Bob Dylan’s ‘It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)’- an analysis- Part 3.
In this article we will discuss the verses 7,8,9,10,11 and 12 and chorus 3 and 4.
When it says “Advertising signs they con, you into thinking you’re the one” the deceitful advertising industry in general and the American Madison Advertising industry in particular, is tackled here.The powerful advertising industry makes you believe that you have freedom of choice, but in reality their sales techniques so subtly appeal to the common human basic instinct of greed and grandeur, that you must be a very strong personality if you are capable to escape from their tentacles. “They con you into thinking you’re the one” means that the advertising industry deceitfully intends to make you believe that if you buy their products or services, you will become somebody special, a special person exempted from the normal wear and tear of the masses and that you are one of the chosen few “That can do what’s never been done, that can win what’s never been won”. For example, the advertising industry says that If you use this particular brand of drug, medicine or vitamin pill, you will be stronger, prettier, more vital and live longer than anybody else. Or,if you buy this lottery ticket, you will be the one that wins the hundred million dollar jackpot. The human nature is such that man has a natural tendency to believe that whatever the advertising industry tells you is true, and tends to ignore a voice deep down inside that says that these promises are just plain lies.
However, what the advertising industry does not tell you is that “meantime life outside goes on, all around you”. Even when you are among the “lucky few” and have won this hundred million jackpot, even when you are successful and become a big star, you will find out that you will never escape from the decay of every day’s life. Everything in life is temporary. Money, fame and honour, will only ask for more and cannot fulfil you. In the “meantime life outside goes on, all around you”, time catches up on you, life goes on and death’s ‘honesty’ – as it will be called later on in the song - will reach all of us. Therefore it is true what Dylan wrote in his song ‘God knows’: “God knows you ain’t gonna be taking nothing with you when you go”.
When it says: “You lose yourself, you reappear, you suddenly find you got nothing to fear ,alone you stand with nobody near” we see that the focus shifts to a more personal, individual, level. We have to keep in mind and not forget that individualism is a fruit of the Enlightenment and it is this kind of individualism that shines through in this verse. In the previous verses we have e.g. seen what will happen to you when you are a follower. When you are a conformist and “follow” the government, the system, you pretty soon find yourself at war. You may be a follower of the human gods that can make everything but you will find out that they also desecrate everything, they even desecrate the most sacred icon of all, Christ, and turn it into a state of the art consumer gadget. When you are a trend follower you will find out that unbridled consumerism, symbolized by the deceitful advertising industry, will drag you in an equally deep hole. All of this is designed to make you lose your individuality and personal freedom to decide what is good for you. The result of all of this is that “you lose yourself”. Often without realizing it, you will completely lose your individuality and freedom of choice. It was one of the attainments of the Enlightenment that human individuality and freedom of choice was rediscovered. It may be the reason why it says: “you reappear”. The philosopher Immanuel Kant once described Enlightenment as “man's release from his self-incurred tutelage", tutelage was described as “man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another”. Kant saw Enlightenment as “mankind's final coming of age, the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance”. One of the positive elements of the rediscovery and reappearance of your individuality is what is described here as that “you suddenly find you got nothing to fear”. In the end no self-fabricated ideological or religious system is able to chain the human mind for ever. Nevertheless, it takes great personal courage to free yourself from any repressive ideology- whether so-called religious or not - and to stand up for basic human rights. Once you have committed yourself to demonstrate this courage –sometimes at the peril of your life or of your “good” reputation and fame - “you suddenly find you got nothing to fear” from the authorities or the establishment. Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster once wrote “freedom is just another word for having nothing left to lose”. Having lost everything is a necessary precondition for your “reappearance” and your ability to abandon all fear.
However, there is also a downside to the Enlightenment. Once you have decided to become a non-conformist you will find out what is described here as “alone you stand with nobody near”. You enter into a sort of no man’s land, into a sort of vacuum of thought where nihilism can easily creep in. In such a vulnerable position you need companions and friends for reassurance that you are on the right track. But because you are a non-conformist, you stand and feel alone and there is nobody there to support you. Subsequently, you need to have a strong personality and conviction to stay strong and withstand the mounting pressure to conform and to go back from where you came. The pressure mounts to conform and go back to the demons of conformism which you had just left, pretty much in the same way as it says in Matt. 12: 43-45: “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first”.
In your solitude, you enter a cross-roads and on this cross-roads all sorts of voices pop up and are allowed to try and pull you into an unknown and untrodden path. On this cross-roads you stand alone with nobody near “When a trembling distant voice, unclear, startles your sleeping ears to hear that somebody thinks they really found you”. The question is who is that voice? Is it the same mysterious voice Dylan hears in ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’? where it says: ‘Who is that man? You try so hard but you don’t understand, because something is happening here but you don’t know what it is”. Is it maybe Jesus calling at his door? This cannot entirely be ruled out because most of the time He is said to come to you when you are in a weak, and vulnerable state of mind and in such a humble position, when you have “sleeping ears”, you are more prepared to open up your mind for Him. Also, when Jesus presents Himself to you, He usually wears a cloak of weakness, He comes to you in “a trembling distant voice, unclear”. It is not a robust, compelling, strong voice full of conviction, but a weak, ostensibly insignificant voice for which you have a natural tendency to resist it and it is certainly not a voice you are prepared to obey unconditionally.
However, whatever, or whoever this voice may be, what stands out and makes the difference is that there is a personal approach here. No massive appeal by the government or the advertising industry but a strictly personal voice directed to you personally which singles you out to tell you that this time it is no lie, it is the real thing, “they really found you”. This personal approach, which is designed to give you the idea that you are a special person, may be just another, more successful, sort of tactics to turn you once again into a follower of a certain political, social or religious organisation. “They really found you”, may mean that whoever or whatever this organisation represents, it comes to you, only to you, at the right time and place and claims to know exactly what you need, and for you this private attention should feel as a sort of home coming. However, in the back of your mind there is a warning signal that something is wrong and that you should not accommodate and this where the next verse deals with.
In the previous verse we have seen that although there is a personal approach to have you accommodate, yet alarm bells start ringing and this verse elaborates on this idea when it says: “a question in your nerves is lit”. The question that is lit in your nerves is: can I trust this voice and follow it?. Deep down inside of me there is a part of me that says: yes I can trust and follow this voice because it is a weak, humble, distant and trembling voice. And this very humbleness and weakness of this voice is proof of its authenticity and truthfulness. But there is another part of me that says: no, I cannot and will not follow something or somebody that seems weak and humble. If I would follow that voice I will be seen as a loser, I will lose everything, I will lose control over myself. The result of all of this may be that in your mind the question is unresolved: “Yet you know there is no answer fit to satisfy, insure you not to quit”. For you there seems to be no ace in the hole. There is no comprehensive solution available. Either way is not satisfactory, there seems to be no answer “to satisfy”, no answer that really satisfies and gives you inner peace and complacency.
However, “To satisfy, insure you not to quit” may at the same time also refer to the words that follow: “to keep it in your mind and not forget, that it is not he or she or them or it that you belong to”. If we follow that interpretation, “to satisfy” may mean that you will only find satisfaction when you “keep it in your mind” and “insure”, that is make sure that you will not “quit”. You will only have satisfaction when you will not give up, “quit” your independent and free mind. Your independent and free mind is only satisfied and guaranteed when you do not have yourself boxed in by any individual or any so-called organisation or religion and when you stand by the concept that nobody owns you, “that it is not he or she or it that you belong to”. The poet makes it very clear that he never wanted to be a spokesman for any individual or organisation, not for a “he” and not for a “she”, nor for a “it”. However, again there is a downside to all of this. This is expressed in the next chorus.
“Although the masters make the rules, for the wise men and the fools” is typical Biblical language. In the Book of Proverbs and even more so the Book of Ecclesiastes there are many references to and comparisons between what in daily practice is regarded as a “wise man” and or a “fool”, e.g. Proverbs 14: 16 says: “A wise man is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is arrogant and careless”.(NASB). What it says here resembles Ecclesiastes 2: 19 : “and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity”.(ESV). What the poet may have had in mind here is that every social institution, political party or religious organisation has a Master. A Master, in the sense of a set of rules, a common line of conduct, a group code which the members of such a social, political or religious organisation obey, abide by and find support and security in. Here the question what such an organisation is doing or aiming at is irrelevant. Here it is irrelevant whether the aim of such an organisation can be classified as useful and therefore as “wise” or as harmful and therefore as “foolish”. Therefore the question whether the members of such an organisation can be seen as “wise men” or as “fools” is also irrelevant for that matter. The fact remains that they have a Master who makes the rules for them, either wise or foolish, and that they find comfort and consolation in them.
What really matters here is that the poet, unlike the wise men and the fools, does not have a Master who tells him what to do, he does not belong to any of these social, political or religious organisations”. He “stands alone with nobody near” to support him, nothing to rely on and to find comfort or consolation in. That is why he now concludes: “I got nothing, Ma, to live up to”. Those who believe in the doctrines of an ideology or a religion look forward to the realization of their utopian ideas and beliefs. At this stage the poet has none of that all. Here he has entered lonely nihilistic waters. The price he has to pay for his independent and free mind is that he has nothing to look forward to. “I got nothing, Ma, to live up to” expresses disappointment and self-criticism. You may be proud to be an independent non-conformist, but the only thing that seems left is (Nietzsche’s) nihilism and it is as if the poet intends to express that in the end this does not satisfy either.
The verses 10, 11 and 12 and chorus 4 are usually not performed in concert and are therefore lesser known to the public at large. This verse elaborates on the conclusion of the previous chorus “I got nothing, Ma, to live up to” as if he says: “It is true, I stand alone empty handed and I have nothing to live up to, but what about all those people who do belong to a social group in society, are they any happier than me, are they any better off?. No they are not. These people obey the social code of the group they belong to, they obey the instructions of their Masters who make the rules for them. They obey but against their will, that is why this verse starts with the words: “For them that must obey authority, that they do not respect in any degree”.These people follow leaders but without any deeply- rooted inner conviction or faith. On the contrary, they only accommodate and obey because they have no other choice but in their hearts they disrespect the authorities. This capitalistic society is driven by the multi- nationals, they are the Masters who are in control of you and who make you earn your living, they supply you with jobs and you’ve got to go where your bread is buttered. They have you trapped in a meaningless monotonous cycle, a never ending conveyer belt of production and consumerism, from which death seems to be the only escape. No wonder that these are people are without any hope, and that they are people “Who despise their jobs, their destinies”. Deep in their hearts, some of them want to break free but for the vast majority of them such a step would take too much courage. The vast majority of them rather prefers to remain boxed in because that is the easy way out and in the meantime, on the rebound, they “Speak jealously of them that are free”.They criticize and condemn those who are autonomous and independent and free as unworldly people but deep in their hearts they envy them and wish they had the same courage to break free.
When it is said of this group of people that they“cultivate their flowers to be nothing more than something they invest in”, the more poetic words “ their flowers” can best be interpreted as “their children”. There is a 1964 live bootleg recording of this song, recorded before the studio version, which has the alternative lyrics that they: “raise what they grow up to be, nothing more than something they invest in”. These earlier lyrics make clear what Dylan may have had on his mind. There is a certain reciprocity in these words. The capitalistic industrial society, driven by the multi-nationals, sees human beings as “nothing more than something they invest in”. The capitalist system dehumanizes people and turns them into production material in which you just invest, invest only with the purpose of making as much financial profit as you possibly can. But what is so baffling is that those same people who are dehumanized and reduced to just production material, do the same thing with their children. They “raise what they grow up to be” means that basically these people raise their children in the same way as they themselves are “raised” by the capitalist society to be “nothing more than something they invest in”. When it is said of these people that they “cultivate their flowers” is a more poetic, extenuating, way of saying the same thing. It is not pure love for “their flowers”, their children, by which these people are driven but rather by their own interest. They want to glorify themselves by investing in the careers of their children. By doing so from generation to generation they perpetuate a system of which they are both victim and perpetrator.
When it says: “While some on principles baptized, to strict party platform ties” a social phenomenon is described which makes it clear that, although we live in a free and democratic society, the room to manoeuvre freely within organisations such as political parties is very much limited by party discipline. A “party platform” is a document stating the aims and principles of a political party. “While some on principles baptized” intends to say that commitment to a political party’s platform may be so rigid and tied that it almost takes the shape of a religious vow which is taken in Christian baptism. There is some word pun too in the words “party platform ties”. A “tie” may therefore also be an allusion to a dressing code in the shape of a necktie. Blind obedience to a political party’s orders may not only require consensus of opinion and thought but also uniformity in outward appearance.
A “social club” is said to be “a group of people and to the place where they meet, generally formed around a common interest, occupation or activity (e.g. hunting, fishing, science, politics, or charity work)”. The Union Club in New York is the oldest social club in New York and was founded in 1836. You also have social clubs where people dress in drag, for example the Albuquerque Social club in Albuquerque (NM). Such a club may be alluded to when it says: “Social clubs in drag disguise”. Dressing in drag may be an expression of Transvestism which is the “practice of dressing and acting in a style or manner traditionally associated with the other sex’. When it says “in drag disguise” the use of the word “disguise” implies that - in the same way people dress in drag in socials clubs – certain institutions or organisations hide their real identity or purposes so that they can freely criticize outsiders without being unmasked or criticized themselves and without anybody ever knowing what goes on behind their closed doors. It may be the reason why it says: “Outsiders they can freely criticize”. Every club or organisation, or even a State, may have a sacred bull which they idolize and they urge you to idolize the same sacred bull, that is why it now says : “Tell nothing except who to idolize”. It is like Dylan wrote in his 1990 song ‘Unbelievable’: “Every nerve is analysed, everything is criticized when you are in need” . The words ” and then say God bless him” may be used here in an ironic way. Worshipping an idol seems attractive and beneficial at first glance but it involves great risks, because once the beast, the idol, has caught you in its tentacles, there is no turning back, and it will kill you both physically and spiritually. When you are faced with the bitter consequences of your infatuation with the idol, the idol washes its hands of you and says: ‘fare thee well, may God bless you’. For example, when you idolize the State, America or any other nation, you are inclined to endorse whatever policy the State follows, you may even support a completely unjustified war and when crippled veterans come back from such a war (you may think here of Dylan’s song ‘John Brown') the State washes its hands of you “and then say God bless him”.
In this verse with the opening words: “While one who sings with his tongue on fire, gargles in the rat race choir”, it seems that the mega church ‘prosperity gospel’ preachers and their followers are criticized for their rather ambiguous attitude towards secular matters. It looks as if the poet intends to say that some influential preachers of the prosperity gospel and their followers more or less run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, as if they try to make the best of both worlds they live in. This is metaphorically expressed as if they sing in two different types of choirs, each choir represents a quite different world. In the one –spiritual – world or choir, within their own mega church, they seem to sing “with their tongue on fire”. Now the words “While one who sings with his tongue on fire” may be a biblical reference to Acts 2: 3: “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them”.(NIV). Therefore when they sing “with their tongue on fire” they sing through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
However, some of these mega church ‘prosperity gospel’ preachers and their followers simultaneously seem to live and indulge in another world, in the real world outside their own community or church. Here they also – metaphorically - sing in a choir. But this is a worldly, a secular choir. Singing in that secular choir hints at the fact that some of these prosperity gospel preachers and their followers also fully participate and indulge in our modern society. This modern society is metaphorically qualified here as a “rat race choir”. A “rat race” is defined as “an endless, self-defeating, or pointless pursuit. It conjures up the image of the futile efforts of a lab rat trying to escape while running around a maze or in a wheel”. A “rat race” society is a sort of social competition to get the best and most affluent position on the social ladder at the expense of others, at the expense of the social poor and the weak. But in the end such a rat race is fruitless and unsatisfactory because in this rat race love and compassion is eliminated. Now the ambiguity the poet hints at here is that although some of these influential prosperity gospel preachers preach love, compassion and companionship from the pulpit, they so to say “sing with their tongue on fire” ,yet at the same time they preach and advocate a sort of ‘prosperity gospel’.They say that if you follow them God will bless you and make you very rich and wealthy and prosperous. However, the consequence of all this is, that in order to get rich, wealthy and prosperous, you will find yourself participating and indulging in the social “rat race choir”.
It is obvious that such preachers speak with a double tongue and find themselves in a splits .It may occur that within their own church or community they are full of the Spirit and they “sing” with their tongue on fire, whereas in society their singing is reduced to a “gargle” in the rat race choir. A “gargle” may be a kind of warbling, in this case more likely a yodel. A yodel is a “songlike cry in which the voice fluctuates rapidly between the normal voice and falsetto”. The contrast here between this singing and gargling may be expressed here to show that some of those these mega church prosperity gospel preachers and their followers feel at ease when they sing within their own community with their tongue on fire but they feel alienated when they “gargle” in the rat race choir” in this modern society.
When some of these prosperity preachers “gargle in the rat race choir” it is as if they sing out of tune, as if they are not feeling at ease and do not have a free conscience when they indulge in this rate race of ultra-consumerism. This rat race of ultra-consumerism they indulge in, seems not to match with the humble message of the Kingdom of God. It may be the reason why the poet now goes on to say that they are “bent out of shape from society’s pliers”. A “pliers” is “a kind of small pinchers with long jaws, -- used for bending or cutting metal rods or wire, for handling small objects such as the parts of watches”. Now it is common knowledge that you cannot serve two Lords. You cannot serve the Lord in your own church or community and at the same time serve the Mammon – the god of money - in this world, all under the pretext that your riches is God’s blessing .Because, when you try to serve both Lords, the “pliers” of a society full of ultra-consumerism will get you in its tentacles and “bend you out of shape”. What happens next is that instead of transforming society through your message of the coming of the righteous Kingdom of God, society will transform you and “bend you out of shape” and you may end up as a distorted and split personality and the final outcome will be that this “pliers”, fully absorb you. It seems obvious that you will have to make a choice between these two worlds, otherwise your ambiguity will more and more bend you out of shape.
But there is a third way, and this way is outlined when Dylan continues to say that such a mega church prosperity preacher: “cares not to come up any higher, but rather get you down in the hole that he’s in”. “To come up higher” may be used here in both an ironic and a metaphorical sense, meaning that he cares not to see things from a “higher”, which means a “heavenly” point of view. If he would have done so he would have realized that participating in and enjoying this modern welfare society is not an aim in itself but rather a means to spread the message he advocates. If he would have realized this it would have stopped him from participating in the rat race choir. It would have prevented him from joining the rest of the world in the social rat race to acquire as much prosperity and riches as one possibly can, all under the pretence of God’s blessing There is also an ironic undercurrent in this line. If there is one person of which you may expect that he would care “to come up any higher” and to see things from a “higher” that is heavenly and divine point of view, it is this prosperity preacher. But surprisingly, he doesn’t. On the contrary: he “rather get you down in the hole he’s in”. When it says that he is in “a hole” it means that he is in an awkward situation. This awkward situation is caused by the fact that – as we outlined above - he wants to make the best of two conflicting and contrasting worlds and by doing so he drags thousands if not millions of followers into the same hole he is in. Yet it seems as if the poet appreciates the awkward situation these people are in and therefore his criticism on this phenomenon is subdued by some compassion. This compassion is expressed in the fourth chorus which now follows.
The words “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” show benevolence and goodwill on the part of the poet and may be an attempt to subdue some of the criticism on those who were tackled in the previous verse. Now there seems to some intentional word pun between the “hole” some people mentioned in the previous verse are in, and those who live in a “vault”. A “vault” is an underground arched structure – a “hole” in the ground - of masonry, forming a ceiling or a canopy. When you think of “ living in a vault” it reminds us of the fallout shelters which were built in the sixties and later years to protect occupants from radioactive debris or fallout as a result of a nuclear explosion. We have to bear in mind that this song was written in 1964, less than two years after the Cuba Missile Crisis with the Soviet Union. The nuclear threat was very much tangible at that time.
Now what may be hinted at here is that those who, in the previous verse, where dragged in a “hole” are the same group of people who are now portrayed as “living in a vault”. If that is correct, “anyone that lives in a vault” may in a metaphorical sense, be every person who strives for maximum and total protection or security in this life and in hereafter. Protection against all hazards of life from the cradle to the grave. Such a person even seeks protection against a nuclear threat when he has the money and the means to take refuge in a private fallout shelter when there is a serious nuclear threat.
However, “anyone that lives in a vault” may also refer to those individuals in society who take refuge to total seclusion. The earlier note in the song that “It is not he or she or them or it that you belong to” may refer to such a person. He or she does not feel at home in any organized social or religious organisation and lives in total isolation from the rest of society with only a free mind and conscience as a compass. When the poet says: “But I mean no harm nor put fault on anyone” he shows understanding for this kind of alienation from society. A lot of individuals are indeed “bent out of shape from society’s pliers” and – in a metaphorical sense - feel themselves forced to retreat to their vaults. On the other hand, the poet cannot offer any solace to such a person, he is unable to please him and has to resign to that fact, that is why he says: “but it’s alright, Ma, if I can’t please him”.
In the next article we will wrap things up and deal with the final three verses and the final chorus.
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