“Ballad of a Thin Man”
Don’t Think Twice, It’s OK bootleg, 2012
Mr. Dylan has been known to recontextualize, revise, and rearrange his songs for well over 40 years. He’s consistently played with tempos and instrumentation to keep his songs fresh and interesting for himself and his band, audience expectations be damned. Sometimes this is spectacular, such as on the recently released 1969 Isle of Wight recordings; The Band make everything sound like The Basement Tapes, all “Lo and Behold” and “Yea Heavy and a Bottle of Bread” in sound and spirit. Sometimes it isn’t, as on the rightfully maligned but not truly downright terrible Dylan and the Dead.
In recent years, people have had a mixed opinion on the various interpretations he’s played around with on the Never Ending Tour, now in it’s 25th year. I’ve heard some of the most half-assed and atrocious performances of my life trawling through the bootlegs, but several times on each tour a true gem emerges. I’m not sure if this night in Tulsa will go down as a classic, but as a show I witnessed it was truly a joy.
The band that evening was in fine form, challenging Bob and coaxing some good work and good humor out of the old codger. He was definitely in a mood, stomping and huffing early on as his keyboard died, and he took an awful long time to warm up his broken pipes. The croak of a voice was like a husky Scooby-Doo early on, with “Things Have Changed” sounding like Tom Waits gargling kerosene. But as things settled and his instruments worked again, his voice limbered up as much as it does these days. The tender “Make You Feel My Love” from Time Out Of Mind had him reach high up into his nasal cavity for moments of tender crooning amidst the winking growl.
That winking, mischievous, Bob kept showing up; hitting purposeful bum notes with a shit eating grin on his face while his band just shook their heads over and over during “Desolation Row”; his eyebrows nearly shooting off his face during the Alicia Keyes line in “Thunder on the Mountain”. But the most disconcerting sign of the puckish Dylan was his dancing. This is a man who for years was pretty much tied to his piano bench, and to see him out front soft shoeing and doing the old man Charleston was plain wrong. He moved like he was a marionette with a painted on smile and a bolo tie.
However, his little flirtation with dancing and playing the frontman when his keyboard died did not prepare me for “Ballad of a Thin Man”. Stepping forward, hiking up his sleeves, and leaning into his mic like a crooner of yore, Dylan and his band launched into a keyboard-less rendition like none I’d ever heard. That percussive piano line is so venomous, and such a signifier of the disdain the narrator has for the oblivious Mr. Jones, that I was stunned into silence to hear the guitars start playing those chords. Add to that the harsh reverb of the cement basketball arena, and the additional major echo slapped on the chorus of “Do Ya! (Do Ya!) Mr. Jones?” and I don’t think I closed my mouth till it was over.
It’s a shame that the recording is so warm, for within those booming halls the menace of Dylan’s performance amplified the lyrical judgment tenfold. The band was laid back, as this recording clearly shows, but Dylan stalked a five-foot section of stage like the evilest carny ringmaster in the world. It’s been nearly a year since the show, but I keep coming back to listen to this odd performance, to try to understand why in his capriciousness he has cast this arrangement upon the world.