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Bob Dylan and the “Ballad of a Thin Man”

In many people’s opinion, including mine, Bob Dylan was the greatest lyricist of what we can call the era of rock music. There were other great ones, too, of course, but Dylan’s were virtually unique in their imagery, though others who followed him tried to emulate it.

I am very opinionated when it comes to music, so do not be affronted if my opinions differ from yours, or from the consensus views. I think that virtually all of Dylan’s great songs, and there were so many classics, were written right up to 1966, and the double album “Blonde on Blonde.” After that, he had a very serious motorcycle accident, recuperated for over a year, and which may well have included detoxxing. During his legendary 1966 tour, it was said that there was an almost desperately intense energy; and amphetamines were a major part of him staying up virtually all day and doing concerts, with many former fans booing him because in their mind he had abandoned his role as the folk music hero, and gone over to the rock music side.

The album he next put out, “John Wesley Harding,” was very disappointing to me, not that Dylan ever needed to have people like the direction he took. When first listening to that album, played in full on the “underground radio,” I tried to search for echoes of the Dylan of “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde,” or “Bringing It All Back Home.” “All Along the Watchtower” is the song which sort of resembled that era; but the lyrics, while dramatic, were much more simple.

After that, Dylan did many albums of various types, none of which I wanted to buy, though obviously “Blood on the Tracks” became legendary. But for me, the lines “He hears the ticking of the clocks/and walks along with a parrot that talks,” epitomized how Dylan’s lyrics no longer had that incredible earlier natural yet profound quality.

Now, as we know, Dylan started as someone who much admired Woody Guthrie, and wrote songs like his, some with the “Talking” appellation, where he would talk a bit , and then sing, and then talk. Later, he evolved to becoming perhaps the greatest folk music writer of all time, though others such as Pete Seeger are on a comparable level. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin'” are two which immediately come to mind.

Then he moved to sort of a mixture of pop and rock, with a song like “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” And then, on “Bringing It All Back Home,” the last three unforgettable songs, “Gates of Eden,” “It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” he moved into a realm where no one else had been.

And then, on “Highway 61 Revisited,” Dylan wrote perhaps the greatest rock album ever. His lyric style became somewhat surrealistic, always filled with brilliant lines and images, writing in a way that no one in the music world had done. That year was when I first really started listening to rock music; and as someone who always loved poetry and lyrics, I was never disappointed by the complexity and effects of those lyrics.

Now, the first thing one might think when hearing songs like “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” is that the imagery is amazing, and the melodies are surprisingly good, but that the lyrics do not really make too much sense. But that would be very wrong. The thing I always felt, from the outset, about these lyrics, is that they did make sense, they were part of a whole. One doesn’t have to “understand” what each line might mean; but that each song, as a totality, expresses a devastating theme. That is what truly made Dylan a genius.

Other writers such as Gary Brooker of Procol Harum, who wrote “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” a great song, wrote lyrics which really are much more images than meaning. (“As the miller told his tale,” yes, evokes Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale,” but I am almost positive is just there for complexity). They could not reach Dylan’s level , although there were some excellent efforts. The lyrics of Arthur Lee on Love’s “Forever Changes,” are superb. Simon and Garfunkel wrote very memorable songs, and there were others. But Dylan was virtually sui generis as far as surreal lyrics which are actually powerfully meaningful.

I will take one song from “Highway 61 Revisited” and attempt to analyze it. Not that this is supposed to be a definitive analysis, by any means! I have never looked up any analyses of Dylan’s songs, so these are all my own ideas, though I am sure that there are many other people who grasp the theme of “Ballad of a Thin Man, which is the song I will explore. One doesn’t have to “understand” each word or image, they are a brilliantly effective part of a whole.

Here are the lyrics to “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 will say when you get home

Because something is happening here

And you don’t know what it is

Do you, Mr. 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 someone else says, “Well, what is?”

And you say, “Oh my God, am I here all alone?”

But something is happening

And you don’t know what it is

Do you, Mr. 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

And something is happening here

But you don’t know what it is

Do you, Mr. Jones?

You have many contacts among the lumberjacks

To get you facts when someone attacks your imagination

But nobody has any respect

In fact they all expect

You to 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’ve discussed lepers and crooks

You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books

You’re very well read, it’s well known

But something is happening here

And you don’t know what it is

Do you, Mr. Jones?

Well, the sword swallower 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 says “Here is your throat back, thanks for the loan”

And you know something is happening

But you don’t know what it is

Do you, Mr. 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”

And you know something is happening

But you don’t know what it is

Do you, Mr, 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 coming round

You should be made to wear earphones

Because something is happening

But you don’t know what it is

Do you, Mr. Jones?

In 1963 Dylan wrote the song “The Times They Are A-Changn” The lyrics were poetic, but not surreal. He called upon “mothers and fathers throughout the land, don’t criticize what you can’t understand,” and said that, “Your old road is rapidly aging. Get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand, for the times they are a-changin'”

“Ballad of a Thin Man” is a different kind of take upon this theme, written in somewhat surreal, but not at all indecipherable, language. “Mr. Jones” is a prototype, a wonderfully evoked example of the person who cannot understand what is happening in this country and the world, the dramatic changes which many saw or hoped were occurring with the new generation coming of age.

So Mr. Jones is a middle-class man, or maybe even upper-middle-class, before that term was in vogue. He is well educated, he can move comfortably among the people who thought they were running things. Yet he knows something new is happening, he can see various signs. But he doesn’t really understand how momentous it is and will be. And he is not so impervious that he can’t feel discomfited and even frightened by it. The refrain, “You know something is happening/But you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?” is both mocking and ominous, accentuated by the piano chords, which Dylan himself played sometimes in concert.

Now, some of the lyrics evoke the images of a carnival, always unsettling and potentially very dark. Dylan used such imagery in several of his songs: this one, and then “Memphis Blues Again,” and his absolute masterpiece, “Desolation Row.” The characters view or participate in a world which is distorted and threatening, one where there seems to be no comfort or refuge.

The Doors sometimes did this, as well, note the entire album, particularly the cover art, on the album “Strange Days.” The Beatles sometimes did, particularly on the song, “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” whose lyrics John Lennon said he got from an old poster that he found in an attic. All these images were very appropriate for a world which very much seemed askew and nightmarish, if one were taking it all in. And no one evoked that as unforgettably as Bob Dylan did during this period of his songwriting.

Now, to the specific lyrics. “You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand.” “The” room, somewhere that is not any room, “the” is more immediate. He’s carrying his pencil, that is his stock in trade. He is going to observe, maybe write something, likely that is how he interacts with the world, at a comfortable distance, protected by remove and intellect. But he sees somebody naked, not something you can just casually pass by, at least not if you are Mr. Jones, who is not a hippie. So how does he deal with it, what would a respectable man tell his wife? What is going on?

He raises up his hand, and says something resembling the term “That is where it’s at,” meaning, “That’s what is hip, that is what matters.” He asks rather foolishly, “Is this where it is?” Someone else replies, looking at him, “It’s his.” “What’s mine?” “Indeed, what is yours? What do you actually own, what can you lay claim to, who are you in this world?” And Mr. Jones has a flash that he is in a world that he does not understand or fit into, that things that he thought were foundations of his life are not so. And that these new people are not his friends, and that they are not going to concede to him the place in the world which he had been taking for granted; and this would create an existential crisis in anyone.

Then Mr. Jones is apparently at a carnival, literal or metaphorical. He came to watch the geek, who to me is the most unsettling figure in the carnival mythology, which is why I will never see any version of “Nightmare Alley.” Robert Bloch, who wrote “Psycho,” wrote a short story in which a witch of some sort turned the protagonist into the chicken whose head the geek bit off. I apologize for sharing this nightmarish story with you. Here, Mr. Jones, an observer of other people, is now accosted by one of them, and told that he is the actual freak. And in this new world he may well be. Many things are a matter of perspective.

Now the song goes on to say that Mr. Jones relies on the media, or people who work under him, to get him “facts,” which he can use as a protection against being confronted with uncomfortable things or people. But these people don’t really respect him, or his ideas; they do expect him to play his role as a person who thinks he is contributing to society in respectable ways.

The prototypical Mr. Jones does have a certain respect from his peers. He has discussions about abstract philosophical matters, and people, which does nothing to deal with the immediate world. He’s got his degrees and his books, and they are only an intellectual defense against reality. I have often considered that dichotomy. But Mr. Jones is lost without those defenses, it appears.

Now the most opaque stanza. The sword swallower, again a figure from a carnival or circus. He tells Mr. Jones that he has actually borrowed his throat for his act. Mr. Jones cannot abstract himself from this world, be only an observer. He is in it. Sword swallowing is dangerous, and those who are doing dangerous things are going to compel him to participate in their effects, which he cannot escape. What if the sword-swallower cuts his throat the next time he does the act?

The one-eyed midget stanza is more accessible. Another carnival figure who is compelling Mr. Jones to participate in the immediate world, willingly or unwillingly. “Now!” could be a word in any political slogan or chant, and that imperative is what the midget is focused on. Mr. Jones wants reasons for taking action, he wants to analyze. The midget only cares about the immediacy of action, the how, not the why. Mr. Jones still wants explanations. But the midget tells him (echoes of “get out of the new road if you can’t lend a hand”), that he is supposed to be performing a function, doing something to help the cause. He is not an important person, he is just a cog, but he has to do his job, provide something (metaphorical “milk”) or he is useless. It is perhaps the ultimate reduction in status for such people.

Dylan’s last verses are almost always powerful, a summing up, or a devastating finale, as in “Desolation Row,” “Memphis Blues Again,” or “Visions of Johanna.” Mr. Jones is summarized, as a smug person who thinks he is on top of things, but is not, he is out of his realm now. He is like a camel who slowly walks into a scene; he has an air of portentousness, which is now ludicrous. He doesn’t observe, “his eyes are in his pocket.” Usually, “keeping your nose to the ground” could evince careful analysis, as a detective or reporter might employ, trying to learn facts and interview people. But Mr. Jones, completely out of his comfort zone, in a place and time which is utterly foreign to him though he tries to understand,” is a pathetic figure. His nose is not “to the ground” it is “on the ground.” He ought to be made to wear earphones, so he can be tuned in, listen to the music which is much closer to the explanations that Mr. Jones is asking for.

It is a devastating portrait, I don’t think anyone has done it better, not even John Lennon in “Nowhere Man,” or any of the Kinks’ songs mocking the Conservative ethos, or some of the songs by the Jam in the 1970’s. I never have gotten tired of listening to it, even though that era was a long time ago, and at least some of the hopes of that generation never became realities. “Mr. Jones” may ultimately have become one of Nixon’s “Silent Majority” which put the country firmly in the hands of the political Right, their military budgets and wars, and their disinterest in the working class. I wish we had someone like Dylan in his prime to write songs about this era, but I do not see one, not one with close to that gift of poetic imagery which actually enhanced the power of his subjects.

I hope that you enjoyed that, and if you did, perhaps I will try to look at Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” which has no equal as a long-form musical poem. Oh, I should add that the title of “Ballad of a Thin Man” probably was a little play on words on the movie “Song of the Thin Man,” which was one of the films in the William Powell and Myrna Loy “Thin Man” saga. I actually only realized that, when a year or so ago, I saw a listing on TCM for a series of “Thin Man” movies. And actually, as to that line of movies, the only character known as ‘the thin man” was in the first movie, the one based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel. There is no thin man in the other movies, for obvious reasons, if you see the first one.