Ballad Of A Thin Man Part II: Freaks and geeks and simples


by Jochen Markhorst

Ballad Of A Thin Man (Part 1): Along came Jones

II          Freaks and geeks and simples

Madame de Rambouillet quite spontaneously organises a rather intellectual gathering somewhere at the beginning of the seventeenth century in the Chambre Bleue of her Paris town house Hôtel de Rambouillet (where today the Louvre’s Richelieu wing is), and she sets a trend; more literary salons soon emerge. Until the nineteenth century, the salon remains the place to be, the place where decisions are made and the place where is decided what is “in” and what is “out”. The phenomenon eventually evaporates, but at least the German language has since then been enriched with a wonderful concept: salonfähig, “being possible in the salon”, which now means socially acceptable as well as artistically valuable.

The term describes the quality John Lennon refers to in his analysis of the use of the word “clown”:

I’m A Loser is me in my Dylan period, because the word ‘clown’ is in it. I objected to the word ‘clown’, because that was always artsy-fartsy, but Dylan had used it so I thought it was all right, and it rhymed with whatever I was doing.”

Dylan, Lennon means, made the word “clown” salonfähig.

Dylan’s authority extends – of course – beyond making artsy-fartsy words acceptable, but still: it is a forte. After “Mr. Tambourine Man” follows a tsunami of pied piper-like figures and other musical magicians in pop songs (Status Quo, Chrispian St. Peters, Donovan, Led Zeppelin), as Dylan’s style characteristic for giving archetypes supporting roles is gratefully copied. Fairy-tale figures, for example. Cinderella was once sung by Paul Anka and she drops by in the musical Funny Girl (“Don’t Rain On My Parade”), but she really has no place in pop culture – until “Desolation Row”, that is. After that she can perform with The Hollies (“Isn’t It Nice?”), The Who (“Success Story”), Buck Owens and The Pixies, to name but a few.

A bloody nose is far too childish for a tough rock song, and even in the cornier pop songs never sung, but after Georgia Sam is allowed to walk around with a bloody nose in “Highway 61 Revisited”, the floodgates open, and noses bleed from The Who to Elton John (“Made In England”, 1995), from John Mellencamp to Billy Eilish (“Bad Guy”)… Dylan had used it so it was all right.

The same thing is happening now, after “Ballad Of A Thin Man”. Geeks and freaks are absolutely uncommon actors in songs, but Dylan’s song makes them salonfähig. Procol Harum, Jimi Hendrix, The Who (“Cousin Kevin”), Donovan, The Velvet Underground (“White Light/White Heat”)… before the end of the decade freak has definitively penetrated the rock jargon. Geek follows a little later. Alice Cooper, Don McLean (“Roosevelt was a cripple, Lincoln was a geek” – “Fashion Victim”), George Thorogood, Joe Jackson, CSNY… which the rock poets, incidentally, almost always rhyme with freak.

Most Dylan-worthy in the beautiful song “Martha’s Madman” by The Jerry Hahn Brotherhood, written by the far too unknown poet and folk musician Lane Tietgen, who only writes beautiful, quirky songs with wonderful, colourful lyrics for the underrated debut album from 1970;

He's tellin' her the world is full of freaks and geeks and simples and he's
Hiding like a leprechaun under stones and in the ripples
In the pool of time she thought she knew it, but someone threw a stone into it
Which breaks up the surface and it's makin' her nervous and it's true
What can she do
Martha yes I guess you'll have to wait around, another thousand years

Manfred Mann is a fan. On the first, untitled record of his Earth Band (1972) is his first Lane Tietgen cover, “Captain Bobby Stout”, and on his million seller Watch Manfred definitively lifts the Brotherhood out of obscurity through his brilliant interpretation of this “Martha’s Madman”. On his most Dylanesque album side, by the way; Side Two opens with Robbie Robertson’s “Davy’s On The Road Again”, number two is “Martha’s Madman” and the album side closes with a long, spun-out version of Manfred Mann’s signature song, Dylan’s “The Mighty Quinn”.   

Freak and geek are words well-chosen by the poet Dylan in 1965. Freak now evolves from a reactionary swear word to a badge of pride, the setting of the song suggests a club-like lair where the in-crowd can be found, the disruptive dialogues and wild metaphors are ambiguous enough to allow the most diverse interpretations. Which is exactly what happens.

Perhaps most striking is Huey P. Newton’s open, loud declaration of love. The leader and co-founder of the Black Panthers, the militant Afro-American political organisation from California, already stands out with the photo on the front of Listen, Whitey! The Sounds Of Black Power 1967-1974 (including Dylan’s “George Jackson” on it). Newton demonstratively holds his copy of Highway 61 Revisited, and that is no coincidence. The Black Panther adores Brother Dylan, and his admiration for “Ballad Of A Thin Man” borders on worship. Co-founder and bosom friend Bobby Seale publishes his book Seize The Time in 1970, while Newton is in prison, largely based on tape recordings Seale made during visiting hours in prison. One of the chapters is called “Huey Digs Bob Dylan” and deals extensively with Huey’s fascination with the song.

Seale remembers the early days of the Party Paper of the Black Panther movement, how Newton and he spent days working on that paper in San Francisco. And always Highway 61 Revisited plays in the background.    

“This record played after we stayed up laying out the paper. And it played the next night after we stayed up laying out the paper. I think it was around the third afternoon that the record was playing. We played that record over and over and over.”

Thin Man’s lyrics actually go right over Seale’s head, but fortunately Huey can explain. “Huey says that whites looked at blacks as geeks, as freaks,” and Huey can explain what the midget symbolises and what Bobby Dylan means by the geek giving Mr. Jones a naked bone. Seale is stuck on that geek, so Huey explains that part in more detail:

“He’s been in the circus all his life and he knows nothing else but circus work. But he can’t be a trapeze artist anymore because he’s been injured very badly, but he still needs to live, he needs to exist, he needs pay. So the circus feels very sorry for him and they give him a job. They give him the cruddiest kind of job because he’s not really good for anything else. They put him into a cage, then people pay a quarter to come in to see him. They put live chickens into the cage and the geek eats the chickens up while they’re still alive . . . the bones, the feathers, all. And of course he has a salary, because the audience pays a quarter to see him.

He does this because he has to. He doesn’t like eating raw meat, or feathers, but he does it to survive. But these people who are coming in to see him are coming in for entertainment, so they are the real freaks. And the geek knows this, so during his performance, he eats the raw chicken and he hands one of the members of the audience a bone, because he realizes that they are the real freaks because they get enjoyment by watching what he’s doing because he has to. So that’s what a geek and a freak is. Is that clear?”

Almost literally the same words that Brother Bobby uses a few times in 1978 to announce “Ballad Of A Thin Man”… making pretty clear what book the thief of thoughts has on his bedside table during this tour.

So then Dylan also read how Huey P. Newton continues to spread the gospel of the Thin Man. More brothers get infected. “Many times we would play that record. Brother Stokely Carmichael also liked that record.” And especially if you’re stoned or drunk, preferably under the headphones, Seare knows, it was something else!

“These brothers would get halfway high, loaded on something, and they would sit down and play this record over and over and over, especially after they began to hear Huey P. Newton interpret that record. […] Old Bobby did society a big favor when he made that particular sound.”

And should one of the brothers have any questions, he knows what to do:

“If there’s any more he made that I don’t understand, I’ll just ask Huey P. Newton to interpret them for us and maybe we can get a hell of a lot more out of brother Bobby Dylan, because old Bobby, he did a good job on that set.”


To be continued. Next up: Ballad Of Thin Man part III: A one-eyed midget down on his knees

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