Ballads of a Thin Man

An excerpt from: Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes

On May 26, 1966, at the Royal Albert Hall, they were just about to move into "Leopard-skin Pill-box Hat"--an as-yet unreleased Blonde on Blonde tune that after a month or so on the road had turned into a big, noisy, vulgar Chicago blues carrying hilariously sneering lyrics ("I saw you making love with him / You forgot to close the garage door")--when it started. The tape that survives from this night doesn't register the crowd; you can't hear what Bob Dylan is hearing, but by now his senses are strung so tightly any discord is painful, and even as you might imagine him standing straight to face the crowd, three decades later you can hear him sag. "Oh, God," he says, like someone who has seen this too many times; the good lines that took him out of the dressing room, that great beat, are out of reach. The one shout he'd caught from the crowd is already growing, the once-timid now screaming: TRAITOR. SELL-OUT. MOTHERFUCKER. YOU'RE NOT BOB DYLAN. And then laughter. "Are you talking to me?" Dylan says, theatrically; you can feel him strike a pose. There are more shouts; you can't decipher them, but he can. "Come up here and say that," he says, and the great hall falls away. It is gone. We're in a bar in a town whose name you didn't catch when you drove in and won't remember to notice when you drive out, and in this bar "Ballad of a Thin Man" is all that is left.

In the fall of 1965, as the last song on the first side of the just-issued Highway 61 Revisited, the performance was almost laconic. Dylan's hipster piano, all reverb and menacing languor, led a high, ghostly organ sound, but mostly the music communicated distance, cool, disregard. There was more of the Midwest in Dylan's voice than in anything else on the disc--more dust. The singer has seen it all before. You can't surprise him. Bearing down just slightly for the chorus, repeated again and again without change--"You know something is happening, but you don't know what it is"--on record Dylan found an instant catchphrase for the moral, generational, and racial divisions that in this moment found Americans defining themselves not as who they were but as who they were not, and he also found a commercial hook. "You know something's happening, but you"--you could hear it everywhere over the next months, out of anyone's mouth. By definition, if you knew the song, you knew what was happening. If you wanted to know what was happening, or appear as if you did, you had to buy the album. Before the year was out, Highway 61 Revisited was only two places short of the top of the charts.

But on this tour, in May of 1966, up and down the British Isles, it is not this "Ballad of a Thin Man" that raises the bar it finds you in. Now it has become the most bitter, unstable song; with Dylan turning to the piano for this single number, it is also the song that is somehow most alive to the particular ambience of any given night, the weather, the frame of the hall, the mood of the crowd, sucking it up and using it like a karate fighter turning an opponent's strength against him, Some tunes in the set Dylan offers with the Hawks--"Tell Me Momma," "Baby Let Me Follow You Down," "One Too Many Mornings," "I Don't Believe You"--fly or they don't, but formally they are always the same. "Ballad of a Thin Man" is always different, always changed by the crowd, then moving as if to change it in turn.

The song begins and ends with the oldest, corniest beatnik cliché: the square. Some poor sap, well dressed, well heeled. As a listener, in the crowd, you're set up to imagine him as whoever you're not. The song puts him through the wringer. Always at home in the streets of his town, he is now trapped in a demimonde, in an after-hours club where he is neither welcome nor permitted to leave. He's heard about the kinds of people who inhabit these places: drug addicts, homosexuals, Negroes, intellectuals, homosexual Negro intellectuals like the funny-looking man with the beret and the popeyes. The square has seen the man's picture in the papers; he's even seen his like, men and women, black and white, in the streets. They used to live in the shadows; now they appear in public, as if the town is theirs.

The square watches as a man in high heels kneels at his feet and smiles up at him like a snake. He's taken into a room where everyone is shouting slogans, the kind of slogans the square has seen on the protest placards people carry on their marches, but here the slogans are in a different language, if it is a language at all: "NOW," they say blankly; "YOU'RE A COW." The square wants to run but he doesn't even know where he is--and by now whoever is listening is beginning to recognize his or her own dim shape in the song. Whoever is listening is beginning to flinch.

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