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Democracy field notes

Bob Dylan in Berlin

It was raw, convincing, a two-hour burst of unsmiling defiance, a croaky voice of the not-young, not-old generation to which I happily belong. I’d seen him perform live before. Several times, in fact. This moment was special. Last month it was. Berlin. Spandau. The Zitadelle. One of the great Renaissance military forts, once occupied by Napoleon, then by the Nazis, who carried out research on nerve gas there until their crushing military defeat in the spring of ‘45. There we stood, the next generation, in the fort’s gravel courtyard, under drizzling summer skies. A thousand music lovers soaked to the skin. Nobody cared. It was Bob Dylan’s turn.

Just a few video fragments have survived the night, among them a short clip of Ballad of a Thin Man. As in previous live versions, the Spandau rendition, re-arranged to complement Dylan’s gravelly voice, came charged with the gnash and growl of the original. Recorded in 1965, it’s arguably his angriest song. Have a quick listen to the grey cat in the Cordobes hat:

What’s Ballad of a Thin Man all about, you may ask? The question should be refused. Dylan himself has always played the role of the silent recluse, so we don’t know his original intentions. 'I’d get sued’, Dylan once told reporters when declining to talk about the song. The fanatics within his global fan base meanwhile show why second guessing his intended meanings borders on the ludicrous. The fanatics hang on his every word. Like codes in need of cracking, every line and every utterance of the song-writer poet is thought worthy of reflection, analysis and (yes) deconstruction. Their fanaticism and their folly are twins.

There is no ‘true’ meaning of Ballad of a Thin Man. There never can be. It will forever be charged with enigma and surplus meaning. That’s to say its significance will always hang on the understandings and ‘overstandings’ of its listeners. Many people say (for instance) the tune is a diatribe against the ignorance of journalists. Those ‘word swallowers’ who click their ‘high heels’ before the powerful, yet haven’t a clue about most of the things they report. They ask questions. ‘Is this where it is?’ Comes a reply: ‘It’s his’, to which the non-plussed journalist mutters ‘What’s mine?’ and ‘Oh my God Am I here all alone?’ and somebody chips in: ‘Where what is?’. The so-called interview comes to an end. ‘Here is your throat back’, says the journalist, lost. ‘Thanks for the loan.’

The lyrics ooze sarcasm, sneering fury, but for me Ballad of a Thin Man is a blues-rock rebellion against much more than corner-cutting clueless journalism. It’s an angry protest against the wider political disease of wilful ignorance. Mister Jones is your average, normal, uncomprehending nobody, a respectable figure dumbed down by the age of media saturation and its obsession with polls, gaffes and speculation. Mister Jones has ‘been with the professors’, read books and met lawyers. Eyes in pocket and nose on the ground, clean-cut and boring, a ‘lovely’ person, perfectly civilised, Mister Jones is the archetype of a lazy accomplice of top-down power.

He is unable to understand, let alone come to grips with or act upon the world. ‘Something is happening here But you don’t know what it is Do you, Mister Jones?’ She has a job, gets on with things, minds her own business, feels good by donating to ‘tax-deductible organizations’. Confident in ‘facts’ gleaned through ‘many contacts’ but stripped of understanding and responsibility for others, Mister Jones is what ancient Greek democrats called an apolitical idiot.

Ballad of a Thin Man sounds the alarm against the end of politics, the possibility that citizens will no longer think or feel or care any more, that they will lose their sense of wonder, never get excited or believe in anything except their own comfortable, narrow-minded mediocrity. Mister Jones is a living oblivion. A character whose apathy ought to seem bone-chilling but who lives in blissful ignorance, ignorant of their own ignorance, unaware that fence-sitting neutrality is not an option, wilfully uninterested in things that they know nothing about, even though those things impact their lives.

The really disturbing thing about Mister Jones is that his ignorance is vincible. She is ignorance in action. He doesn’t want to know. When bad things are happening, she turns blind eyes. He hasn’t yet figured out that lazy ignorance is prone to acquiescence, or to active collaboration. Mister Jones has never pondered the thought that most evils in the world are the work not of knaves, but of fools like himself. That’s why he’s so dangerous.

Mister Jones is an enemy of democracy. ‘There ought to be a law Against you comin’ around’, howls Dylan. Understandably. Mister Jones is an unthinking person drawn to the conclusion either that everything’s all right with the world, or that nothing can be done to change it, perhaps even that the world is going to the dogs. Mister Jones is a sycophant, the potential plaything of power, the ‘nice’ person willing to go with the flow of things, the decent well-intentioned character who turns out to be the fool who helps bring disasters into the world.

Wilful ignorance as the mother of political evil: spare just several minutes more to witness the best early version of the point, performed in Copenhagen nearly half a century ago, with every last drop of Dylan’s electric energy….

Video caption here.

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