If you wanted to turn someone on to Bob Dylan, you’d probably end up playing them this song sooner rather than later. Dylan’s famous cross-examination of “Mr. Jones” has a majestic power and a creepy grandeur that are not easily forgotten. It’s one of those songs where Dylan’s elastic, Mid-60s singing style makes immediate sense.
“Ballad of Hollis Brown,” “Ballad of Don White,” “Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” “Ballad in Plain D” — all great songs. But “Ballad of a Thin Man” might have them all beat.
“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?”
“Ballad of a Thin Man’s” imagery is wild, chaotic, and claustrophobia-inducing, but there’s also an economy of language being employed. Each line can only hold so many syllables, so we get short little clips of genius. But Dylan can cram them all together as well — back then, nobody used words like “tax-deductible charity organizations.” Dylan composed the song on piano, and the few menacing notes he plays before each verse still provoke goose bumps. On Live 1966, Garth Hudson seemingly acts out the lyrics with his impressionistic organ fills.
People like to decode Dylan songs, but people really wanted to decode this one. “Who is Mr. Jones? News At 11.” Like Carly Simon’s “You’re so Vain,” everybody wanted to know who was being skewered. Was it a journalist? a Ward Cleaver-like square? The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones? Was it a veiled reference to homosexuality (“the sword swallower walks up to you and he kneels”)?
Here’s Bob Dylan’s explanation:
“He’s a pinboy. He also wears suspenders. He’s a real person. You know him, but not by that name… I saw him come into the room one night and he looked like a camel. He proceeded to put his eyes in his pocket. I asked this guy who he was and he said, ‘That’s Mr. Jones.’ Then I asked this cat, ‘Doesn’t he do anything but put his eyes in his pocket?’ And he told me, ‘He puts his nose on the ground.’ It’s all there, it’s a true story.”
The song likely borrows its name from the famous 1934 film The Thin Man, a comedy-mystery featuring alcoholic detective Nick Charles, who solves mysteries “for the fun of it.” The movie inspired five sequels.
Wikipedia drops this bit of science:
Additionally, the line “There ought to be a law / Against you comin’ around” bears much resemblance to a line of poetry from “Dream Song 4” by John Berryman, which says, “There ought to be a law against Henry.” The Berryman poem was published, earlier, in 1959, and it is likely that Dylan may have had the poem in mind when he wrote this song. The Dream Song talks of Henry, who lusts after a woman he sees in a restaurant. The narrator/speaker in the poem is one “Mr. Bones.”
Whatever the origin, Dylan’s description of this hapless man in an unsafe world pervaded the cultural zeitgeist. In the Beatles “Yer Blues,” John Lennon “feels so suicidal, just like Dylan’s Mr. Jones.” The narrator in Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones” admits he just wants to be Bob Dylan.
The song, dripping with feeling, maintains its power, forty four years later. It’s simply one of the best musical recordings, ever.