telling you how to live, who to be, if they opened my brain…
Hell, I open it here often enough to experience the blowback. CDs must be saved, Spotify is the devil…and then, in time, change arrives. It’s the dreamers, the thinkers, those questioning authority who are the leaders in the end.
Like Bob Dylan
P.S. I’m including two versions of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” in the Spotify playlist above. The first is the classic version from “Bringing It All Back Home.” This is just one man and his guitar, not fixed in the mix, it’s immediate, it’s alive, like there’s a guy speaking directly to you whether you’re listening through a hundred thousand dollar stereo or earbuds. The other is the nearly nine and a half minute take from “The Bootleg Volume 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964 – Concert At Philharmonic Hall.” This is the bootleg album you want, not the “Royal Albert Hall” from 1966. In this early concert, it’s fans only, Dylan is not yet embittered from the blowback and the hatred. He’s a man at the peak of his powers thrilled to get his message across, the power will infect you…and when he forgets the lyrics in the middle, you’ll laugh with him, because humanity shines, something we’ve lost in this age of digitization.