By Tony Attwood
“Most of the time” which precedes “What good am I?” on “Oh Mercy” is a song of self-deception where the self-deceiver knows at the end of each verse that he’s not kidding anybody – certainly not himself.
And then we move on, on “Oh Mercy” to “What good am I?” where the self-deception ends and the singer begins to question himself, rather than assert.
And what questioning he is doing. This is a real self-battering.
But before we get into it, there’s a nice musical link between the two songs too. Both start not on the tonic chord (the chord that the song is built around) but with the instruments playing the sub-dominant. What is happening in those first few seconds of each song is like a sigh – we drop down from the pretence and what is left of bravado and self-confidence. We drop down to the basic level of self-doubt and concern.
What Dylan is saying in this simple piece is that in the end the only way out of the Little Boy Lost position is honesty. Look at yourself in the mirror and see what’s really there.
For Dylan at this time the big question is, if I retreat from the world and don’t engage with the big issues – be they personal or social – then what is the point of it all? It is like the phrase “the only reason for writing is to change the world”. The only reason for being here is to do good to be thoughtful and kind. To treat people right.
Interestingly this is a rejection of the Zen approach of isolation of the individual and the contemplation of the world inside a grain of sand – at least if you have decided to engage with the world. Maybe that retreat from reality is fine if that is the totality of what you do. But engagement, sympathy, kindness, support, understanding, empathy… these are the qualities of the really human and humane person.
Musically the accompaniment is occasional, intermittent, totally in keeping with the ponderousness of the lyrics. The chords are the basic ones of a standard folk or pop song – as becomes a piece considering such basic issues. The alternating E major and A major emphasise the passing of time. Two minor chords in the third line and then we’re back. to the rocking chords. No suprises.
Also, as with “Most of the time” the song is in ternary form, meaning it has a repeated verse, a “middle 8” and then back musically to the original. Musical theorists, when teaching music students, write this as ABA. It is one of the most basic forms.
The “A” section is verses 1, 2 and 3. B comes with verse 4, (you can’t mistake how different it sounds) and then we are back to A again. This stretches the form in an unconventional way – normally in pop we get two verses of A at the start.
But the level of uncertainty in the song is so overwhelming, the stretching of the form seems absolutely what should happen.
In the first verse Dylan is speaking of the trivial argument, the “you’re not going out like that!” comment of parent rejecting the new fashion conscious clothes the teenager has just brought in, the “that doesn’t suit you” of the lover out of sympathy with his companion.
Then the row breaks out and he walks out. It is a scene repeated a billion times a day across the planet. We’ve probably all done it, and if we have any humanity, we’ve probably all hated ourselves for doing it.
What good am I if I’m like all the rest
If I just turn away, when I see how you’re dressed
If I shut myself off so I can’t hear you cry
What good am I?
There are in fact some incredibly strong lines here; a man reprimanding himself for letting his love affair or his relationship with his son or daughter come to this. The lover’s or child’s tears, the thundering sky… what a comparison, what an image!
What good am I if I know and don’t do
If I see and don’t say, if I look right through you
If I turn a deaf ear to the thundering sky
What good am I?
And so he’s caused pain, quite unnecessarily, quite pointlessly, and meanwhile the world is still there, life is still there. And the singer just can’t get out of this. This is the problem. He just doesn’t know how to say, “It is entirely my fault. I am so sorry. The last thing in the world I want to do is hurt you. I have no excuse. Just forgive me. Let me try again.”
What good am I while you softly weep
And I hear in my head what you say in your sleep
And I freeze in the moment like the rest who don’t try
What good am I?
And so we come to the “B” section – and it certainly is a different section. Because here Dylan is asking who did this to him, but also why is he like this? Why do I do this? It is the moment of self-reflection that turns away from the main theme of the song and asks how he came to be like this.
What good am I then to others and me
If I’ve had every chance and yet still fail to see
If my hands are tied must I not wonder within
Who tied them and why and where must I have been?
And most likely we are listening and hoping for a resolution, for him to be able to say how sorry he is, how desperately sorry. But he’s so tied up. It turns out not to be “where must I have been” but “I am still here, and I am still hurting you.”
What good am I if I say foolish things
And I laugh in the face of what sorrow brings
And I just turn my back while you silently die
What good am I?
The song finishes with an instrumental verse – a rarity in Dylan, but it works well, leaving us contemplating. Has he really answered the questions? Was it all rhetorical? Is he saying, “What good am I if you hurt you like this? I’m nothing – so I have learned my lesson.” Or is it “If I were to hurt you like that I’d be nothing, so now I am making amends.”
We, on the outside, want to know he’s answered the questions. We want to see that he realises that if he turns from his friends when he is needed, he is nothing. We want him to show us that he sees that we are all known by the way we treat those who care for us and for whom we care. But we are left hanging.
Heylin is in his most nauseatingly sneering mode reviewing the album track saying, “Though there is something instantly enticing about the whole ‘sound’ of the thing, all that needless noodling is a constant distraction from the central performer’s concerns.”
The attitude of Heylin here seems to be that if only Dylan called on him personally to produce the album then we’d have masterpiece. But in making this reference he shows that he really isn’t grasping what is going on here. The singer is not alone – he is engaging with his own mind while outside the world keeps butting in. If you don’t believe me, try the old “try not to think about it” concept. If ever there is something we can’t do its “not think about” something we’ve been told not to think about. The world is always there, always knocking into our self-conscious mind. All that “noodling” is life Mr Heylin, although I guess you don’t get that.
If you are not sure what I mean, play the track and listen to the ending. You are never quite sure where it is going to stop, because the jagged and soft bits of the world keep bumping in and won’t stop. Not even when you sleep.