Sunday, June 17, 2018

Master Blueprints # 23: “He Not Busy Being Born is Busy Dying”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”
Album: Bringing It All Back Home
Release Date: March 1965

Part 2 of 2:  An alternate world Theme Time Radio Hour episode, where I fill in as the host.  The 10 songs covered are all Bob Dylan’s - seeing as he never covered his own music on his show. I’m also trying to emulate Dylan’s style on his Theme Time show.  The first 4 songs were covered in the last entry (# 22), and the remaining 6 are here.  Oh, yes, the Theme: “Astonish”

Mark Twain once said “Do the right thing.  It will gratify some people, and astonish the rest”.  The origin of the term ‘astonish’ goes back to 16th Century Old French, and combines the Latin terms ex- (out) and tonare, which means ‘to thunder’.  The word is often used to describe great literature.  For example, this from American novelist Terry Southern: “The important thing in writing is the capacity to astonish.  Not shock -shock is a worn-out word – but astonish”.  And, from the great comic writer Alan Moore: “If you give me a typewriter and I’m having a good day, I can write a scene that will astonish its readers.  That will perhaps make them laugh, perhaps make them cry – that will have some emotional clout to it.  It doesn’t cost much to do that”.  Finally, Milan Kundera may have summed associating literature with astonishing up best: “The light that radiates from the great novels time can never dim, for human existence is perpetually being forgotten by man and thus the novelists’ discoveries, however old they may be, will never cease to astonish”. 

In the case of Bob Dylan, the ability to astonish plays out on several levels.  The written word, yes, but also in the harmonious vocal delivery and the accompaniment music.  Many have speculated this multi-tiered approach to his success was a big reason why Dylan was reluctant at first to recognize receiving the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. In other words, the notion that the listener needs to take in the entire package to make the connection apparently made him feel ill at ease to receive such specialized recognition.  If so Dylan was not alone in his negative reaction.  Don’t count me on that list.  Yes, I agree you need to take the entire package in to truly appreciate what’s there in the genius that is Bob Dylan, but I thought it was extremely insightful of Nobel to toss aside the narrower definition in this special case.  There are always exceptions to the rules.  This is one of them.

However, Bob Dylan does have astonishing ‘passages’ that stand on their own, including “he not busy being born is busy dying” from “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, which may just top them all.  It’s timeless. My first impression when I really took it in was that Dylan must have quoted it from the Bible, maybe Saint Paul.  But no, this is an original.  My parents had this caption up on their kitchen wall for years.  It was on a poster with an idyllic nature scene, given to them by my late, great Aunt Ginger, who was a Dominican Sister (Sister Virginia Smith). Both my parents and my Aunt predated the Bob Dylan/Beatles/Woodstock 60s era by a good 10 years.  The influence of the music of that era on my parents was limited at best (a particularly high hurdle for my Dad seeing as, from early in his life, Dad has always been a Classical Music guy, and couldn’t stand the Elvis-lead music of the 50s even as he was living it out at the perfect age).

Ginger tragically died in a car accident around the time that I was just ramping up my fascination in all things Bob Dylan (back in the late 80s and early 90s).  To this day I wonder if my Aunt knew whose quote that was, seeing as my parents did not.  Having a good feel for her populist allegiances…. I’m betting she did.  Anyhow, all three – Ginger and my parents - lived up to the standard expressed in that short phrase (in the case of my parents, they continue to do so).  I believe Bob Dylan has lived up to it too.  It’s why he continues to produce quality music deep into his 70s.  With that said, let’s give “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” a listen.  After all, the vast remainder of the lyrics only add to the astonishment of this literary gem:

I mentioned comics a few moments ago.  Stan Lee and his Marvel Universe has been the king of that hill for pretty much my entire lifetime.  I was an avid reader of Marvel back in the day, and have enjoyed the blockbuster movie adaptations for the most part.  Stan the Man has been in the business of astonishing for quite some time.  In fact, he’s attempted to cover the gambit of synonyms in this regard, associating a stunning adjective with virtually every one of his comic book series.  And so, the title of, say, the Hulk’s series wasn’t just “The Hulk”, it was The Incredible Hulk.  The X-Men were “Uncanny”.  We also had The Invincible Iron Man, The Mighty Avengers, The Amazing Spider Man and The Fantastic Four, among many others.

What may have started this adjective frenzy was Tales to Astonish, which made the leap from Marvel’s forerunner Atlas Comics to Marvel in the early 60s.   Stan Lee personally wrote many of the stories in Tales to Astonish.  One of the most famous characters to get created in the series was Henry Pym, aka Ant Man.  The series eventually morphed into The Incredible Hulk in the late 60s. 

Stan Lee has also been a longstanding advocate for human rights and civil rights.  His Uncanny X-Men series, which has humans treating mutants as outcasts, was an indirect way of addressing bigotry to young minds.  Bob Dylan has done his share of calling out in this regard too, including in his song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”.  This true-story of the murder-by-whim of a black maid by a young socialite may or may not have been executed out of pure ignorance alone.  But Dylan points out in the song that the racial injustice is still there, in the meager sentencing. 

There are several astonishing lines in this song that I’d like to reflect on here.  The first is in the refrain: “But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears”.  Bob Dylan reminds us that we need to connect with these types of stories on a personal – vs. objective – level.  Otherwise, we forget and move on prematurely (this is surely why the word "lonesome" is included in the title). 

The second astonishing line(s) can only be discussed by first reading though the lyrics:

“Hattie Carroll was a maid in the kitchen
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children
Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn't even talk to the people at the table
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level
Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane
That sailed through the air and came down through the room
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle
And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger”

Notice, the three lines in a row that end with the same word: table.  How I interpret this is, the disgust was so palpable when Bob Dylan came up with these lyrics, that he does not even bother to find words that rhyme.  The astonishing thing is, it works on a “whole other level” - far more so than if he had attempted to negotiate in rhyming words.  As I’ve said before in my blog series – who does this?

Here’s a superb version of Bob Dylan performing “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” around the time he wrote it in the mid-60s.  I also recommend tracking down the version on the Bootleg Series Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Review, which can’t be beat.

2006 was not only the year of the start of Theme Time Radio, it was also the year of the release of one of Bob Dylan’s all-time best albums, Modern Times.  What is astonishing in this case is the creativity that had been maintained by Dylan seeing as, at the time he was 65 years of age.  Modern Times is one of Bob Dylan’s most consistent albums.  There are no hits.  There are no low points. There’s simply solid bluesy excellence from beginning to end.  It’s arguably the most even-keeled album I’ve ever identified with.

If there is any disc where Bob Dylan put himself in someone else’s shoes routinely throughout, this is it.  You must keep this in mind when you listen.  The Blues can be deceiving.  At first glance there’s a “woe is me” interpretation.  But the Blues evolved out of hard, poor living, created by struggling soul’s way back when, who were experiencing life in a way that can be very difficult to understand in our relatively cushy world.  Bob Dylan is astonishingly able to relate to those struggles on Modern Times. 

One thought that comes to mind regarding hard living is a visit to Prince Edward Island with my wife and children, as well as my Mom and Dad, back in 2002.  We connected with distant relatives while there.  They were very simple folk; the bluest of blue collar, with an entirely different angle on life than us.  It’s their lives that resonate as I suck in “Workingman’s Blues # 2”.  Give it a solid listen…. you may be surprised where your thoughts go:

What has astonished you?  The power of love? The birth of a child? A natural wonder? A hole in one? There are many experiences in life that can hit us like a ton of bricks.  Sometimes it’s simply a feeling.  For example, a place you’ve never been that feels extremely familiar.  Other times, it’s that sense of déjà vu.  It could also be a sudden flashback to a long-forgotten memory.  And then there’s that sense that you can get on occasion where you feel as if you are going through a predetermined course of events. Destiny. Fate. Things happen for a reason. That sort of thing. 

One Bob Dylan song that’s on my all-time Top 10 list is “A Simple Twist of Fate”.  It’s hard to explain why.  Perhaps it’s because Dylan sets the scene and the mood so brilliantly.  It may also have something to do with the fact that…. I feel as if I understand this song better than the experts.  “A Simple Twist of Fate” opens Blood on the Tracks, which many consider to be Bob Dylan’s most heartfelt album; by virtually all accounts a personal narrative on the turmoil that accompanies estrangement.  In this opening-salvo position, it serves the rest of the album’s narrative to a tee.

So, how does this song astonish?   Well first off, it’s the perfect painting.  Or paintings.  Every stanza creates a brush-stroked image in the mind, physically and emotionally.  You can feel the mutual heaviness of the moment in that opening park-bench setting, the couple struggling with their thoughts.  And you can feel the separation playing out soon after; the woman slipping away pre-dawn, the man coming to terms with his new reality, alone in the neon-light hotel. 

But what’s in the title?  What’s fate got to do with it?  Well, contrary to those expert interpretations I’ve read, which suggest a one-night-stand rendezvous, I believe this is the key breakup moment of a longstanding relationship.  It’s too emotional not to be.  And if fate is going to play a role in your life at any point, be it a twist or not, one would think it would have to be significant.  But don’t let me talk you into it.  You be the judge:

I brought up Alice in Wonderland earlier in the episode.  Two characters in that story – some might say one - are Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, which just happens to be the title of the opening track on Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft”.  One thing Dylan does as well as anyone is shining a light on bad actors to help make the case for doing what’s right.  You see this throughout his discography: “Masters of War”, “Jokerman”, “Seven Curses”, “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”.  "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum“ is no exception. 

Dylan astonishes here by continuing to figure out innovative ways to write a song.  He does this on “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” by switching the two names around to pick up on more rhyme potential.  When Dylan needs to rhyme with ‘sun’, ‘run’ and ‘some’, Tweedle Dum gets thrust into the rhyme spot.  And when Dylan needs to match up with the words ‘silently’, ‘tree’, and ‘knee’, Tweetle Dee gets the honor.  The two characters are interchangeable, which gives Bob Dylan this luxury, and I’m sure he was aware of that going in.  There’s all sorts of other rhyming getting thrown in the mix too.  It’s a lesson to young songwriters from the master of the game.

We have time for one more folks.  What astonishing Bob Dylan song to close with?  Let’s see… thumbing through my leftover list, we’ve got “Angelina”, “Wallflower”, “Love is Just a Four-Letter Word”, “Precious Angel”.  Ahhh, how about this one.  A deep cut from Bob Dylan and The Band’s Big Pink recordings.  “I’m Not There” is one of those Dylan songs where you marvel at the change in his vocal delivery.  It’s a vocal style he would use but once.  It’s a dark, weary Bob Dylan we hear here. 

The title of course was used by the producers of the film of the same name to tell the story of Dylan in six of his various incarnations, always changing, never what you expect.  On one level, I get it: Bob Dylan has morphed often over the years.  On another level, however, Dylan has been the same guy all along.  Consistently true to himself.  “I’m Not There”… ok.   Conversely, then, the unspoken response could be “I’m everywhere”.

I’ll leave you with this poem called “Astonish” by Odious Wench:

I can't wait to have my
Knocks Socked off!

Until next time, if you are going to dive, choose the deep end!

Note: this 2-part series is dedicated to fellow Theme Time Radio Hour enthusiast, Linda Whiteside (from Bob Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing MN no less!) and Jeff Strause, who fed the flame. 



  1. “The light that radiates from the great novels time can never dim, for human existence is perpetually being forgotten by man and thus the novelists’ discoveries, however old they may be, will never cease to astonish”. Wow, that quote "astonished" me. Pete, you did well enough emulating Dylan's style on Theme Time Radio Hour to remind me how much I looked forward to every episode and how much I miss those weekly doses of pleasure, laughter and I loved the sound of his voice.

    1. Linda, stated in only the way a fellow Theme Timer could do. Thank you!


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