Ballad Of A Thin Man – Part III (Conclusion)

by Jochen Markhorst

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

Balled of a Thin Man (Part II) Freaks Geeks and Simples 

III         A one-eyed midget down on his knees

I fell to the floor
I got down on my knees
Then I looked at her, and she at me
Well, that's the way that I want it to stay
And I always want it to be that way for my Lola

 The Kinks’ “Lola” is a classic example of a song in which you only realise at the fourth or fifth listening what you are actually singing. And that song is actually still rather clear. Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” is already more difficult – the song is so cheerful, exuberant and catchy that it takes a while before the hedonistic, promiscuous character of the lyrics gets through. “Ring My Bell” by Anita Ward, Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”, Christina Aguilera’s “Genie In A Bottle”… the taboo on openly venting the joy of sex is a particularly potent driver of poetic inspiration.

In 1972 the American comedian George Carlin writes the monologue in which the picket lines are drawn refreshingly clearly: “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television”. The seven words are, according to Carlin, shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits. There are more taboo words, of course (explicit indications of the male sex organ, for example), but roughly speaking the list is quite correct; these are indeed the words that artists have had to avoid for centuries, causing poets to twist and bend and jump through ever more flowery hoops.

The furthest corners thereof have been explored by – obviously – the old blues pioneers. By now, pretty much all the fruit metaphors have been squeezed out. “Let Me Roll Your Lemon”, “Banana In Your Fruit Basket” (actually, just about every Bo Carter song), “Let Me Squeeze Your Lemon”, I like your apple on your tree up to Prince’s “Peach “… ah well, figs, melons, squashes and eggplants have been popular symbols since the Renaissance, from Raphael to Caravaggio. Something similar applies to any synonym of “locomotion” or “physical activity”; words like ride, shake, gravel, rock, drive, bang a songwriter no longer can use without immediately evoking nudge nudge wink wink reactions.

And after those antique fruit metaphors and the obvious “repeated movement” comparisons come the wilder, more and more explicit concealments. “Let Me Play With Your Poodle” by Dylan’s hero Tampa Red, Dinah Washington’s “Long John Blues”, “I Want Some Of Your Pie” by Blind Boy Fuller… hardly anybody will think that Tampa desires to express his affection for a canine or that Fuller communicates his culinary interest in a pastry product. Alice Cooper may roar my heart’s a muscle all he wants, we all know what he means with his “Muscle Of Love” (“Lock the door in the bathroom now / I just can’t get caught in here”)… after a century of sexual innuendo in song lyrics, the listener is conditioned.

Still, somewhere a grey zone can always be found by the creative poet, a zone where the ambiguities are vague enough to make one wonder whether there’s sexual intent, the ambiguities where the listener doubts whether the allusions he hears are due to his own dirty mind, or to some perverse intentions of the writer. “Willie And The Hand Jive” really, really is about a man who makes dance movements with his hands, as Johnny Otis insisted for the rest of his life. And

When you call my name, it's like a little prayer
I'm down on my knees, I wanna take you there
In the midnight hour, I can feel your power
Just like a prayer, you know I'll take you there

… is really meant to be pious, Madonna bravely perseveres. She doesn’t convince Pope John Paul II though, and the accompanying music video is objectionable too; the Vatican calls for a boycott of the singer (1989).

The devil there, like with “Lola”, is in that down on my knees, which in the conditioned, gradually perverted mind of the average music lover can only indicate the granting of certain oral sexual favours.

This connotation “Ballad Of A Thin Man” cannot escape either:

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”

Sword swallower”, “kneels”, “throat”, “he asks you how it feels”, plus the high heels suggesting a Lola-like, sensual transsexual… it’s true, the poet Dylan makes it quite difficult to ignore the Freudian allusions here. And consequently, there indeed is a faction of interpreters who see in the song an encrypted account of a rather pornographic experience, and some even believe that Dylan here gives air to homosexual fantasies.

The next verse provides more ammunition for this understanding.

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”

Once in the Tunnel of Obscenities, any combination with one-eyed can only refer to the penis (the pee-hole at the tip of the head, hence “one-eyed”), and it is hard to imagine that Dylan should be unaware thereof. The euphemism has existed at least since Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle And Roll” (1954): “I’m like a one-eyed cat peepin’ in a seafood store”. Dylan himself played the song in ’92, together with Keith Richards, but before that it is performed and recorded by Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beatles and actually everyone else at Olympus; the Dylan of ’65 is familiar with the song and with the sexual connotation of “one-eyed”.

“One-eyed midget” is still a not entirely unwitty variant of the usual one-eyed (Willie, anaconda, Jack, monster, trouser snake), which could be intended as an insulting allusion to the size of a man’s genitals – after pencil a second stab below the belt.  

In any case, this tempts some exegetes to see ambiguities in verse fragments such as they’ve all liked your looks, give me some milk, a bone and even in lumberjacks… after all, a lumberjack attacks your “wood”. It even leads to renamings like “Ballad Of A Closet Homosexual”.

Yeah, well. A dirty mind is a joy forever, as they say.

Anyway, pretty far-fetched, and worse, it does stain the song’s brilliance. Even Dylan, who usually doesn’t care what people see in his lyrics, won’t be too enthusiastic about this kind of banalities. After all, the song is mainly virulent on an intellectual level, and that is how Dylan seems to understand it too, as witnessed by Al Kooper’s memory of the noisy premiere of the song, Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, New York, 28 August 1965. That is the first concert after the recording of Highway 61 Revisited, the concert with also the premieres of “Desolation Row”, “From A Buick 6” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, the first concert with that division into an acoustic set and an electric set and with the electric premieres of “I Don’t Believe You” and “It Ain’t Me Babe”.

It does not go down too well, the electricity. “Ballad Of A Thin Man” is seventh on the list after the pause, the last song before the final “Like A Rolling Stone”, and the commotion reaches a top. Scolding, raging, whistling… but Dylan does not falter, while police forcefully keeps pushy fans away from the stage.

“Three-quarters of the way through, Dylan stood at the piano to play “Ballad Of A Thin Man,” a song from the as-yet-unreleased Highway 61 album. It had a quiet intro, and the kids persisted in yelling and booing all the way through it. Dylan shouted out to us to “keep playing the intro over and over again until they shut up!” We played it for a good five minutes – doo do da da, do da de da – over and over until they did, in fact, chill. A great piece of theatre. When they were finally quiet, Dylan sang the lyrics to them: “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you?” It was almost as if he’d written the song knowing full well that the moment would come when he’d sing it to a crowd like this one.”

The recordings of the concert do not fully support Kooper’s memory, but the story is too good to ruin with historical accuracy.

Nowadays, the public is very receptive to the opening chords, by the way. The perverts.

Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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