Ballads of a Thin Man

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

In the dressing room in London, the guitarist was looking for a melody. He picked tiny notes off the strings until they fluttered, snapping in the air. The singer turned his head, caught the tune, the title flashing up: sure, "Strange Things Happening Every Day," Sister Rosetta Tharpe, when was it, 1945? Closing in on Tharpe's own guitar line, the guitarist felt for the syncopation in the rhythm, and the song came to life in the singer's mind.

On that last great Judgment Day

When they drive them all away

There are strange things happening every day

She was shameless, the singer remembered: purer than pure when her mother was alive, backsliding after that. She came onto the Lord's stage in a mink; she had a way with a guitar few men could touch. She was the black church in the Grand Old Opry--she'd even recorded with Pat Boone's father-in-law, Red Foley, Mr. "Old Shep" himself. On the other hand, Red Foley had recorded "Peace in the Valley," hadn't he, the spiritual the Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey had written as the Second World War began? The sainted gospel composer, in earlier days known as Georgia Tom, who'd put his name on dirty blues? The singer shook his head; why was he remembering all this? His memory raced ahead of him. For some reason he remembered that "Strange Things Happening" had topped the black charts the same week Hitler killed himself. It was April 30, 1945; the singer was a month short of four, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was thirty. "There's something in the gospel blues," she would say years later, "that's so deep the world can't stand it." Now he heard the song as if the war had ended yesterday, as if it were the first time he'd heard it, wherever that had been--off some road he'd never remember anything else about, like waking from a dream you had to get up and live through.

If you want to view the climb

You must learn to quit your lyin'

There are strange things happening every day

The guitarist was beginning to mumble the words, faking them, getting only the title phrase. The singer grinned as he made for the door. " 'Strange things happening every day,' he said. "She got that right."

Bob Dylan walked out of his dressing room in the Royal Albert Hall. It was May 26, 1966; for two weeks he'd been up and down England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales. Two days before he'd crossed the English Channel to celebrate his birthday onstage in Paris, dropping a huge American flag as the curtains opened for the second set, the crowd going mad with rage as if he were throwing America's war in Vietnam in their faces--come on, hadn't they started it?--then taking in the headline in Le Figaro the next day: "LA CHUTE D'UNE IDOLE." It was kind of a quiet night, actually compared to... he'd been in control. It wasn't usually like that, not this month, when the whole previous year felt like it was packed into a bomb that wouldn't stop exploding. Most nights abuse came raining down as if he could bring the weather with him, as if hate were the wind at his back, the storm waiting in every next town.

He walked out of his dressing room. He knew that when he sang his folk songs--most of them no more folk songs than a Maytag washing machine, except unlike a Maytag washing machine they didn't rely on electricity--a few older numbers, to please the crowd, or tease it, but mainly those long, odd songs that no longer made anyone laugh, "Visions of Johanna," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Desolation Row," when he stood still, picked strings, and appeared as any singer might have appeared in the years or centuries before him, the people in the audience would show respect, even approval. He knew that when he finished that set, left, and came back with the Hawks--the piano player on one side of the stage, the organist on the other, the bass player and the guitarist at his sides, the drummer on a riser behind them--the trouble would start; the problem was, he never knew just when it would start. "How do you get your kicks these days?" an interviewer asked him a few months before. "I hire people to look into my eyes, and then I have them kick me," Dylan said. "That's how you get your kicks?" "No," Dylan said, "then I forgive them. That's where my kicks come in." It wasn't that easy, though; once the second set began, it was as if the two sides--the six on the stage, those in the crowd who had set themselves against them--were trying most of all to drown each other out.

"Dylan questions the comparisons drawn between charity rock events like Live Aid and USA for Africa and the student activism of yesteryear," a reporter wrote in 1985, then let Dylan speak: "The big difference between now and the '60s is that then it was much more dangerous to do that sort of thing. There were people trying to stop the show any way they could... Then, you didn't know which end the trouble was coming from. And it could come at any time." He could have been talking about politics, in the narrow sense that the reporter was framing the issue; he could have been talking about the kind of politics that in 1966 occurred whenever he opened his mouth. And it was so stupid. Almost every night, the music lifted off the stage, so strong it was like a body, and there were moments when he couldn't believe he couldn't take his hand off his Fender Stratocaster and touch it. It was hard to hear, and hard to believe anything could ever be better. And then, at just that instant when the timing between a group of musicians was life itself, when the smallest mistake, the mistake you knew could never happen, would throw the world off its axis, when a physics no scientist would ever understand was all there was, the shouting would start, as if the audience that understood nothing understood one thing: ambush. A note, a chord, the start of a rhythm, and, then, "COCKSUCKER."

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.

The walls of the Albert Hall rise up again, the noise from the crowd stays constant, but seated at the piano Dylan starts the music. The song is a blues, no more, on some nights the biggest blues anyone has ever heard, with Garth Hudson's organ finding a mode so mocking it is sadistic, a whirlpool opening and then laughing at your fear as it closes, with Robbie Robertson's first guitar notes enormous, Godzilla notes, so big they throw the audience back, daring anyone to say the first word--but not this night.

On this night, the last night but one of these weeks in the United Kingdom, the last time but one this music would ever be played, no one is thrown back. Instead wounds are exposed, and the ugly sight quiets the crowd. "Are you sure?" Dylan asks Robbie Robertson, just three weeks past 22; Bob Dylan is an old man, 25 years and two days. The crowd can't hear the singer whispering to the man at his side as if he's never been less sure of anything, but they can feel the way he's hovering, or tottering, and the sight is a kind of violence, a terror, a negative, a nothing.

Here it is: nothing. Here you are, all of you. It will take 4,000 holes to fill the Albert Hall, and 4,000 times nothing is nothing.

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