"It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" provides soundtrack to enlightenment -- and being fired
We all have it -- that one song that stopped us in our tracks the first time we ever heard it, that continues to give us pause each and every time it's played. We each have a song -- and a story that goes along with it. Deep Cuts is our latest feature, in which we share the personal stories behind our all-time favorite songs and how and why we came to love them.
For many, myself included, Bob Dylan is like a cool older brother, the kind who returns home from college freshman year with a stack of Captain Beefheart albums and a bag of marijuana, introducing you to foreign films and wine. In the fall of 2000, I was eighteen and had just voted in my first presidential election -- for George W. Bush. This coincided with my purchase of the Bringing It All Back Home album. Dylan was 23 when he wrote the songs for that record, and while at the time he was beginning to tour the world as the iconic "voice of a generation," it was only a few years earlier that he'd left his home town of Hibbing, Minnesota -- only a two-hour drive from where I'd grown up and was living in the year 2000.
I had recently finished high school and was working as a camera man for the local CBS news station. I was also just beginning to question my life-long views on drugs and religion. While working the camera in the TV studio, I would sneak a single earbud under my giant headphones. The giant headphones projected the voice of the TV studio director, telling me where to point the camera, when to cue the anchor, etc. The single earbud was connected to a Discman in my back pocket -- and from the earbud came Bob Dylan's "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding."
The proto-rap, stream-of-consciousness lyrics rolled into my ears as the news was broadcast before me.
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's no sense in trying
The TV anchor I was shooting was reporting on Al Gore's dispute of the recent presidential election. He was saying the man I'd blindly voted for (growing up Pentecostal conservative, I'd never considered another option) was potentially not the legitimate winner. I stared blankly through the view-finder, adjusting the camera to the right as a key (the little picture box) appeared on the screen, fitting it perfectly next to the anchor's face.
Our 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
I was eighteen and was beginning to question everything. The idea of the rapture -- that Jesus would soon appear in the sky and vacuum up all the believers -- was beginning to seem odd. Marijuana was becoming a daily ritual, especially before coming in to work. The news anchors were beginning to freak me out: They'd be stressed, cursing me and everything around them, a mess of anger, hate and self-loathing, and then I'd count down 3-2-1, and they'd transform into toothy explosions of happiness and information.
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
Do what they do just to be
Nothing more than something they invest in
I knew they didn't believe the words they were saying. The anchors would bitch about their jobs during the commercial break. It was the commercials that were dictating their words -- the advertisers controlled the news. They were also trying to dictate me: Mountain Dew constructing a rock and roll image of snowboards, hair-gel and smiling girls. People telling me not to smoke. To go to college. To drive a Pontiac Aztec.
Bob Dylan continued to sing in my ears.
Advertising signs they con
You into think 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
I had been watching these same news anchors since I was a little kid. I wanted to become one and watched the news every night. These faces, this production, all of it was familiar to me. But now I was inside the production, behind the curtain. And realized it was all phony -- a paper tiger -- and now I was propagating the same thing for some other young, sober Christian boy out in the farmlands of Iowa.
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George W. Bush, the man I'd cast my first vote for, was smiling on the television, claiming the election results were real. He didn't believe they were phony. Then it was back to the news anchor, reporting that people in Florida agreed with the new president. A box appears on the screen -- pan camera right.
Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to
An all 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
I moved the camera, putting the box over the anchors face. Suddenly the perfection of the broadcast was broken. "Get the key off her face!" the director screamed into my headphones. I panned the camera back, revealing the woman's face again. But then I shook it. I shook the camera like there was an earthquake until the anchor's face became a blur. I wanted to disrupt the image, pull back the curtain, remind folks at home that this was a camera filming a woman with makeup and bright lights.
"What the fuck is going on out there?!" It was funny to me, but the director -- who smoked two packs a day and would eventually die of a coronary -- screamed into my headphones like I was murdering his daughter in front of him.
My eyes collide head on with stuffed graveyards
False goals, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
I was fired from the CBS Station.
At eighteen you can be fired from jobs without losing much sleep. As I walked home through the snow that night, listening to "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding" for the ten-thousandth time, I lit a joint and looked up at the stars you could only see so well in the Midwest, as Bob Dylan reminded me, "it's life and life only."
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