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BACK TO ARCHIVES

Ballad of a Thin Man



Bob Dylan wrote this song, and it's my favorite Dylan song. Barb's is Visions of Johanna... dunno what that says. She says it doesn't say anything... I don't think I agree.

I had to ask Barb what this song was called. I would have called it "Mr. Jones" or "Something is Happening Here" or something like that. Makes me wonder if Bob was thinking about William Powell in THE THIN MAN or even Dashiell Hammett...

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?

This is what Grant was trying to say. Not just this first verse, the whole thing. All of INVISIBLES. This is it. Except that Mr. Jones is stuck. He can't quite have this revelation about the nature of reality - he's got his head stuck a bit too far up what society's told him about himself and itself. But yeah, THE PRISONER, all that stuff. This is it. Mr. Jones is one eye-opening away from that Calling of the Blood that changed the cop in Blues Brothers 2000... "I get it! I absolutely, completely, totally, whole-heartedly UNDERSTAND!" Or words to that effect.

All this with the riff from Ray Charles' "I Believe To My Soul" (from what I've read, Ray's came first).

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

This is it, and it's yours, but you're not you yet. The hand of glory which Grant lifted from Christopher Lee and Anita Ekberg in THE WICKER MAN disrupts time and perception.

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

NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Where the guy goes to the freak show and becomes a part of the spook show but ends up joining the sideshow as a freak himself in the end, as a geek. Echoes of SHOCK CORRIDOR.

That guy who was really Nick Fury saying to the guy in the white suit in PLANETARY - "It's a game. Like we used to run in the old days. Someone's running a game on you. You can see things on each side of the gap but you can't see the gap until you realize that the gap exists..."

You have many contacts
Among the lumberjacks
To get you facts
When someone attacks your imagination
But nobody has any respect
Anyway they already expect you
To just give a check
To tax-deductible charity organizations

Nobody else uses an AAABCCCB rhyme scheme and makes it work like Bob. Not even Burt Bacharach, who, as they once said on Saturday Night Live, takes flak for not backing the attack on Iraq - no, not Bacharach. Come on, Bob? The Lumberjacks? Not SOME lumberjacks, but THE Lumberjacks? They get Mr. Jones facts? What is this, TWIN PEAKS? Paul Bunyan and Babe the Big Blue Ox? Well maybe. Bob's a Minnesota boy, like Barbara. Who's watching Scorsese's NO DIRECTION HOME on DVD out from the library right now, sometimes softly singing along.

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

Surely I don't have to remind you who hung out with lepers and criminals.

This is it. This is what they asked Dane. Dane, who became Jack Frost, as I recall. Do you see it? Do you see the gap? Do you understand?

F. Scott Fitzgerald, because he, too, is a Minnesota boy. The boats, beating backward, ever backward into the past. Barb thinks it means something that it's "been through" all of Fitzgerald's books instead of having just "read" them... Jones read but didn't understand. I agree with her, and I think I even agree that yes, that's intentional on Bob's part.

"It's true. It did not happen, but it is nonetheless true," commented Titania to Morpheus. And I have this flashback sense-memory to being on the plane reading Jane Eyre, on Sunday, which was the last time I thought of this scene from Sandman. Why did I think of it the last time? I don't know. Probably because Charlotte Bronte was the first Mary Sue type of fanfic writer, wanting to write like a man, like Thackery, whom she so admired that she dedicated one of the reprintings to him. She didn't know at the time that he, too, had a mad wife. It caused a lot of talk amongst those who did know.

When I hear the word 'happening,' it makes me think of pre-John Yoko Ono, letting people cut her clothes off one cut at time, people taking turns, because it's a Happening. But also a cartoon I once saw in an old Playboy (is there any point of having any other kind?) of the three wise men following the star to Bethlehem and saying to one another "It's a Happening!"

Some guy (it's in No Direction Home, right before the clip of Billie Holliday singing "Strange Fruit") from Vanguard was watching Bob early on and decided not to sign him... "He's too visceral. We don't play freakshows here." NIGHTMARE ALLEY. That's part of the point. There are parts of America, of humanity, that we can't stand to look at, and there are places we put those parts. The Bahktinian sense of carnival is wild and colorful and uninhibited and unrestrained and a little mad like the Dionysian revels. Like BLACK NARCISSUS. Bacchus is a fat ruddy-faced Roman man, but Dionysius is far hotter than Pan. Grant put too fine a point on it in ARKHAM ASYLUM, but he had the basic idea. I swear, I'm less interested in the entire middle of ARKHAM ASYLUM than I am the beginning, the end, and those back pages. That's where you can tell the inspiration started hitting him pure, but it wasn't a story as such so we stuck it in the back. A Serious House on Serious Earth. Don't you get it? It's not so much the House of Ideas thing, it's that it's not just an asylum, it's this Poe/Lovecraft house, not just a building. Something or things LIVE there - it's nothing like a sanatorium, it's their home. But more than that, it's the dark part of Hypertime. It's Earth-Serious. Understand? It's so pointedly sharp that it's almost comedic. Indeed you understand Bob a little better when you understand that sometimes he's just a comedy act, that it's a parody of the blues. But it also rocks, it also works of its own accord one hundred percent.

Having no idea what I'm typing at the moment, Barb suddenly exclaims, watching the DVD, "The guitar is almost a PROP."

She continues: "And I just realized something. Bob's pupils are HUGE. But he's looking into these bright lights. That's not how it works, is it?"

Right, I tell her. There's more light, your pupils contract.

"He's on something."

"Maybe. Or he IS something." She nods. "Maybe drugs are forcing his pupils to expand, or maybe it's psychological, like hysterical blindness. He's partially in another dimension and we can see his body, but he's not seeing what most people would be seeing, standing in that spot," I finish.

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?

Sword, but not as a weapon, as entertainment. Carnival, but as religious ritual. He, but cross-dressing, maybe with a little of Midwest moppet Dorothy Gale clicking her ruby slippers together. Someone's been using your voice to say things, things you might or might not say yourself. Or would you? And you didn't even know. Is it the Harlequinade? I don't know. Maybe. Or is it that really short Harlequin and Columbine thing that Neil wrote into a hardback a few years ago?

Notice that they keep asking "How does it feel".

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?
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?

Damn you for hiding your eyes. Damn you for not sniffing the change on the air. Damn you for not seeing the gap. You should be forced to listen to the right sort of music constantly until you wake up and get it.

God you're frustrating.

Or do you get it after all?

I mean, after all... why did you COME here? You didn't think you'd be the only one, but this sort of revelation isn't like a Moonie group wedding. Like Dane, each of you has to have it alone. Like the Mad Dane, Hamlet. Hadn't thought of that, had you?

You came here for a reason. You're crying out for it, like Cary Grant's joke about tear gas. "Tear gas, tear gas! Criminals cry for it."

It's okay to cry. Those possessed of the vengeful spirits before you cried, too.

Good luck with your new mission.








NEXT TIME: It's a hard rain's gonna fall