Friday, February 1, 2008

Thin Man

Can anyone guess that I’m a Bob Dylan fan? I’ve kept the Dylan Watch feature on the left side of my blog for the past three months, and the allure of this artist just keeps getting stronger as I age. If you’re one who can’t stomach someone blathering on about an artist or public figure like they have sole ownership of that figure don’t worry, I’ll spare everybody that. It’s just that I wanted to introduce this next post by drawing attention to the influence of abstract personalities on everyday people, and show, in one detailed example, how this has happened to me.

Sometimes an event can take a person swirling around their very existence and reinforce the theory that linear time is only a man-made invention. The other night I succumbed to yet another new vice called Itunes. This music download website offers thousands of music selections from Bach to The Bonzo Dog Band, which is a good example of how far my musical tastes go in each direction. The biggest problem for me now is not maxing-out my credit card (it’s a scary thing admitting to using your credit card over the internet) downloading obscure concerts by NRBQ and Tom Waits. But the selection beats anything that Borders could even hope to attempt, and to see all that music, at $.99 a song, in one place is just too hard to resist. Yes folks, I’m a consumer sheep.

So I had to download the March 27th 1988 Grateful Dead concert in Hampton Virginia that Itunes sneakily offered. They must have known I’d attended this show and the other two in the three-night-run. The set list for that night was brilliant, but I won’t go into the details because eventually I plan to get to the point of this post, and if I get off on a tangent about the Dead we may never get there.

Well let’s just keep moving forward then and see if we can’t get on the right path. The Dead, during this period, were having a close relationship with Bob Dylan. They had toured with him the year before and had learned many of his songs. The Dylan song they played on March 23rd was the famously bombastic put down of an out-of-place square-peg called “Ballad of a Thin Man,” where the narrator sarcastically sneers these lines at the lost intellectual: “something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?” Bob Weir took the vocals and snidely recited this character assassination with contemptuous brutality that surpasses Dylan’s original. It is a pop-culture monument to “othering.”

When I heard this version the other night so much about my twenties came back to me. Not only was I a “thin man,” back then (oh, for those days), I also felt remarkably clueless and out-of-place in the presence of my peers. I remember listening to this song in a friends dorm-room and not only did I feel as if Dylan were singing about me, I also felt that the other people present were reinforcing his words, showing me up as a phony and a poser. Here is one of Dylan’s more cutting verses:

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?

Many may know now that the subject of this song was Jeffery Owen Jones, a film professor. Jones was an intern at Time when he interviewed Dylan in 1965. Presumably Dylan was not impressed. If anyone has seen the interview segment of the film “Don’t Look Back” they know what could happen if Dylan was not impressed. The moral might be never piss off a songwriter, just ask that guy in Alanis Morrisette's song "You Oughta Know."

As for me, the sentiment in “Thin Man,” continued to affect my self-image. I took this insecurity to the Dead show that spring and never felt it so strongly than in the presence of these neo-hipsters. A Dead show could be a great experience, but there were many times when deadheads could be just as elitist and exclusive as the owner of Hollywood hot-spot or a member of an old-money country-club. This was certainly not the rule, but at times I wondered how different this alternative community was to the one they were escaping. They were still hierarchical, judgmental, and a disconcerting amount of them drove late model BMWs. The music always seemed to make up for this though.

The trip to Hampton that year was not an enjoyable one. The general mood, to me, was one of uptight restraint, as frat-boys picked fights with cops who seemed to be at their Southern-redneck worst. The group I was with seemed indifferent to my presence (creating more thin man paranoia) and the first and third night’s concerts plainly sucked. What was worse I was bored, and worried about the classes I was missing in order to be prodded around eastern Virginia to the sound of Jerry Garcia’s rapidly deteriorating voice.

And then, the second night, they played “Ballad of a Thin Man.” I vaguely remember feeling as if insult was being heeped upon injury, and I half expected to have a single spotlight illuminate my skinny frame for the entire song. I don’t know when I’ve ever felt so disillusioned. It was if I was desperately compelled to be there, but at the same time I would have rather been anywhere else. I breathed a sigh of relief when we headed back down to North Carolina.

I can listen to this song now and still feel like an outcast. I suppose I will never lose that insecurity, although I’ve gotten pretty good at telling myself that the outcast stance is a noble and healthy position. But back then I so wanted to belong, even to a group of rich white kids with their parent’s credit cards pretending to be experiencing something “real.” I also know that something is happening and I do know what it is, it just takes some courage and self-respect to understand that.


Emily Barton said...

Ian, this is so well-crafted and so well-done, I can only imagine that any comment I might make won't do it justice. So, no comment means I'm sitting here with my jaw open, dumb-founded with respect. (Oh, wait a minute, this IS a comment, isn't it? Well, I'm still dumbfounded.)

Anonymous said...

Ian, for the record, you will never ever be Mr. Jones. I can't think of anyone further from this type of person than you. And having worked a number of years in academia, I've met a few--one of the reasons I'm glad to be out. linser

mister anchovy said...

Confession: I am a long-time fan of Weird Bob too.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I wanted to add that when I hear that song I don't think of an outcast but of The Establishment. Like all the pundits writing about the election right now. linser



Great fun here. I love what you are doing with Dylan's best (in my mind anyway) character.

And since you are a fan, I thought I'd introduce you to my new novel, BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, which I think you'd enjoy.

It's a murder-mystery. But not just any rock superstar is knocking on heaven's door. The murdered rock legend is none other than Bob Dorian, an enigmatic, obtuse, inscrutable, well, you get the picture...

Suspects? Tons of them. The only problem is they're all characters in Bob's songs.

You can get a copy on or go "behind the tracks" at to learn more about the book.

Froshty said...

Ian, to me, Mr. Jones has always personified all those pseudo-intellectuals that used to read the New York Times book review while nibbling at a beansprouts, apricot, and hummus sandwich on pumpernickel bread the size of a razor blade and drinking honeydew/lemon tea at the Rainbow cafe in Winston-Salem. I would never put you in that category, although I sure can relate to all the feelings of insecurity or that I might be exposed as an intellectual fraud, because they'd dogged me all my life. Rest assured that you are *not* Mr. Jones in any way. By the way, I'm also addicted to iTunes and have spent way too much money downloading. A good option is LimeWire--downloading it is free and the songs are free or you can pay a one-time fee of $39 for the turbo-charged version of Limewire and still download the songs for free.

IM said...

Hi Tom, very impressive credentials/blogs. Good job at naming your novel after on of my favorite albums.

Froshty, yep, I think that's what Dylan was writing about, but i wonder is there weren't a few phonies on his end as well. Thanks for the tip on music downloading.

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