Monday, 27 October 2014

Ballad of a Thin Man by Bob Dylan

Ballad of a Thin Man by Bob Dylan

The artist: 
Bob Dylan is an inspiration to us all, highlighting how a positive outlook, a pleasant singing voice and the ability and desire to make sense needn't be necessary to becoming a world renowned singer-songwriter. 

The album:

Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

At times this album is suited to absent-mindedly poking your waffles with your fork while sat in a Minnesota diner, wherever Minnesota is.

Meanwhile Tombstone Blues and the title track are getaway numbers – if the crime is the armed robbery of an emu farm, and the getaway vehicle is an emu. 

Therefore in many ways you can say that Highway 61 Revisited represents a microcosm of blue collar Midwestern life in the United States.
He's just following orders

The vibe:
Musically Ballad of a Thin Man is a death march, as conceived and executed by the characters of The Magic Roundabout. One can almost taste the sadism of Zebedee, cigarette in mouth and bayonet in hand, as he mercilessly drives you through an unspecified desert.

Lyrics & annotation:
Such is the complexity and length of this evolving narrative, the song will need to be broken down and annotated along the way.

You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand

The most likely kind of people to do this would probably be journalists or quantity surveyors. Therefore we will work on the basis that Mr Dylan is referring to somebody who belongs to one of these two industries.

You see somebody naked
And you say, “Who is that man?”

Any good journalist is inquisitive and tries to establish all the facts early on; any good quantity surveyor would question the presence of nudity in the workplace environment.

You try so hard
But you don’t understand
Just what you’ll say
When you get home

Based on industry demographics an average quantity surveyor is married with 1.2 children, and he may well indeed struggle to explain to his other half why his day involved ejecting a construction site streaker. Mr Dylan anticipates awkward dinner time conversation; frankly I think his wife would see the funny side.

A journalist is more likely to be a single professional who works from home – in which case this verse likely refers to the difficulties he will encounter producing engaging copy for this particular story. ‘Man Naked In Room’ is unlikely to be considered a particularly ground-breaking scoop, even at a local level. Any concern the journalist has about his editors’ reaction would not be unwarranted.

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

With a more specific reference to the identity of our journalist/quantity surveyor protagonist comes a somewhat cruelly pointed question from Mr Dylan. Whereas one might expect the singer to empathise with Mr Jones’ confusion, having been greeted by a naked man, the way in which he phrases this question in fact suggests he almost revels in it, demanding confirmation of his ignorance. Perhaps the quantity surveyor is in the employ of a new local development which Mr Dylan opposes, such as a wind turbine that he considers ugly and intrusive; perhaps the editorial

The benefits of wind energy weren't properly understood
in the late 1960s
line of the journalist’s newspaper is broadly in favour of said wind turbine. Either way, the kind of pettiness on display from Mr Dylan really is typical of your local neighbourhood NIMBY.

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?”

At least one person has misunderstood someone else in this exchange. My guess would be that the second person actually said ‘it is’, and not ‘it’s his’, in other words affirming that this is indeed ‘where it is’ – ‘it’ presumably being the source of the news item, or the construction area ready to be surveyed. What follows is an unfortunate breakdown in communication, resulting in Mr Jones somewhat melodramatically losing his cool – he’ll likely feel a bit silly when he looks back at this particular exchange.   

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Mr Dylan’s goading of Mr Jones clearly does not aid the situation – he probably could have just pointed out how the above misunderstanding came to be, instead electing to seek further superfluous confirmation of Mr Jones’ bemusement.

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

With the song predating mass access to computer technology, the term ‘geek’ has connotations of being well-read rather technological. The journalist or quantity surveyor is meeting an academic of some kind, perhaps an expert on local governance, a logical candidate for consultation or interview.  Clearly book smarts can’t buy you manners however, and Mr Jones has every right to feel somewhat affronted by the distinctly non-professorial, aggressive and insulting opening gambit – regardless of the fact it is accompanied by a novelty gift, which Mr Jones can pass on to the dog when he gets home. One can probably surmise from his confrontational nature that the academic is also opposed to whatever project it is being introduced to the immediate area.

Nb. The ‘ticket’ is likely to be his parking stub – perhaps this new development will bring an increase in free parking spaces, something the likes of Mr Dylan and the academic often fail to appreciate. 

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Yes but he’s trying to establish the facts from an expert now, just let him get on with his job.

You have many contacts
Among the lumberjacks
To get you facts
When someone attacks your imagination

Any journalist reporting on local issues needs to develop an appreciation of the consequences for the man on the street and industry in the wider area. Clearly this particular reporter considers the timber industry a key stakeholder, likely responsible for providing a large proportion of materials and labour towards the development. If they are able to assist Mr Jones by providing the sorts of statistics and citations that back up his newspaper’s editorial line, then all the better.

Likewise quantity surveyors ought to maintain good relations with the construction industry as a whole, with lumberjacks no exception.

Mr Dylan’s antipathy to Mr Jones is all the more surprising when you consider how good at his job he seems to be, whatever job that is.

But nobody has any respect
Anyway they already expect you
To just give a check
To tax-deductible charity organizations

Considering the highly provocative onslaught from the academic, the nude state of the initial gentleman who greeted him and the constant repetitive harrowing from Mr Dylan, the assertion that he is suffering from a lack of respect is probably a reasonable one. For this to then be followed by an expectation for Mr Jones to personally support local charities seems cheeky, almost churlish.

The Guardian: "the characters in The Great Gatsby
are in themselves very flawed and
very hard to sympathise with". Sounds familia
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

It seems that Mr Jones really has gone above and beyond in carrying out a suitable amount of research into the feasibility of this project, consulting figures in academia and law, considering its implications for healthcare and local enterprise. Even Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby deals with themes of ‘resistance to change’ and ‘social upheaval’ (Source: Wikipedia) - the fact that Mr Jones has gone to the trouble of consulting these works of fiction shows that he is serious about this debate, questioning its significance from a philosophical perspective. 

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Well he’s clearly at least made an effort to grasp it; overall discourse surrounding these issues would almost certainly benefit from individuals such as Mr Jones taking the time to establish facts and gain perspectives from across the board. Those like Mr Dylan, who remain entrenched in a mindset and attack others on a personal level, serve only to dumb down discussion.

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?

This street entertainer is, at this stage, the most welcoming and polite member of the local community, probably because he is expecting Mr Jones to throw a few coins into his hat. In the 1960s stem cell research was not sophisticated enough to facilitate throat transplants; as such, the sword swallower is probably mistaken about the ‘loan’ in question. This may just be another misunderstanding - it's more likely that Mr Jones would have lent the sword swallower a goat, a coat or - less likely but still possible - a boat. 

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?

Once again Mr Jones finds himself being insulted for no reason other than trying to start a dialogue with a local. Once again, there is more than a hint of extortion about the whole affair – now it’s expected he provides dairy products as well as altruistic donations.

In the defence of his attacker on this occasion, being a one-eyed midget in any community is going to be difficult, dealing with the inevitable challenges that arise along the themes of discrimination, bullying and acceptance. Of course that doesn’t mean it is acceptable to hurl abuse at out-of-town business people or media representatives, but one can sympathise more with this individuals’ less secure 
frame of mind. His disabilities may have resulted in difficulties gaining employment, and there’s a chance that having one eye and being extremely short did not entitle him to the disability benefits available through the US social security system at the time. Thus the demand for milk could simply indicate a shortage of funds for groceries – he may wish to use it in a nice soup, for example.

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?

Dylan truly nails his NIMBY colours to the mast here, suggesting that this development and indeed the presence of ALL local developers should be illegalised. Underlining his fear of the outsider once and for all, his anti-progressive insular ideals are complemented by an ‘earphones for out-of-towners’ policy, presumably to prevent them from being able to hear local conversation. If he lived in the UK today, he would probably vote UKIP. The whole thing about walking like a camel is probably racist in some way.

We all have bad days at work, and clearly Mr Jones is no exception, whether he works for the press or for a construction firm. Presumably he entered Mr Dylan’s community in the hope of acquiring necessary quotes, materials or permissions in order to do his job properly, but instead was met by a wall of obfuscation and sabotage. After this encounter, Mr Jones no doubt dreads returning to the area, fearing further insult, confrontation, blackmail or extortion.

Following the quantity surveyor hypothesis, Mr Jones has his work cut out. Local opposition is always going to make a developer’s life more difficult, and this particular community seems united in their desire to torpedo this project. Subsequent visits to site to try and persuade them of its benefits are going to be a necessity, but having already exhausted many avenues of expertise, one struggles to see just how this can be achieved. Perhaps it would be prudent to consider a Plan B option elsewhere - while I’m sure Mr Jones is a consummate professional who would never overtly express such thoughts, he probably secretly wonders as to the benefits of trying to bring progress and sophistication to a local community as backward as Mr Dylan’s.

Things look somewhat more positive for Mr Jones should he in fact be a local reporter. He clearly has enough material to write a reasonable length feature about this unnamed town’s opposition to corporate development, with quotes from academics, lawyers, lumberjacks, street performers and midgets. And should he particularly want to, he can use his position of public prominence to stick the boot into Mr Dylan and his perpetual rudeness as well. If you’d had the day that he had, could you really blame him? 

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