Mr. Jones (1993)
“Mr. Jones” elicits about as many interpretations as there are pieces of popcorn in a party-size bag. That speaks to the plaintive appeal of Adam Duritz’s voice, the driving rhythm and bending lead guitars side by side in a layout that gently skirts the formulaic and ends up squarely in the “most-soulful” category. Let’s spill a few pieces out and snack on them.
The song was written when the Crows were on the cusp of stardom but still largely unknown. On the surface, the lamentation in “Mr. Jones” revolves around trying to pick up a pretty girl in a bar while still a citizen of Nobodyland, but it also peers disconcertingly into the future ironically, wistfully. Lyrically, Mr. Jones can be interpreted as Duritz’s alter ego, or as being a sketch of Marty Jones, bass player of a forerunner band of Counting Crows.
The Marty Jones thesis carries some weight because the bassist’s father was playing flamenco guitar at a café the night the song was conceived. They then moved to the New Amsterdam, getting drunker and drunker, telling, as some say, a sad, old, true story. There is, too, as a quick listen will tell you, more than a passing tip of the hat to Bob Dylan’s Mr. Jones of “Ballad Of A Thin Man.”
Mr. Jones, Jr.
I was down at the New Amsterdam
staring at this yellow-haired girl
Mr. Jones strikes up a conversation
with this black-haired flamenco dancer
She dances while his father plays guitar
She’s suddenly beautiful
We all want something beautiful
I wish I was beautiful
The music is a curious, captivating concoction of high-gloss C&W, the country music of Van Morrison (“Wild Night” from Tupelo Honey) and “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” by The Byrds; as well as the psychedelia of “I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night” by The Electric Prunes and the Swamp Rock of “Refugee” by Tom Petty. Indeed, Duritz’s vocal style owes much to Petty.
Van Morrison’s “Wild Night”
The electric Prunes’ “Too Much To Dream”
Tom Petty’s “Refugee”
So come dance this silence
down through the morning
Cut up, Maria! Show me
some of them Spanish dances
Pass me a bottle, Mr. Jones
Believe in me
Help me believe in anything
I want to be someone who believes The verse above is where the heartache begins. The song is not just about chasing girls, it’s about the chasing of dreams and visions. The ringing admission of believing in nothing is what keeps the singer/writer from reaching out to “the girl,” who is but a symbol of something better, purer, brighter. It is – on an entirely different plane – about “Maria,” a woman arisen out of a song that the flamenco player performs. It is about the blonde. It is about the magic of music. It is about being lost at sea, wanting to come ashore so badly as your teeth chatter and your side cramps up.
Mr. Jones and me tell
each other fairy tales
Stare at the beautiful women
“She’s looking at you
Ah, no, no, she’s looking at me”
Smiling in the bright lights
Coming through in stereo
When everybody loves you
you can never be lonely
In back of the lead vocal, who should show up again but those damned Beatles doing the la-la-la’s in the timeless style. But there is also a series of SHA-la-la’s that pay homage to early Manfred Mann (who had a song called “Sha-La-La) and to Bruce Springsteen’s sha-la-la-ing on “4th Of July, Asbury Park: Sandy.” Those two influences on the Crows intrigue us because Mann’s cover of Springsteen’s “Blinded By The Light” gave Bruce his only Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit. Oh the roots and branches.
Woven over, under and through the steam-piston rhythm guitar, Bryson’s lead interrupts like a polite but gifted child horning in on his mother’s tea party. It’s a great example of restrained, class-act playing. Steve Bowman does a yeoman’s job on drums, nothing fancy, but punching in with a solid A-minus performance.
Producer T-Bone Burnett brought a world of knowledge and technical know-how to the sessions. Shortly after the production of August And Everything After, he retired from recording to work on techniques that could render obsolete the highly compressed mp3 formats that many recording artists deem too spare and “bright.”
Burnett also plays guitar on “Mr. Jones.” The dense layers of sound that the careful listener hears on the song – and album – can be attributed to the meticulousness of T-Bone. We eagerly await the day when “Mr. Jones” will be available in a non-compressed format.
Scraps and shreds of post-modern lyrics parade through the song, reflections of grief, angst, and emotional malnutrition:
All of the beautiful colors
are very, very meaningful
Gray is my favorite color
I felt so symbolic yesterday
On pop culture:
I want to be a lion
Everybody wants to
pass as cats
The reverence for, and reference to, Dylan, whose own Mr. Jones was lost in a kaleidoscope world in which he hasn’t a clue about what was going on:
To thoughts on the narcissism of future stardom:
When I look at the television
I want to see me staring
Right back at me
Finally, the song closes on a melancholy note. The singer phrases his thoughts in such a way that we end up believing in the emptiness that comes when a big dream becomes fulfilled. It’s in a pathos-dripping voice:
But when everybody loves me
I’m going to be just
About as happy as I can be
Mr. Jones and me
We’re gonna be big stars
The song’s compass points in many directions. Its musical roots draw from the deepest waters of the Rock-N-Roll river. Perhaps “Mr. Jones” is not top-100 material, but it deserves a snug spot in the top-500 Rock songs of all time.
- Songwriter Duritz said of his song: “It is a lot of those things, it’s about all those dreams, but it’s also kind of cautionary because it’s about how misguided you may be about some of those things and how hollow they may be too. Like the character in the song keeps saying, ‘When everybody loves me I will never be lonely,’ and you’re supposed to know that that’s not the way it’s gonna be. I knew that even then.”