Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #63: Ballad of a Thin Man

Mr. Jones as archetype for those who don't "get it", Mr. Jones as reporter who can't understand Dylan's frenetic writing style, Mr. Jones as Rolling Stone going over the edge, even Mr. Jones as latent homosexual coming to grips with his sexuality - there are songs in the Dylan catalog that court analysis, and then there's "Ballad of a Thin Man", a song that practically cries out for it. We've had forty years of trying to figure out what the sword swallower and the geek with the bone and contact with the lumberjacks are all about, and we'll probably have at least 40 more on top of it. We've even had an entire movie sequence dedicated to it, as Todd Haynes decided to flex his artistic muscles and devote 6 minutes to his own weird daydream-fever amalgamation of what the song means to him. The result is a crazy, overwrought mishmash of conspiracy nonsense, goofy circusy crap, and slightly incongruous footage of Dylan on stage with the Hawks, which somehow manages to double as the worst part of the film (Haynes, in his glee to show off, practically wields symbolism into a bat and smacks us over the head with it) and the best (quite frankly, it's pretty sweet to see Cate Blanchett doing the '66 routine, complete with waving hands at the piano, the huge American flag, and the Hawks blaring away behind him/her in their stylish suits). That's what "Ballad of a Thin Man" tends to inspire - a whole lot of thought, both interesting and way too esoteric.

As you might imagine, this sort of intellectual vomitorium tends to obscure the musical merits of the song, and I'd like to make sure that I touch on that before delving a bit more into meatier issues. I would assume that most of us believe that the 1966 version is the definitive take, with its hammer-of-Thor drumming, Dylan's sneering vocals, and (most famously) Garth Hudson's swirling, whirling organ - you kind of wish Hudson had decided to drag a calliope out on stage, for the full "soundtrack to Freaks" experience. But as great as that version is, it's more or less the natural extension of the album version, which manages to create its own menace and dread from the opening horror-movie piano clanks. To me, the mood of the song is established by that piano, pushed up higher in the mix than on stage with the Hawks, giving the track its shambolic, frightening majesty. And Dylan's crystal-clear vocal, free of the drugged-up slurs of the 66 tour, imbues the words with the foreboding sense of doom they deserve. It's an absolutely fantastic take, with Dylan's great backing band and his impassioned vocals combining to create sheer genius.

Now, when it comes to the song itself, I tend to think that the simplest explanation is the best and Dylan's simply singing about somebody who doesn't understand the new culture assimilating all around him. I touched on this in "My Back Pages", but even that seemed lighthearted in comparison to the screed of "Ballad of a Thin Man". John Lennon nailed it, in my opinion, when he said that Mr. Jones was "suicidal" - why wouldn't you be, when you're confronted with a world that simply makes no sense to you but seems to make sense to everyone else, and when the familiar cultural landmarks of your younger years, the Fitzgeralds of the world, no longer have the same relevance? I mean, sure, there are worse things in life than being behind the times; still, plenty of people tend to retreat into their own generation when they feel like the world's passing them by, which is why you get people that blather about kids on their lawns and saying things were so much better when they were younger and so on. It's that sort of attitude that leads to things like "video games cause violence", a semi-viable argument that gets turned into an absurd straw man simply because it gives people an easy out to blast the seemingly good-for-nothing youth of America. Do we really believe that nonsense?

Earlier this year, HBO's "Costas Now" dedicated an entire show to the changing world of sports media, giving a segment to Internet media and how the blogosphere was helping to reshape the way people thought, communicated, and argued about sports. The highlight (so to speak) was a roundtable discussion about blogs, which turned semi-ugly when noted author Buzz Bissinger used the platform to unleash a profanity-laced invective towards both blogs in general and well-known sports blog Deadspin in particular. Will Leitch, then editor of Deadspin (he took a job writing for New York Magazine a few months after the HBO appearance) was on hand, and he absorbed a great deal of abuse without particularly managing to address or refute any of Bissinger's points (however many there actually were). And while Bissinger did have some valid criticisms about the responsibility blogs have to properly disseminate information and not be bastions of hate, they were obscured by his righteous anger and the simple, painful fact that Bissinger, like so many others in sports journalism, were either unable or unwilling to accept that the Internet (and, by extension, blogs) is where all journalism is moving towards and that print journalism, for all its worth to our society, is slowly fading away. When the world changes, that's one thing; when your livelihood changes, that's something else entirely. You can forgive Bissinger and his ilk for being angry; you can't forgive them for using that anger to hide from reality.

Where I'm going with this is that, eventually, this will happen to nearly every walk of life you can imagine - the world just moves too fast, especially these days, for that not to be the case. And you can either make an attempt to keep up and stay relevant to what's going on around you, or you can retreat into your spine-worn tomes, press your hands to your ears, and shut your eyes to everything spinning away from what you know to be true and real. "Ballad of a Thin Man" captures what it feels like to not understand the zeitgeist, to have a wealth of knowledge that's completely useless in comprehending the changes around you, and to find yourself being left behind on an island as the ocean stretches further and further away. Will Leitch, in his response to the "Costas Now" debacle, wrote a remarkable closing thought: "The future is obvious to anyone even slightly interested in looking. We just stand aside, as he, as they, watch the light shrink, then fade, then vanish." If that doesn't sound like a close relative to "something is happening, and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?", then I don't know what does.

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rob! said...

i like this song...i would love it if it didn't go on so long! just when i feel like its over, it goes on for, like, another half a dozen verses.

joe butler said...

Interesting piece which raises a number of issues apart from the place of BOTM in the Dylan cannon. Let me begin by declaring my bias. I am nearly 60 and devoted to the spoken and written word in all its forms but, as yet, I have never shooed any kids off my lawn, although I did tut once at a 5 year old playing grand theft auto. And shame on me I did enjoin my 16 year old son to read a piece in the Murdoch owned "Times" last week (is this child abuse?).
A lot of comment on the internet is trivial and some of it is dangerous rubbish, but that is the price of free speech.
1600 years ago Visigoths and Vandals helped destroy Rome, and it took 1000 years for civilization to recover. However with the benefit of hindsight the destruction of Rome was a good and inevitable consequence of Rome’s failure to change and adapt. All things must pass, but there is no guarantee that what replaces "Things" will be better.
We are brainwashed with the notion of progress, most of it being driven by the profit motive.
So the blogosphere can be both a Tower of incoherent Babel and a tool for communication and democracy. But for every Barrack Obama there are a million armchair philosophers like me wanting to speak to the world.
But I guess I’ll have to settle with talking to you and your readers Tony
Ps why do Americans get so heated about Sports?

Anonymous said...

Bill Wyman said in his book he thought that this and LaRS were about Brian Jones...I believe they both have Brian elements in them..

...interesting about the.."see somebody naked line"...it doesnt have to be a man...it could be just somebody m or f ..like who is that?...."man" (the hip expression of the 60s)

Nicolás Pérez Arce said...

The way I see it, poetry has a way to say a lot things with just an image or a metaphor, and that's the way Bob Dylan reasons, he is speaking on another level, and Mr Jones cannot understand him, they are incapable of communicating. In the song, Bob dylan, in my opinion, is explaining the role of Mr Jones in society. Bob Dylan always things that people come near him to gain something. Like he says in his chronicles about getting close to great people because you think maybe some of it will rub on you.

Nicolás Pérez Arce said...

All these reporters wanted to understand bob dylan's songs, and they wanted him to explain to them what they were all about because the lyrics had so much wisdom, and people wanted to understand it, but Bob Dylan was reluctant, he rejoiced in the fact that people knew "something was happening", he didn't want to be the critic of his own work.

Anonymous said...

Every song on Bob Dylan's album Highway 61 Revisited rated & discussed

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello There Tony, thank you for posting this interesting essay. Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/47/Ballad-of-a-Thin-Man and listen to every version of every song.