Sunday, November 25, 2018

My Take On Dylan's Disturbing Ballad of a Thin Man

If you want to annoy a poet, explain his poetry.
―Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Photo credit:  Thom Cronin, courtesy Bill Pagel Archives
Symphony Hall, Newark NJ, October 1965
"Ballad of a Thin Man" is possibly one of Dylan's scariest songs. It's about as far from Pop 40 rock as you can get, the Beatles' "Help" being top of the charts around the first time he played this in August 1965. What's amazing is that he's still performing it more than a half century later. (See his recent set list of November 2)/ It's haunting, it's surreal, it's cruel, it's challenging, it's lascivious and it's a rebel yell against all conventions of the time... and maybe all time.

By age 24 Dylan had created a persona that was hip, taciturn and sharp, a tempered-steel blade thrust into the ribcage of contemporary culture. With a keen eye toward what was really happening, he presents us with imagery here that is altogether unsettling.

Only two years earlier he was a folk singer rubbing shoulders with the most influential of the breed. His songs of protest--against the military-industrial complex, on behalf of civil rights, against war--became the official language of the counter-culture. (See the last chapter of Ken Kesey's coast-to-coast tripping and traipsing in Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.)

When you listen to this song as first performed on his world tour with The Band, one is struck by a number of impressions. First, listen to that Attitude. How he gained this degree of inner power at such an early age is somewhat remarkable. Then again, that's what Highway 61 Revisited was all about. Attitude. From the opening rimshot on "Like a Rolling Stone" to the summation in "Desolation Row," we have something revolutionary here.

John Hinchey, in his Like A Complete Unknown, states that Highway 61 Revisited is Dylan's "first album as himself." Dylan the poet, musician and performer doing what he does, being who he is. I personally would place the trio of albums beginning with Bringing It All Back Home as the transition, though when you look back over a half century of permutations how can this man really be defined by any one period?

* * * *
It's been my desire to write about this song for ages it seems, but I've been reluctant to be candid as regards how I've seen it, in part because we generally don't talk openly about acid.

It's commonly assumed that Mr. Jones in this song represents the press, the "clueless gaggle of idiot questioners" (Hinchey) who shadowed Dylan wherever he went. But I don't see it that way. The clues are several and can be found in the bridge, stanzas four and five. He's someone who has money, who lets people know how much he gives to "tax deductible charity organizations." He's also educated. Reads the correct books, strives to put on airs. His affiliations include lawyers, professors. He no doubt has a high regard for himself, imagines himself a Somebody, with a captial S.

The story, though is found in stanzas 1-3 and 6-8. The narrator of this story, which features a fairly whacked out set of encounters within a singular moment of time, is directing the whole of it to Mr. Jones. "You walk into the room...."  And from the start it is chaotic, bizarre and what? What is this?

You see somebody naked and say, "Who is that man?"

Where are we here? A house? An apartment somewhere in the city? I envision a house or apartment with multiple rooms and a lot of people. And Mr. Jones is trying to keep it together, but his mind is thoroughly unhinged.  Someone else writes that it's a circus. Well, yes, but that's not where these scenes are taking place, even though circus metaphors abound.

Mark Gober, in his book An End to Upside Down Thinking, shares what recent research has been reporting about the effects of LSD on the brain. He notes how the brain works as a filter to restrict all the external inputs that continually bombard our five senses, thereby enabling us to make sense of the world. As Aldous Huxley wrote in The Doors of Perception, psychedelics "open the doors" or as Gober states, removes the filter.

Mr. Jones is having all these experiences thrust at him, and it makes no sense what is happening. Hence, the narrator keeps stabbing him with, "Something is happening but you don't know what it is..."

Hinchey, however, states that the narrator doesn't know what is happening either, but he's comfortable with that, with this swirl of unanticipated and uncontrollable events.

Verse two is the most telling as regards the frame of mind Mr. Jones is in. Each statement in response to the previous is nonsense. No one is communicating in any rationale way so that Mr. Jones finally flips out. "Oh my God, am I here all alone?"

Here are the lyrics, followed by a live performance from 1966 with The Band. As with all the songs recorded during this period, it's not just what Dylan says but how he says it, how he conveys it, that really floors you.

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?

Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.;
renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music

Here's a 1966 performance. Note the organist's fingers dancing in response to each declaration by the singer. It's like the call-and-response style of Pentecostal preachers, pausing before delivering the next statement, giving the audience a chance to react. This is a much more disturbing sermon though. Something really was happening. But what?

If for some reason the video gets removed, visit:

Meantime life goes on all around you. Get into it.


Ginko said...

Dylan is Mr. Jones. It's him that don't know whats happening- drugs out and surrounded by madness. He pretends to know...

it's the only way to really get the song. I always thought he was being superior. He's just freaked out.

Anonymous said...

you see somebody naked, - could be a man or woman

"Who is THAT?, man !

Anonymous said...

I've long thought it was about LBJ, but has since come to refer to any celebrity politician, who is supposed to be a leader but is always behind the times that are changing on the ground.

Unknown said...

This song paints a picture of Christopher Street in the sixties.

Unknown said...

This song is Christopher Street in the sixties.

Anonymous said...

Brian Jones thought he was the Mr. Jones.

Unknown said...

My vanity plate is: DOU MR JZ

Ed Newman said...

Interesting angles. Never saw it as LBJ... There is a timelessness to most of Dylan's lyrics...

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