Bob Schwartz

Tag: Bob Dylan

March for Our Lives

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re goin’ through
David Bowie, Changes

To the NRA, the politicians in their pocket, Fox News and all the others who bully and lie as a regular self-serving practice:

These astonishingly active and articulate children you dismiss as naïve pawns of special interests are anything but. They are smart and caring voters and voters-to-be, they are inspirational organizers, they are brave warriors for peace, common sense and truth.

They are the edge of a wave of American humanity that will wash you away. If you believe your own nonsense and are too stupid to be afraid of being sidelined and replaced, you should be very afraid. Nothing happens without struggle, and you may think this is a struggle that you are bound to win. But if you are students of American history, you know how this eventually goes. If you are students of history, watching (or more likely ignoring) this extraordinary moment, you would know that you are history. The arc of history is long, MLK said, but it bends toward justice.

And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A Changin’

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Two Thoughts on the Passion: The Buddha and Bob Dylan

 

Bringing It All Back Home

“He not busy being born is busy dying.”

For anyone, Christian or not, the story of Easter is remarkable. Story, that is, not necessarily treated either as a story told or as a history chronicled.

Two of a thousand thoughts.

1.

The Buddhist conception of rebirth is complicated, beyond my simple and simplest understanding. So consider this just a summary and a thought about something of nearly infinite scope.

The realization that we are bound to grow old and die breaks the spell of infatuation cast over us by sensual pleasures, wealth, and power. It dispels the mist of confusion and motivates us to take fresh stock of our purposes in life. We may not be ready to give up family and possessions for a life of homeless wandering and solitary meditation, but this is not an option the Buddha generally expects of his householder disciples. Rather, as we saw above, the first lesson he draws from the fact that our lives end in old age and death is an ethical one interwoven with the twin principles of kamma and rebirth. The law of kamma stipulates that our unwholesome and wholesome actions have consequences extending far beyond this present life: unwholesome actions lead to rebirth in states of misery and bring future pain and suffering; wholesome actions lead to a pleasant rebirth and bring future well-being and happiness. Since we have to grow old and die, we should be constantly aware that any present prosperity we might enjoy is merely temporary. We can enjoy it only as long as we are young and healthy; and when we die, our newly acquired kamma will gain the opportunity to ripen and bring forth its own results. We must then reap the due fruits of our deeds. With an eye to our long-term future welfare, we should scrupulously avoid evil deeds that result in suffering and diligently engage in wholesome deeds that generate happiness here and in future lives.

In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon

My own take is that these rebirths are not a succession of lives, in the sense of multiple spans, but within this one life, this span of decades. We are constantly offered the opportunity to be new, based on who we have been but also on who we will be—who we will ourselves through thoughts and actions to be. If this sounds somewhat like the premise of Christian rebirth—of being born again—it might be.

(Note: To add yet another layer, Zen Master Bankei   talked about the unborn, that is, the unborn Buddha mind. When we realize that there is a reality that is there even before birth, we are marvelously illuminated. Not being born, we are not even subject to rebirth. But that’s another story.)

2.

Thinking about the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus, a soundtrack came to mind: Bob Dylan’s song It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), from the album Bringing It All Back Home (1965).

I looked to see whether Dylan had ever talked about a connection between the song and the Bible story. At first glance, it looks like not.

Maybe I’m just reaching, the way exegetes sometimes do, but it seems clear to me. If you’re not familiar with the song, please read the lyrics (below) and listen to the track. As a poem, it is up there with the classics of modern beat poetry, such as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. It is that good.

The song begins with a son singing to his mother about a darkness at noon. He obviously is, or considers himself, some kind of prophet, railing against the status quo and the powers that be. He acknowledges that this is dangerous. He finishes by imagining his execution: “And if my thought-dreams could be seen/They’d probably put my head in a guillotine.”

All along, he assures the mother that everything is alright:

It’s alright, Ma, I’m only bleeding…
It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing…
And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it…
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to…
But it’s alright, Ma, if I can’t please him…
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only

 

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
Written by Bob Dylan

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 is no sense in trying

Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying

Temptation’s page flies out the door
You follow, find yourself at war
Watch waterfalls of pity roar
You feel to moan but unlike before
You discover that you’d just be one more
Person crying

So don’t fear if you hear
A foreign sound to your ear
It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing

As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don’t hate nothing at all
Except hatred

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

While 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

An’ though 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

Advertising signs they 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

You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand with nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks they really found you

A question in your nerves is lit
Yet you know there is no answer fit
To satisfy, insure you not to quit
To keep it in your mind and not forget
That it is not he or she or them or it
That you belong to

Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to

For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Cultivate their flowers to be
Nothing more than something they invest in

While some on principles baptized
To strict party platform ties
Social clubs in drag disguise
Outsiders they can freely criticize
Tell nothing except who to idolize
And then say God bless him

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

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

Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex, they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
While money doesn’t talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony

While them that defend what they cannot see
With a killer’s pride, security
It blows the minds most bitterly
For them that think death’s honesty
Won’t fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes must get lonely

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed
Graveyards, false gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough, what else can you show me?

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

Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?

Ballad of a Thin Man

When I look at the current political scene, or listen to analysis and prognostication by dozens of clueless paid or partisan political “experts”, I keep hearing a song from Bob Dylan.

Poetic word salad? Sure. Fitting message? Absolutely.

Ballad Of A Thin Man

You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
And you say, “Who is that man?”
You try so hard
But you don’t understand
Just what you’ll say
When you get home

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

You raise up your head
And you ask, “Is this where it is?”
And somebody points to you and says
“It’s his”
And you say, “What’s mine?”
And somebody else says, “Where what is?”
And you say, “Oh my God
Am I here all alone?”

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

You hand in your ticket
And you go watch the geek
Who immediately walks up to you
When he hears you speak
And says, “How does it feel
To be such a freak?”
And you say, “Impossible”
As he hands you a bone

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

You have many contacts
Among the lumberjacks
To get you facts
When someone attacks your imagination
But nobody has any respect
Anyway they already expect you
To just give a check
To tax-deductible charity organizations

You’ve been with the professors
And they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks

You’ve been through all of
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well read
It’s well known

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Well, the sword swallower, he comes up to you
And then he kneels
He crosses himself
And then he clicks his high heels
And without further notice
He asks you how it feels
And he says, “Here is your throat back
Thanks for the loan”

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Now you see this one-eyed midget
Shouting the word “NOW”
And you say, “For what reason?”
And he says, “How?”
And you say, “What does this mean?”
And he screams back, “You’re a cow
Give me some milk
Or else go home”

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Well, you walk into the room
Like a camel and then you frown
You put your eyes in your pocket
And your nose on the ground
There ought to be a law
Against you comin’ around
You should be made
To wear earphones

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

U.S. voter turnout is very low. But what if something is happening here?

 

U.S. Voter Turnout

Pew Research reports that “U.S. voter turnout trails most developed countries.” But what if something is happening here?

What if U.S. voter turnout was more like Belgium (89% of voting age population)? Or Australia (82%)? Or Israel (76%)? To name just a few of the countries where people vote in great numbers.

Instead, U.S. voter turnout is mired at 54% of voting age population, just a few places from the bottom.

There are about 235 million Americans of voting age. If turnout increased to the top of the list (89%), that would increase the number of voters by 35% (89%-54%). Thirty-five percent of 235 million is about 82 million more voters.

82 million more voters. To put that in perspective, the winner of the last presidential election received about 66 million votes.

82 million more votes. Many young. Many not white. Many open to new ideas and proposals, as the old ones don’t seem to work so well. Many not committed to maintaining the status quo, which has not been all that good to and for them.

This is what should worry all the established political parties and politicians. And the establishments that depend on them and on predictable stability rather than change, radical or even incremental.

Except that the parties, politicians and establishments don’t seem, at least publicly, to be worried. They appear to believe that non-voting Americans won’t suddenly show up at the polls in great numbers to vote their own views and interests. And just in case, some of those establishments are ready to deploy tools to help keep those numbers down.

Sometimes history is a bending arc. Sometimes it’s a runaway train. Votes are the fuel. That train may already be rolling slowly. Getting ready to speed up.

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Bob Dylan, Ballad of a Thin Man

Masters of War

Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
There may be a few too many Bob Dylan albums, depending on whether you are a completist/fanatic. The number of albums, somewhere north of infinity, is supplemented this week by the release of The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10 – Another Self Portrait (1969-1971). On the other hand, this is what you would expect, and some would hope for, from a continuingly productive artist with a long and storied career.

Bob Dylan may be old school—maybe ancient school—but there are at least two things to note. For a time, he was one of the two most significant pop music artists in the world, matched only by The Beatles. And while his free form musical poetry combining the personal and the social may have owed something to folk music and beatnik coffee houses, it was something new, and is strangely part of the soil in which rap grew.

Masters of War is a track from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963. As a recording, it couldn’t be farther from current slick production values. It is a young guy strumming a guitar, singing in a way that then and now is pretty idiosyncratic. But like a lot of the great Dylan works, it grabs you and won’t let you go.

It is a song about war, but it isn’t an anti-war song; listening to it reveals that, and Dylan later confirmed it. It is about the people behind the curtain, the people on the battlefield, the people caught in the crossfire. War is a serious business, but it appears we are chronically not taking it seriously enough. Maybe we have to fight sometimes, maybe we don’t, but for God’s sake, let’s put our motives on the table for everyone to see, and let’s act, if we have to, from the deepest reaches of heart and mind. Elsewise, Dylan says, even Jesus would never forgive what you do.

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I’m young
You might say I’m unlearned
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
’Til I’m sure that you’re dead

The Failure of the American Autopilot

Otto the Autopilot

Congress is going on vacation, again. Will we miss them?

Maybe the greatest thing about America is its ability to run on autopilot, the brilliant way that it manages to handle whatever may come, internally or externally, to right itself, and move forward. Politics, corruption, war, economics, inequities—they have been painful, damaging and upsetting, but America was somehow able to get to tomorrow, and rise a little bit higher when it was all over.

Only once in the past century, before this moment, has the autopilot failed. The Great Depression required action and intervention, and we got it. Since then, and with the victorious end of World War II, it has been onward and upward. We’ve overcome so many mistakes that an entire generation now takes the American autopilot for granted.

This has lulled some into a sense that doing the wrong thing or doing nothing can’t hurt in the long run because, based on history, nothing can hurt in the long run. The problem is that we have hit one of those very rare moments when the autopilot is not doing its job. So that when we have a conspiracy by some in Congress not to do their job—confident that doing nothing is just the sort of medicine that an overactive American government needs—we are in a seeming tail spin. But they simply don’t believe that’s possible, because they have never lived in a time when the autopilot failed and, despite their embrace of vintage America, they may be poor students of history.

The least effective Congress in generations, maybe ever, is about to take another break. The country will still be here when they get back to non-work, and they will continue to engage in embarrassing their opposition, petty insults, ideological blowhardery, and mostly just trying to get elected again.

The American people are much smarter than them. For the most part, we know the autopilot that we’ve depended on is not working, and we know that Congress doesn’t seem to know that, or at least won’t admit it. We also know that Congress isn’t working, and if not them, who exactly is supposed to keep this country running straight, on and up?

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
The Times They Are A-Changin’
Bob Dylan

Too Much of Nothing


The last post was called a political break, with the prospect of returning immediately to earnest observations about the current campaign. For those who didn’t read it, that post included a Marx Brothers movie and a Weekly World News exclusive about Mitt Romney and Bat Boy. Now that’s a break.

If it’s possible for political junkies to overdose, this may be it. There are already a bunch of posts drafted and ready, political and otherwise (this is a blog about everything, not just politics). But just for a moment, the will to post seems to have gotten a little lost.

So the political break continues. In the same spirit of free association that gave rise to the guest appearance of Bat Boy, here is some commentary from Bob Dylan. “But when there’s too much of nothing, nobody should look.”:

Now, too much of nothing
Can make a man feel ill at ease
One man’s temper might rise
While another man’s temper might freeze
In the day of confession
We cannot mock a soul
Oh, when there’s too much of nothing
No one has control

Too much of nothing
Can make a man abuse a king
He can walk the streets and boast like most
But he wouldn’t know a thing
Now, it’s all been done before
It’s all been written in the book
But when there’s too much of nothing
Nobody should look

Too much of nothing
Can turn a man into a liar
It can cause one man to sleep on nails
And another man to eat fire
Ev’rybody’s doin’ somethin’
I heard it in a dream
But when there’s too much of nothing
It just makes a fella mean