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ballad of the thin man through the lens of d.a. pennebaker

Posted on Tuesday, February 27, 2007 at 03:56PM by Registered Commentersadi ranson-polizzotti | Comments Off

pennebaker 21.jpgFirst, the lyrics to this song are important if one is to understand why Dylan is so worked up here.

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?
You raise up your head
And you ask, "Is this where it is?"
And somebody points to you and says
"It's his"
And you say, "What's mine?"
And somebody else says, "Where what is?"
And you say, "Oh my God
Am I here all alone?"
Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
You hand in your ticket
And you go watch the geek
Who immediately walks up to you
When he hears you speak
And says, "How does it feel
To be such a freak?"
And you say, "Impossible"
As he hands you a bone
Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
You have many contacts
Among the lumberjacks
To get you facts
When someone attacks your imagination
But nobody has any respect
Anyway they already expect you
To just give a check
To tax-deductible charity organizations
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?
Well, the sword swallower, he comes up to you
And then he kneels
He crosses himself
And then he clicks his high heels
And without further notice
He asks you how it feels
And he says, "Here is your throat back
Thanks for the loan"
Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
Now you see this one-eyed midget
Shouting the word "NOW"
And you say, "For what reason?"
And he says, "How?"
And you say, "What does this mean?"
And he screams back, "You're a cow
Give me some milk
Or else go home"
Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
Well, you walk into the room
Like a camel and then you frown
You put your eyes in your pocket
And your nose on the ground
There ought to be a law
Against you comin' around
You should be made
To wear earphones
Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

This scene of Ballad of the Thin Man from Eat the Document is most notable because Pennebaker cut his own lens for this footage and this footage only, which is part of why you get the effect you have of the light behind Dylan – the lights in general and how it shines almost eerily behind him.

Dylan is clearly most comfortable behind his piano in this particular song. Ballad of the Thin Man, talking to Mr. Jones has often been in dispute because people debate who Mr. Jones really is. All Dylan will or has said on the matter is that Mr. Jones really ‘does exist.’ on the matter, he said:

A dark and menacing sounding song, "Ballad of a Thin Man" addresses a certain "Mr. Jones", telling him that he simply doesn't know what's "happening." The song's lyrics have Mr. Jones facing a wild, nonsensical, and hallucinatory world and the character is portrayed as a clueless poser who cannot deal with it all.

The "identity" of Mr. Jones has long been in dispute. When asked about it in an interview in 1965, Dylan responded:

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?"

In “Eat the Document”, D. A. Pennebaker cuts almost immediately to Dylan’s hands on the keys because they are such an integral part of this performance. You can see from the way Dylan raises his hands from the keys, how he literally pounds on the piano, that there is real vitriol behind this song – to whomever this is addressed to, the song is intensely felt.

The same can be said as Pennebaker shoots the close-up shots as well as the more distant shots of Dylan’s head as he moves behind his piano – moving behind the mike, practically spitting the words out, his head moves back and forth almost as though h were in a trance-like state, but again, the anger here is palpable.

As the song continues, Dylan gets so into it, that as it goes on, not only do his hands raise and his head move, but at times his whole body lifts from the piano bench as he comes down hard on the keys. It is rumored, though not officially cited, that the song is directed at a certain critic named Max Jones of “Melody Maker” who just “didn’t get” Dylan’s music, but this, however, seems like a great deal of anger toward an every day journalist, although the theory may hold since Dylan had great contempt for critics in general – moving from toying with them to sometimes being outwardly hostile as he was to a Time reporter in “Don’t Look Back” (if you’ve not seen this footage, it’s worth it just to see how cruel Dylan can be when he wants to be – it’s not pretty).

“Ballad of the Thin Man” is in and of itself an interesting song, but THIS particular version is notable and in my view the best because of the way not only Dylan performs it so very intensely (which he has not done before or since that I have seen), but for the way in which Pennebaker shoots it (for those who do not know, D.A. Pennebaker shot both documentaries, “Don’t Look Back,” the first documentary which he directed and edited, and Eat the Document, which he shot most of, but which Dylan wanted to edit himself – hence the more chaotic, frenetic quality of the film, quite unlike “Don’t Look Back.)”

But as for this footage that Pennebaker DID shoot for “Eat the Document” and which you will see either here in class or you can see on my site any time by visiting the Video section (Bob has the link for you – it’s under the Video section of the Dylan section of the site) and is simply called “Ballad of the Thin man from Eat the Document),” Pennebaker felt that this was important enough that he cut a special lens for this footage that lens the lighting effects you see present here.

Note that the light does not appear in beams of light or rays of light that you would ordinarily see or expect to see in ordinary concert footage, but instead here it appears through Pennebaker’s lens in bursts of light that come from behind Dylan lending the orange-like halo-effect behind that famous mop of brown curls (the once-called ‘crow’s nest’), which was not in fashion at the time. Note also that Dylan’s face appears in half shadow, the other half is a ghostly-white – almost type-writer sheet white. It is the iconic image of Dylan- the half shadow we have come to know so well and although that particular image is from a photograph, Pennebaker has captures it here on film. The orange, blue, and multi-colored hues that appear in light here are all captured through Pennebaker’s specially cut lens, which blurs the colors together, instead of creating a separation – even the band members are lit differently than they would ordinarily appear, but the focus here is clearly on Dylan.

Pennebaker once said that capturing a photograph is harder because it is like a door opening and closing very quickly and you either get the shot or you don’t. Yet here, Pennebaker succeeds with his hand-crafted lens at capturing an entire performance and moment in time that no photographer could capture because it is an ‘entirety’ and a whole.

One of the shots that Pennebaker captures is of Dylan’s Mod-sixties boots as they, like Dylan’s long, tapered piano fingers on the keys, come down hard on the pedals of the piano. The whole song is sung here hard and with élan and force, and although the lyrics themselves will always be tough and angry and spitting, it will be the 1966 performance in Eat the Document that is most memorable for the way that D.A. Pennebaker shot it, which is perhaps why it is the most often seen and viewed performance of the song.

Dylan ends the song by simply standing up with a final pound on the keys and takes a bow before the audience, knowing he has just given a performance that is quite unlike many others. Although the true identity of Mr. Jones may always remain a mystery and we can speculate (as above) and surely there are other theories (I can think of others), what really counts here, and what I wanted to focus on is D.A. Pennebaker’s capture of this performance and the performance itself. Without Pennebaker, the performance would be lost forever.

Note that this song has been covered by many other performers including, although surely not limited to;

The late Elliott Smith

Kula Shaker

Robyn Hitchcock

The Grateful Dead

Bean Weaver

Big Brass Bed

James Solberg

Calamity Jane

The Grass Roots

The Janglers

To name a few, among others -


*note that this article is part of a lecture for Bob Levinson's course on Bob Dylan at The New School and soon, New York University.

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