"It's Alright Ma": Bob Dylan’s Moment of Possession
Words By: Roland Ellis | May 6th, 2015
In a 2004 interview with 60 minutes, Bob Dylan remarked on his early work, saying, "I don’t know how I got to write those songs... Those early songs were almost like magically written -- darkness at the break of noon, shadows even the silver spoon, the hand-made blade, a child’s balloon. Well, try to sit down and write something like that. There’s a magic to that and it’s not Siegfried and Roy kind of magic, you know, it’s a different kind of penetrating magic, and I did it at one time."
When interviewer Ed Bradley responds, "And you don’t think you can do it today?" Dylan bows his head a little and says "no".
"Does that disappoint you?" Says Bradley.
Dylan looks as though he wants to say yes for a moment before answering, "Well you can’t do something forever and I did it once. I can do other things now, but I can’t do that."
The song Dylan is referring to is "It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)", a white-hot moment in the career of one of the world’s greatest songwriters. But given Dylan’s career has arguably been fraught with such moments, why does he single out this song in particular as representative of that which he "can’t do" anymore? Why not "A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall" or “Mr. Tambourine Man” instead?
The reason, I would suggest, is that "It’s Alright Ma" is Dylan’s most cerebral moment. Sure, "Tambourine Man", "Hard Rain" (et al.) each possess their own ethereal moments--"…with all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves, let me forget about today until tomorrow"; or "...and I’ll reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it." But "It’s Alright Ma" goes beyond these other, let’s call them, ‘moments of possession’, to give us a work the likes of which will likely problematize any form of computational brain theory for generations to come.
In other words, not even Dylan himself can rationalize or figure out the decisions he made when he wrote a song like "It's Alright, Ma". Because ultimately, it is something that could never be replicated or reproduced.
Upon reflecting on the writing of "Kubla Khan", Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that the poem came to him during a dream in which, "All the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort." On waking from the dream, Coleridge began furiously writing of the mental images he remembered as a “distinct whole”, only to be disturbed after just a few minutes by a knock at the door. When he later returned to the page the vivid images from his subconscious had faded, and consequently, he couldn’t continue with the work. What remains of those few minutes of writing, however, is a piece that many regard as one of the finest poems in the history of the English language.
"Kubla Khan" didn’t come from months of toil and craft, but from a moment that the author was lucky enough to channel onto a page. It also came in the halcyon days of Coleridge’s career, a time the poet no doubt looked back on in old age and wondered, "How did I ever write like that?”"Well, try to sit down and write something like that. There’s a magic to that and it’s not Siegfried and Roy kind of magic." Bob Dylan
Like Coleridge before him, Bob Dylan has retained his own unique sense of phrasing and melodic structure deep into his career. You could even argue that cuts from more recent albums like Modern Times (2006) or Love and Theft (2001), are among his best from the last 30 years. But even still, even with all the advantages that experience and songwriting mastery can provide, what Dylan can’t do nowadays, or indeed, hasn’t been able to do since the mid-60s, is create another "It's Alright Ma" (or "Kubla Khan"). Those moments of channeling the ether evaporated in an instant long ago, and what remains is a more workhorse type songwriting from a guy who, unquestionably, once held hands with forces not many of us can understand.
50 years ago today, Dylan performed "It's Alright Ma" during his ’65 tour of the UK, as captured in the video below. What the footage illustrates, is that, even if it was only for a little while, Dylan was a guy who knew something that no one else in the room did.
Throughout the duration of Dylan's tour in England, we will be bringing you updates as they happened 50 Years Ago, so be sure to check back to Gaslight Records regularly.
Gaslight Records is a way of reviving and reliving the music of 50 Years Ago. Unlike any other music site, everything you'll hear or read about on Gaslight Records will be sourced from music that is at least 50 years old.
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