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'Because something is happening here - But you don't know what it is - Do you, Mister Jones?' '...He's dead, Jim'
November 15, 2007 11:52 AM   Subscribe

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...
Jeffrey Owen Jones, a film professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and, inadvertently, the featured metaphor in Bob Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man, has died.
posted by y2karl (29 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow, I never knew there was such a person. I thought Dylan was just trying to make the words rhyme. :P
posted by marxchivist at 12:17 PM on November 15, 2007


No confirmation regarding whether You're So Vain was also about Jones, who probably thought the song was about him, according to students who claimed that he walked into a classroom like he was walking onto his yacht.
posted by billysumday at 12:17 PM on November 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


In all fairness to Mr. Jones, I think most of us would have been a little bewildered by the events that Dylan describes in his Ballad of a Thing Man.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:38 PM on November 15, 2007


Not to be confused with this Mr. Jones.

Seriously, Ballad of a Thin Man is one of my favorite Zimmerman songs, especially the vitriolic versions from the '66 tour. Thanks for the heads-up, y2karl.
posted by joseph_elmhurst at 12:41 PM on November 15, 2007


Which, of course, is Bob Dylan's song about Ben Grimm.

The clobberin' times
They are a-changing.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:44 PM on November 15, 2007 [3 favorites]


Not to be confused with this Mr. Jones.

Actually, that second link notes that the Counting Crows' Mr Jones might be an extension of Dylan's, and if so, confuse away.
posted by padraigin at 12:45 PM on November 15, 2007


I wonder if he ever knew what his wife and Billy Paul were getting up to behind his back.
posted by Atom Eyes at 12:49 PM on November 15, 2007


So, a pencil is considered technology in Rochester? They didn't really understand much up there, did they professor Jones?
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:49 PM on November 15, 2007


I've always wondered if Mr. Jones by the Talking Heads was in response to Ballad of a Thin Man.
(youtube link is one of the best/worst homemade videos I've ever seen)
posted by brevator at 1:05 PM on November 15, 2007


After hearing that song hundreds of times, I finally got what it was about.
(top link, scroll down for, um, blow-by-blow).

No, I didn't write that exegisis but it covers just about everything I finally realized was in the song. I still like the song, BTW. But it's...different now.
posted by telstar at 1:09 PM on November 15, 2007


Worth mentioning the line from the Beatles' Yer Blues:

I feel so suicidal, just like Dylan's Mr. Jones...

And I aways assumed that the Talking Heads and Counting Crows songs were references to Dylan's song (but I may be stupid).
posted by octothorpe at 1:20 PM on November 15, 2007


(top link, scroll down... )

Um, second link this post, scroll up....

No, I didn't write that exegisis but it covers just about everything I finally realized was in the song. I still like the song, BTW. But it's...different now.

As for the content--from the link itself:

While there is some agreement on who Mr. Jones
(the central figure of the Ballad Of A Thin Man) represents, the homosexual content of the song is much debated.

posted by y2karl at 1:30 PM on November 15, 2007


"I was awed too that Dylan had so accurately read my mind. I resented the caricature but had to admit that there was something happening there at Newport in the summer of 1965, and I didn't know what it was."

I like this guy.
posted by languagehat at 1:42 PM on November 15, 2007


I was all ready to jump in there and be all: argle bargle reducing lyrics to biographical incident is nonsense

However, that was a charming interview ad he makes a good case. I wish my obituary will include something like: "He spent time in Uruguay on a Fulbright Scholarship, earned a master's degree at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., and lived in Spain for a while, writing and directing films.

He may indeed be the inspiration for Mr. Jones. Though I'm also pretty convinced by the gay-club interpretation (some niggles aside, such as why does the one-eyed midget *want* milk, shouldn't he be providing it?).
posted by Kattullus at 2:00 PM on November 15, 2007


I always thought the song was about some mr. normal having a gay experience.
posted by caddis at 2:13 PM on November 15, 2007


y2karl, you probably don't wanna hear my exegisis of "Brown-Eyed Girl".
posted by telstar at 2:22 PM on November 15, 2007


I see how I missed your link: I went and did my own search and went there and then your link was marked visited, so I must've skipped it. Gotta start reading all links first.
posted by telstar at 2:26 PM on November 15, 2007


Um, second link this post, scroll up....

Yea, I know. Read links first and then post.
posted by octothorpe at 2:36 PM on November 15, 2007


.
posted by finite at 5:04 PM on November 15, 2007


I believe that, in very many cases, songs that are ostensibly "about" someone in particular are in fact about (or inspired by) other people as well: a sort of composite-person muse. While I wouldn't deny that Jeffrey Owen Jones might've been an inspiration for Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man, I'd also include someone else into the multiple-personality muse for this particular song. That person would be Pete Seeger.

I've theorized (to myself) for years that Seeger might've been Mr. Jones, or a part of Mr. Jones. After all, Seeger's famous outrage and almost-pulling-the-plug on Dylan's electric Newport performance weighed heavy on Dylan's mind. Seeger was, in that moment especially, the personification of a certain stodgy musical conservatism that didn't like or understand the new wilder direction Dylan's music was taking. It always seemed to me that Seeger (the voracious collector of American folk lore and "authenticity") fit perfectly into lines like "you have many contacts among the lumberjacks to get you facts when someone attacks your imagination". And a line like "anyway they already expect you to all give a check to tax-deductible charity organizations" seems to fit Seeger, (already an older and financially successful lefty/progressive) a little more closely than it does some young journalist (Jones was 21 years old in 1965) whose personal financial circumstances or political leanings Dylan wouldn't have, presumably, known anything about. Seeger also happened to be, well... thin!

At any rate, I've thought about this from time to time, and I once did a bit of net scouring to try and find out if anyone else had ever proposed a Seeger-as-Mr-Jones theory, but I never came up with anything. If anyone out there happens to know of this theory being expounded anywhere by anyone else, I'd love to see it. I dunno, maybe I'm the only one who ever entertained this notion?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:54 PM on November 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


Wow, I never knew there was such a person. I thought Dylan was just trying to make the words rhyme.

Me neither. I thought it just referred to some vague Everyman character, representing all of us who didn't get it. Never realized there actually was a man named Jones, pencil in his hand, at Newport. Very interesting; thanks for the post, y2karl.

And now I'm even more impressed, reading flapjax's take on it all. A fascinating line of original reasoning, one of the best things I've read in the blue in some time. Especially the part about how Pete Seeger (much more than the interviewer Jones) would have known lumberjacks. (In any case, I'm sure Dylan wasn't talking about these guys.)
posted by LeLiLo at 7:48 PM on November 15, 2007


That seems like an over-reading. Dylan was all about the Woody Guthrie. Seeger was a square to him but it's not like Dylan cared one way or another. Pete Seeger may have been royalty among his friends at Newport but I doubt he ever meant that much to Dylan either at Newport or in general.

Dylan's songs of that time were written spontaneously and unconsciously. He lost that ability after his fabled mororcycle accident--a fact he alluded several times in more than one interview, the one that Happy Traum did with him for Sing Out magazine in 1968, for one. where he alluded as well to his relationship with Norman Raeben, who taught him a way to write consciously the sort of lines that had in previous times just erupted from his unconscious like Athena from the brow of Zeus. And, too, the evidence from bootlegs of his recording sessions of 1965 is that a lot of his songs then were often built from riffs and lines adopted and abandoned from take to take, with wildly different words and music from first jam to finished cut.

A line like you have many contacts among the lumberjacks to get you facts when someone attacks your imagination was just pulled from thin air. And the song is not really about anyone in particular. The chorus, on the other hand, is what directly refers to Jones, and the backstory from Jones makes it sound as if Jones was given the extreme treatment by Dylan and Bobby Neuwirth, Dylan's foil and alter ego of the time. The latter can be seen doing much the same to Joan Baez in in the documentary Don't Look Back with Dylan his audience. And both were known for being very cruel to people back in their day.

Which makes it sound like repeated lines mocking Mr. Jones started out as an inside joke between Dylan and Neuwirth, and subsequently provided a hook for a chorus that was around in one form or another long before the verses were finally written. Also, judging from the cinematic evidence in Don't Look Back, Dylan had little use for clueless interviewers and was ruthless with them. The song wasn't about Jones personally so much as he just provided the name for the type at the time when the two Bobbies were being the Mean Girls on acid.
posted by y2karl at 8:24 PM on November 15, 2007


Dylan was all about the Woody Guthrie.

Who said anything about Woody Guthrie? I'm aware that Dylan had immense respect and love for Woody Guthrie. I don't think that could be in any way interpreted as immense respect and love for Pete Seeger. Last time I looked they were two different people. Seeger was a strident opposer (along with a whole lot of other folkies of the time) of Dylan's "going electric". Woody Guthrie died in 1967, and as far as I know never made any public statements as to his opinion of Dylan's plugging in. I don't understand your equating the two men, vis-a-vis what they meant to Dylan, in the context of this conversation.

...it's not like Dylan cared one way or another. Pete Seeger may have been royalty among his friends at Newport but I doubt he ever meant that much to Dylan either at Newport or in general.

I wouldn't be so sure of that. In interview footage from No Direction Home Dylan refers to the Newport incident and says something to the effect that he was quite hurt and baffled by Seeger's reaction. I don't own the DVD, so I can't quote him exactly, but that was the essence.

A line like you have many contacts among the lumberjacks to get you facts when someone attacks your imagination was just pulled from thin air.

All due respect, but uh, how would you know that? You talk about this stuff with Dylan or something? How could you presume to know for sure which lines were "pulled from thin air" and which had more personal meaning or signifigance?

And the song is not really about anyone in particular.

Hate to sound like a broken record, but again, how would you know that? Much of your comment, in fact, reads like someone who is quite sure, thank you very much, of all the rhymes and reasons of this song (and Dylan's methods in general). Such assuredness, coming from anyone other than the author of the song, is, IMO, rather pompously presumptious and exactly the kind of thing Dylan despised (or laughed off, depending on his mood) when he encountered it from journalists, fans, etc.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:21 PM on November 15, 2007



Hate to sound like a broken record, but again, how would you know that?

The idea that Dylan was writing about Pete Seeger because the latter might have known a lumberjack because, after all, he was a lefty and all about the workingman is not reading a whole lot into a simple lyric ?

Those lines are so chockful of internal rhymes, it's crazy--contacts rhymes with lumberjacks rhymes with attacks as does imagination does with organization. That's the way he wrote songs then. They were like chains of flashing images, loaded with internal rhymes. Why should have anything to do with Pete Seeger ? You make it out like it's some form of prose. Why can't it just be poetry ? It was words and music, a song--not an article about getting even.

And, for a fact, when you listen to an early take of,say, It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry and the finished product, they are not the same song, although one grew out of the other over time. That's the way he wrote songs then. It stopped with Blonde and Blonde. Everything after that is different. I don't think the song is about any one person any more than a character in a novel is about any one person.

One song I can think of that is from around then that does involve real people for sure is Ballad In Plain D, which is a self serving look back at his breakup with Suze Rotolo, which contains quite the swipe at her sister.
Everyone concerned there is pretty sure who the song is about. (And, to tell the truth, it's a pretty awful song because of it) The rest of his put down songs from the time could be about anyone or no one.

The invocation of Woody Guthrie was because there's an example of someone who actually mattered to Dylan. Dylan has said so, his peers have said so and it's a matter of record. I know of no similar record concerning Dylan and Pete Seeger. That is just too much of a stretch--as the total lack of any supporting evidence would suggest.

This idea that Ballad Of A Thin Man is about Pete Fucking Seeger makes even less sense than the idea Like A Rolling Stone is about Edie Sedgwick and I don't think that much of that idea, either. The idea that a song contains some sort of coded message about some person is so reductionist. There's so much more implied in a Dylan song that any one little self serving reading can extract. There's something happening there, yes, but, man, that it's about Pete Seeger ? Puh-leeze. I don't even think Mr. Jones would buy that one.

My impression is that Pete Seeger's part in what happened at Newport is more artifact than fact, the result of some writers' speculations. But then, from the record, Dylan at Newport is like Rashomon. Everyone who was present remembers it differently. Our Mr. Jones, however, had a lot more than a speculation about a couple of rhymes about contacts, lumberjacks and tax deductible charity organizations going for his purported part in the song.

I don't own the DVD, so I can't quote him exactly, but that was the essence.

Well, I do and have watched it a bunch of times and there's nothing in there that suggests any such thing to me. But to speculate that Ballad of A Thin Man is about Pete Seeger, man. You are moving into A. J. Weberman territory when you start analyzing every goddamn line like it has some denotative meaning, like it's a coded message about some one person. Just Walk Away Renee--now that's about one person, that's a matter of record. Ballad of A Thin Man ? You have to read a lot into it to come up with Pete Seeger.

Unless it's about Dylan's annulled gay marriage to Pete Seeger, that is....
posted by y2karl at 10:46 PM on November 15, 2007


Lotta stuff to reply to here, and as it happens I have to go get my daughter out of school and then other stuff, but to answer at least some of your points, in no particular order:

The idea that Dylan was writing about Pete Seeger because the latter might have known a lumberjack because, after all, he was a lefty and all about the workingman is not reading a whole lot into a simple lyric ?

I was pretty clear in my original comment: I didn't SAY that the song was about Pete Seeger. Certainly not so strongly as you said, with this FPP, that the song was about this Jeffrey Jones guy. Reread my original comment, and you'll see that I mentioned that songs can have several muses, component-personality muses, and I was merely speculating (you'll note my original use of the all-important word "might") that Seeger might've been one of those. You're projecting your rather absolutist mindset (the song was about this - the song wasn't about this) onto me.

Those lines are so chockful of internal rhymes, it's crazy--contacts rhymes with lumberjacks rhymes with attacks as does imagination does with organization.

So your argument, then, is that if a line has lots of internal rhymes that disqualifies it as a line that might also have, er, meaning? Odd.

Why should have anything to do with Pete Seeger ?

I could just as easily ask: why should it have anything to do with Jeffrey Jones? It may or it may not. Unlike you, I have no sure-fire insight into what Dylan means with every line, or every song. I was merely speculating.

You make it out like it's some form of prose. Why can't it just be poetry ?

I'm not suggesting it's some sort of prose by saying that Seeger might've been a part of the impetus for this song any more than you are suggesting it's prose because Jeffrey Jones might've been part of the impetus for this song. What's prose and poetry got to do with what we're talking about?

Your arguments are sloppy, and you seem to have a personal reputation as some sort of Dylan expert to protect. I still maintain that your rock-solid certainty as to what Dylan does or doesn't mean, what he is or isn't saying, is exactly the sort of thing that old Bobby found so tiresome. I find it tiresome as well.

You are moving into A. J. Weberman territory when you start analyzing every goddamn line like it has some denotative meaning

y2karl, you're very well read, it's well known.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:07 PM on November 15, 2007


Jeffery Jones has made a claim that he was the Jones in question and many agree but who really knows ? He has made the claim that Dylan acknowledged as much onstage once and maybe Dylan did but then Bob Dylan as a credible witness ? I don't think so, not after all the lies he has told about himself over the years.

I am not aware of any rock solid certainty on my part.That's your baggage, not mine. I made no claims I knew what any song he wrote was about. Why should I ? I don't believe in reductionist interpetations of songs. That's not how I hear or read lyrics.

I do, however, think that the idea that Pete Seeger might be involved because of, you know, lumberjacks and tax-deductible charity organizations is a bit of a simple minded stretch. But that is just an opinion and not a claim of fact.
posted by y2karl at 11:34 PM on November 15, 2007


I was thinking when I first read this obituary of Jeffery Jones, about Keith Butler, who claimed he was he guy who yelled Judas! at the Dylan concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966. I always wonder about these stories identifying the real people behind the songs. All I know is I wasn't there. But Keith Butler was and can prove it--he got interviewed on film outside the hall. And then you have a guy like John Gault, who seems to have tracked down the orignal stories behind songs like John Henry and Delia. So, ya wonder...
posted by y2karl at 12:00 AM on November 16, 2007


every see the clip where dylan is free stylin lyrics from a sign? he's good at it, but at this point he doesn't seem all that profound given the word trickery. then there's that born again thing..and that low craft in performance thing.

for a couple couple years there in the mid sixties, tho'...
posted by aiq at 4:56 AM on November 17, 2007


for a couple couple years there in the mid sixties, tho'...
Dylan told Rolling Stone’s Jonathan Cott that following his motorcycle accident on July 29, 1968, he found himself no longer able to compose as freely as before:

Since that point, I more or less had amnesia. Now you can take that statement as literally or as metaphysically as you need to, but that’s what happened to me. It took me a long time to get to do consciously what I used to do unconsciously.

Dylan reiterated the point to Malt Damsker:

It’s like I had amnesia all of a sudden...I couldn’t learn what I had been able to do naturally — like Highway 61 Revisited. I mean, you can’t sit down and write that consciously because it has to do with the break-up of time...

In the interview with Jonathan Cott, Dylan described his albums John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline as attempts:

...to grasp something that would lead me on to where I thought I should be, and it didn’t go nowhere — it just went down, down, down... I was convinced I wasn’t going to do anything else.

It was in this mood of near-despair of ever composing as he once had, that Dylan had the “good fortune” to meet Norman, “who taught me how to see”:

He put my mind and my hand and my eye together, in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt.
The Mysterious Norman Raeben
As for keeping up with the Jones's, there is this:
He would suggest in 1978 that he had written the song from the viewpoint of a 'geek,' a man who made his living biting the heads off chickens, for whom the only freak in the song was Mr. Jones, but a rap he gave in concert in 1986 probably came closer to the truth:

This is a song I wrote in response to people who ask questions all the time ...I figure a person's life speaks for itself, right ? so every once in a while you gotta do this kinda thing--put somebody in their place...This is my response to something that happened in England, I think it was '63 or '64..

Bob Dylan: Behind The Shades
There are some who seem to think that the Jones involved is one Max Jones, a critic for Melody Maker who also interviewed Dylan in the mid-60s.

And, for the record, here is Bob Dylan: The Song Talk Interview, where the man talks about his craft and more straight forwardly than the usual for a Bob Dylan interview, to boot.
posted by y2karl at 9:23 PM on November 17, 2007


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