Gene, I was describing inadequately your description of the meaning behind The Ballad of the Thin Man. Would you be so kind as to remind me when it was discussed here? Thanks. Sorry for the interuption,
Here it is, from six years ago, updated for this chat. Like The Letters of Transit, it may not be challenged.
First, the lyrics:
1. You walk into the room
2. With your pencil in your hand
3. You see somebody naked
4. And you say, "Who is that man ?"
5. You try so hard
6. But you don't understand
7. Just what you'll say
8. When you get home.
9. Because something is happening here
10. But you don't know what it is
11. Do you, Mister Jones ?
12. You raise up your head
13. And you ask, "Is this where it is ?"
14. And somebody points to you and says
15. "It's his"
16. And you say, "What's mine ?"
17. And somebody else says, "Well what is ?"
18. And you say, "Oh my God
19. Am I here all alone ?"
20. But something is happening here
21. But you don't know what it is
22. Do you, Mister Jones ?
23. You hand in your ticket
24. And you go watch the geek
25. Who immediately walks up to you
26. When he hears you speak
27. And says, "How does it feel
28. To be such a freak ?"
29. And you say, "Impossible"
30. As he hands you a bone.
31. And something is happening here
32. But you don't know what it is
33. Do you, Mister Jones ?
34. You have many contacts
35. Among the lumberjacks
36. To get you facts
37. When someone attacks your imagination
38. But nobody has any respect
39. Anyway they already expect you
40. To all give a check
41. To tax-deductible charity organizations.
42. You've been with the professors
43. And they've all liked your looks
44. With great lawyers you have
45. Discussed lepers and crooks
46. You've been through all of
47. F. Scott Fitzgerald's books
48. You're very well read
49. It's well known.
50. But something is happening here
51. And you don't know what it is
52. Do you, Mister Jones ?
53. Well, the sword swallower, he comes up to you
54. And then he kneels
55. He crosses himself
56. And then he clicks his high heels
57. And without further notice
58. He asks you how it feels
59. And he says, "Here is your throat back
60. Thanks for the loan".
61. And you know something is happening
62. But you don't know what it is
63. Do you, Mister Jones ?
64. Now you see this one-eyed midget
65. Shouting the word "NOW"
66. And you say, "For what reason ?"
67. And he says, "How ?"
68. And you say, "What does this mean ?"
69. And he screams back, "You're a cow
70. Give me some milk
71. Or else go home".
72. Because something is happening
73. But you don't know what it is
74. Do you, Mister Jones ?
75. Well, you walk into the room
76. Like a camel and then you frown
77. You put your eyes in your pocket
78. And your nose on the ground
79. There ought to be a law
80. Against you comin' around
81. You should be made
82. To wear earphones.
Does something is happening
And you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones ?
First off, those 25 percent of you who thought Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" was a bad song, or an ordinary, dull song, or a song without meaning, please go out and shoot yourselves in the head. It will be less painful than reading the rest of this explanation.
"Ballad of a Thin Man" is possibly the greatest song written in the second half of the 20th Century, and probably the most profound. Marshall McLuhan believed that. Me, too. There is not a false note, a wasted lyric, an insignificant syllable. This song has been covered by more than a dozen reputable bands, and has had other songs written ABOUT it, most notably by Counting Crows (in a rather good piece where the singer imagines himself cluelessly walking around with Mr. Jones, misunderstanding everything. Sadly, at least a few young posters cluelessly wondered if Thin Man was some sort of homage to the Crows.)
To the best of my knowledge, Dylan has never publicly explained this song. The closest he came was in an interview with Nora Ephron in 1966. She asked him who Mr. Jones was. He deadpanned that Mr. Jones was a real person he once met, and that the story was literally true: He was a man who put his eyeballs in his pocket and his nose on the ground. Nora just went on to the next prepared question! Dylan was mocking her, mocking the question, mocking the interview, mocking (in a sense) all interviews. Which means, in a way, that Dylan was giving a dead-on answer to the question about who Mr. Jones is.
There are many wacko interpretations of Thin Man out there, by the way, and they are a hoot to read. Dylan must be proud. (One is an elaborate homoerotic explanation, earnest but completely insane, which begins with the explanation that the "thin man" is CLEARLY referring to a penis and plunges on from there. The "sword swallower" is well, you get it.) Huey P. Newton famously thought it was about race relations.
So I am going to explain the song now, because I am certain I understand it; all journalists should intuitively understand it, because it is, first and foremost, in the most literal sense, about them - and it goes to the central terror of their lives. In a larger sense, it is about all of us, though. And a central terror of our lives. And also, about the lamentable state of communication and comprehension in the world.
Who is Mr. Jones? My serious answer is that Mr. Jones is everyone who doesn't understand the song.
There is a rather elegant poem somewhere on the Web (I found it yesterday and lost it - apologies to the author) that concludes that Mr. Jones is the person who doesn't understand he is Mr. Jones. This is another worthy explanation, especially because of line 4. This whole song is a mirror into which people should gaze to see themselves. The mirror's in that room, too. Mr. Jones is actually seeing himself naked, and not knowing who he is.
Literally, Mr. Jones is thought to be a man named Jeffrey Jones, a writer for Rolling Stone (and/or Newsweek) who apparently had the misfortune to interview an angry and arrogant young Dylan, under difficult circumstances, in 1965. Supposedly, it was a short, hurried, tense interview in which Mr. Jones blurted stupid, obvious, superficial questions to a guy who was merely in the process of completely reinventing popular music by imbuing it with an intellect. Mr. Jones paid. Oh, man, he paid dearly.
And thus we begin with a man walking into a room, with a pencil in his hand. What follows is as vicious an evisceration of a person - and a type of person - that you will ever see. (And yeah, by the way, "the lumberjacks" are newspaper writers. Dull, mindless killers of trees. Suppliers of facts, not truth. No other explanation - and there are many -- makes sense, in context.) Those of you who know this song (I advise all of you to get it - it is on "Highway 61 Revisited," which may be the best pop album ever recorded ) know it is sung with a sneer. You can hear it and feel it.
Mr. Jones is a professional observer who pretends to understand everything, but understands nothing, and it terrifies him to the existential center of his being. ("My God, am I here all alone?" is pretty much as scared and naked as a human being can be, confronting the central terror of ALL our lives, no?) Mr. Jones has facts at his disposal, but no imagination. So facts become his public face, and the instrument of his denial. On the surface, he is an erudite man, a pillar of the community (though primly practical and self-serving; he gives to tax-deductible charity organizations.)
What Dylan is talking about, in a larger sense, is a failure of imagination - the straitjacket of linear thinking that strangles one's ability to understand subtle, creative and intuitive things. He is talking about the type of people who see brilliant impressionism and conclude that their kids could do it. He is talking about the type of thinking he saw all around him. It is with us still, you know.
Is this really debatable? Take a look at that second stanza. At first, it seems like gibberish nonsequiturs, right? It certainly seems that way to Mr. Jones, who cries out in fear. But try transposing lines 14, 15, 16 and 17. Mr. Jones is actually getting a direct answer to his question, but cannot see it because it has not occurred linearly.
Lines 59 and 60 are spectacularly funny - they remind me of a line from Dylan's second greatest song, "Like a Rolling Stone":
"You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns
When they all come down and did tricks for you.
You never understood that it ain't no good
You shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you."
I think, in Thin Man, he is saying we are inextricable from the pornography of our entertainments. We share the guilt. Mr. Jones doesn't see this, either. He doesn't see anything important.
McLuhan saw transcendant meaning in the final stanza - he felt that Dylan was literally being predictive of the digital age, when linear thinking would collapse under the weight of a cacophony of images and ideas. (Sort of like this piece from a recent New York Times!) I'm not sure I go that far. I think Dylan was actually being prescriptive: All the Mr. Joneses of the world need to LISTEN. They need to be force-fed the truth, if need be. Made to wear earphones. (Note, he doesn't say ear plugs. He wants Mr. Jones hearing HIM.)
In a way, Mr. Jones is not contemptible. He is just a normal person, not fully understanding life, and scared. There is a little Mr. Jones in all of us. I have no doubt that if Dylan were lurking in this chat, he would inform me that I have become Mr. Jones by trying to analyze the song. Guilty.
"I found a typo in Tom's book, "Old Souls". It's on page 76 of the paperback version. What should I do? " Clearly, you ought to buy up all the remaining/remaindered copies and correct the typo in each by hand. Then give them to homeless people.
This is a brilliant idea.
As I sit here unable to get beyond the first dozen of these stories because I'm crying too much, I wonder why this kind of stuff is so sad. The ability, in a few sentences, to sum up an entire life that won't be remembered by anyone for very long? God, makes you want to self medicate. Also, I think you invented twitter.
Okay, this is in reference to the Wapo's Millennium Package "100 Lives" feature I edited ten years ago, for publication on Jan. 1, 2000. The idea was that it would survive as a Time Capsule for people to read a thousand years later. And see what people were like in the year 2000. The assignment was to summarize your life in 100 words or fewer. It is filled with joy and pathos.
The best place to reprise this is in an update, so you have time. Here it is again. The key is to take this url, which is the first one, and keep adding one digit to the end, to read them all in sequence.
In other words, the second one would be:
This will take you an hour. It is well worth it. One of the most worthwhile projects with which I've ever been involved.
The video is worth watching. Okay, it's vaginal. But, oddly enough, still safe for work.
if you had done something completely hypocritical - in your case, perhaps praying in a church/temple/mosque and acting like a believer - to get the story.
I have attended many a religious ceremony in the course of a story; I have been at people's houses and been asked to say grace, and performed reasonably well. But this is not your point, of course. Your point is: Would I pretend to be a believer?
I actually once had that decision to make! I explain it in "The Fiddler In the Subway, " in the introduction to this story about a girl in a coma beside whose bed religious statues were said to be weeping oil.
This is the introduction:
On the Sunday this story was published, I was working in the office. The phone rang. The caller identified herself as Linda Tripp, the mystery snitch in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which was just beginning to unfold.
At the time, Linda was in self-imposed exile; she held the key to the whole affair, but she wasn't talking. Journalists were slavering to interview her.
But Linda wasn't offering me that, at least not yet. She was asking about my story in the newspaper that day, about a grievously injured little girl beside whose bed religious figurines were said to be weeping oil. The story ends on an ambiguous note, Linda observed: It wasn't clear what I thought was really happening in that house.
Yes, I said. She was right. And the ambiguity was deliberate.
Well, Linda asked: What do I really think?
It was clear I was being tested, in some way. Pre-inerviewed. I think I might have been willing to mislead Linda Tripp, just to gain her confidence. But I didn't know what she wanted to hear about little Audrey Santo, and the possibility of God. So I gambled and told her what I really thought.
It was the last I heard from her.
So, I guess the answer is, yes. I might be willing to pretend to be a believer, to get the right story.
I am a 45 year old female who has never smoked pot. I had the opportunity several times in teens and twenties, but never accepted. Didn't look down on friends who did, wasn't ridiculed by my friends when I didn't. It was just something I wasn't interested in at all. I tend to have the same relationship with beer. (Love wine and liquor, have no interest in beer). I am strongly for the legalization of medical MJ and would take it in a moment if I had cancer, glaucoma or other disease where it would help, even if illegal in my state. But I really do not understand why I would want it now or even in my youth. Can someone who has taken it explain the appeal to a really curious non-user?
Hm. Well, why do you love wine and liquor? Can you explain that to us all? Does it relax you? Place you in a more jovial state of mind? Does it affect your consciousness in a pleasurable way?
What an odd question you ask. Why on earth can't you, in the abstract, understand why someone might like a DIFFERENT form of pleasurably altered consciounsness?
I am not a pot proselytizer; haven't had any in years and years. I can surely see how it could be hurtful to some people. But it seems to me your question is oddly disingenuous.
Here's just ONE answer: Do you enjoy the taste of food? What if there were a drug that made it taste even better? Does that hold no appeal to you?
Do you enjoy sex?
Okay, I won't go there. I just accuse you of disingenuousness.
If I recall correctly, you did heroin with the gang that you later wrote about. You didn't work for the Post at the time, but was that something you disclosed at the time? (I've never read that story, is it available somewhere?)
I did not. I was doing heroin at the time, but never with the gangs I was writing about. Their whole raison d'etre was to FIGHT heroin, the dealers of their parents' generation.
This was the first story I ever wrote for pay; it was for New York Magazine, I was 20 years old, and it was recently declared one of the 100 Best NY Mag cover stories ever. This embarrasses me, because in my opinion it is not so great. Here it is.
"Democratic Rep. David Wu of Oregon has announced that he is resigning in the wake of allegations that he had a sexual encounter with an 18-year-old woman." I was going to ask you to come up with something funny to say about this, but at the moment I'm too depressed.
There is a very old, marginally ethnist joke with the punchline "Pitch Sum Wu." It probably applies here, but it objectionable for several reasons, including that it is hopelessly outdated.
I remember when people used to "spoon." And "pet." And "neck." And "pitch some woo."
Gene, my stepmother lived in Paris for a couple of years and when she first moved there she came out to find a nasty note on her car yelling at her for having left on the parking brake. It was expected that the brake would not be engaged so that as other cars parked in front and behind you they could nudge your car as needed to fit in the space. Thought you should know you are a Parisian at heart.
Just yesterday I was parking on my block, with my family in the car, in a very tight spot. Maybe three inches to spare. We could see that there was a woman in the car in front, in the driver's seat. So I was extra careful. In jockeying back and forth I hit her bumper with all the force of your lips kissing a baby's forehead. It was so light my family didn't even know I had touched bumpers. I swear. My family will testify.
Immediately her door flew open. She got out of the car glowering at me, with a look on her face like she'd been chewing copper pennies. She elaborately bent to inspect her bumper, glowered some more (I was laughing at this point, which didn't help), and then returned to her car with a comical flounce, and SLAMMED her door shut.
Now, I ask you: Do you have any idea how pathetic you look doing something like this? You resemble a character that movies make fun of.
Her bumper, by the way, showed not only no dent or scratch, but not even a smudge.