Ballad Of A Thin Man (1965)
“The Times They Are a-Changin’” (released 1964) was written in 1963 as a demo by troubadour Dylan. As a clarion of change, it is endlessly sung and cited as among his best work, although a Folk song and not a Rock song by any means.
As a forerunner of “Ballad Of A Thin Man,” the earlier song sets up the Dylan devotee for something bleaker, that just skirts the edge of the apocalyptic. “The Times They Are a-Changin’” also launched Dylan’s skirmishing with pundits – “writers and critics who prophesize with your pen.” “Ballad Of A Thin Man” brings the attack onto the scale of a full-blown war.
You know what it is, so give a listen
By the time it was released, analysts, music critics, poetry hounds and the old folkies had already begun to binge on Dylan’s sometimes cryptic lyrics, relentlessly picking them apart in ways good and bad. According to Dylan this caused him no end of annoyance as well as mirth. He was laughing up his sleeve (as they say). We can also view Mr. Jones as a kind of proxy for a bourgeois mentality. The lyrics are open to a lot of different interpretations.
The opening of “Ballad” promises a fierce counter-critique of the critics themselves. The listener is immediately thrust into a netherworld where all bets are off. The “thin man” of the song is thin in the sense of “meager,” without much substance.
A saloon-hall piano, played by Dylan, tussles immediately with a Phantom-Of-The-Opera organ handled by Al Kooper and with Bobby Gregg’s shuffling, dark-end-of-the-street drumming. The opening lyric is sour as a bitten lemon. The critic, Mr. Jones, is essentially asking who Dylan is, not just as a celebrity, but as an artist, as a soul! Incidentally, he is asking Dylan what he means with all these words. By naming him “Mr. Jones,” Dylan places him on the rubbish heap of anonymity in the refrain.
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?
Mike Bloomfield dumps in a subdued but beautiful guitar lead, dropping in and out, keeping his distance from the snapping, badass Dylan attitude. What we get is a sophisticated Blues piece, a real classic of that genre’s purgatorial side. And one that is increasingly a collaboration between Dylan and Kooper, the first trading vocal slaps and slurs against the haunting trilling and short, staccato arpeggios of the organ.
The song is brimming with typecast characters from the demimonde of early-‘60s downtown New York: geeks, freaks, lepers, crooks, midgets, jaded professors, demented carnival performers, etc. The music makes the listener feel as if there is a cast of thousands lurching through the song’s streets, a zombie zoo’s gates sprung open.
But, the song keeps returning to the inept writer/critic and soon something resembling satirical gibberish shows the critic to be out of place, unable to write or be coherent. Dylan mocks the entire profession.
By the last verse, “Ballad” becomes world-weary. An already slow, morose piece becomes good background music against which you might throw yourself off the nearest bridge. A depressive fog settles in. As if to settle his hash with Dylan, Bloomfield steals the musical side of the last verse, picking and bending a crystalline-pure solo as “Ballad” ends. It is sheer brilliance.
Dylan won’t let his guitarist have the last word, however. The last thing we hear is a groan from Dylan. No better way to end one of the top 100 classic Rock songs.
In one of those great, ironic twists fine poetry heaves up onto shore, there are many people, perhaps obsessed with phallic imagery, who interpret “Ballad Of A Thin Man” as a gay anthem. Thus the expression again comes to mind about a square peg and a round hole.
Indeed “something is happening here and you don’t know what it is…”
As for the influence of “Ballad Of A Thin Man,” we need look no farther than Boz Scaggs’ “Loan Me A Dime.” For its fountainhead, we look to Paul Siebel’s bluesy work. Although Siebel did not get much attention nationally until 1970, his songs were known among the folk and blues circuits in Greenwich Village by 1965. A Siebel song closely related to “Ballad” musically is “If I Could Stay.” Dylan and Siebel also share similar vocal flourishes.
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- “Ballad Of A Thin Man” was recorded on August 2, 1965, at the same session as “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Queen Jane Approximately” and “Highway 61 Revisited,” title track of the album.
- When playing at a Forest Hills, NY, summer 1965, the crowd grew unruly because Dylan wouldn’t play his Folk standards. In the face of the booing, Dylan told his back up band to just keep playing the piano, organ and drum intro of “Ballad” over and over until they calmed down. (This is according to Al Kooper.)
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